Ares, Athena, and Crypto

Posted: February 12, 2013 by bafriedman in Uncategorized



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.

  1. Bobby Shaftoe was well-written, one of the few badasses that felt really legit — not in a suspend my disbelief because he’s the hero kinda way, but in a guy I met in a bar just back from his tour of duty kinda way.

    Much more amusing however was the portrayal of Douglas MacArthur. Sooooo over the top that I’d just start laughing. And then I’d remember stuff I’ve read about him, and go, you know, maybe….

  2. Awesome post. I would just like to point out that all of the technology and doctrine the Japanese, Nazi’s and Soviets developed during WWII were linear, driven by their military establishments, and had straightforward, obvious uses in warfare. So they were the kind of cleverness appreciated by Ares. Meanwhile the British focused on cryptanalysis, signals intelligence (to include a lot of cleverness with RADAR, not just communications), SONAR, etc. Together the allies developed the atomic bomb (using a lot of refugee talent from Axis states), Operations Research and Systems Analysis techniques, and a lot of doctrinal as well as technical advancements throughout the war.

    Sure Yamamoto’s plan for Peal Harbor was creative, and certainly the German Army very astutely developed the so-called Blitzkreig collection of tactics and mission-order mission command architecture, but that was before the war. During the war, the allies proved far more adept at learning from mistakes and adapting, which had a lot to do with the guiding philosophies governing the allied governments.

    But again, really cool post, and I think the aforementioned point reinforces your assertion. I really liked the Clausewitz connection too.

  3. In the same chapter, Stephenson is pretty blunt about China’s place in the Athena-Ares continuum:

    ER: “If the Chinese are so civilized, how come they never invent anything?”
    RW: “What—paper, gunpowder—”
    ER: “Anything in the last millennium I mean.”

    That exchange was the lead-in to the discussion of why the Nazis failed, but he never came full circle to finish the thought on China.

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