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The Iliad Book II: Odysseus' Sunk Cost Fallacy, Agamemnon's Careless Lie

Odysseus’ speech to the Achaean soldiers:

“I cannot blame the Achaeans if they turn restive; still we shall be shamed if we go home empty after so long a stay.”

Nine years have passed in the Trojan war. Many have died, they are weary and they want to go back home to their families. If their losses weren’t enough, Agamemnon angered Apollo by stealing the daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo. This sent a slew of arrows being fired at their ships by the god, killing many. Agamemnon eventually returned the priest’s daughter (albeit very reluctantly) and had Chryses perform a hecatomb to appease Apollo. However, he did so only on agreement that he would take Achilles’ prize as a replacement. This angered Achilles and he quit the war altogether. A son of a goddess, he was the best soldier in the land and his absence would clearly have taken a hit on their morale. Achilles prays to his goddess mother Thetis to make amends and here’s where some really interesting politics begin.

Zeus owes Thetis a favor as she once saved him from being overthrown by the gods. Zeus is reluctant but agrees to help the Trojans to hurt Agamemnon. He is reluctant because his wife Hera is on the side of the Achaeans (the only reason being that Paris, prince of Troy, said that Aphrodite was prettier than her). Hera pressed him on this, but Zeus is a total tyrant who will physically hurt anyone who tries to cross him, even his wife. So Zeus proceeds with his plan and sends a lying dream to Agamemnon, ensuring him of victory against the Trojans.

So here is the kicker. Agamemnon decides to test his soldiers by saying that Zeus deceived him (which was ironically true) about the outcome of the battle so it is better not to embark. They take the news gleefully as they are extremely war-weary and they are eager to get home. This obviously didn’t go as he planned, and Agamemnon ended up doing what would have been a really dumb move (had Zeus actually told the truth) though he actually ended up doing the smart move (albeit accidentally). However, there was someone else who blundered right afterwards, and that was Zeus’ wife Hera. She knew Zeus was up to something and since Agamemnon told his men to stand down, she presumed that was his plan. So she persuaded Athena, the goddess of war, to get the men to battle. Athena worked through Odysseus that he may rally his men to battle.

This is where the interesting psychology kicks in. First the men were eager to battle because word got around that Zeus promised Agamemnon victory. When Agamemnon said this was not the case, now they were happy to get home. It was only a few moments later before they were ready to go to war again. Why were they not upset that they were going back?

The same psychology that makes a gambler lose their life savings, makes these men go back to a war that has been going terribly for them. It applies to many wars in history, especially modern ones. It explains why Germany mounted the battle of the Bulge offensive when the war was already all but lost, or why the US stayed in Vietnam so long despite losing and it not being in their national interest. The same goes with their incursion in Afghanistan (After eighteen years, the United States is currently ending a war that was meant to vanquish the Taliban, but instead they are now negotiating with them. This war costed two trillion according to some analysts, which is a thousand times greater than the GDP of Afghanistan). In all these cases, you could have expected a rationale from leaders that paralleled that of Odysseus.


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