My previous blog discussed the problems associated with the idea of the Western Way of War. I was very skeptical of two claims: (1) the supremacy of infantry over cavalry and (2) the supremacy of shock (close-quarters) combat over ranged weapons. Historical evidence does not support either of these claims.
There is another serious problem with the argument, the emphasis on the “decisive battle.” Both Hanson and Keegan have very little to say about strategy and logistics. They explicitly say that they are primarily interested in the human experience of battle. It’s an interesting topic in its own right, but it has little relevance to the question of why any human group achieves regional (or even global) dominance.
Winning a battle is a very small part of winning a war. In fact, many wars were won despite losing all the battles. The Romans prevailed over Hannibal in the Second Punic War even though Hannibal smashed them in battle after battle. After the disaster of Cannae perhaps a third of Romans of military age were wiped out, and even a greater proportion of the ruling senatorial class was destroyed (yes, at that time the Roman senators fought and died in the first ranks). Nevertheless, the Romans ultimately prevailed. Similarly, in 1812 Napoleon won all the battles against the Russians, but it was his Grand Army that was ultimately destroyed and two years later Napoleon himself was deposed by the Allied Powers.
There is a great story about an exchange between two colonels, one American and the other Vietnamese in Hanoi, after the end of the US-Vietnam war (I am indebted to Ian Morris for bringing this quote to my attention). During their encounter, Colonel Summers told Colonel Tu, “You know, you never beat us on the battlefield.” Colonel Tu thought about it for a few moments, and then said, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
Now I don’t want to push this idea to the logical extreme. Winning battles is useful, but it is only one component, and not the most important, of winning wars. As career military officers like to repeat, “amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics.”
From the technical point of view, the kind of warfare that Greek poleis fought with each other was child’s play. You get a bunch of citizens mustered (each bringing his own rations), walk to the next polis (not very far, remember most of Greek city-states were tiny). You then burn some crops and cut some olive trees down, until the opponent agrees to offer battle. Then comes the time for that “destructive head-on clash between armed men” so extolled by Hanson. After the battle you make peace, with the winner getting a much better deal than the loser.
This type of warfare requires very intense cohesion between the warriors manning the phalanx, and the Greeks excelled at it. As a result, the Greek heavy infantry was much in demand as mercenaries (which is how Xenophon’s Anabasis got to be written). But this is also a very inconclusive kind of warfare. The Greek poleis fought with each other, but there was no systematic increase in the scale of Greek societies during the Classical Age.
Building a large empire require more sophisticated ways of war. In particular, it becomes necessary to create a large-scale organization for raising, moving, and supplying the troops. Imperial armies must be able to fight hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometers away from the metropole (for example, Athens is nearly 3,000 km away from Persepolis).
What was the most important invention that enabled moving and supplying the troops over thousands of kilometers? By now readers of this blog should not be surprised by the answer – the horse. Domestication of transport animals – first and foremost, the horse; but also other equids (the donkey, onager, and mule) and camelids (the Dromedary and Bactrian camels, and even the llama) transformed warfare in many ways.
The main advantage of the horse is not just in its ‘shock’ value (although cavalry charges won many a battle). More important is the mobility that it confers on the humans. As I discussed in the previous blog, mobility is very important on the battlefield, because the mounted troops can chose when to engage the enemy, and when to move away. But mobility is also very important at the strategic level. The army that can better concentrate its regiments to achieve local superiority over the enemy will have a better chance at winning an engagement.
This is why it was so difficult for agrarian empires to fight off the nomads. If the agrarian state concentrated its forces in one place, the nomads would simply raid the undefended villages and towns elsewhere. If the army was spread out to defend the towns, the nomads concentrated their force and defeated the agrarian contingents in detail. The agrarian empires very quickly caught on, and realized that they had to acquire their own mobile forces, which meant cavalry. Buying horses from the steppe dwellers or establishing their own horse-breeding programs became an important preoccupation of Eurasian empires all the way to the nineteenth century.
If my argument is correct, and cavalry has a great inherent advantage over infantry, why didn’t the Greeks themselves switch to cavalry? The problem is that not all areas are equally suited to raising horses. Horses require grassy plains to thrive. In Greece there was only one region suitable for raising horses, Thessaly. And Thessalians were renowned as horse breeders and riders. In contrast, Athenians and Spartans had no choice but to field foot soldiers – they just did not have horses.
But it doesn’t mean that the Greeks were completely insulated from the military revolution of the early First Millennium BC, resulting from the invention and spread of cavalry. In fact, some authors make an argument that the rise of the heavily armed Greek infantry was a direct result of this revolution. But that story deserves another blog.