Some Thoughts on Rose Mary Sheldon’s “Ambush” (2012)

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Categories: Ancient, Modern

a neoclassical painting of the Trojan Horse from the cover of Rose Mary Sheldon's book "Ambush"
Rose Mary Sheldon, Ambush: Surprise Attack in Ancient Greek Warfare (Frontline Books: London, 2012) ISBN-13 978-1-84832-592-0 BookfinderBiblio

There is in all of us a repugnance, is there not, for hit-and-run tactics, for skirmishing and ambush? Does there not hide a feeling, however illogical and poorly thought-out, that direct assault between men who, in Brasidas’ words, “stay their ground” is somehow more “fair” and certainly more “noble” an opportunity to show a man’s true character and test it before his peers?

VDH, The Western Way of War (1989) pp. 13, 14

I know what manner of men you are in valour; what need have you to tell the tale of it? For if now all the best of you were being chosen beside the ships for an ambush, in which the valour of men is best discerned– there the coward comes to light and the man of valour, for the colour of the coward changes ever to another hue, nor is the spirit in his breast checked so that he sits still, but he shifts from knee to knee and rests on either foot, and his heart beats loudly in his breast and he imagines death, and his teeth chatter; but the colour of the brave man changes not, nor does he fear excessively when once he takes his place in the ambush of warriors, but he prays to mix immediately in woeful war- not even then, I say, would any man make light of your courage or the strength of your hands. For if you were struck by an arrow in the toil of battle, or struck with a thrust, not from behind in neck or back would the missile fall; but your chest would hit it or your belly, as you were pressing on into the dalliance of the foremost fighters.

Iliad 13.275-286 (cited for a different purpose in WWoW p. 96 / ch. 8)

Ambushes are murder and murder is fun!

Anglo infantry training chant, 1960s-present

In my first book, I said that ancient historians had not really addressed the broader problems with Hanson’s The Western Way of War in print for the general public (pp. 38 and 351 for those of you following along at home). They often share concerns in private, but in public they were much more comfortable talking about the estoerica of infantry combat than about the Greek exceptionalism and breezy generalizations about the orient which motivated Hanson’s book. John Lynn is a specialist in the wars of Louis XIV not Iphicrates or Cao Cao! But one ancient historian has in fact done that work. Rose Mary Sheldon wrote a book on ambushes in ancient Greek warfare and wrapped it in a plea to soldiers and policymakers that wishful thinking about the past will lead to terrible things in the future.

Ambush is a study of ambushes, surprise attacks, and tricks in Greek literature from the Iliad to Augustus. To do this Sheldon has to write a long catalogue with retellings of the classical literary sources. About 60% of her book marches through all the times in Greek literature before Augustus where generals or soldiers used a clever trick to get the better of their opponents. Like other researchers in the Krentz/van Wees school, she points out that when an ancient writer pronounces on how their ancestors always did things, a wise researcher checks what those ancestors actually did on specific occasions. To her, complaints about improper ways of fighting are mostly a loser’s self-justification. The hero wounded by an arrow calls it a coward’s tool, the survivor of an ambush calls it a dishonourable way of fighting. The archer with no shield to hide behind or the soldiers who hid in the dark waiting for larger, better-armed enemy forces to approach killing-close probably had a different perspective. “The only generalization that seems to hold is that trickery used against you is base, but trickery against your enemy is prudent” (p. 161) The sources are reserved to endnotes and an extensive bibliography, and there are a handful of typos and factual errors.[1] If you are familiar with the sources, two points in the introduction and conclusion will still be of interest.

First, Sheldon places her argument in the broader context of moralistic imperial rhetoric and stereotypes about foreigners. Its not surprising that people often have stereotypes about foreigners and the way they fight, especially people who run an empire and find themselves fighting all kinds of people they never heard of before they got their marching orders. One of her suggestions is that later sources on early Greece like Diodorus or Curtius Rufus may be influenced by Roman moralizing and self-justification.[2] “There is no precedent in earlier Greek literature for the Plutarch-Curtius-Arrian view of Alexander with its ‘heroic disavowal of ambush and surprise’.” (p. 160) As Philip de Souza once wrote, in Roman rhetoric it is our naval operation but their pirate attack, our reluctant support for a hard-pressed ally but their opportunistic intervention. The only surprising thing is that anyone else takes these stereotypes seriously. And Sheldon says out loud that these stereotypes have a name:

Our attitude to how Greeks and non-Greeks fought can degenerate into a form of Orientalism. This type of historical distortion, caused by our misperceptions of the East, has been debated in a rich body of scholarship concerning the way Westerners define themselves in relationship to ‘the other.’ And nowhere has there been a more potent site for this Orientalism than in the discussion of warfare. (p. 161, cp. pp. XXIII-XXVI)

One of the most disturbing passages in her book is a citation to this essay by the late Sir John Keegan, written when he was only 67:

Westerners fight face to face, in stand-up battle, and go on until one side or the other gives in. They choose the crudest weapons available, and use them with appalling violence, but observe what, to non-Westerners may well seem curious rules of honour. Orientals, by contrast, shrink from pitched battle, which they often deride as a sort of game, preferring ambush, surprise, treachery and deceit as the best way to overcome an enemy.

This is not to stereotype Afghans, Arabs, Chechens or any other Islamic nationality traditionally hostile to the West (!) as devious or underhand (!!), nor is it to stereotype Islam in its military manifestation (!!!). The difference in styles of warfare is borne out by the fact of military history. Western warfare had its origins in the conflicts of the citizens of the Greek city states who fought to defend the strictly defined borders of their small political units. Beyond their world the significant military powers, however, were nomads, whose chosen method was the raid and the surprise attack. Once they acquired a superior means of mobility, in the riding horse, they developed a style of warfare which settled people found almost impossible to resist.

The last exponents of nomadic warfare, the Turks (!!!!), were not turned back from the frontiers of Europe until the 17th century (!!!!!). Thereafter the advance of Western military power went unchecked. … The Oriental tradition, however, had not been eliminated … On September 11, 2001 it returned in an absolutely traditional form. Arabs, appearing suddenly out of empty space like their desert raider ancestors (!!!!!!), assaulted the heartlands of Western power, in a terrifying surprise raid and did appalling damage.

Sir John Keegan, “Comment: In this war of civilisations, the West will prevail,” The Telegraph, 8 October 2001 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/4266179/In-this-war-of-civilisations-the-West-will-prevail.html

Like his History of Warfare, these fatuous words are fractally wrong and willfully ignorant. (Seventeenth-century observers from Catholic and Protestant countries were amazed by Ottoman customs like paying for everything their soldiers and their horses ate and drank and preventing their soldiers from amusing themselves by committing crimes against passersby- if an Ottoman soldier did something horrible to you, it was because he had been ordered to do it. And Keegan wrote that attack on Clausewitz without having read Clausewitz within the past 25 years).

Second, Sheldon talks about what culture is and how it influences warfare. Where the California school tried to create a single model of early Greek warfare, Sheldon offers an Achilles and Odysseus model. Her ancient Greeks had ambivalent attitudes to basic aspects of life. They admired both the forthright, uncontrolled Achilles and the patient, manipulative Odysseus. Speakers could cite the authorities and invoke the ideals which suited them and ignore the rest.

The problem is that Greek culture offers no grid for policy, but throws up clashing lessons and analogies from the past … historians (trying to shape their government’s policy) will choose the historical examples that align with their policy preferences. Such a selective approach to tradition distorts the historical picture by leaving out examples that do not fit their stereotype (p. 166)

If Greek culture had not encompassed a wide variety of attitudes to war, Greek warriors would have been at a loss whenever their current approach was not effective. The ways of war which worked in Thessaly, on Crete, and in the Peloponnese were not the same, but Greeks lived in all those places. To Sheldon, culture is not a railroad which directs all movement in a single direction, but more a network of roads and tracks which makes some movements easier than others. Most peoples can fight both as massed armies and as hit-and-run fighters depending on circumstances rather than being limited to one by culture. Americans, for example, fought both ways in the 1770s and 1860s.

This idea that ancient Greek culture contained multiple contradictory ideas of proper military behaviour is not one which I commonly see in the Krentz/van Wees school. Researchers in the school tend to stress the contrast between Greek rhetoric and Greek actions to attain their initial goal of refuting bad classical scholarship. But since 2013, young researchers have stressed that a true account of early Greek warfare has to include the whole Greek world and not just the parts which left us histories and tragedies. Greeks settled from the Nile in Egypt to the Rhône in Gaul and Kerch in Crimea, and it was just not possible to fight the same way in all of those places.

Like other soldiers and teachers of soldiers, Sheldon explains why these big issues of cultures and ingroups are important in a way that the geeky intricacies of ancient infantry combat will never be. Its embarrassing that some scholars try to write book 10 (the Dolon episode) out of the Iliad, but it only matters to lovers of ancient literature. But if people go to war full of scornful stereotypes about their enemies, some of them will die because of them. If policymakers can’t understand why the difference between my precision strike and your terrorist attack can be hard to see on the ground, they will have trouble making peace.

Crude stereotypes about ‘national character’ and how it manifests itself in ‘fighting abilities’ have caused some of the biggest mistakes in military history. Yet, this stereotype about Western warfare continues to exist in the military, the Academy, and the public mind. It is dangerous because it distorts our understanding of ourselves and our enemies. (pp. 161, 162) … Ethnocentrism is a dangerously faulty methodology. It can seriously interfere with historical thinking and strategic thinking. Ethnocentrism makes us incurious about the enemy or even evade reality about them. It creates feel-good history (p. 167)

Ambush! combines a summary of ancient sources for newcomers with a clear discussion of what was at stake in the debate between the California school and the Krentz / van Wees school. It acknowledges the connections which old-fashioned writers on ancient warfare saw between their understanding of the past and their recommendations for the present, and it explains why these ways of thinking are ineffective. I hope it becomes as well known as the articles by Peter Krentz and books by Hans van Wees.

Dr. Sheldon’s book, ISBN-13 978-1-84832-592-0, is available on Bookfinder and Biblio

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Typos and Factual Errors

p. xvii “Neither did he find any mention of ambush in the standard work on Greek warfare of ambushes” dittography

pp. 133, 134 the “stone-throwing machines‘ of Onomarchos again! The original MS have ‘stone-throwers’

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[2] Jeffrey Rop also argues that Greeks writing under Roman rule were especially prone to presenting their ancestors as far wiser, braver, and more faithful than the Persians (Rop, Jeffrey, Greek Military Service in the Ancient Near East, 401-330 BCE (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2019) pp. 4-5) ↑ back to top ↑

(scheduled 14 August 2021)

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Rose Mary Sheldon’s “Ambush” (2012)

  1. russell1200 says:

    The “Western” way war is loosely what you would expect of the ethos of a dominant group of elites who have (even when mounted) a relatively immobile force. The last thing you want is your enemy running around and drawing things out – making your victory long and expensive. Thus you disparage them for being unmanly.

    If you had something more like the indigenous North Americans, they generally had little expectation of conquest and thus hit and run tactics with individual feats of bravery were idealized.

    1. admin says:

      And nothing stopped Americans or Italians or Russians using both regular armies and hit-and-run guerillas in the same war, depending on whether they had enough troops and firepower to stand up to their opponents. Those Confederate guerillas or Italian partisans were not expressing some profound cultural preference, they were just fighting the way they could against opponents who could kill them in a few minutes if they massed together and tried to hold ground. When things were not so unbalanced, they fought differently.

      That old film The Battle of Algiers had a line “we will stop carrying bombs in purses when you stop dropping them from aircraft.”

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