Assaulting Cities is the Oldest Expression of Warfare
Assaulting cities is the oldest, and often the most brutal, expression of warfare. The earliest Western literature begins with the biblical siege of Jericho and the Achaeans’ attack on Troy. The most moving passages in Thucydides‘ entire history of the [Peloponnesian] war—the Plataeans’ pleas for mercy, the debate between Cleon and Diodotus over the fate of the Mytileneans, the Melian Dialogue, the butchery of the boys at Mycalessus, and the great siege at Syracuse—revolve around the assault on communities of men, women, and children when war came to the very doorstep of the Greek family. Indeed, Mycalessus proved horrific precisely because the Thracian mercenaries sought no real military objective other than the psychological terror of slaughtering children at school—the ancient version of the Chechnyan terrorist assault on the Russian school in Belsan during early September 2004, which shocked the modern world and confirmed Thucydides’ prognosis that his history really was a possession for all time, inasmuch as human nature, as he saw, has remained constant across time and space.
There is something surrealistic about storming a city. Sieges are final, ultimate verdicts about not merely the fate of soldiers but of a very people. Nothing is more chilling, for example, than the final hours of Constantinople—10,000 people huddled under the dome of St. Sophia, praying in vain for the angel of deliverance on the early afternoon of May 29, 1453 [C.E.], as the sultan’s shock troops burst in to end for good the thousand-year culture of Byzantium. In sieges, women and old men fight from the walls. Ad hoc genius is manifested in countermeasures—history’s array of missiles, flame, cranes, and flying roof tiles—as the fate of thousands sometimes depends solely on their own collective intelligence and resolve. In the age of bombers, whose aerial weapons can make walls superfluous, sieges might seem a thing of the past, until one recalls that Leningrad and Stalingrad were two of the greatest and most costly sieges of the ages.