In a blog posted some months ago (Why Social Scientists Need to Study War) I argued that warfare is one of the most important forces in social evolution and that it deserves a careful study. In this and following blogs I’d like to continue this line of reasoning. The main question I am interested in is the interrelations between warfare and the evolution of complex societies. Clearly, warfare can play divergent roles – it can be the process by which huge empires are put together, but another kind, civil war, is how such empires often fail. There is a variety of ideas about which kinds of war are more creative, and which are not. Some of these ideas are pretty wrong-headed, and I will start with considering one such theory to clear the decks, so to speak.
The idea I will discuss today, “the Western Way of War,” was put forward by several influential thinkers in military history. It was first proposed by Victor Davis Hanson and subsequently supported by such luminaries in military history as John Keegan and Geoffrey Parker. The Cambridge History of Warfare edited by Parker, in particular, argued that originating with the heavily armed infantrymen of Greece (hoplites), “war in western societies has followed a unique path leading to western dominance of the globe.” Incidentally, this is not just an academic dispute. Both Hanson and Keegan have used this theory in making arguments on current policy (in particular, both were supporters of the Iraq war). My primary interest, however, is in whether this theory is a reasonable description of how history works, so I will focus on Hanson’s original formulation, in his book The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece.
So what was so unique about those ancient Greeks? What was the wonderful recipe for world domination that they invented? Hanson argues that the Greeks invented “the central act of Western warfare, the decisive infantry battle. Instead of ambush, skirmish, or combat between individual heroes, the Greeks of the fifth century B.C. devised a ferocious, brief, and destructive head-on clash between armed men of all ages.”
Hoplite battle on the Chigi Vase
I cannot disagree more. “The decisive infantry battle” relying on “destructive head-on clash” is a sure way to lose a war against an opponent who knows what he is doing. One problem is that Hanson’s argument in favor of this proposal is entirely based on the writings by the Greeks themselves, and his best example is the Greco-Persian wars of the first half of the fifth century BC. As trained anthropologists (and most historians) know you need to take what people say about themselves with a grain of salt. Naturally, the Greeks thought that they were the greatest and the best, and that their way of fighting was supreme (except when their cowardly enemies used unfair tactics to gain victory).
The other side, the Persians, left few texts from which to gain an insight into their side of the story. Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to figure out what they would say if we could ask them. If we could resurrect Xerxes, he would surely point out that he had a huge empire to administer, extending from India to Macedon (yes, Macedon was part of the Persian empire at that time). There were much more important wealthy regions to pay attention to, such as Egypt. In actuality, conquering the highly fractious region of Greece (there were perhaps 700 independent polities there) was more trouble than it was worth. At a much later date, the Roman empire similarly decided not to bother conquering Germany.
Furthermore, Persian military operations in Greece suffered from two difficulties. One was that whereas the Greeks fought close to home, the Persian army was at the end of a very long chain of supply. The Athenians could require their troops to bring their own food rations with them when they mustered to repel an invading army, whereas the Persians had to spend several years gathering supplies in the preparation for the invasion. Second, the heavily armored infantry was indeed much better suited to defending the rugged terrain of Greece against the Persian cavalry. Despite Hanson’s thesis, during the Persian wars the Greeks did not seek to defeat their opponents in a decisive battle, instead preferring to defend narrow passes against the invader. They were lucky in that such easily defended places abound in Greece. Even despite this advantage, the Greek record against the Persians was a checkered one. They won some battles, lost others. And don’t forget that the Persians overran and razed the two Greek cities that they wanted to punish for supporting the Ionian revolt, Plataea and Athens.
So even in a defensive role the Greek hoplites were not quite as hot as they are portrayed in popular history. But remember that the Western Way of War is the supposed path to global dominance. And you cannot conquer an empire by defending mountain passes. Asa matter of fact, the Persians were much better at empire-building than the Greeks. Even largest Greek polities, such as Athens and Sparta, had populations numbering in tens of thousands. By contrast, the Persian empire encompassed a territory of 5 million square kilometers that was inhabited by 30–40 million people. How the Persians managed to build this first megaempire in world history is a complex question, but part of the reason was that they had a highly effective army, and their preferred way of fighting was not infantry charge, but cavalry using ranged weapons.
In a terrain where they have room to maneuver mounted archers have a great advantage over infantry wielding short-range weapons such as spears and swords. Horse riders can shoot arrows at the infantry at their leisure, riding away when the infantry attempts to charge them, and then coming back when the foot soldiers become exhausted with chasing the elusive horsemen. The paradigmatic example illustrating this advantage is the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC between an invading Roman army, which was predominantly infantry, and Parthian cavalry. The Parthians defeated the Romans despite being heavily outnumbered. They accomplished this task by shooting millions of arrows at the Romans. At first, the Romans were hoping that the Parthians would eventually run out of arrows, but this hope was dashed when they saw heavily laden camels arrive to resupply the Parthian horse archers. The Romans knew how to defend against archers, by forming a ‘testudo’ (a turtle), in which the legionaries locked their shields to present a seamless barrier to missiles. However, the Parthian army included a regiment of heavy cavalry (cataphracts), which charged testudos and broke them up, exposing the Romans to the withering storm of arrows from horse archers. Eventually, the Roman army was destroyed with twenty thousand killed and ten thousand captured.
Parthian heavy cavalryman (cataphract) on a graffito from Dura Europos. © M. C. Bishop
I don’t understand why the proponents of the Western Way of War continue to argue for the superiority of the “decisive clash” with close-range weapons over missiles. In fact, the real Western Way of War relied on ranged weapons much more than on hand-to-hand fighting. Think of English archers, who defeated much larger armies of French knights at Crécy and Agincourt. Towards the end of the Hundred Years War, when the French gained the upper hand, they defeated the English not by charging them and cutting them down with swords and battleaxes, but by employing the new weapon – cannon. After the Military Revolution of the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries the western armies fought with ranged weapons – cannon and muskets. In modern warfare most of the time the combatants are so far apart that they don’t even see each other. The ultimate distance weapon, the Predator drone, allows its operator to control it from thousands of miles away.