Small Wars Journal

It’s All Been Done Before

Sun, 10/09/2022 - 1:03pm

It’s All Been Done Before

By Thomas Macias

Students of military strategy are familiar with Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, but what about Homer? The works of the ancient Greek poet credited with composing The Iliad and The Odyssey are most often remembered for legendary battles, meddlesome gods, and mortal heroes who fight like caffeinated hornets. Entertainment value aside, these epics serve a higher purpose. On the surface, these stories are allegories or fables occurring in mythical settings. In reality, these works are classical seminars on leadership and crisis management. Instead of TED Talks or slide presentations, Homer’s enduring principles are brought to life through unforgettable characters and scenarios. Given the enduring nature of war as a human activity, Homer’s insights remain pertinent to conflicts of all eras. This includes the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Boiled down to Twitter-size, Homer’s three-thousand-year-old message is that "It's all been done before."      

Global audiences still resonate with the sea journey of Odysseus, a Greek warrior leading twelve ships home after a decade of bloody warfare against the armies of Troy. One of the most famous chapters (or “books”) in The Odyssey is Odysseus’ battle with Polyphemus the Cyclops. The Cyclops are a race of human-like creatures notable for their single eye, gigantic size, and superhuman strength. They also have a rude habit of eating people like breadsticks. This episode is typically told with Odysseus as a conquering hero for saving his crew from the savagery of the Cyclops. The Odyssey however has something deeper to say. If the reader flips the script and places Odysseus in the role of the villain, the story becomes a geopolitical statement. In this context, the Cyclops episode is a warning against imperialism. Similar to the Russian “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine, these are invasions to seize territory, expand influence, and access natural resources outside of a country’s borders.

As much as imperialism was in vogue in ancient Greece, Greeks had witnessed many operations that turned into fiascos. Homer had plenty of samples to choose from on the right and wrong ways to callously invade a neighboring kingdom. This is the backdrop to The Iliad, the prequel to The Odyssey. This timeless poem tells the story of a superior Greek military coalition that blundered its way through a ten-year quagmire at Troy.

In The Odyssey, the Cyclops chapter is a first-person account narrated by Odysseus. It reads like an after-action report a field commander might submit after an encounter with the enemy. The episode begins after Odysseus makes a questionable decision to divide his forces. He detaches his flagship from the remainder of the flotilla to explore an island. After making land, Odysseus takes a reconnaissance team of twelve men and treks inland to a cave inhabited by a Cyclops named Polyphemus.

When a military force enters foreign territory uninvited, the native inhabitants are habitually portrayed as villainous and hostile. This is not unlike Putin’s depictions of Ukraine as a corrupt and genocidal haven for Nazis and bioweapons. These preposterous claims are of course for domestic consumption.  Although the invaders and the invaded may share many characteristics, the trespassers tend to exaggerate the differences as existential threats. Odysseus likewise disparages the Cyclops as dangerous and backward creatures.

Putin’s rhetoric on the Ukrainian threat is a simple pretext. Russia’s real interests concern Ukrainian natural resources. Similarly, Odysseus notes the island of the Cyclops brims with undeveloped potential. He condescendingly believes the natives as too primitive to take full advantage of the island’s possibilities. As Ukraine’s rich farmland makes it a breadbasket, the island of the Cyclops is likewise suitable for crops. Unlike in Greece, the Cyclops do not farm. They also do not grow grain, bake bread, nor harvest grapes for wine.

Although mocked by the Greeks, the Cyclops are masters of their native environment. They are excellent at raising livestock and dairy farming as shown by the size and health of their herds. In terms of divine support, Polyphemus is on good terms with the gods while Odysseus has managed to antagonize several who are working towards his demise. Putin has likewise made Russia a pariah as the “I Stand with Ukraine” mantra has spread globally. NATO was also compelled to expand to counter the latest example of Russia’s historic affinity for expansion that dates back to the Czars. Ironically, the supposed brute Polyphemus is closer to royalty than Odysseus. He is the offspring of Poseidon, the god of the ocean and creator of earthquakes.

Odysseus and his team arrive uninvited to Polyphemus’ cave, only to find it empty as the Cyclops is out with his flocks. The Greeks peer into the cave and see it stocked with cheeses crafted from pens crowded with fat livestock. The Greeks begin to plunder Polyphemus’ stores. After having their fill, Odysseus’ men suggest an exit strategy; they want to get out while the getting is good. They propose making off with additional supplies and hightailing it off the island. Odysseus overrides them. He now wants an encounter with Polyphemus, mainly to secure additional loot. Odysseus has thus allowed mission creep to set in. What began as an intelligence gathering operation has now turned into a treasure grab. 

Ranking high in Murphy’s Military Laws (the G.I.’s version of Murphy’s Law) is the rule that “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” The catastrophic opening phase of the Russian invasion revealed Murphy in his full glory, something Odysseus and his men will experience as well. As Polyphemus returns, he rolls an enormous boulder over the mouth of the cave and traps Odysseus and his crew.

The Greeks, and now the Russians, find themselves in the age-old predicament where extracting a military force out of a hostile engagement is more difficult than its insertion. Polyphemus senses the intrusion into his cave and knows right away the foreigners do not have good intentions.

Perhaps the Russians believed their military reputation from previous wars could intimidate Ukraine to bend to their will. Odysseus tries this tactic as well. He informs Polyphemus that he and his crew are part of the notorious Greek force that overwhelmed the defenders of Troy. He threatens Polyphemus with punishment from Zeus if he fails to offer hospitality. Odysseus knows he is bluffing as he has alienated the gods.

Polyphemus sees through Odysseus’ ploy. The Cyclops is not going to play by the invader’s rules. Odysseus hence encounters The Law of Unintended Consequences. Polyphemus grabs two of Odysseus’ crew and bashes them against the cave wall. To the horror of the Greeks, the Cyclops eats them in plain sight.

What Odysseus describes as cannibalism can again be a metaphor. It reminds of how the lives of ordinary soldiers are consumed in war. This use of rookie Russian conscripts as fodder in Ukraine is only the most recent example. Polyphemus is unmoved by the wailing of the Greeks. He finishes up housekeeping chores, lays down for the night, and falls asleep in his cave. Odysseus approaches Polyphemus intending to stab him to death. At the last moment, Odysseus realizes that he can't. The cave entrance is still blocked and only the Cyclops can move the boulder.

Odysseus realizes that if he wins now against the Cyclops, both sides will ultimately lose.  In the twentieth century, this condition would be termed “Mutual Assured Destruction.” It defined the fatal outcome awaiting both the Soviet Union and the United States had either initiated a nuclear exchange.

In the morning Polyphemus wakes up, does his chores, and kills two more of Odysseus’s men for breakfast. He removes the boulder to allow his sheep out to pasture, blocks the entrance again, and then follows his flock outside.  Odysseus understands the Greeks are in extremis. Time is on the side of the Cyclops and Polyphemus is winning the war of attrition. Also, at some point, the crew aboard Odysseus’ waiting ship will determine the reconnaissance team is not coming back and will continue its journey home. Odysseus realizes he cannot overcome Polyphemus using conventional means. He must resort to asymmetrical warfare, or tactics suitable to the environment. While Polyphemus remains outside his cave, Odysseus and his remaining men fashion a sharpened stake from an olive tree and await the Cyclops’ return.

Odysseus also possesses a secret weapon. These are jars of fortified wine he had the foresight to bring. The wine is powerfully intoxicating as one jar is typically mixed with twenty parts of water. Among the crew, only Odysseus knows the secret of how potent they truly are. Odysseus’ plan is to get Polyphemus drunk and vulnerable. In the sixteenth century smallpox was similarly a secret weapon that allowed a small Spanish military force to conquer an Aztec empire of millions. Russian employment of chemical weapons in Ukraine, such as they have done in Syria, would serve much the same function.

As Ukrainian fighters are familiar with their territory in ways the Russians are not, Polyphemus knows his own cave. He can find and kill the Greeks at will and is eating two of them with every meal.  Comparable to their dire situation previously at Troy, the game clock is running out on Odysseus and his team.

Odysseus reaches deep into his experience and remembers a strategy that delivered the Greeks at Troy: he devises a Trojan Horse. He will again attempt to deceive his enemy into inserting a destructive device deep inside its own defenses. Again, the Greeks plan to strike while the adversary is asleep.  After Polyphemus returns that night and has two more servings of Greek food for dinner, Odysseus offers him the wine.

Polyphemus takes the bait. In fact, he goes on a bender. He consumes three bowls of the fortified wine. While downing the booze, Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name. Always wary of disclosing his true identity, Odysseus toys with the drunken Cyclops.  He tells him he is known as “Nobody.” After Polyphemus passes out, Odysseus and his men spring into action. Together they lift the sharpened stake and jam it into the Cyclops’ single eye which blinds him. Polyphemus awakens and bellows in pain which stirs his Cyclops neighbors. They run to Polyphemus’ still-closed cave and ask him who is attacking him. The Cyclops cries out that “Nobody” has deceived and injured him.  

Seemingly reassured by Polyphemus that nothing is amiss, the other Cyclops depart and return to their homes. This is a classic use of disinformation and how it can work against an enemy. Disinformation paints a distorted picture of reality that can trick an adversary into not adequately responding to a dangerous situation. Prior to the D-Day landings in World War II, the Allies let leak information of a fake U.S. Army in England, ostensibly led by General George Patton. The Germans did not commit vital reserves to counter the D-Day assault because of their concerns over Patton’s non-existent forces.  Russia is particularly notorious for disinformation and has employed it as a standard weapon against Ukraine.

When morning comes, Polyphemus must again let his flock out of the cave and rolls back the boulder. The blinded Polyphemus searches for Odysseus and his team by running his hands over his herds. Odysseus however has quietly tied each surviving member underneath three animals. Odysseus and his men thus escape by blending into the environment. Odysseus himself clings underneath Polyphemus’s prize ram. The team herds many of the animals back to their ship.  The awaiting crew casts off very quickly and sets off on the water. 

 Odysseus has successfully exfiltrated his team but at the cost of blood and treasure. Odysseus however makes no effort to correct his decision-making.  He instead attempts to portray the episode as a victory, probably to justify to his crew the needless deaths of their shipmates. He acts in a manner of a victor by calling out to Polyphemus and taunting him.

The needling has near-fatal consequences. It causes the blinded Polyphemus to realize the Greeks are now out of the cave. Odysseus' voice also allows Polyphemus to compute the direction and range of Odysseus’s ship.  Polyphemus heaves a huge stone that barely misses Odysseus's ship. Despite this, Odysseus continues his heckling. Polyphemus launches another boulder which again nearly impacts the vessel. Odysseus's crew pleads with him to shut up before he gets them all killed. Odysseus won’t exercise his typical self-control. In one last bit of poor judgment, Odysseus divulges classified information. He boasts to Polyphemus about his true name, family lineage, and home of origin.

With this, the ship pulls itself away from the island, hastened by another near-miss by Polyphemus. It rejoins the others in Odysseus’s squadron. While the Greeks believe they have won the battle against the Cyclops, they certainly will lose the war. Polyphemus can now identify his tormentor. The Cyclops employs his own secret weapon, one that has a greater range than Odysseus’ Trojan Horse. Polyphemus calls upon his father Poseidon to strike down the Greeks and bring upon Odysseus despair and regret.

Poseidon and later Zeus himself will comply. The gods will grant every negative payback Polyphemus desires for Odysseus. Odysseus will lead his squadron mates into other fiascos that will result in the loss of every ship and all the crew except himself. He will however incur ten additional years of being shipwrecked and isolated before he is freed to return. Of the 600 men who set sail with Odysseus to fight at Troy a decade previously, he is the only one who will make his way back to his native Ithaca. To the very end, Odysseus will never accept responsibility and will instead blame his crew for their own deaths. Polyphemus will have a more favorable outcome. After sustaining his wound chasing the Greek invaders from his land, it is implied that Polyphemus can be made whole again as Poseidon has the power to restore sight.

Like Odysseus, Russia is intent on pursuing a course whose most favorable outcome can only be a self-proclaimed, pyrrhic victory. Its self-deception will come with long-term negative consequences lasting decades. In an ever more connected world, Russia is finding itself shipwrecked on its own island. Putin indeed desires time travel but in reverse. He has charted a journey back in time, where according to Russian myth, it held a preeminent status in the world.  As the war in Ukraine stretches on, and as the grim death toll rises, it is more and more evident Russian adventurism mainly fulfills the vainglorious delusions of its leader. This should hardly be surprising. It’s all been done before.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Macias is a retired Air Force officer. In his career, he served as both an intelligence and foreign area officer where he analyzed global hotspots. He is a member of a veterans group that analyzes contingencies through the lens of classic works of literature. 



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