Thucydides in the Data Warfare Era

Anastasios Arampatzis and Justin Sherman

“Once again, the historian who wishes to understand this difficult period must try to read between the lines.” Donald Kagan, A New History of the Peloponnesian War

While Thucydides may not have predicted smartphones or the Internet of Things, the Athenian general’s theories are still relevant in the age of cyber. The digital technologies rapidly changing our planet certainly raise compelling and difficult questionsaround such issues as proportionality, attribution, and deterrencebut that doesn’t mean old principles are useless. These are not revolutionary nor novel statementsnot by any means. But these ideas are at the crux of Thucydides’ three principles, and they still have important strategic value. While his writings were about battles fought with spears and swords, we can still leverage his views of honor, fear, and interest to better understand cyber conflict.

In Donald Kagan’s monumental book On The Origins of War, he argues that all wars and crisesfrom the Peloponnesian War to the Second World War to the Bay of Pigs in Cubawere the result of three factors. Thucydides described these components as time (honor), deos (fear) and ophelia (interest); one translation phrases it, “So that, though overcome by three of the greatest things, honour, fear, and profit, we have both accepted the dominion delivered us and refuse again to surrender it.” It is the relentless pursuit of these objectives, in Thucydides’ view, that fuels warfare. “By a necessity of their nature,” he says, “[humans] rule as far as their power permits.” John Garstka and U.S. Navy Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, in their essay “Network Centric Warfare,” come to a similar conclusion in the modern context. They hold that new tactics and technologies don’t alter the basic principles of war as described by Thucydides and Clausewitz; rather, they enhance them.

Pottery showing a Greek battle. (G. Dagli Orti/Getty Images)

Fear and interest are, perhaps, the most powerful motives of violent conflict to date; we could even argue this is part of a deeper, biological drive to survive. Fear of being attacked, embarrassed, or overtaken has led tyrants and democratic leaders alike to war for hundreds and hundreds of years. Actors with an interest in preserving, achieving, or destroying certain visions of the world often use force to do so, and they can effectively leverage fear to support this end. Contemporarily speaking, fear of terrorism has certainly demonstrated this fact. And the so-called Thucydides Trap, in which a new power’s rise brings conflict from an established power, explains some of today’s violence.

Honor is perhaps more difficult to understand than fear and interest. For instance, we could define honor as deference, esteem, regard, respect, or prestige and still not cover every interpretation. With any one of these definitions, though, we can easily find strong motive for nations to go to war. Protecting one’s image is inextricably tied to interest (and power). Maintaining prestige is tied to interest as well, and the potential loss of such image certainly causes fear. Still today, many cultures remain tied to ancient traditions of honor, such as those who closely follow the ancient Pashtunwali code in Afghanistan.

For instance, Stuxnet, the U.S.-Israeli cyber weapon, began destroying Iranian nuclear centrifuges in Natanz as early as 2005. Fear of Iranian nuclearization, interest in avoiding Iranian security threats, and a desire to maintain honor in the region (through the defense of allies) were all, simultaneously, motivations for the weapon’s development. The industrial control systems may have been a modern phenomenon, but, underlying them, Thucydides’ motives were still present.

The same goes for the recent Triton cyber weapon, launched against a Saudi Arabian petrochemical plant in 2017. While the attackers’ identity is unclear (although speculation points to Iran), their motive was not: they hijacked digital controllers and may have attempted to blow up the entire plant. Saudi Arabia’s petrochemical industry is vital to the nation’s economy, which makes the incident a strike against their economic interest. This incident also undermines the safety and security of the Saudi Arabian people, once again making fear, honor, and interest part of the incentive to attack.

Thucydides doesn’t just offer insight into cyber conflict’s causes, however. Even more useful are his writings on the human behavior during conflict or crisis.

"Destruction of the Athenian Army in Sicily" by Hermann Vogel, showing the final defeat of the Athenian at the river Assinarus. (Eon Images)

“For no man comes to execute a thing with the same confidence he premeditates it. For we deliver opinions in safety, whereas in the action itself we fail through fear.”

Just as fear-driven cybersecurity training is unsustainable in the long run, so is fear-driven cyber conflict. History has already shown us that not every cyber attack goes as planned. The Stuxnet cyber weapon was discovered in 2010 due to inadvertent reboots of Iranian desktop computers. Likewise, the Triton cyber weapon failed to destroy the Saudi petrochemical facility due to real-time programming errors.

Myriad other cyber attacks, whether launched by powerful nation-states or money-grabbing cyber-crime groups, have run into similar errors of execution. While such errors occurs in many conventional military engagements, for which reality and randomness introduce great complexity, this is especially true for cyberspace conflict. Attacks require meticulous planning and execution, as digital environments are constantly changing (with more data and new actors with each passing day), and elements of fear are sure to greatly disrupt the effectiveness of operations; thus, Thucydides tells us, we must not let fear cloud the judgment of preparation.

“Most people, in fact, will not take the trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.”

Information warfare has been waged for centuries; however, historical media for disseminating rhetoric were pen, paper, and word of mouth. Today, the evolution of accessible, low-cost, and global cyber technologiesparticularly social mediahave completely changed how information warfare is conducted. Between the simplicity of online blogging and image-manipulation tools and the availability of sophisticated encryption and anonymization technologies, it doesn’t take much for misinformation and disinformation to reach global audiences.

Information warfare can also be seen as an equivalent of the Siege of Melos and the Melian Dialogue, which Thucydides captured in his history of the Peloponnesian War. This was one case, as the scholars put it, in which realism prevailed over “the foolishness of fear, honor and pride.” As Felix Martin Wassermanm says, “relations between unequals are governed by the συμφέρον (interest), not by the δίκαιον (just).”

"Pericles' Funeral Oration" (also known as Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp von Foltz (Wikimedia)

Such is the case in all transnational and international relations. When the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the USSR, the West rushed to proclaim themselves as the winners of a struggle for power between capitalism and communism. Today, similar wars of propaganda and information still continue; many analysts argue that we are living in a new cold war era. Indeed, Russia interferes in democratic elections across the planet, but so does the US. In February 2018, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation indicted the Internet Research Agency, a group allegedly backed by the Russian government, for disinformation campaigns on social media. The United States and other Western powers, however, are engaged in their own counter-narrative operations. The war in Iraq is just one recent example of the ways in which military-industrial complexes can manipulate national rhetoric. In this respect, Thucydides’ idea about finding the truth is relevant up to our days.

The ways in which nation-states frame the world to their citizens, and the time at which they begin such framing, have fundamental effects on perception of truth; this is a core principle of social engineering. Facebook’s engagement in counter-narrative operations, while well-intentioned, certainly raises ethical and ideological questions for how private-sector companies regulate truth in the digital age. The same goes for the ways in which nation-states can now hijack narratives in one another’s countries, flooding social media and other online platforms with misinformation, disinformation, and disproportionate volumes of the truth (e.g., blowing a single issue out of proportion). In addition to crude violence the information age has added new weapons: identity theft, hacking, cyber warfare, and ever more sophisticated disinformation techniques. Information is everywhere, yet it can be difficult to identify the truth.

We can still see fear, honor and interest in this contemporary struggle for narrative power and information control.

“War is a matter not so much of arms as of money.”

The information age is drastically influencing how wealth is created and distributed. Alberts, Garstka, and Stein argue that the original recipe for wealth creationhistorically speakingfeatured land, labor, and capital as its key ingredients. Today, the collection, analysis, and sale of personal information powers global economies; information is, as the dictum goes, power, but we can also argue that it acts as a modern-day currency.

When this expression was coined, information was a relatively rare, expensive, and restricted commodity. Individuals shared some information publicly through speeches or writing, but in many cases did not disclose the intimate details of their lives. A world in which smartphones, laptops, and Internet of Things devices constantly monitor our behavior cannot even be compared to the centuries before. Thus, this change that we see today greatly enables new dynamics of power and control: honor is of great value when information is traded as a commodity; fear of disclosure only grows with the volume of information about an individual or organization; and nations-states have powerful interests in achieving information superiority, or access to value-added data in a timely and efficient manner.

Indeed, information isto adapt Thucydides’ wisdomthe modern money that fuels war. Those who have the fastest Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) data loop will be able to dominate the cyber battlespace. Better information means more comprehensive threat intelligence, faster response times, and more robust offensive capabilities.

Thucydides is a relevant lens through which to understand modern data and information warfare, but he is just one such example. Cyber raises many new questions that strategists never could have exactly foreseen. That does not mean, however, that old theories are irrelevant. From Sun Tzu’s Art of War to Thomas Schelling’s Strategy of Conflict, we should look to the breadth of complex, thought-out strategies that others have laid before us to answer the complex questions of our digital age.

It is true, of course, that these old works don’t answer cyber questions directly. Sun Tzu hardly makes reference to spearphishing or to blockchain. Nonetheless, they can build a solid foundation for us to answer cyber-specific questions. (Sun Tzu does, for instance, discuss deception in great detail.) So, even when questions like cyber deterrence may seem overwhelming in their complexity, let’s not discard historical theory just yet. We only need take someone like Thucydides and put them in the cyber context.

Anastasios Arampatzis is a retired Hellenic Air Force officer with over 20 years of experience in managing IT projects and evaluating cybersecurity. He is an informatics instructor at AKMI Educational Institute.

Justin Sherman is an Interact Fellow studying Computer Science and Political Science at Duke University, focused on cyber security, warfare, and governance. Justin is a Cyber Policy Researcher at the Department of Defense- and NSA-backed Laboratory for Analytic Sciences, where his work focuses on federal cybersecurity policy, industry security benchmarks, and national cyber strategy.

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Header Image: Thucydides in the Data Warfare Era (Business Insider)


All Thucydides quotes were taken from