Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to warfare. One is to be strong and powerful. The other is to be smart and cunning. The Greek terms for these concepts are biē and mētis respectively. In The Iliad and The Odyssey, Achilles personifies biē, and Odysseus embodies mētis. The United States military can and should learn a lesson about its operational art from the lives of the two mythological warriors.
Achilles was the most powerful warrior in the Iliad, and has become a symbol of martial prowess in Western culture. He was born to the immortal Thetis and the king of the Myrmidons, granting him abilities greater than those of mortal men. His exceptional birth and genius for combat gave him the appearance of invulnerability, an appearance reinforced by his defeat of Troy’s most powerful warrior, Hector. Achilles further reinforced his power by defying Greek custom, and therefore the Greek gods, by dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot. Despite his perceived invulnerability, Achilles’ was killed by the far weaker Paris, who shot him in his vulnerable heel with a bow, a weapon perceived by the Greeks to be that of a coward.
…wars among populations have been the United States’ Achilles Heel, demonstrated by its defeat in Vietnam and its debatable results in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Achilles can serve as a metaphor for much of American history, though it’s unlikely that was Homer’s intent. The United States’ founders believed it to be unique, creating a sense of American exceptionalism. America’s military technology and economic power created the belief it could defeat other states in war, a belief reinforced to the American public by two world wars, the fall of the Soviet Union and the First Gulf War. But wars among populations have been the United States’ Achilles Heel, demonstrated by its defeat in Vietnam and its debatable results in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of America’s difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan stem from campaigns that rely on more biē and less mētis than they should.
The pertinent lesson is that Odysseus realized brute force could not defeat the Trojans, and that ten years of warfare had resulted in little besides dead Greeks and Trojans.
Odysseus was a powerful warrior in his own right, but relied on mētis more than biē. During his exploits in The Odyssey, Odysseus faced part of the Greek pantheon, various monsters and the many challenges of the elements. But his most famous exploit was the Trojan Horse. After laying siege to Troy for 10 years, Odysseus suggested the Greeks trick the Trojans by leaving a large wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers on the beach, then pretending to depart. The Trojans brought the horse inside their walls as a sacrifice, allowing the hidden Greeks to open the gates at night. The details of the story are common knowledge. The pertinent lesson is that Odysseus realized brute force could not defeat the Trojans, and that ten years of warfare had resulted in little besides dead Greeks and Trojans. Instead, he identified the crux of his problem, the Trojan walls, and developed a feasible plan that did not require undue sacrifice by the Greeks.
Coalition Forces created a new, seemingly mētis–based method in Iraq after their initial approach failed. Host nation government legitimacy emerged from a careful consideration of traditional counterinsurgency theory, analysis of numerous campaigns and the examination of events on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. After an ineffective counter-guerilla campaign, the turn to host nation government legitimacy felt like a mētis-based approach, as though Odysseus took Achilles’ place. Instead of conducting raids and targeting enemy forces, soldiers adopted a population-centric, legitimacy based approach. While the legitimacy based approach was far from non-violent, it attempted to address the root causes of the insurgency instead of targeting their members in a self-perpetuating cycle.
But despite its perceived intelligence, host nation government legitimacy relies on mass and brute strength far more than cunning. The troop surge required an increase of five combat brigades, or 16,700 troops, and an additional $27 billion. Coalition Forces attempted to use mass and large amounts of cash to accomplish an extremely ambitious strategic goal. A true mētis-based approach would use careful consideration of the operating environment to develop realistic goals and efficient ways to reach them.
There are a variety of mētis-based approaches available. Special operations forces, sometimes inappropriately treated like a magic bullet by armchair generals, are nonetheless an efficient option in some situations. COIN center of gravity analysis, proposed by Colonel Peter Mansoor and Major Mark Ulrich, intelligently investigates operating environments to determine the best courses of action. Viewing states as complex adaptive systems, then analyzing them using complexity theory is another. All three methods rely on close examination of the host nation to determine the underlying cause of the insurgency. The best approaches will follow through by determining not just the cause, but the area in which leverage can be most effectively applied to achieve the desired effect.
Some conflicts call for large numbers of troops in theater, the application of overwhelming firepower and massive spending.
The military needs to capitalize on intelligently designed solutions. Biē based approaches are not automatically wrong, and may in fact be the best approach for many situations. Some conflicts call for large numbers of troops in theater, the application of overwhelming firepower and massive spending. But in an environment where sequestration has restricted resources, that should not be the only method available. Even without sequestration as a factor, America’s fiscal challenges should serve as a warning against plans that assume infinite resources.
The events in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine make a persuasive case that American forces must be prepared to deploy to another conflict, and to do so regularly. But the United States needs to be able to win in a manner that does not require the time, money, or lives spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, host nation government legitimacy is fundamentally a mass based approach in Achilles’ tradition, and is not efficient enough. The military must develop a tradition more in line with Odysseus, one that capitalizes on intelligence and cunning to efficiently accomplish strategic goals.
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 Lawrence Freedman, Strategy A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 23.
 Amy Belasco “Troop Levels in the Afghan and Iraq Wars, FY2001-FY2012: Cost and Other Potential Issues” Congressional Research Service, written July 2, 2009, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R40682.pdf.
 “Cost Balloons when ‘Surge’ Support Troops are Counted CNN, written February 2, 2007, http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/02/01/iraq.surge/,
 Peter Mansoor and Mark Ulrich, “Linking Doctrine to Action: A New COIN Center-of-Gravity Analysis.” Military Review, written September 2007,http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20071031_art007.pdf.