What Do The Classics Have To Do With The Modern Warfighter?

Community
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I recently received an email from a fellow service member asking for intellectual ammunition to help win an argument. Jeff was embroiled in heavy debate with fellow soldiers who argued that the Classics — ancient Latin and Greek works of literature — were not worth reading because they had no bearing on the modern world. I have studied Classics since my early teens, and although I shared the frustration, it’s an argument I’ve heard before.


The influence of Classics on the modern world were exactly what drew me to study them in the first place. As a high school student, I wrote a column for a now-defunct online magazine profiling the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses, placing them in a modern context. Over a decade later, still in love with Homer and Aeschylus, Catullus and Virgil, I attempt to do the same, but for a different purpose.

As a freshman in college, I sent a copy of Homer’s “Iliad” to the only person I knew in the military at the time, a friend who had just left on his first deployment to Iraq. A decade later, I’m on active duty with three deployments down and another on the horizon. As I emailed Jeff my rebuttal, I thought back on my Classical care package. At the time, I thought I was just putting my favorite war story in the mail without fully appreciating the deeper meaning of my actions.

The story opens in the last year of a war that started for dubious reasons. Men lose sight of what they are fighting for and begin to turn on one another. In protracted conflict, the initial reasons for going to the fight can be obscured, just as a sense of purpose can be lost in the “groundhog day” routine of deployment. Nerves become frayed, and something as simple as noticing that somebody has eaten the peanuts sitting on your desk can lead to internal strife.

The best leaders ensure that their people never feel futility in their operations — indeed, when your mission is presence, it can be difficult to know the effect you are having when confined to your shipboard steel world or FOB. In the “Iliad,” on both sides of the walls of Troy, both Greeks and Trojans find that it's most effective and meaningful to remind each other of the importance of defending the man to their left and their right and hold onto a sense of regional pride, even when the enemy, or even the reason for going to war, becomes obscured. In mythology, just as now, warriors fought for their friends.

So, what does the study of dead languages have to do with the modern world, let alone warfighting? Everything. It tells us that the deepest themes of our experience of service are not ours alone.

In Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Aeneas, the leader of the survivors of Troy and eventual founder of Rome, tells his people at a time of particularly low morale and apparently hopelessness, “Forsan et haec olim menimisse juvabit” [Someday it will be pleasing to remember even these things].

How many of us frequently long for the profound friendship forged in the loneliest hours of deployment, on that endless watch at 3:00 am, hungry and exhausted, when the place you once called home has become difficult to imagine?

Homer, Virgil, Euripides and others immortalized the trials, triumphs, and tragedies of wars that occurred even earlier than their own time. They gave a voice to the tales of war and its aftermath.

It’s time for this generation of warfighters to give a voice to our own triumphs and tragedies.

Anna Granville is a Naval officer. She lives in California.

 

Every once in a while, we run across a photo in The Times-Picayune archives that's so striking that it begs a simple question: "What in the name of Momus Alexander Morgus is going on in this New Orleans photograph?" When we do, we've decided, we're going to share it — and to attempt to answer that question.

Read More Show Less
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces control the monitor of their drone at their advanced position, during the fighting with Islamic State's fighters in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa. (Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)

MUSCAT (Reuters) - The United States should keep arming and aiding the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) following the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria, provided the group keeps up the pressure on Islamic State, a senior U.S. general told Reuters on Friday.

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump claims the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department's budget that he will now spend on his border wall was not going to be used for anything "important."

Trump announced on Friday that he was declaring a national emergency, allowing him to tap into military funding to help pay for barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Read More Show Less

Long before Tony Stark took a load of shrapnel to the chest in a distant war zone, science fiction legend Robert Heinlein gave America the most visceral description of powered armor for the warfighter of the future. Forget the spines of extra-lethal weaponry, the heads-up display, and even the augmented strength of an Iron Man suit — the real genius, Heinlein wrote in Starship Troopers, "is that you don't have to control the suit; you just wear it, like your clothes, like skin."

"Any sort of ship you have to learn to pilot; it takes a long time, a new full set of reflexes, a different and artificial way of thinking," explains Johnny Rico. "Spaceships are for acrobats who are also mathematicians. But a suit, you just wear."

First introduced in 2013, U.S. Special Operations Command's Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) purported to offer this capability as America's first stab at militarized powered armor. And while SOCOM initially promised a veritable Iron Man-style tactical armor by 2018, a Navy spokesman told Task & Purpose the much-hyped exoskeleton will likely never get off the launch pad.

"The prototype itself is not currently suitable for operation in a close combat environment," SOCOM spokesman Navy Lt. Phillip Chitty told Task & Purpose, adding that JATF-TALOS has no plans for an external demonstration this year. "There is still no intent to field the TALOS Mk 5 combat suit prototype."

Read More Show Less

D-Day veteran James McCue died a hero. About 500 strangers made sure of it.

"It's beautiful," Army Sgt. Pete Rooney said of the crowd that gathered in the cold and stood on the snow Thursday during McCue's burial. "I wish it happened for every veteran's funeral."

Read More Show Less