The Western Way of War II



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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.

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Martin Hewson

I would add that the galley at sea (in addition to the horse on land) made for greater mobility. Hence the Athenian maritime empire, the one expansive classical Greek state.

Peter Turchin

Agreed. Even better examples are first the Cartaginian empire, and second the Roman empire. Cheap transport by sea (via ‘Mare Nostrum’) was critical to the projection of economic and military power of Rome.

Juan Alfonso del Busto

The main reason for greek hoplites to become son reknowned was that there were very few aristocratic warriors available for the inter-polis quarrels, so they had to develop ways of making each solcier worthy of ten, with heavy equipment and training.

But the reason why greeks (like Agesilao, Xenophon and Alexander) and romans prevailed in the long run was something else. They could combine hard discipline and hierarchic command chain with a high degree of flexibility and autonomy. This could be due to the more democratic and egalitarian society they lived in, used to institutions that facilitated quick shifts of leaders without the sucession civil wars so frequent in other cultures.

For example, when spartan general Clearco was murdered in the depths of Persia, the 10.000 didn´t dissolve and ran away like headless chickens. They quickly chose another general to lead them: Xenophon. This was a natural way of behaving for the greeks which simply applied their cultural “common sense” to the situation. But it would have been unheard of in the case of persians, which were held together by tight domination: a high percentage of persian soldiers were slaves, a mistake that greeks never made as far as I know. Only persian elite troops, mainly cavalry, were free aristocratic men. That´s the reason why the persian armies consistently lost battles against Alexander as soon as Darius fled away: Persian armies could not survive without the head. In this regard greek and roman armies were more like “Hydra”.

Eastern kings felt it was almost an insult to deal with a roman consul. They saw themselves as demi-gods and found this one-year public workers unfit to address them. They didn´t understand that the strength of this system was precisely that leaders were expendable, and that this cultural feature brought long term stability to the whole society. So, in my opinion, western institutions that brought leadership flexibility and stability are the main reason for the success over eastern empires in the long term.

Peter Turchin

Juan, your post is a good illustration of the view I was arguing against in my first post (the Western Way of War?). The opinions you express come from the Greek’s take on their enemies, which was uncritically perpetuated by early scholars (and some not so early, eg. Hanson). Now these attitudes have permeated popular culture, and sometimes result in truly grotesque descriptions of the Persians, as in ‘300’.

To address just two misconceptions. 1. The Persians, unlike the Greeks were not a slave-holding society. The Persian army did not have any slaves in it. The Greek view that it did comes from a cross-cultural misunderstanding in which the Greeks projected their notion of how an ‘Oriental barbarian despotism’ should operate on the Persians.

2. Persians were highly capable of operating independently of the king of kings. The satraps of distant regions had to essentially operate on their own, because it could take two years to get any orders from Persepolis. Achaemenid Persia was the first Axial empire to achieve integration of multi-ethnic population spread over more than 5 mln sq.kms.

Juan Alfonso del Busto

You are probably right. I am also a huge fan of Cyrus the great (as were Xenophon and Alexander), but the point I wanted to make is that the eventual “supremacy” of western culture (including military systems) didn´t come from a superior western militar technique. As a matter of fact romans were always trying to imitate succesful foreign militar techniques used against them, like when they managed to defeat the carthaginians in sea battles during the punic wars, or when Belisarius adopted a modified version of the parthian cataphract for the eastern roman empire armies.

No, the cause for their success was their flexible way of making decisions, both hierarchical and autonomous at many levels, and which relied on institutions designed to make these decisions efficiently and smoothly. The persians that murdered Clearco were truly astonished when the 10.000 mercenaries didn´t dissolve at once. And the persian army did dissolve when Darius fled before Alexander´s cavalry charge at Gaugamela. There is a difference between these two conceptions of group and hierarchy. One is rather stable. The other is not. But this stability seldom shows its benefits in the scale of single battles. It shows its benefits in the very long term across generations. Kingdoms and empires have endemic civil wars (which are opportunities for the surrounding rival nations) almost every generation because they don´t have the proper institutions for making transitions and succesions smooth. Democracies and republics do have the proper institutions. As a consequence, over the centuries democracies and republics show a higher leadership stability which means significantly less civil wars and internal quarrelling than huge centralised empires, and in my opinion this makes it easier for the western institutions to gradually permeate the surrounding cultures both by imposition and imitation.

Peter Turchin

@Juan. Well, actually democracies (such as they were, the Greeks wouldn’t qualify by today’s standards) went pretty much extinct by the end of the first millennium BC, and came back only around 1800. There is an interesting story about why this happened, and I will address it in a future blog.

Juan Alfonso del Busto

Agreed. Greek direct democracy was an interesting but ephemeral cultural experiment which constantly had to alternate with oligarchy as a government system. But it undoubtedly exterted a huge influence over the neighboring nations. It was the representative roman democracy the one that lasted long enough to confer political stability accross generations, which could account for the formidable expansion of the roman republic.

But the shadow of the roman institutions (namely roman law, republican senatus, the tradition of adopting adult sons for succesion and so forth) where alive during the whole roman western and eastern empires, and were culturally inherited by some of the middle age germanic nations (especially the Charolingian Francs and the Anglosaxons), the spaniards and the italians. It was in England where the spark of representative democratic institutions started to gradually evolve new effective forms (think of the magna carta) which eventually led to the evolution of the first modern democratic nation in north america. Cultural phylogenic evidence of this evolutionary process is everywhere.

Vladimir Dinets

Was the onager ever domesticated? Even the Bible mentions that it’s impossible…

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