The „Achilles‘ Syndrome“: How post-heroic societies destroy their armed forces

Stephan Maninger


Permanent public criticism of the armed forces, no matter whether training, tradition or missions are concerned, is less a sign of justifiable objections against nuisances, but rather of an increasing denial of the military per se, although war, at least in its traditional physical form, is a social status. Here the military – under the primacy of politics - has to accomplish the mission of serving as the ultimate expression of the political intention of a nation, thus enforcing – if necessary by force of arms – its interests. The military achievement, the so-called “participation rate”, however, is limited to a permanently decreasing number of persons directly involved. This is due to a multitude of factors, such as technologicalisation, demographic development, or geographic distance to the operational areas. Thus, the social awareness concerning the topic „war“ fades, while at the same time the mental and emotional distance increase, so that decision makers increasingly infrequently define realistic objectives and effective rules of engagement. This - especially in the course of intervention operations – contributes to military failure, thus eroding the trust existing between soldiers and politics. This phenomenon is not entirely new, but it was Jonathan Shay who first talked about the “Achilles` Syndrome, though in a psychological context which widely surpasses the security-political focus of this essay. Here one aspect, which is being ignored in the political context of today, is that soldiers can also be stressed if they are refused to fight when deployed. According to Shay, unrealistic deployment parameters can be felt to be “betrayal to that which is right”. This can have consequences for morale in an operation, even lead to refusal to fight or avoidance of fight. Although modern societies detect the necessity of military interventions, due to their political climates they mentally edge away from the necessity of execution at the same time. This essay examines the growing distance between the reality soldiers are confronted with in an operation, and the society they serve. Armed forces are certainly not the place for carrying out experiments, or, at least, the price would be unyieldingly high, being paid with human lives. The exaggerated political meddling in personnel structure, training and rules of engagement have effects on standards, troop morale, discipline, losses and mission accomplishment. Some countries (such as the USA) take countermeasures and have shown in the past that they are capable of remembering ageless military virtues. Other countries, however, cuddle their anti-military fundamental philosophy, thus either misjudging or accepting the negative effect on operational readiness. Which capabilities armed forces in a post-western era of complex security threats should have available is not oriented towards the political and/or ideological preferences of the decision makers or towards the pacifistic visions of civil society. On the contrary, situation, mission and adversary are decisive. He who nonetheless makes his armed forces a plaything for social engineers with escapist ideas will summon the “Achilles` Syndrome”, thus hazarding their operational readiness.