Afghanistan and the Trojan War

by Herbert Jordan

Private Papers

For perspective on the war in Afghanistan, President Obama ought to take a look through the lens of the oldest geopolitical conflict in the history of Western civilization, in which Greek warriors crossed the Aegean Sea to Asia Minor, besieged the citadel of Troy, and ultimately prevailed after ten gruelling years.

The President should be mindful of the profound error that was narrowly avoided nine years into the Trojan War, when war-weary Greek leaders came close to abandoning their mission.

Our knowledge of the Trojan War comes almost entirely from Homer’s Iliad, composed 2,500 years ago. The Iliad‘s historical accuracy may be questioned, but the light it sheds depends not on historical accuracy, but on insight into human nature and, particularly, the dynamics of people at war.

The Iliad opens during the ninth and final year of the war. The Greek army is weary, demoralized, beset by disease, homesick, and divided. The Trojans launch an offensive which drives the Greeks to the sea’s edge. Casualties are heavy. As night falls there is deep discouragement, talk of giving up and sailing home. In a council of top leaders, Commander-in-chief Agamemnon advocates sailing during the night. Junior commanders disgree. Odysseus says:

Disgraceful! Better you had other men
to lead instead of commanding us, men Zeus
ordained in youth and age to struggle through
this difficult war until the last is dead.
Here lies the city of Troy. How could you want
to leave after what we have endured for her?

His view secures a consensus including Agamemnon.

In the end ten years were required to complete the Greek mission in Asia Minor, compared with eight years so far committed in Afghanistan. Even in traditional warfare, ten years is not long by historical markers such as the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. That Afghanistan is a non-traditional war of insurgency is immaterial to the parallels noted here.

The Trojan War’s origin resembles that of the Afghanistan war, in that the Greeks responded to a Trojan act on Greek soil — the abduction of Helen by Trojan Prince Paris — which the Greeks judged to warrant military response on another continent.

In the wake of 9-11 few Americans questioned the judgment that military response in Afghanistan was warranted against both al Qaeda and the Taliban. During his election campaign in 2008, and subsequently, President Obama expressed strong agreement with that judgment. Few question that judgment now, although as years pass more citizens and policymakers express weariness and doubts about the prospects.

President Obama has constitutional obligations unimaginable during the time of the Trojan War, and responsible discharge of those obligations includes acting with perseverance despite the winds of public opinion. Our wars are not to be initiated, conducted, or terminated by plebiscite.

The President should abide by the initial judgment that it is important for the United States to defeat both al Qaeda and Taliban extremists in Afghanistan. He should defer to his field commanders’ view that substantial additional resources and time will be required to accomplish the mission. Like the Greeks at Troy he should persevere despite the weariness engendered by protracted conflict on foreign soil.

©2009 Bruce S. Thornton

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