The Melian Dialogue is one of the classics in IR theory – often cited to show the realism and brutality of the international system, it is often taken at face value by students and teachers alike. However, these adherents brush over over a long conflict in which Melos plays an important role, the more complicated nature of Melos and its relationships, and the biases and purpose of the author, Thucydides. NDU Professor Col Jay Parker (USA Ret.) joins us to discuss the whole of the Melian dialogue, and see the deeper lessons we can learn.
Host & Production: Matthew Hipple
Music: Sam LaGrone
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Tiago Alexandre Fernandes Maurício, associate editor for our Forgotten Naval Strategists Week, joins us from Tokyo to discuss Fernando Oliveira and our other Forgotten Naval strategists – as well as how these strategists become “forgotten.” There’s a bit of Peloponnesian War thrown in too… just because.
In the Peloponnesian War, the 414 BC final battle of Epipole showed the pitfalls of an over-reliance on communications and single circuits. During this last battle of the Athenian siege of Syracuse, the Syracusans countered the attempt of Athens to wall in the city by building a counter-wall in the projected path of Athen’s efforts. The Syracusans had gained a critical blocking position, and Athenian General Demosthenes concocted a plan to dislodge the defenders. The Athenian forces stalled during the daytime battles outside the counter-wall, when their enemies could easily observe and rally against them, so General Demosthenes planned t strike the counter-wall at night. The well-organized nighttime Athenian attack completely overwhelmed and nearly destroyed the first Syracusan garrison. As the alarm sounded, the Athenians rushed forward without allowing themselves time to re-organize and re-identify. When the first real resistance was met, the ensuing disaster captured by Thucydides is worth citing in full:
“Although there was a bright moon they saw each other only as men do by moonlight, that is to say, they could distinguish the form of the body, but could not tell for certain whether it was a friend or an enemy. Both had great numbers of heavy infantry moving about in a small space. Some of the Athenians were already defeated, while others were coming up yet unconquered for their first attack. A large part also of the rest of their forces either had only just got up, or were still ascending, so that they did not know which way to march. Owing to the rout that had taken place all in front was now in confusion, and the noise made it difficult to distinguish anything. The victorious Syracusans and allies were cheering each other on with loud cries, by night the only possible means of communication, and meanwhile receiving all who came against them; while the Athenians were seeking for one another, taking all in front of them for enemies, even although they might be some of their now flying friends; and by constantly asking for the watchword, which was their only means of recognition, not only caused great confusion among themselves by asking all at once, but also made it known to the enemy, whose own they did not so readily discover, as the Syracusans were victorious and not scattered, and thus less easily mistaken. The result was that if the Athenians fell in with a party of the enemy that was weaker than they, it escaped them through knowing their watchword; while if they themselves failed to answer they were put to the sword. But what hurt them as much, or indeed more than anything else, was the singing of the paean, from the perplexity which it caused by being nearly the same on either side; the Argives and Corcyraeans and any other Dorian peoples in the army, struck terror into the Athenians whenever they raised their paean, no less than did the enemy.”
In Sicily, the simple task of a man not stabbing his own ally in the face with a sword was hard enough with only primordial Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) and comms. In today’s high-speed remote-control warfare and vulnerable high-tech comms, in which seconds can mean life-or-death, the potential to accidentally destroy a friend, miss an enemy, or become isolated is even greater. When the enemy knows the “watch-words,” this potential becomes a certainty as paranoia and confusion set in.
The Offense Challenge
The defender often has the simpler fight. As illustrated in the excerpt and so aptly explained by the indomitable Chesty Puller, “So they’ve got us surrounded, good! Now we can fire in any direction, those bastards won’t get away this time!” The U.S. Navy, in its typical role as the expeditionary power, will almost always have that offense-disadvantage. It has yet to fight an enemy that can attack the precious network of communications that creates such an unspeakable force multiplier in the field. When the network is attacked, the swarm of American ships, missiles, and aircraft itself becomes a liability, as were the Athenians who cut apart their own brothers ahead of them.
Protecting Less with More
The solution to the communication weakness is to stay ahead of the offense-defense struggle through aggressive capital investment and streamlined lines of communication. As with the use of setting AEGIS doctrine to auto-respond to anti-ship missile (ASM) threats, cyber-warfare is far too fast for human operators. Our virtual-defense infrastructure may be significant, but it is slow, human, and defending far too many unnecessary and redundant communications. A response is a smarter investment in cyber-defense capital and a more disciplined use of our vital communications networks.
Streamlining comes from bringing all communications under control, or more accurately bringing under control those using them. We are the Athenians screaming our watch-word at one another because no one bothered to re-organize before charging in. It boils down to paying attention and staying calm; what we have is seventeen sources pinging a ship for the same information that is held in 8 PowerPoint trackers, 2 messages, at least one call over the voice circuits, and 30 emails with at least half the lazy people asking for the information in the CC line. The sheer bandwidth of material that needs protection and monitoring could be decreased with a “ctrl-f” search of email and message traffic. It also leaves a veritable treasure-trove of information lying around in hundreds of different locations, making it easier to steal or detect. Better training – not only in proper communications procedures/methods, but basic computer literacy, – could solve this problem.
The speed of cyber-attacks only allows the “labor” side of the equation to be reactive; capital investment would concentrate more money in autonomous and innovative defensive programs: 10th Fleet’s AEGIS. Proactive patrol and detection can be done with greater advances in adaptive self-modifying programs and programs that can learn or understand context. Recent developments in computing systems point to more organic systems that can”live” in the systems they defend. Biological processors and organic computing allow for hardware that thinks and learns independently, potentially giving defensive networks the added advantage of an instinct and suspicion. The development of mutable indium antimonide magnetic processors mean that the circuit hardware of a device may now be as mutable as the software running it. Imagine the vast new horizons in the OODA loop of defensive cyber systems with hubs sporting the defensive animal instinct and the ability to re-wire their own hardware. The image painted is dramatic and far-off, but modest investment and staged introduction would serve as a better model than the dangerous possibility of a “human wave” mode of thinking. With better fluid cyber-defense systems guarding more disciplined communicators, the U.S. Navy can guard its forces against Epipolaes.
Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.