The wars I mean are those fought between two widely separated races accustomed to a different physical environment. Then it may naturally happen that each race or nation has developed an armament and a style of fighting suitable to the nature of the country in which it dwells, and is practically unable to alter its national arms and tactics. …
The best examples which history offers of this are the great struggles in ancient or mediaeval times between East and West. Here as a rule the opposing armies differ entirely in character. The Western nation is apt to rely on solid masses of heavy-armed warriors, the Eastern on cavalry and archers skirmishing in open order. This contrast is nowhere better seen than in the Persian War, but something like the same difference meets us again in later history, in the wars of Rome with Parthia, or in the Crusades, though in them, while the Orientals still trust to light horse and archers, the men of the West rely no longer solely or mainly on infantry, but on heavy-armed horsemen, supported by infantry armed with missiles.
News of the first strikes against Afghanistan indicate that a tested Western response to Islamic aggression is now well under way. It is not a crusade. The crusades were an episode localised in time and place, in the religious contest between Christianity and Islam. This war belongs within the much larger spectrum of a far older conflict between settled, creative productive Westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals. –
In the latest issue of Desperta Ferro Antigua y Medieval (link if you read Spanish) I wrote about how many people telling the story of Xerxes’ Ionian War want one side to be a lavishly equipped professional army and the other to be a gang of ragged freedom-fighters, but they can’t decide which side should be the Greeks and which side should be the Persians. If the Persians are the mighty imperial army with the latest equipment and training, they are not the peoples overcome by European firepower and drill in recent times. If the ancient Greeks are the quarreling aristocrats and aggressive amateurs which they tell us they were, they are not Mr. Kipling’s army in skirts. People want to identify with the underdog, but they also want to believe that superhuman forces make their side’s victory inevitable. Its hard to reconcile those two wishes.
There is also a simile where Greeks battling Persians are like crusaders battling the Turks. The people who make this analogy know as little of one as the other, but it sounds impressive. And this kind of rhetoric also has some contradictions which you can see if you read the words of an obscure lieutenant of cavalry.
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.
Robert M. Citino, Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942 (University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, KA, 2007) ISBN-13 978-0-7006-1791-3 [Bookfinder]
Robert Citino’s Death of the Wehrmacht (2007) is a third type of history book. Rather than a journalistic history drawing on interviews or a monograph with carefully limited scope, it is a book with a big idea inspired by experience lecturing. He believes that the kind of land war which Germany waged from 1939 to 1945 was not just a product of a bad strategic situation or Nazi ideology but a particular way of fighting wars which went back to Frederick the Great’s Prussia. This type of warfare focused on throwing the army against the largest concentration of enemy troops from an unexpected direction and relying on highly trained officers and men to overcome larger, better-funded armies in a few weeks of fighting. He then uses this way of thinking to explain the major German offensives of 1942: in the Crimea, at Kharkov in Ukraine (where the Soviets attacked first), against the oil fields of the South Caucasus and to the lower Volga, and against the Nile Delta to close the Suez Canal. This is a book about the Prussian and then German officer corps as an institution, anchored in several centuries of history rather than the Third Reich.
If you know the ancient writers, you must be puzzled why moderns often pronounce that ancient Greek armies were highly skilled and rigorously disciplined. Those writers make it clear that getting high-status Greek men to accept any kind of training and discipline was like getting them to pick a day to have a tooth pulled. Spartans accepted commands and corporal punishment and did a bit of drill, but no ancient writer describes them practising marching or fighting in peacetime. One reason why people say things which are contradicted by so many ancient texts is that they are using the ancient Greeks as an excuse to talk about their own culture, so they project things they love or fear about their own culture on the ancients.
Have a look at this quote from Professor Emeritus, Colonel (retired), Dr. Jonathan House who is talking about how the proud professionals of the German army got themselves spanked by the Red Army.
Germany, in fact, is the poster child for what we like to call the Western Way of War, the idea that a well-trained force can achieve rapid offensive decisive victory by superior discipline, manoeuvre, and equipment. Well, that works part of the time, but if you encounter somebody who is not willing to say he’s defeated, as the Soviets were not, and then you encounter somebody who in addition to that has all this vast terrain, then eventually your plan gets thwarted.
One of my articles which has been in press for some time finally appeared: “War and Soldiers in the Achaemenid Empire: Some Historiographical and Methodological Considerations.” In Kai Ruffing, Kerstin Droß-Krüpe, Sebastian Fink, and Robert Rollinger (eds.), Societies at War: Proceedings of the 10th Symposium of the Melammu Project held in Kassel September 26-28 2016... Continue reading: Shameless Plug: War and Soldiers in the Achaemenid Empire
John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. Updated with a new epilogue. Westview Press: New York, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-8133-3372-4 (Bookfinder link)
This week I am going to talk about a book written by a specialist in the wars of Louis XIV of France, only two of whose eight chapters deal with ancient warfare in the broadest sense. That is because the book is one of the few which does the work of demolishing one of the most influential and least accurate ideas which an ancient military historian has ever presented to the public: the Western Way of War. Yet rather than be purely destructive, it goes on to sketch a scientific approach to war and culture, and even presents a model which scholars can apply to other cases. It does all that in an affordable volume written for lay readers in the United States where belief in a western way of war is strongest.