Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Tag: strategy

Trying to Win Wars by Half-Doing

February 6, 2023

Asked to give his verdict on the foreign policy of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh replied that: “Her Majesty did all by halves.” It was a fair criticism, but it was one which could be levelled against every European ruler at the time: against the kings of France and Spain, the German Protestant princes, even against the [Dutch] States General. None of them would or could put all their eggs in one basket. All of them tried to win their wars by “half-doing”. The casual character, the insouciance, of the Eighty Years’ War in particular stands out as one of its most important and most persistent traits.

Yet what alternative was there? Certainly the fate of the Netherlands was important to Spain, England, France and Germany, but was it more important than their commitments or ambitions elsewhere? Should England abandon her position in Ireland in order to support the Dutch; should Spain neglect the defence of the Mediterranean in order to suppress the revolt in the Low Countries? These were real choices, for no European state in the early modern period possessed sufficient resources to fight effectively in the Netherlands and also attain its political objectives elsewhere. The policies of the various major combatants in the Low Countries’ Wars must therefore be considered within the context of their overall foreign ambitions and overseas commitments; changes in one were normally linked with changes in the other; the course of the war was often affected by events far outside the Netherlands. From the very first, as we shall see, the Dutch Revolt was a problem which no government could tackle in isolation.

The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road 1567-1659, p. 231

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.

Battles Were Fought by Mutual Consent

April 2, 2017

Most battles were fought on relatively flat and open plains, with terrain used (if at all) only to shield one’s flanks. This is partly because of the unwieldiness of the formations involved, and partly because the enemy could always choose not to attack a strong defensive position, so battles tended to occur mostly by mutual consent when both sides were willing to fight in the open. On the battlefield, defensive features like river lines could be a double-edged sword, as the enemy could focus his attack wherever he chose, and you would have to attack across the river yourself to exploit his weakness elsewhere. Adopting too cautious and defensive an approach could also shift the psychological balance between the armies, and so prove counter-productive in terms of overall combat effectiveness. Without this moral pressure to come down onto the plain or move away from the safety of one’s camp and take the risk of engaging on equal terms, many confrontations would have ended in indecisive stand-offs, given the enormously high stakes involved when the losing army was likely to be completely shattered and have its troops massacred in the pursuit.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, pp. 222-23

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.

Material Cost Versus Psychological Benefit of Sieges

May 1, 2008
Sieges—whether Sparta’s successful attack on Plataea or Athens’ ruination of Melos—were often not explicable in a traditional strategic calculus of cost versus benefits. After all, what did the possession of Plataea do for the Spartan cause? How was Athens made more secure, wealthier, or stronger by taking Melos? The rent from the farms of the Athenian colonists who settled in the surrounding countryside after the city fell could hardly have paid the cost of the long siege. Nor would the sale of captives into slavery recover the expenses of the besiegers. Instead, the efforts to storm recalcitrant cities seemed to confer enormous psychological implications on the reputation and competence of the two powers. Letting Plataea defiantly stand apart from Thebes or Mytilene boast of its independence was seen as a contagion that could weaken the entire system of alliances that had grown up after the Persian Wars.

Victor Davis Hanson, A War Like No Other, p. 178

For Byzantines, Strategy Was All-Important

March 7, 2003

The Byzantines’ attitude to warfare was different from that of many of their undisciplined nomadic enemies, and from the haphazard attitude to military engagements shown by some western medieval European armies. Strategy was all-important. To win a war by diplomacy or failing that, skirmishes and raids, was preferable to engaging in a pitched battle.

Ann Hyland, The Medieval Warhorse, p. 27

Web of Interdependence

March 7, 2003

Unlike modern “blue-water” naval squadrons, triremes were linked logistically to the coasts. There were no sleeping quarters on board, and the light ships could not carry much food. Thus, the Persian ships were beached every night, so that the oarsmen could eat and sleep in relative comfort. Owing to these logistical factors, the Grand Army [of Xerxes] and the Persian navy were mutually supportive and could not operate independently of each other. The army needed the food carried by the merchant marine, the merchant marine needed the protection of the battle fleet, and the battle fleet needed the secure beachheads established by the army. This web of interdependence was a major weakness of the Persian strategic plan: not only did it limit the tactical maneuverability of the various branches, but it meant that even a temporary collapse in the operational effectiveness of any one of the branches would fatally compromise the goals of the entire expedition.

Barry S. Strauss and Josiah Ober, The Anatomy of Error, p. 36