Air University Review, May-June 1986

Arts and The Man

Major Raymond C. Harlan

IN 441-440 B.C., the playwright Sophocles was elected to the supreme military council of Athens. As one of ten strategi, or generals, who planned and led all military activities for the Athenian Empire, he apparently commanded a naval squadron during the Samian War of 440-439. How long he remained a strategus is less clear, but he may have kept the post as long as twenty-five years.

The reasons for his election are disputed: ancient writers insisted that the choice was due to his success in producing Antigone, but modern historians are dubious. Surely, his ascension to high station derived from a lifelong participation in civic affairs, good family connections, or some combination of fortuitous events--all plausible, but undocumented possibilities. To the contemporary mind, the historical accounts appear ludicrous. The Athenian military dominated the region with a fleet exceeding 300 ships and an army of 30,000 disciplined troops, which they employed in vast coordinated land and sea operations. The strategi plotted and led these campaigns, literally holding the power of life and death over troops in the field. How could a poet and play producer, even the best of the breed, exist in such a circle? How could he plan bloody campaigns and lead armed men in battle? It is as if Neil Simon were appointed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the strength of his success with The Odd Couple and then stayed to help plan operations and lead troops in the Vietnam War.

But isn't our problem in understanding a military Sophocles partly our own perceptions? We shy from the notion that Sophocles's life as strategus might be linked to his success as poetes. We imagine the chasm we have carved between the artist and the strategist to be a natural feature in every cultural landscape.

It was not always so. When Leonardo da Vinci applied to join the court of the Duke of Milan, he submitted a letter with ten sections. The first nine sections detailed his accomplishments as a military engineer; the tenth summarized his accomplishments as a civil engineer and an architect; and in one paragraph, he mentioned that he also had a certain skill with painting and sculpture. It seemed natural to Leonardo, the artist, that his art should be engaged in constructing fortifications.

Even the language with which we talk of war has always been intertwined with artistic devices. The earliest extant work on strategy appeared in China during the century after Sophocles's term as general. Sun Tzu's masterpiece, which heavily influenced Mao Zedong and B. H. Liddell Hart, among others, is aptly named The Art of War; and in it, both his strategy and his style are framed on metaphor:

A victorious general is able to make his people fight with the effect of pent-up waters which, suddenly released, plunge into a bottomless abyss. (IV, 20)

At first be shy as a maiden. When the enemy gives you an opening be swift as a hare. (XI, 61)

Informal twentieth-century English betrays the same link; we consciously push strategy and art to the opposite fringes of our culture but mingle them in our language. Because soldiers assume costumed roles in their various uniforms and build sets for theatrical illusions (camouflage), the art of theater supplies common metaphors. Thus, in journalistic cliches, soldiers in a given theater of war withdraw to a staging area before opening an attack. At the appointed hour, the curtain rises on a scene of action, as commanders direct their troops to their assigned positions. The attack commences, and individual soldiers act heroically while medics perform dramatic, rescues against a backdrop of human misery. Aircraft, in a supporting role, hit key targets. Incidents of heroic performance continue as the war moves one day closer to denouement.

Although no scribbler would stuff quite so much drama into just a few sentences, only the rarest of journalists can avoid an occasional reference to "the final curtain" or "setting the stage." So what? Is the connection just a trick of the language, the vocabulary of war being so impoverished that we must dive into theatrical jargon to describe the experience? Or is there something in Sophocles's experience as a poet that made him a more capable general?

When Admiral James Bond Stockdale returned after eight years in Hanoi's Hoa Lo prison, he began to speak and write in several different forums. The dominant theme in most of his pieces on prison life is the critical value of personal integrity, but a minor theme is the value of dramatic art. Drawing on the skills he learned from his drama-teacher mother, he would create a role to use during interrogation/torture sessions. Stockdale, the cautious, rational philosopher, played Stockdale the fanatic, whose intermittent fits of uncontrollable rage made him too unreliable to put before visiting journalists.

But there is an advantage more fundamental than this individual accomplishments--a universal element at the core of all the varieties of artistic endeavor. It is a different way of thinking that is fundamental to great art and the winning of wars.

With a moment's reflection, all of us can recognize that our human minds have two basic modes of attack when facing a problem. We can approach the problem rationally, analyzing it one step at a time, linear-fashion; or we can grasp the entire situation intuitively. Some problems yield more readily to the first, more logical approach; others are more accessible by the second, more creative route. That is, some tasks are better solved by science; others, by art. All this has been known for centuries, but in our day the two modes of thinking have been given an objective correlative in the rightbrain/left-brain theory of Roger Sperry. Sperry, a neurosurgeon, devised a series of experiments which demonstrated conclusively that each side of the brain is the locus for different mental activities--spatial orientation occurs largely on the right, for instance, and algebraic reasoning on the left. Particular individuals tend to favor one side and exhibit the traits appropriate to that side.

As Sperry realized, real-world problems are likely to be solved by a mixture of tactics, drawing on both sides of the brain. The extraordinary advances in physics during the last two decades largely follow the pattern of great intuitive leaps later verified by painstaking analysis and exhaustive experimental data. So it is in war. The purely rational man would be an acceptable bureaucrat but a miserable strategist, too plodding to keep up with rapid developments. The purely creative man would be too flaky to execute his plans. The strategists who stand out in history are those with both faculties in abundance. The creative genius of General Douglas MacArthur enabled him to conceive the brilliant counterstroke at Inchon; the analytical part of his mind let him carry it out.

Contrast the Inchon maneuver with out abortive attempt to rescue the hostages in the Tehran embassy. The fundamental problem with the scheme was its patchwork nature. It was not holistic, being put together by a committee which ensured that every service had part of the action. The principal commandos were to have made no less than five changes in transportation. The operation was a concrete example of mixing metaphors, an artless collection of dramatic elements rather than a coherent plot. Sophocles would never have bought such a plan. Neither would Leonardo: one look at The Last Supper should convince anyone that it was cut from whole cloth--one grand design, not some pastiche pieced together bit by bit in committee deliberations. The second conspicuous fault with the Tehran operation was a shortage of rehearsals. The different actors in the desert refueling scenario had not practiced it together; the chopper pilots had no experience flying in sandstorms, etc. Sophocles, the practical director, the repeated winner in national play competitions, would never have opened such a sloppy show.

Unfortunately, most people who believed that war is an art also believed that artistic talent cannot be acquired: some generals, like some dancers, are just more talented than others. Fortunately, the truth is otherwise. A person's intuition can be improved just as readily as his skill at cause-and-effect reasoning. Improvement appears difficult only because most people approach it backwards. Those who believe that strategy is an art, when asked how to acquire skill in it, usually recommend the study of earlier wars. Study is a rational activity: one takes a campaign apart, one piece at a time, to isolate the critical events and determine their effects. But art does not proceed bit by bit; it seizes things whole. Studying may sharpen one's eye for the painstaking detail needed to work out an operations plan. It does not teach how to conceive the strategy underlying the plan. A person improves his logical faculties by practicing logical thinking; he improves his artistic creativity by creating art!

As a former academy drama teacher and parttime play director, I have occasionally seen people suddenly uncover immense reservoirs of intuitive skill. I remember in particular a retired Air Force major with no previous experience who tried out for a little-theater production of Twelfth Night because his children thought that his participation would relieve his boredom. Our auditions failed to turn up sufficient male actors; beating the bushes helped, but we still had to cast every available man, so I gave the role of Antonio to the major. Rehearsals were a strain; not only did he have difficulty with Shakespeare's language, he could not translate the text into action. Even when he understood a sentence, he could not visualize it or imagine a group of real people with real emotions speaking the lines. But he was a trooper! Night after night, he battled with his part until finally in dress rehearsals he suddenly discovered the skill he had lacked. Before, we had seen a dispirited retiree reading lines woodenly; now we had a real sea-captain raging at his oppressors and risking death to rescue a friend. It was as if a whole region had been annexed to his personality. The last I saw of the major, he was headed to California, having been accepted into a graduate-level acting program. I have seen similar significant improvements in sequential reasoning skills while teaching missile launch officers how to calculate a launch time or analyze a security situation, but with a difference: gains in logic tend to come incrementally rather than in surges of holistic enlightenment.

While few artists achieve the military power bestowed on Sophocles, many leaders have indulged in art. Five centuries before Sophocles, the Old Testament warrior king, David, was equally adept in writing a psalm or leading men in desperate battle. The novel Ben Hur came from the pen of a Civil War general. Lew Wallace. George Patton wrote poetry. Winston Churchill painted, as did Hitler (though not very well). Jimmy Stewart held star rank in the Air Force Reserve as well as the movies.

On the other hand, some prominent military professionals have participated very little in any of the established arts (unless we were to count the writing of their memoirs)! History has shown us some remarkably unimaginative generals who might have benefited from a good poetry workshop, but history has also shown us a few superb strategists with no record of artistic endeavor (Robert E. Lee, for instance). This apparent disparity is not, by itself, surprising. A few people are born with a great aptitude for logic or creativity. Those endowed with logical genius may use it all their lives and acquire great mental agility without ever being introduced formally to a syllogism. Likewise with creativity: without ever setting a pen to a musical score or a brush to canvas or a chisel to stone, one can still live life as art and acquire great insight and intuitive powers. Lee, for example, molded his life as an artist. The hold he has on the public mind is not due to any critical appraisal of his campaigns. Rather, it comes from the tragic role he modeled. We see in our mind's eye the tall, dignified figure on horseback amid the smoke and rubble of a ravaged land. The whole Confederacy was the stage for the role he spent his life creating. Lincoln did likewise. Someone has remarked that the greatest actor ever to play Lincoln was Lincoln himself.

Simply living, however, is no guarantee of gain in either artistic or logical faculties. One can live his life haphazardly with scarcely any improvement in his abilities. The ordinary mortal with less mind power than a Sophocles or a MacArthur would be well advised to undertake a systematic plan of development. The running program required of cadets at the Air Force Academy will not make every cadet a world-class iniler, but it should increase the speed and endurance of virtually every participant. Similarly, the practice of art will not make every military professional a Sophocles or even a Lew Wallace, but it can enhance those inborn talents required of a strategist.

Pursuing an art could even help develop the moral courage needed in war. The purely rational mind, seizing on the immediate concern or on tangible obstacles, may compromise ideals by failing to see broad implications. The artistic mind, in contrast, might well focus on the forest instead of the trees. If we truly want a "whole person" for command positions, we might be wise in asking whether that person has ever written a poem or improvised on a trumpet or created a role on stage or demonstrated creative artistry in some other form. If so, he may have caught a glimpse of those ideals that give heroes their unflinching integrity, the same ideals guarded by artists through the centuries. Sophocles caught that spirit in Antigone's defiance of an immoral king: "I shall suffer nothing so dreadful as an ignoble death." The words of the ancient strategus paint a vision that today's Air Force needs:

... like a shrill-screaming eagle,
He flew over into our land in snow-white pinion sheathed,
With an armed throng and with plumage of helms.
Antigone, 1st Chorus

Old man Sophocles knew a warrior when he saw one.

Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

An Athenian citizen in his time played many parts . . . . There was no artist class in Greece, withdrawn from active life, no literary class, no learned class. Their soldiers and their sailors and their politicians and their men of affairs wrote their poetry and carved their statues and thought out their philosophy.

Edith Hamilton
The Greek Way, p. 82

Major Raymond C. Harlan (B.A., Southwestern University at Georgetown, Texas; M.A., University of Texas; M. A., Bradley University) is Program Manager for the Minuteman Education Program, Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. He has been chief of the Codes Division and the Instructional Systems Division at F. E. Warren AFB, Wyoming; an assistant professor at the Air Force Academy and Bradley University; and a missile crew member and instructor at Malmstrom AFB, Montana. Major Harlan is a Distinguished Graduate of Squadron Officer School and a graduate of Air Command Staff College and Industrial College of the Armed Forces.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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