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What Ancient Greeks Can Teach Us about Drones and Cyber-War

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When freshmen in my humanities colloquium at Stevens Institute of Technology ask why they have to read stuff by ancient Greeks, I reply that we have much to learn from old guys like Thucydides. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, a clash between the city-states Athens and Sparta, Thucydides recounted a negotiation between Athenians and leaders of Melos, an island kingdom striving to remain neutral.

The Athenians gave the Melians a choice: submit peacefully to our rule and pay us tribute, or we will destroy you. The Melians, completely outmatched by the Athenian army, pointed out that the Athenians were not dealing with them justly. The Melians hadn’t done anything to hurt Athens or help Sparta; they just wanted to keep to themselves.

The Athenians retorted, in effect, “Get real. There is no right and wrong, only weak and strong. We’re stronger than you are, so we can do anything we like. That’s how things have always worked and always will work.” The Athenians subscribed to what we would call a realpolitik view of relations between states: Might makes right.

The Melians then appealed to the Athenians’ reason and self-interest. The Melians predicted that the Athenians’ cruel treatment of Melos could provoke other neutral states into opposing Athens. The Melians were basically trying to get the Athenians to recognize the logic of the golden rule: If you treat others fairly, you are more likely to be treated fairly yourself. Live by the sword and you will eventually die by the sword.

And that brings me to U.S. drone strikes and cyber-attacks. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has carried out hundreds of drone attacks not only in nations that it has occupied, namely Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The New York Times recently reported that President Barack Obama has personally approved attacks on suspects on a “kill list” compiled by national-security officials.

The Administration claims that civilian casualties from drone strikes are minimal. But according to the Times, U.S. officials count all adult males as combatants. Moreover, in at least one case, Obama allegedly approved a raid on a suspect he knew was accompanied by civilians.

In a previous post, I argued that the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for lethal drones may accelerate a global arms race that comes back to haunt Americans. More than 40 nations as well as groups such as Hezbollah have deployed or are developing drones and other robotic weapons. We would be outraged if we were attacked by these weapons, but how can we expect others to abstain from such attacks when we don’t?

The logic of reciprocity applies to cyber-attacks as well.  According to a June 1 New York Times report, President Obama approved a cyber-warfare campaign—initiated during the Bush regime and code-named “Olympic Games”—against Iran to disrupt its nuclear program. A computer virus devised for the program, which came to be called Stuxnet, eventually escaped from Iran’s nuclear facilities and infected computers around the world.

As I mentioned last year, the Pentagon has warned that it may retaliate with bombs and bullets against groups that target U.S. computers and other digital resources. Meanwhile, the U.S. itself is apparently developing cyber-weapons and launching cyber-strikes. Are other countries likely to do what the U.S. preaches or what it practices? As the Times pointed out, “No country’s infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States.”

The U.S. carries out drone and digital attacks because they represent relatively cheap, risk-free ways to kill or disable our enemies. We can no doubt achieve short-term benefits from such attacks, whether disrupting Iran’s nuclear-weapons program or eliminating those who mean us harm. And for now, we enjoy an advantage in drones and cyber-weapons, an advantage that is tempting to exploit.

But we should think about the long-term consequences of using these weapons. How can we preach against cyber and drone raids when we are carrying out such raids ourselves? Won’t our hypocrisy inflame and expand the number of our enemies, thus making us less secure? Wouldn’t it be smarter for us to set a moral example for other nations and groups by renouncing cyber and drone attacks and seeking international prohibitions against them?

In pondering these questions, we should consider the fate of Athens, which at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War was Greece’s major power. Athenian soldiers eventually overran Melos, killed all the men and enslaved the women and children. But just as the Melians had predicted, the cruelty and arrogance of Athens aroused opposition against it. Sparta and its allies eventually crushed Athens, which never regained its former glory.

Image of Athenian and Melian from

Addendum: Tomorrow, June 13, I’ll be part of a discussion of “The End of War” hosted by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer and including former Congressman Dennis Kucinich and other peace activists. For more information see the WNYC website.

Addendum # 2: The British newspaper The Guardian just published an essay on The End of War by Brian Lehrer. He writes: “Horgan has convinced me that a modern abolition movement could be to war what an earlier abolition movement was to slavery. A ‘Just Say No to War’ campaign, or a War Abolition Movement, could attach itself to any budding conflict situation, denouncing all talk of war as rarely a solution to anything. It won’t stop every despot, or every religious extremist with a violent cult. But it could seek to paint war as an anachronism, and to define the next era in human culture, to change the conversation about heroism and patriotism and piety – to retire war as an obsolete invention, as Horgan and Margaret Mead might put it.” Sounds good to me.


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Gary Noel 7:35 pm 06/12/2012

    You reap what you sow. What goes around comes back? We go for short term solutions, but any long term solution can only be achieved with trust, and trust can only come with non-violence. Fire breeds Fire, hate breeds hate (many folds). The above applies to all concerned from all fronts. We are just repeating the history.

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  2. 2. cslos77 2:48 am 06/13/2012

    This has nothing to do with “you reap what you sow” morality, but everything to do with the inevitable spread of technology outward from an economic center (iron, guns, nuclear, etc.).

    Realpolitik is not as simple as enforcing “might makes right”, the Athenians rightly pointed out to the Melosians that they had been benefiting from the existence of the Athenian empire for the better part of a century, the sole guarantor or their prosperity in an age of barbarism and tyranny, but that they had contributed nothing to it. The strategic location of their island made it inevitable that it would eventually fall to one side or the other and the subsequent domination of Sparta, whose entire power base was built on the back of an enslaved race (the helots), over the Greek world proved much of the Athenians reasoning correct.

    The other powers of the world will inevitably gain drone technology and use it (i.e. Hezbollah), but not to “punish” the U.S., but simply because it is a better way to kill their particular “bad” guy, something they’ve been doing for decades or more anyways. The U.S. will more than likely be prepared for the coming wave of “counter” drones, so it will most likely be regional foes that will pay the heaviest price. And it could get messy…

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  3. 3. calsan 3:33 am 06/13/2012

    Perhaps a more accurate phrase to describe the policy than “reap what you sow” would be “p*ssing on a hornets’ nest”. If you must persist in doing this, it’s wise to ensure ALL the hornets are dead. The trouble with drones is that they achieve the p*ssing bit, but don’t eradicate the nest. Perhaps better to steer clear of the hornets altogether.

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  4. 4. Mr. Peabody 10:32 am 06/13/2012

    “Cross-Check – Critical views of science in the news” Hmmm. Agree or disagree with the author’s dovish stance on geopolitical strategy, I don’t really see how this is “science”. Sounds like something I’d read in the opinion section of the LA Times.

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  5. 5. pindarninja 3:16 pm 06/13/2012

    This is what happens when journalists pull books they read years ago off the shelf and try to construct parallels between antiquity and modernity. This is a lazy and shallow piece, with no actual understanding of Greek history.

    First off, moral authority? Athens was already hated by most of the Greek world before the Melian episode. And as Thucydides himself admits at the beginning of the work, all the speeches in the Histories were “made up” in that Thucydides did not follow speeches word for word but “kept to the gist” of what was said. While there is some room for disagreement for how much he “made up” each speech, and whether there was some historical basis behind the speech, we cannot assume that the incident happened as described. The Melian episode, in all probability, is a bit episode, given unusually prominence by Thucydides because of the philosophical and moral problems it caused. Thucydides uses this technique of ballooning what in actuality was a small incident elsewhere in the Histories, and was criticized for this in antiquity. I bet if you research scholarship on the impact of the episode to the rest of the war, you will find that it had almost no effect on the remainder of the Peloponnesian war.

    And foremost city? Ancient accounts (primarily Thucydides) emphasize that Athens and Sparta were equally the great powers of the Greek world at the time. This is not a world where one state has a virtual hegemony as the article implies, but where two perceptively equally-matched opponents are fighting for control.

    And third, Athenian democracy, as several recent scholars emphasized, overperformed and outperformed itself both before and after the Melian incident. Athens lost the Peloponnesian War for various reasons, but by the numbers it did quite well, recovering from a disastrous Sicilian expedition at the same time as fighting off a oligarchic coup. So sorry, the Athenian lost in the war CANNOT be traced to Melian episode. Athens did lose the war, but it did so not because of loss of any authority (and as I said, they were already quite hated in the Greek world).

    Again, a lazy and incompetent article. Read a history book next time you get the impulse to make cheap parallels between antiquity and modernity.

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  6. 6. scrantonius 7:43 pm 06/13/2012

    Not so fast, pindarninja! I agree with you that much of the analysis here is superficial, but I must insist that the sack of Melos was a bigger deal than you imply.

    Melos was probably not simply a minor episode enlarged upon at random by Thucydides. First, it makes its way into a (rather tasteless) joke by Aristophanes in the Birds, so there was definitely talk at home of Athens’ cruel treatment of the island. More importantly, both Xenophon and Isocrates focus on this act in particular as an instance of singular cruelty on the part of the Athenians, mentioning places like Scione as well but singling out Melos for special comment. Xenophon says that at the end of the war, with the Spartans at their gates, the Athenians were kept up at night by the thought of what would happen to them as a result of their treatment of Melos.

    Now, these mentions might just represent Xenophon and Isocrates’ knowledge of, and elaboration upon, Thucydides’ interest in Melos. (Intriguingly, this could be taken to show that Thucydides’ history made the sack a bigger deal than it otherwise would have been, starting at a very early date. In other words, Melos might have had an impact on the war because of, rather than despite, Thucydides.)

    BUT — Plutarch also says that Lysander made a point of restoring the surviving Melians to their home after the war; a Melian is commemorated among the allies of Lysander in his victory monument for Aegospotami in 405 (ML 95). Finally, note the prominent place of Melos in Spartan War Fund decree (IG V 1) — this has been variously dated, but it could come from after the war, and one could in that case interpret Sparta’s memorialization of Melos (through the decree itself) as an instance of propaganda. (This last point is admittedly somewhat question-begging.) This further evidence would seem to suggest that the “Melos issue” fed into Spartan decision-making and self-justification towards the end of the war. This is even less surprising when we consider that Melos was a Spartan colony.

    I thus think the sack of Melos — as an idea, a focal point of outrage — carried genuine political import at the time, import which cannot be chalked up to Thucydides’ influence alone. Doubtless Thucydides turned a much more mundane (if still horrific) siege into the sophisticated dialogue about war and ethics we read today. And no doubt the author of this piece misses a lot of the point. But Melos was not nothing in the greater scheme of things!

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  7. 7. pindarninja 8:21 pm 06/13/2012

    Impressive show of evidence, Scrantonius! I am completely persuaded- there seems to be good evidence of the Melian dialogue outside Thucydides.

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  8. 8. jhorgan 6:01 am 06/14/2012

    Thanks for bringing your formidable scholarship to my humble blog, O Scrantonius!

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  9. 9. jgrosay 2:31 pm 06/16/2012

    The Athens-Melians is not the only case of a clash between a superpower and a small group. Even when the book of Maccabees contained a very accurate description about the romans, the roman political institutions and how Rome behaved in front of other peoples, Israel not only challenged an invasion obviously overwhelmingly superior to them, with desperate actions such as the zealot’s battle of Sephora, but they finally started an uprising that destroyed their country as an actual entity for thousands of years. Really, men are the only animals in falling twice in the same trap.

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  10. 10. chy12 9:31 pm 07/31/2012

    Burberry USA, the German people were very fond of soccer, even though sports were not popular at all. Their love to football was out of our imagination. Consequently, a good pair of soccer shoes became almost all the German people’s dreams. They had a keen business sense even when they were only children, and the Dassler brothers began to study again in the factory and design football shoes at once. The very simple design may seem outdated today, but at the time they were totally new and advanced design. Several years later, the brothers built a bigger shoes factory and began to sell to the whole Germany. The new factory was named as Adidas Factory which was the predecessor of today’s famous Adidas.

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