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August 11, 2002

ARES AND ATHENA AND THE WAR: I've been blogging less lately, trying to rest the tortured ligaments and tendons that were already flirting with RSI nearly a year ago. But I've been watching the "warblogger" / "techblogger" debate on the war (well, some of them, anyway), and I think that Eric Olsen is onto something when he calls it a cultural divide.

But part of the reason for different views on the war may stem from different views of war in general. I thought of this in connection with a passage in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, where the character Enoch Root is talking about two kinds of war as personified by the two very different Greek gods with jurisdiction over warfare, Ares and Athena (this starts at page 804 in my hardcover edition):

"She was the goddess of metis, which means cunning and craftiness. . . . The word that we use today to mean the same thing, is really technology. . . . Instead of calling Athena the goddess of war, wisdom and macrame, then, we should say war and technology. And here again we have the problem of an overlap with the jurisdiction of Ares, who's supposed to be the god of war. And let's just say that Ares is a complete asshole. His personal aides are Fear and Terror and sometimes Strife. He is constantly at odds with Athena even though -- maybe because -- they are nominally the god and goddess of the same thing -- war. Heracles, who is one of Athena's human proteges, physically wounds Ares on two occasions, and even strips him of his weapons at one point! You see, the fascinating thing about Ares is that he's completely incompetent. . . .

"So insofar as Athena is a goddess of war, what really do we mean by that? Note that her most famous weapon is not her sword but her shield Aegis, and Aegis has a gorgon's head on it, so that anyone who attacks her is in serious danger of being turned to stone. She's always described as being calm and majestic, neither of which adjectives anyone ever applied to Ares. . . ."

"Let's face it, Randy, we've all known guys like Ares. The pattern of human behavior that caused the internal mental representation of Ares to appear in the minds of the ancient Greeks is very much alive today, in the form of terrorists, serial killers, riots, pogroms, and aggressive tinhorn dictators who turn out to be military incompetents. And yet for all their stupidity and incompetence, people like that can conquer and control large chunks of the world if they are not resisted. . . . Who is going to fight them off, Randy?

"I'm afraid you're going to say we are."

"Sometimes it might be other Ares-worshippers, as when Iran and Iraq went to war and no one cared who won. But if Ares-worshippers aren't going to end up running the whole world, somebody needs to do violence to them. This isn't very nice, but it's a fact: civilization requires an Aegis. And the only way to fight the bastards off in the end is through intelligence. Cunning. Metis. . . . Do you kow why we won the Second World War, Randy?"

"Because we built better stuff than the Germans?"

"But why did we build better stuff, Randy? . . . Well, the short answer is that we won because the Germans worshipped Ares and we worshipped Athena."

In Stephenson's characterization of Ares as representing war in terms of mindless destruction and the practice of glorying in that destruction (with additional measures of macho posturing and egotism blended with ineptitude thrown in) it's easy to see why someone would be against it. And if you think that the Ares version is the sum total of what war's all about, then it's easy to reject any claim that war might be called for, and to brand people who think it's time to resort to war as, well, Ares-like. Which seems to me to be the essence of the antiwar position among many of the techbloggers.

But, of course, there's more to it than that. (And, if you look at the other side in this war, it's pretty easy to see who's glorying in mindless destruction and engaging in macho posturing.) As Stephenson points out, there's another archetype of war -- one that is defensive, and that is based on cunning and technology. (And it's pretty easy to see which side fits the Athenean archetype, too).

And, finally, if you don't like the Ares style of war, and don't want Ares-worshippers to wind up running the world,then it's not enough to reject your inner Ares and think peaceful thoughts. You've got to unsling Aegis, and do something about it.

Here's the end of the dialogue, after Root argues that the Nazis failed because their ideology was all about proving things that they already believed true, not about finding truth:

"Ares always reemerges from the chaos. It will never go away. Athenian civilization defends itself from the forces of Ares with metis, or technology. . . ."

"Sounds teleological, Enoch. Free countries get better science, hence superior military power, hence get to defend their freedoms. You're proclaiming a sort of Manifest Destiny here."

"Well, someone's got to do it."

"Aren't we beyond that sort of thing now?"

"I know you're just saying that to infuriate me. Sometimes, Randy, Ares gets chained up in a barrel for a few years, but he never goes away. The next time he emerges, Randy, the conflict is going to revolve around bio-, micro-, and nanotechnology. Who's going to win?"

It would be a bummer if crazed ideologues who want to bring back the 12th century wound up winning that war, just because those who should be forging the latest version of Athena's shield think that any effort to defend oneself smacks of Ares.

UPDATE: Hmm. I wish I'd seen this line from an anti-war blog site when I wrote the post above:

I have found that sensuality and war don't mix. Sensuality and politics don't mix. Sensuality and warbloggers don't mix.

Warbloggers are from Athena, anti-war bloggers are from Venus? Maybe it's a good thing I didn't read that before, or I might have come up with a lame, John Gray-inspired title for this post. Anyhow, it seems unfair to me: Athena looks pretty hot in this picture.

But God forbid that the defense of civilization should be, you know, unsensual. I wonder what Bill Mauldin would have to say about that.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Now BurningBird is mad about the link above, saying that it's out of context, and that I should have linked her other posts directly in an earlier post, rather than via Eric Olsen's sum-up. (Though as I've noted elsewhere, people do that all the time.) I don't think I took the earlier item out of context at all; I think it was consistent with what Brendan O'Neill (who not even BurningBird can call a right-winger) writes about the antiwar movement today:

'Fuck democracy, fuck communism', says one of the characters who is sick of the war. 'I just want a life and a girl.' This sentiment captures what is behind much of today's anti-war mood - the notion that nothing is worth fighting, dying or killing for, and that it is better to live in peace and put up with your lot in life than to struggle. Really?

Today's prevailing anti-war mood reflects a serious lack of stomach for fighting, rather than a positive assertion of the right of third world states to run their own affairs without Western interference. Indeed, almost everyone now accepts that the West has the right to invade/impose sanctions/nation-build (delete according to how 'radical' you are) wherever it pleases. Rather than indicating a real opposition to Western intervention, our dislike of war seems to capture our fear of doing anything too decisive or forceful. . . . Surely there's more to being anti-war than just not liking bloodshed...?

Follow the link above and read the whole post. BurningBird seems to have made a career out of complaining that my blog is "unfair" but her idea of "fairness" seems to involve me doing what she wants. Which is also sadly typical.

ANOTHER UPDATE: BurningBird has posted again, apologizing for seeming petty on the linking issue. As for the rest, well, as I've said repeatedly I think that there are reasonable arguments to be made against invading Iraq, though I don't find them persuasive. (And they've been noted, and responded to, here and elsewhere over the past eleven months, which is what I meant when I said that Dave Winer came late to the debate. I should post a bunch of links, but I'm not doing it here. That's the project that Combustible Boy is working on, more or less). As for Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- if it were up to me, I'd invade Saudi Arabia first, then let the dominoes fall (and give them a healthy push if needed). It's not up to me (which is probably just as well). But all of these countries are ruled by people fundamentally hostile to us, who will hurt us if they can, and who are happy to see those who want to kill Americans flourish.

I don't pretend to offer guarantees that American intervention in the region will make life better for the people who live there. I think it will, I hope it will, and I think we should do our best to make that so. But those are secondary objectives. The primary objective is to make clear to leaders that if their country threatens America, they, the rulers, will be out of power at best, and dead along with all their family and friends at worst. Is that "nice?" No. I don't care.