When they [the Greeks] have declared war against each other, they find the finest, flattest piece of land and go down there and fight, so that the victors come off with terrible loss. I will not even begin to speak of the defeated, for they are utterly destroyed.
— the Persian advisor Mardonius to Xerxes
In the West, we have certain ideas about what war is, what honor is. We respect certain kinds of enemies and we despise others. There’s a wonderful book by Victor Davis Hanson called The Western Way of War. I highly recommend it. In Professor Hanson’s book, he makes the case that what we in the West think of as universal about codes of honor, ways of fighting, is not universal at all.
It is totally Western — and comes directly from Sparta and ancient Greece. It’s our belief is this type of fighting that has gotten us into quagmires like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, even to some extent Korea in the Korean War, and certainly the “War on Terror.” Why do we keep losing these wars?
Because the enemy refuses to “play by the rules.”
What are “the rules?”
Let’s look again at the way the Spartans and the ancient Greeks fought. The quotation that kicked off this episode comes from Herodotus’ The Histories. Its speaker is the great Persian general Mardonius, reporting to his king Xerxes, on how their potential enemies, the Greeks, fought.
They find the finest, flattest piece of land and their armies go down to it and slug it out till one is utterly defeated. It’s the craziest thing you ever saw!
(I’m paraphrasing a little.)
The concept of ambush or sneak attack was anathema to the ancient Greeks. They employed these from time to time, but they never bragged about it. No tricks, no subterfuge. They despised missile weapons as well, like the bow or the javelin. Again they used these, but only in the hands of inferior troops, or foreign allies whom they held in low esteem.
Their idea of honorable combat was the clash in armor at close quarters, where in order for a man to kill his enemy he had to get so close that the enemy had an equal chance to kill him. There is a story of a warrior of that era who left the facing of his shield completely blank, except for the painted image, life-size, of a single housefly. When asked why he did this he replied, “Because I intend to get so close to the enemy that this fly will look like a lion.”
A Spartan kind was once mocked on the eve of battle by a foreign foe because the Spartan swords, called xiphoi, were so short. “They are long enough,” the Spartan replied, “to reach you.”
The idea of the pitched, decisive infantry battle was the Greek ideal. Alexander followed this. So did Caesar and Hannibal and Napoleon and Frederick the Great. It carries over today into our Western idea of what war should look like and what it should be. Gettysburg. D-Day. The Battle of the Bulge. A straight-up fight, where the enemy had as much chance to beat you as you had to beat him. That was honorable.
Even in American Western movies the idea is the two gunfighters stand across from one another and draw. If you’re the good guy you let the bad guy draw first, then you beat him.
When we look at the wars that America has lost in recent years (or failed to win) the cause is almost always that the enemy has refused to fight by our rules. The Viet Cong and the NVA would not give us that one pitched battle that would be decisive. The insurgencies in Iraq and the Taliban/ISIS-style of IED-and-suicide-bomber warfare in Afghanistan were based likewise on denying us Westerners the pitched battle we wanted. (The only enemy who did stand up to us was Saddam Hussein and look what happened to him.) Instead the enemy waited until our resolve wore out.
Western armies are not built, either materially or psychologically, for a protracted struggle on foreign soil. We get bored. The civilians at home lose interest. “You’ve got the watches,” say our enemies; the Taliban. “But we’ve got the time.”
Western strengths in war (and Western weaknesses) come directly from the ancient Greek concept of the shield-to-shield clash. Our ideals of honor come from this type of warfare too. We respect a foe who stands up, shows himself, and faces us in a fair fight.
What’s important for all of us to keep in mind, I think, is that our enemies today understand this. They see it as a weakness and they exploit it. They fight us not on the field but on Facebook. They use old men and children to plant bombs on the roadside. They undermine our national unity with fake news stories and lunatic conspiracy theories. They mess with our minds. We have no answer to this.
When today’s enemy does show up in force on the field (I’m talking about you, Russia … and you, Iran), it’s by proxy. Using others to do his fighting. Or if their own nationals appear, they’re either not in uniform at all or in some fake-out kind of garb, absent all insignia and marks of identification.
We in the West haven’t figured out how to fight these kinds of asymmetrical enemies. We’re still like the Spartans, seeking a straight-up fight and not finding it.
Maybe Mardonius had a point?
In a conventional war, between 2 countries, the one suffering the higher body count and/or has the possibility of total destruction, is most likely to surrender. Japan and Germany are obvious examples..
But unlike in Greek and Roman times, firepower has progressed to WW1 Verdun and Ypres to WW2’s 50 million dead. Is there honor in the Brits and French charging the Germans lines? Yes, the first and second time, but 600,000 dead later I say their sacrifice has been demeaned.
So today we have a combination of overwhelming firepower – when needed – plus specialty weapons that can take out a bad guy at a mile. If a Marine sniper with a Barrett .50 cal can take out a Talib officer at a mile – why not? I applaud his skill in doing so, and hardly see it as a lack of courage. “Every Marine a rifleman” is as true at 1,600 yards as 300!
But at the same time, warfare now includes cyber and social media. Is it cowardly? No it’s using existing technology to confront a superior opponent. A modern version of arrows versus swords, or my single-shot Martini-Henry vs my son’s AR. As I see it, our failing is due to our disinterest in countering it. Nothing precludes us in using the same strategies on them, in their sad countries.
The Marine concept of the 4-block war is also effective in a non-conventional fight such as Afg: ‘Clear’ is killing the bad guys. ‘Hold’ is keeping them out. ‘Build’ is helping the locals with schools, jobs, some basic infrastructure, and ‘Transition’ is turning it over to a functioning local government. But despite it’s success, it’s time and effort intensive. No Zumwalts, no F-35’s, no cheering crowds waving American flags, so therefore not TV-worthy.
We have the ability to fight on many fronts with a variety of weaponry; however we will not – perhaps that’s where the lack of honor should kick into the discussion.
Steven, the pattern you have described in warfare clearly echoes and parallels so many shifts in cultural and social organization that have left their imprint on the Western and Eastern worlds, and indeed the relationship between the two over the centuries. This movement has been understood in different ways at different times, but it reminds us that modernity and post-modernity have left little untouched in the transformation of the world we knew into the world we currently live in. Warfare is no exception. The writings of Yeats (The Second Coming) and Marx (The Communist Manifesto) speak broadly to some of these movements as they noted the shift in the ways in which “All that is Solid has Melts into Air”. The displacement of more organized, centralized and top-down ways of understanding and attempting to solve problems by more fragmented, decentralized and just-in-time means are just some of the examples of the context within which organized conflict has evolved from pitched battles to guerrilla warfare. Thanks so much for picking up this thread and weaving such an interesting tapestry of the story of warfare and warriors over the ages.
It would be great to hear a podcast with you and VDH. The Classicist/Professor and the Dramatist. You two are likely the greatest advocates of classic Western thought and values in modern time.
When I was in AF, I remember staring at the map of Afghanistan. I told my boss, “We will need 300,000-400,000 men for 30-40 years to win this fight. We need to educate 2 generations of women, and kill 100,000s more men to tame this place. Honor killing is not honorable. Pashtunwali is incongruent with the 21st Century. America will never stay here this long…”
At the time, I think there were under 20,000 American troops. We’d build a school, and a female teacher would get her head cut off. It was so depressing. And…it seemed (from a lowly CPT-MAJ perspective), that we were fighting not to lose instead of fighting to win.
One other thought I had during that time. MG Gavin was 36 years old on D-Day. All of our General Officers were in their 50s–and I think lost some of the audacity/boldness/comfort with risk that is needed to win wars.
Brian: you’re so correct; they were fighting not to lose. They wouldn’t patrol, were casualty- adverse, and creature-comfort and paperwork-happy. Other than 2009-2014 when the Marines controlled Helmand as RC-SW, its been that way from Nov 2001 thru today// Andrew
You should have seen the hoops we’d have to jump through to get my MI guys outside the wire. It was insane! My higher headquarters was a logistics brigade–their S3 couldn’t lead a group of fat women to a box of chicken–nor did he have ANY clue about the force multiplier & force protection intelligence provided. Quite certain that particular ass-hat made O6/O7…
Doctrinally, MI is never held in reserve. It is what illuminates the battlefield. This fool would require so much damn paperwork, risk assessments, and high-fidelity orders that my young troops spent more time inside the wire fighting bueacracy instead of finding/fixing the enemy. 2 weeks after this guy refused another CONOP for my team to get outside the wire–there was a huge f-bomb bomb at the market. Something our guys would have uncovered within a day…
Athletes get hurt more often when they think about an injury and pull up short more than when they are flat-out flying after the ball. The Soldiers & Marines wanted to fight. It was the Field Grade Bureaucrats and General Officer ‘Statesmen’ who were timid. Timidity loses. Always. And…it is just gross.
B – you’d have enjoyed your time with me. I basically lived outside the wire, on little COP’s with 7-8 Marines and 7-8 ANA. We’d eat, live, patrol, and fight in some ugly conditions; I remember 1 patrol when it was 143’F – and we had the Bn Col and a 2-star Marine General out with us. The Marine EM’s would often harrangue the ANA that I, the old guy (59!), was kicking their ass, so I had to hustle up and harrangue them also. Hustle-up? I could barely stand up. Good times!!
As an immigrant in the US I have a slightly different take. I agree with your point about asymmetric warfare vs. the rules of engagement US troops are required to follow. But its more complicated than that.
The additional issue is that the US unlike any other country I can think of, seems to have a lot of citizens who actively don’t like their own country – its a baffling phenomenon for immigrants like me who came here because we think this is the best country in the world.
Think about the opposition to any war, the seemingly large-scale problematization of US history which is popular with the media and higher-ed elite, and the systematic undermining of US interests globally by American citizens (and often politicians). A lot of this is coming from the Left side of the political spectrum as expected. The problem becomes that this undermining of the idea of the US plays into the hands of our geopolitical enemies who find plenty of allies on US soil.
Just one example here: https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/10/23/ocasio-cortez-omar-pressley-and-tlaib-lead-call-un-probe-alleged-dhs-human-rights
Its just fascinating to see Obama era policies (remember, he deported more undocumented immigrants than any other President) being blamed by the Left on Trump, and asking a UN human rights council made up (not making up) human rights stalwarts like Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Bottom line: the lack of honor on part of the enemy is made worse by the active hatred of the US I see within the country.
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