Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘generalship’


An Art of War Was Needed

[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.

William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power, p. 68

Time is the Most Neglected Dimension

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

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

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.

Alfred S. Bradford, 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

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

…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

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….

Stephenson, Michael (editor), Battlegrounds, p. 13

Emphasis mine.

First Principle of War: the Objective

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….

Alfred S. Bradford, With Arrow, Sword, and Spear, pp. 274-75

Emphasis mine.

The Military Genius of Alexander the Great

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.

Alfred S. Bradford, With Arrow, Sword, and Spear, pp. 273-74

Emphasis mine.

Mission Tactics: Knowing When Not to Obey Orders

Nothing epitomized the outlook and performance of the [nineteenth-century C.E.] German General Staff, and of the German Army which it coordinated, more than this concept of mission tactics: the responsibility of each German officer and noncommissioned officer—and even Moltke‘s ‘youngest soldier’—to do without question or doubt whatever the situation required, as he saw it. This meant that he should act without awaiting orders, if action seemed necessary. It also meant that he should act contrary to orders, if these did not seem to be consistent with the situation.

To make perfectly clear that action contrary to orders was not considered either as disobedience or lack of discipline, German commanders began to repeat one of Moltke’s favorite stories, of an incident observed while visiting the headquarters of Prince Frederick Charles. A major, receiving a tongue-lashing from the Prince for a tactical blunder, offered the excuse that he had been obeying orders, and reminded the Prince that a Prussian officer was taught that an order from a superior was tantamount to an order from the King. Frederick Charles promptly responded: “His Majesty made you a major because he believed you would know when not to obey his orders.” This simple story became guidance for all following generations of German officers.

Trevor N. Dupuy, A Genius For War, p. 116

Emphasis mine.

The Iliad is Not Just a Glorious Poem

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

Not a General’s Affair

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.

No Last-Minute Maneuvers

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.

R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, p. 17

Acquiring Coup d’oeil, the General’s Discerning Glance

Among [a general’s] skills, the one by which the eighteenth century [C.E.] set the greatest store was that of coup d’oeil, a facility which enabled a commander to grasp the essentials of a situation and make a speedy and appropriate decision [in a glance].

The process of acquiring coup d’oeil began in peacetime, while the officer was out walking, riding, or hunting. One of the fundamental exercises was to fix a particular measurement in your mind, and the apply it over successively greater distances. The ordinary human pace was assumed to be about 2 feet, and the Prince de Ligne discovered that 80 such paces approximated to the maximum range at which he would consider shooting a hare. Three 80-pace units in turn yielded the length of an Austrian battalion, which came to 240 paces, including the 6 paces allowed for the battalion artillery. The estimation of numbers also demanded practice:

When you see laborers or a herd of cattle in a field, you should guess their number from a distance, then approach more closely and count them, so as to find your margin of error. By repeating this exercise over and over again you acquire a certain assurance of judgment, which will enable you afterwards to make an accurate assessment of a force of infantry or cavalry.

Eventually it became possible to envisage the most peaceful landscape in military terms….

Christopher Duffy, The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, pp. 140-41

Capacities of Commanders

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

Five Skills And Four Desires of Generalship

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

There Are Nine Types of Generals

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

Origin of the Rank and Grades of General

Following tradition tracing back to the Roman title of imperator, a European monarch was always the general of his country’s army. His principal military assistant, in peace and war, was usually called a constable, a member of the nobility renowned for military prowess. Other outstanding noble warriors, particularly in France, frequently carried the honorific title of marshal. When a ruler was present in the field, he automatically exercised command as general. His second in command, who might or might not be the constable or one of the marshals, exercised his military functions as the lieutenant general. In the absence of the monarch, the lieutenant general commanded in the king’s name.

Under the operational command of the monarch or his lieutenant general was a senior administrative officer known as the sergeant major general. An experienced soldier, not necessarily a nobleman, the sergeant major general was in effect the chief of staff. He was responsible for supply, for organization, and for forming up the heterogeneous units of a 16th-century [C.E.] army for battle—a long, complicated process, with much shouting and confusion, considerably helped if the sergeant major general had a stentorian voice. In his administrative functions he was assisted in the subordinate units—national and mercenary—by administrative officers known as sergeants major and sergeants.

There was no permanent military hierarchy or chain of command below king and constable. Lieutenant generals and sergeant major generals were appointed for a campaign only.

R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, p. 459

See also Origins of European Army Ranks.

Eight Kinds of Decadence in Generalship

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

Chiefdoms Are Powerful But Fragile

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