Late in the book Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson, through Enoch Root, presents a version of the ancient Greek god and goddess Ares and Athena to represent aspects of war. He spends thousands of words setting the stage for Root’s explanation so I’m not even going to bother trying to summarize the plot so far. In a jail cell in Manila, Root explains that Athena is the goddess of war, technology, and cunning, or cleverness, while Ares is the god of war, master of Fear and Terror, but usually incompetent (he is, after all, defeated by mortals in various stories). He presents Athena as the dispassionate, clever, scientific aspect of war and Ares as war’s passion, anger, and hatred. He further illustrates this point by noting that Athena was the patron of Odysseus who gained victory through his mind, implying that Ares is a better match with Achilles who achieves victory through blind rage and brute force.
Root’s Athena/Ares construct instantly calls to mind Clausewitz’ trinity. Clausewitz described war as a “paradoxical trinity” composed of “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity… the play of chance and probability… and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.” Ares clearly embodies primordial violence, hatred, and enmity while Athena embodies partly the play of chance and probability- which a cool head is more able to assess- and partly rationality.
Root’s bipolar constructs more closely matches the attrition warfare versus maneuver warfare construct of MCDP-1 Warfighting, largely constructed from the teachings of John Boyd. Ares and Achilles are far more concerned with destruction of their enemies face to face while Athena and Odysseus would rather outsmart them.
During the conversation, Root illustrates his concepts with some examples. Obviously, Athens valued Athena, and thus cleverness, intelligence, and science, while Sparta took the opposite tack. History bears this out: although Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, they were far more apt to integrate new ideas like proto-guerilla warfare using light troops like peltasts and archers than were the Spartans. The Spartans, who favored face to face hoplite battle, were only able to adapt to changes in warfare by outsourcing to Persia to gain naval power. Root also places the forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in Ares’ camp and the Allies in Athena’s. This example is less apt. While the baser instincts may have led those two combatants to atrocities, they each harnessed technology as much as they could. The Germans developed ballistic missiles and jets while the Japanese began the war with better naval gunnery equipment and tactics than the Allies. Still, strategic missteps like Hitler’s misguided invasion of Russia and Japanese overreach from the very beginning of the war may mean that Ares was guiding the rudder far more than Athena.
Also, German and Japanese history since WWII marked by commercial and industrial success driven in part by innovation and cleverness. So too in the arts. The Japanese have invented manga and anime. In the clash of World War II, did Athena excise Ares from their cultures? Can he be excised? Volumes have been written about the feelings of pacifism present in both countries and their investment in military capability is certainly less that than other, similarly advanced nations. What about the US? Our history certainly shows the influence of both Ares and Athena. Sherman’s southern campaign is just one example. Designed by Grant, certainly shows the cleverness of Odysseus as well as the brutality of Ares. Maybe the answer is balance between the god and the goddess. Utilizing both, maybe through Clausewitz’s subordination to policy and thus rationality, may be the key. Ares’ anger can be a powerful weapon if harnessed by Athena’s wisdom.
There’s no real conclusion to this screed besides the fact that Neal Stephenson, in a book about cryptoanalysts, hackers, and one very well-written and badass Marine named Bobby Shaftoe, hit on some of the same points as academic strategic theorists. War is not solely guided by intellect and science, but neither is it purely the realm of hate and discontent. The cryptological prowess of the Allies and the resulting intelligence was certainly a boon for the Allies but it took men and women like Bobby Shaftoe to bring the Axis powers to their knees.