Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Tag: generalship

Stacking the Odds in Your Favor

February 6, 2022

Command in ancient armies was a collective as much as an individual endeavour, because the primitive communications made it hard for one man to exercise control even over the relatively short distances involved. Indeed, command limitations seem to have been a major reason why large armies formed up in greater depth, rather than trying to coordinate operations across an unpractically long front. Pre-planning and delegation of authority to local subordinates were the norm, and some forces did not even have a single overall general. It was because command was so problematic that most ancient armies achieved so much less than the troops themselves were theoretically capable of, as inertia and confusion reduced movement rates and inhibited decisive attacks. This meant that asymmetries in command, which allowed one army to suffer less than its opponents from the restrictions involved, could have a major impact on fighting performance.

Perhaps paradoxically, given the difficulties for any single individual of maintaining real-time control of anything more than a small segment of the battle line, this was the golden age of ‘great captains’ like Alexander, Hannibal, Scipio and Caesar whose generalship was a very significant determinant of victory. The explanation seems to be that there were many other ways in which such individuals contributed to success besides their personal influence during the battle itself. Training and motivating their troops and building up capable subordinates in the months and years beforehand could significantly improve the quality of the army as a whole. Winning the intelligence contest could allow novel pre-planned deployments and manoeuvres precisely tailored to counter the enemy battle line, and seizing the initiative could panic or provoke the enemy into hurried reactions that left their army vulnerable and unprepared. The actual fighting was thus only the culmination of an overall process that stacked the odds heavily in favour of the better-commanded side.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, p. 224

Emphasis mine.

An Art of War Was Needed

April 18, 2021

[By the thirteenth century C.E.,] crossbows and pikes had to be supplemented by cavalry for flank protection and the pursuit of a vanquished foe. This obviously made war far more complicated than it had been when a headlong charge by a group of knights dominated the battlefields of Europe. Simple personal prowess, replicated within knightly families across the generations, was no longer enough to win battles or maintain social dominion. Instead, an art of war was needed. Someone had to be able to coordinate pikes, crossbows, and cavalry. Infantrymen needed training to assure steadiness in the ranks, for, were their formation to break apart, individual pikemen would find themselves at the mercy of charging knights; and the time required to cock a crossbow meant that archers, too, became vulnerable each time they discharged their weapons, unless some field fortification or an unbroken array of friendly pikes could protect them until they were ready to shoot again.

The Pursuit of Power, p. 68

Time Is the Most Neglected Dimension

May 31, 2014

Time is the most neglected dimension in existing battle reconstructions, focusing as they do on static diagrams of force dispositions. Our more dynamic model [discussed in the book] shows that time was just as important as force and space in shaping the battles concerned. The great majority of the engagements involved some form of ‘race against time’, be it a surprised army rushing up reinforcements before the forward troops were overwhelmed, an army in a ‘revolving door’ battle striving to break through and roll up the enemy line before its opponents did the same, or a Roman or Punic army trying to win the infantry contest before the enemy cavalry encirclement took effect. Deployment may have taken many hours, and we know that cavalry and light infantry skirmishing could continue almost indefinitely as long as the troops had a safe place of refuge where they could recover before sallying forth once again, but once both sides’ heavy forces came into action, the pace of events quickened and battles could reach a decision with remarkable speed.

The ‘battlefield clock’ created by wide-ranging grand tactical manoeuvres gives us some idea of how long it might take for combat to be resolved. In large battles, it would obviously take longer for troops to cover the greater distances, but combat itself also seems to have lasted longer because of increased formation depth, so the two factors largely cancelled one another out. Heavy cavalry and Greek hoplite combat were usually much quicker than clashes between other troop types, and it was rare for such contests to remain undecided until other contingents intervened. Roman legionaries, by contrast, could hold out for a lot longer thanks to their stubborn resilience and their multiple line system. It was always possible for shaky or disordered troops to collapse at the first shock, but the generally longer duration of Roman infantry combat helps to explain why cavalry double envelopments became such a characteristic feature of battles during the Punic Wars.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, pp. 223-24

Standard Battle Array of Ancient Armies

May 31, 2014

Ancient armies faced a perennial tension between breadth and depth of deployment to avoid the twin perils of penetration and encirclement. However, even small armies used many more ranks than would allow the men at the back to fight directly, and depths increased greatly in larger forces. This was a key reason why raw numbers were less important than other factors, and it also meant that battle line frontages did not vary anything like as much as the size of armies themselves. There were some cases in which one or both sides were caught by surprise and deployed their forces piecemeal, but most big ancient engagements involved the prior arraying of the opposing lines in a remarkably formalized fashion. The standard battle array placed the heavy infantry in the centre, with light infantry and perhaps elephants in front, and cavalry on the flanks. Each army would usually attack with some parts of its line, while resisting enemy superiority elsewhere. Offensive elements that achieved a breakthrough might turn against the flank or rear of other enemy contingents. Defensive sections of the line might be held back in an oblique order to delay combat, or they might retire in the face of enemy pressure in order to trade space for time and perhaps draw the enemy forward into an encirclement. Greek and Hellenistic armies tended to attack on one flank and defend on the other (producing either a head-on clash or a ‘revolving door’ engagement), while Roman and Punic deployments tended to involve a more even balance between the two wings, leading to more symmetrical double envelopments by the side with cavalry superiority.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, p. 222

Emphasis mine.

The Principles of War

April 29, 2012

Philip [of Macedon], Alexander [the Great]’s father, said that it is better to have an army of deer commanded by a lion than an army of lions commanded by a deer; Alexander himself told his men that their greatest advantage was that their leader was Alexander. Alexander lived and practiced what modern (Western) military theorists teach to their pupils as the principles of war. The principles were developed out of an analysis of Napoleon’s campaigns and today are supposed to guide military officers in the practice of their profession and to guide historians in their analysis of campaigns and leadership. The principles are (in order of importance): the objective, the offensive, surprise, mass and economy of force, security, unity of command, maneuver, and simplicity.

With Arrow, Sword, and Spear, Afterword, p. 273

Emphasis mine.

The number and order of the principles varies across countries and cultures. For a sample, see the Wikipedia entry for the Principles of War.

Rarity of the Set-Piece Battle

August 3, 2010

While perhaps the most stunning manifestation of combat and the prominently mentioned events of military history, set-piece engagements…were never quite the norm of war. More often, armed conflict was less dramatic, intermittent, and played out in landscapes not conducive to conventionally marshaled armies and navies, and it involved civilians. We associate the battles of Granicus, Issus, and Guagamela and the fight on the Hydaspes River with the military genius of Alexander the Great, but he spent far more time fighting irregular forces in counterinsurgency efforts throughout the Balkans, the Hindu Kush, and Bactria.

Nevertheless big battles—or so generals dreamed—could sometimes change entire conflicts in a matter of hours, which in turn might alter politics and the fate of millions for decades. It is with history’s rare battle, not the more common dirty war, insurgency, or street fighting, that we typically associate war poetry, commemoration, and, for good or evil, radical changes of fortune and the martial notions of glory and honor. …

Victor Davis Hanson, The Father Of Us All, pp. 106-107

Bronze Age Greek Art of War

February 16, 2010

…As a group [the Greek hero-kings of the Iliad] represent the Bronze Age art of war. Their hands were battle-wise with blood and calloused from stealing cattle. They could trample the enemy like a carpet under their feet or calm the heart of a nervous army under attack. They knew horses like a stable hand and ships like a boatswain, but most of all they knew men and how to lead them. They could be as smooth as the ghee-and-honey paste with which Assyrians cemented rows of mud brick or as rough as the gnarled limbs of an old olive tree. They knew which soldiers to reward with silver rings and which to punish with prison or mutilation. They could inspire the men to follow on foot while they rode in their chariots and to compete for the honor of fighting bravely in their presence.

They could break an enemy’s lance or deceive him with words. They knew how much flour it took to feed an army and how much wood was needed to burn a corpse. They knew how to pitch camp or launch a fleet, how to debrief a spy or send out an informer. They could draw a bow and split a copper ingot like a reed or hurl a spear and pierce the seam in an enemy’s armor. They shrugged off mud and snow, towering waves or buckets of rain. They could appraise lapis lazuli with a jeweler’s eye or break a merchant’s neck with a hangman’s hands. They could court a milkmaid or rape a princess. They relished ambushes after dark and noontime charges. They feared the gods and liked the smell of death.

Barry Strauss, The Trojan War, pp. 34-35

A very vivid description of a hands-on leader in a brutal era.

Not Quite a Chessboard: the Plain as Battlefield

October 12, 2009

In warfare the plain—a relatively large, open, and uninterrupted battleground—is like a giant chessboard. With room to maneuver, opposing commanders may have many options. They must weigh up strengths and weaknesses—their own as well as the enemy’s. Flanking, probing, enveloping, it is a game in which numbers and maneuverability are often critical. As in chess, the battle often involves the constriction and isolation of key elements of the opposing force. But like all geographic features, the picture is not quite as two dimensional as the word “plain” might suggest. We are not talking about beautifully smooth playing fields, but individual sites with their own unique characteristics. For example…Issus was fought on a coastal plain in what is now Turkey where movement was constricted on both flanks: one by the sea, the other by inland foothills. As it happened, these geographic “bookends” worked in Alexander’s favor, as they boxed in the larger number of his Persian foe and to some extent neutralized the numerical discrepancy. Some 2,000 years later General George Custer was to learn a different lesson about numbers and maneuverability on the plains of Montana. In open spaces, movement and superior numbers are king. Brought to bay on his lonely, isolated knoll, outgunned and overrun, there could be only one, grisly, outcome. He was also to learn that plains have their own wrinkles and folds. At Little Big Horn the numerous ravines (coulees) were capable of hiding significant numbers of his enemy….

Battlegrounds, p. 13

Emphasis mine.

First Principle of War: the Objective

May 30, 2009

Other men [than Alexander the Great] were great battle leaders, but not necessarily great strategists; their victorious battles did not always determine the outcome of the war. Pyrrhus of Epirus, who approached Alexander in tactical ability, defeated the Romans in two battles, drew a third, and was driven from Italy. Hannibal crossed the Alps, invaded Italy, defeated the Romans in three massive battles in which the Romans may have lost as many as 100,000 men, and could not win the war. Hannibal has been criticized, in the ancient world and the modern, for not marching on Rome after the battle of Cannae, but his objective—to break apart the Roman “confederation” and reduce Rome in status—was unattainable because it was based on a misunderstanding of the Italian situation. Hannibal could not win without destroying Rome, and he did not have the resources, nor could he acquire the resources, to accomplish that objective; thus his campaign, though spectacular, was futile—no offensive, no matter how brilliant, can overcome an ill-conceived objective. Similarly Li Kuang led more than seventy successful campaigns against the Huns, and yet upon his death China was hardly more secure from the Huns than it had been before him.

Objective is the first principle of war and rightly so. Hannibal’s objective was misconceived and unattainable, whereas the objective as conceived by Alexander was so brilliant, so logical, and so simple that it has received too little attention from modern historians; he did not just define his objective as the Persian king nor state his objective in the most simple terms—Alexander would meet Darius in battle, kill him, and thus become king in his stead—but he defined the war for the enemy as well—the Persians were fighting to protect the right of their king to rule; they were not fighting for their independence or to avoid subjugation or to preserve their personal power. They were not the enemy of Alexander. When they accepted him as their king, they became his subjects no less than the Macedonians were his subjects. Alexander’s defined objective echoes the spirit of Sun-Tzu‘s precept never to corner your enemy and drive him to desperation.

Societies—be they a radical democracy or the monarchy of a god-king—lose wars when they have no clear objectives or their objectives are beyond their resources. Stated so baldly, it might seem that no society would ever enter a war without a clear understanding of what it wanted and how it meant to gain what it wanted, but many did. The Athenian democracy, for one, fought—and lost—just such a war against the Spartans. By contrast, the early republic of Rome fought always for a defined objective. Neither success nor failure diverted the Romans from their stated objective, and so the enemies of Rome who, at the beginning of a war rejected Roman terms, by the end considered them generous. Moreover, the Romans saw objectives beyond the immediate war (as did Alexander)—the enemies of the moment would be the allies, associates, and citizens of the future….

With Arrow, Sword, and Spear, pp. 274-75

Emphases mine.

The Military Genius of Alexander the Great

May 30, 2009

Alexander [the Great] was a military genius. No other ancient commander was so quick to understand and defeat his enemies’ plans, so quick to analyze a problem and grasp the solution—and, not coincidentally, no other ancient commander was as well educated as Alexander, by the greatest soldier and diplomat of his age, [King] Philip [of Macedon], and by the greatest philosopher, humanist, and scientist of any age, Aristotle. In every aspect of warfare Alexander outthought and outfought his enemies. He enunciated his military objective in the simplest and most forceful terms: he would meet Darius on the battlefield, fight him, and kill him. He forced Darius to react to him, and although Darius and the Persians chose where to fight, Alexander seized the initiative by doing the unexpected—by attacking in the evening instead of the morning at the Granicus or by maneuvering off the prepared battlefield at Gaugamela. He brought together a large enough force to defeat the Persians but kept it small enough to be supplied and to be mobile. As bold as he was in the attack, just so cautious was he in securing his troops against attack. He was the complete commander.

With Arrow, Sword, and Spear, pp. 273-74

Emphasis mine.

Anticipating Surprise

August 31, 2008

The only way—in any endeavor—to achieve real surprise is to do the unprecedented. The only way to anticipate surprise is to anticipate the unprecedented. This is not easy, even when one has all one’s faculties carefully attuned.

None So Blind, p. 258

Chiefdoms Are Powerful But Fragile

May 5, 2008

Anthropologists commonly use the term “chiefdom” for a primitive culture that has developed a formal social hierarchy in which the war leader holds a unique and permanent rank above all his tribesmen, often with theocratic and redistributive functions as well…. They provided a transitional stage in social development between the tribe and the state. At the level of the chiefdom, the causes of war become more complicated and the motives for war become separable. We can now distinguish among ideological, economic, and political motives.

  1. The articulated motives for war are still revenge and prestige. The difference is that wars are now fought to avenge wrongs against the chief and for the honor and glory of the chief. Primitive militarism is being replaced by kingly or theocratic militarism, an ideology that continues without much change until the time of Louis XIV [of France].
  2. The economic causes of war become more compelling. Genuine conquests and occupations are now possible, so wars can be fought more openly and directly to gain territory. The values of honor and glory may become a pretext, masking a chief’s grab for land and wealth.
  3. Finally, war becomes an organizational source of power. It is now possible to fight wars simply for political reasons, and the martial values may become a pretext for a chief’s grab at power for its own sake.

The more advanced chiefdoms appear to practice what is today called warfare in every sense, except for the lack of an ideology that permits self-conscious strategic thinking. The history of political warfare should therefore begin with these chiefdoms, except that they have no history. In spite of their efficiency, chiefdoms do not seem to last. Only a bare handful of chiefdoms have ever made the full transition to bureaucratic state. The process of military escalation and political centralization is reversible, and normally, it is reversed. The disadvantages of losing freedom to the chief are as obvious as the advantages of military superiority, so the chiefdom rarely survives the death of the chief, which is likely to be premature. Countless societies may have come to the edge of statehood and drawn back from that brink. Chiefdoms do not last because of their efficiency.

Doyne Dawson, The Origins of Western Warfare, pp. 35-36

There Are Nine Types of Generals

May 2, 2008

There are nine types of generals:

Those who guide with virtue, who treat all equally with courtesy, who know when the troops are cold and hungry, and who notice when they are weary and pained, are called humanistic generals.

Those who do not try to avoid any task, who are not influenced by profit, who would die with honor before living in disgrace, are called dutiful generals.

Those who are not arrogant because of their high status, who do not make much of their victories, who are wise but can humble themselves, who are strong but can be tolerant, are called courteous generals.

Those whose extraordinary shifts are unfathomable, whose movements and responses are multifaceted, who turn disaster into fortune and seize victory from the jaws of danger, are called clever generals.

Those who give rich rewards for going ahead and have strict penalties for retreating, whose rewards are given right away and whose penalties are the same for all ranks, even the highest, are called trustworthy generals.

Those who go on foot or on a war-horse, with the mettle to take on a hundred men, who are skilled in the use of close-range weapons, swords, and spears, are called infantry generals.

Those who face the dizzying heights and cross the dangerous defiles, who can shoot at a gallop as if in flight, who are in the vanguard when advancing and in the rear guard when withdrawing, are called cavalry generals.

Those whose mettle makes the armies tremble and whose determination makes light of powerful enemies, who are hesitant to engage in petty fights while courageous in the midst of major battles, are called fierce generals.

Those who consider themselves lacking when they see the wise, who go along with good advice like following a current, who are magnanimous yet able to be firm, who are uncomplicated yet have many strategies, are called great generals.

Thomas Cleary (translator and editor), Mastering the Art of War, pp. 40-41

Redefinition of Courage

May 2, 2008
The gun was ravaging the soul of the warrior. To many among them, virtually the whole purpose of battle was to demonstrate courage. Custom dictated that an international corps of heralds hung like scavengers about the battlefield, ascertaining brave deeds to be recorded by chroniclers. Bullets were making the whole process ridiculous; the standards of courage were becoming the standards of idiocy. Insistence on close-in fighting, elaborate rituals of identification, and pairing off were not just inappropriate on a battlefield full of guns; they helped reveal the impotence of the ruling classes.
The bullet-riddled environment of the sixteenth century [C.E.] demanded a basic redefinition of what constituted courage. This would take time; but an incident near Brussels in 1582, during the Dutch rebellion, foreshadowed the direction it took. It was an early-spring afternoon and Alexandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma, Philip II of Spain’s most famous general, decided to dine with his staff outdoors, near the trench works. No sooner had they sat down when a cannonball took off the head of a young Walloon officer, and a skull fragment also struck out the eye of another gentleman. The table was cleared only to have a second ball kill two more of the guests. Their blood and brains strewn over the previously festive board, the remaining diners lost all appetite and got up to leave. Yet Parma calmly insisted his guests resume their places, ordering his servants to take away the bodies and bring a clean tablecloth.
A traditional hero might have charged the cannon…not Parma. His response was passive disdain. If flesh and bone were unequal to flying lead and iron, the spirit was. Parma’s defiant hospitality was a prototype. One day men of courage would be inclined to stand fast and take it. Other than ferocious aggressiveness, not flinching became the sine qua non of the warrior class.

Robert L. O’Connell, Soul of the Sword, p. 124

Capacities of Commanders

May 2, 2008

The capacities of commanders are not the same; some are greater, some are lesser.

One who spies out treachery and disaster, who wins the allegiance of others, is the leader of ten men.

One who rises early in the morning and retires late at night, and whose words are discreet yet perceptive, is the leader of a hundred men.

One who is direct yet circumspect, who is brave and can fight, is the leader of a thousand men.

One of martial bearing and fierceness of heart, who knows the hardships of others and spares people from hunger and cold, is the leader of ten thousand men.

One who associates with the wise and promotes the able, who is careful of how he spends each day, who is sincere, trustworthy, and magnanimous, and who is guarded in times of order as well as times of disturbance, is the leader of a hundred thousand men.

One whose humanitarian care extends to all under his command, whose trustworthiness and justice win the allegiance of neighboring nations, who understands the signs of the sky above, the patterns of the earth below, and the affairs of humanity in between, and who regards all people as his family, is a world-class leader, one who cannot be opposed.

Thomas Cleary (translator and editor), Mastering the Art of War, pp. 41-42

Not a General’s Affair

May 2, 2008

The considerable military literature of the Warring States Period [of ancient China] also illustrates greater professionalism in command as armies grew, employed more complex tactics, and required great skill of their leaders. Control of an army with drums, bells, and banners, rather than fighting in the first rank, became the true mark of a general. When offered a sword by his officers just before a battle, General Wu Ch’i refused it, explaining, “The general takes sole control of the flags and drums, and that is all. Approaching hardship he decides what is doubtful, controls the troops, and directs their blades. Such is the work of the general. Bearing a single sword, that is not a general’s affair….”

John A. Lynn, Battle, pp. 39-40

Emphasis mine.

Five Skills And Four Desires of Generalship

May 2, 2008

There are five skills and four desires involved in generalship. The five skills are:

  1. skill in knowing the disposition and power of enemies,
  2. skill in knowing the ways to advance and withdraw,
  3. skill in knowing how empty or how full countries are,
  4. skill in knowing nature’s timing and human affairs, and
  5. skill in knowing the features of terrain.

The four desires are:

  1. desire for the extraordinary and unexpected in strategy,
  2. desire for thoroughness in security,
  3. desire for calm among the masses, and
  4. desire for unity of hearts and minds.

Thomas Cleary (translator and editor), Mastering the Art of War, p. 42

The Iliad Is Not Just a Glorious Poem

May 2, 2008

The Iliad is not just a glorious poem—it is a textbook, and was taken as such throughout the history of the ancient world. How should you defend a gate? Like Telamonian Ajax. How should you follow up an attack? Like Hector, “flame-like,” when he drove the Danaans back on their ships. How should you handle your most powerful weapon? Not, presumably, as Agamemnon handled Achilles.

Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan, Chances Are…, pp. 239-40

Eight Kinds of Decadence in Generalship

May 2, 2008

There are eight kinds of decadence in generalship:

First is to be insatiably greedy.

Second is to be jealous and envious of the wise and able.

Third is to believe slanderers and make friends with the treacherous.

Fourth is to assess others without assessing oneself.

Fifth is to be hesitant and indecisive.

Sixth is to be heavily addicted to wine and sex.

Seventh is to be a malicious liar with a cowardly heart.

Eighth is to talk wildly, without courtesy.

Thomas Cleary (translator and editor), Mastering the Art of War, p. 42

No Last-Minute Maneuvers

March 7, 2003

Experience has shown that last-minute maneuvers were likely to create dangerous gaps in the lines, or to expose a marching flank to missile or shock attack. Therefore tactical ingenuity was not often attempted beyond the point where an enemy would be forced to enter battle on unfavorable ground, or with only a portion of his available forces. The usual objective in battle was to outflank the enemy, since only the flanks and rear of well-armed infantry—10 to 30 ranks deep—were sensitive and vulnerable. Though we shall note a few examples of successful deviation from the parallel order of battle, such deviations more often led to failure.

The Encyclopedia of Military History, p. 17