What Homer's Iliad Tells Us about a U.S.-China War

What lessons does ancient Greece offer us if the unthinkable comes to pass in Asia? 

Despite its status as one of the oldest works of literature in the Western canon, Homer’s Iliad boasts enduring relevance. Though it recounts the legend of the Trojan War, it has three key lessons to teach the American strategist who seeks to navigate the Asia-Pacific region.

The Asia-Pacific is experiencing a period of strategic flux in which China is attempting to erode American primacy. War is not likely in the short term, but the risk of conflict will grow if Beijing continues its economic and strategic trajectory. While the region and the world will look to leaders in both countries to mitigate the effects of strategic competition, The Iliad has something to teach us about what may prompt a regional conflict, the risks entailed in seeking to prosecute such a war and how the contest could be resolved.

Homer’s compatriot, Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, famously suggested that fear initially drove Athens to expand its empire, while honor and interest followed afterwards. The Iliad, however, highlights that honor can be the primary driver of conflict.

The Greeks were driven to an amphibious invasion of Troy to satisfy honor. Paris, a Trojan prince, stole Helen from her husband, Menelaus. Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks and Menelaus’ brother, vowed to bring her home. To satisfy this point of honor, he risked the lives of his men, his allies and his own power. By any reasonable standard, this was a disproportionate response. To be sure, Agamemnon would also have been attracted by the prospect of glory and riches, but the loss of Helen and the desire to retrieve her was the casus belli.

Such a course of action may be more readily understood when committed to by an ancient society, but honor still drives nations to take disproportionate risks. This is the first lesson the American strategist can draw from The Iliad. Consider, for example, China’s actions in the East China Sea. Beijing is trying to redraw its maritime borders, running the risk of a severe miscalculation that could escalate to a devastating great-power war with Tokyo and Washington. Running such a risk in order to acquire a few paltry rocks, even with the potential natural resources bonanza that possession of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands may bestow, seems irrational if one does not consider the motivating power of honor.

One of Beijing’s key motives is to redress its century of humiliation, dating from the First Opium War in 1839 to the founding of the modern People’s Republic in 1949. This era saw China humbled as it was carved up and dictated to by Japan and Western powers. By refusing to acquiesce to Japanese and American desires to return to the pre-existing status quo vis-à-vis the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, Beijing wishes to be seen as a great power that can shape its strategic environment in a way it could not during the slow collapse of the Qing dynasty.

This drive to regain national honor cautions us that just as the Greeks went to war because of an upset husband, Beijing may choose to wage war in order to satisfy national honor and avoid what it views as submitting to the same foreign powers responsible for its century of humiliation. When responding to and attempting to shape Chinese behavior, Washington and Tokyo should be cognizant of the influence that preserving national honor may exert on Beijing.

While the risk of war between the United States and China is low, The Iliad also has wisdom to impart, should conflict develop in Asia. Homer’s poem recounts a few weeks in the final year of the war. By this stage of the conflict, the Greeks have spent almost a decade at war. In an era before satellite phones and email, characterized by short life expectancy and the ever-present danger of a grisly death, the Greek warriors have spent a significant proportion of their lives fighting in a foreign land.

As a result of facing such hardships, their morale is low, and they often voice a desire to return home. In one passage, Homer tells us that Agamemnon, attempting to test his troops, bemoaned the cost of the fighting and the difficulty of conquering Troy. Having offered his men the opportunity to return home, he is shocked when they embrace it:

They cried in alarm and charged toward the ships

and the dust went whirling up from under rushing feet

as the men jostled back and forth, shouting orders—

“Grapple the ships! Drag them down to the bright sea!