Saturday, 4 June 2011

Clashing Cultures

A while ago it was mentioned that warfare is about clashing cultures – Greek against Persian; Roman against Celt; Revolutionary France against everyone else, and so on. I suppose the question to ask now is ‘is this true?’

In certain, obvious respects, it is true. For example, the Greeks and Persians did not have much in common. The Greeks were civilised, freedom loving, democratic sea farers, the Persians were decadent, power mad, tyrannous and land based with huge territories built on fear and massive armies of untrained levies sent out to die for the King of Kings.

I imagine that those of you who have read this blog for a while will not be surprised when I say I don’t believe a word of the last paragraph. Indeed, one or two people have complained to me that the effect of reading this blog has been to make them doubt all the things that they thought they knew about ancient war and wargames. Well, so be it. Rome wasn’t burnt in a day, although it might account for the paucity of comment recently. Either that or I’m boring you, repeating myself or am so obviously right that the posts need no comment.

So, are wars about clashing cultures? Well, maybe some are. You could, for example, look at the American Civil War and argue that it was. The slave owning south fought against the equal north. The industrial north was against the agricultural south. And so on. Indeed, there is some truth in these pictures. But a closer look nuances the concept. The south was in fact richer than the north, and was rapidly industrialising. In the north, plenty of people were being impoverished by industry, a point which southern plantation owners were not slow to argue. Indeed, a case can be made that slaves in the south were in a better state than many free workers in the north, and the slaves’ situation was rapidly improving because of the need for more labour. As the slave trade had been banned, the only way to increase the bonded workforce was to improve the conditions and enable them to reproduce (the slave trade before 1800 or so had been mainly to replace slaves who had died because of overwork and poor treatment; the slaves in the Caribbean did not start to replace their own population until after emancipation).

So was the ACW about a culture clash? You tell me, but I’d be willing to suggest that at least some of the cause of the war can be found in the US Constitution and the muddle that the legislature created over the boundary between Federal and State law. That makes the war over something which was distinctly about the United States as an entity; that is, that war was within a culture, not between cultures.

Looking further back, perhaps we can see some clearer cut cultural clashes. The Greeks and the Persians is a good candidate. The Persians, after all, only emerged into the Mediterranean world after Darius conquered Lydia, and Persia thus gained access to the coastline of Asia Minor. This was in the late sixth century, and was followed by expeditions across the Bosporus aimed at conquering Thrace, Macedonia and ultimately, Greece. This much seems to be the case. Even if we don’t believe much of Herodotus, we can agree that this does seem to be the Persian strategy.

But the question arises whether the wars were about different cultures and, further, were they in fact won by the culturally more muscular side? The Greek historians certainly thought so. The Persians, they argued, lost because of hubris, because they thought they couldn’t lose, and because of their own mistakes. But more than that, they lost because the Greeks were fighting for freedom and the Persians were not. The test on the battlefield was passed and failed over the idea and meaning of freedom.

I’ve suggested before that the battles were not so one sided as the numbers recorded by Herodotus suggest. This does have implications for the ‘meaning’ of the wars and their victors and losers. Perhaps the Greeks won not because they had a better culture and ideology, but because the hoplite was better adjusted to the battlefield conditions than the Persian heavy infantry bowman. The Greeks may have agreed to fight to protect their way of life, their hearths and homes, but they won because they had a technological edge. Does this make the wars a test of culture or of equipment?

Now, I suspect that I’m starting to jump up and down on thin ice. There were cultural differences between the Greek cities that fought (and many of them preferred the medeize) and the Persians, and it was the Persians who invaded. But the cultural differences were not so great that, for example, the Persians decided to wipe the Greeks out totally. The atrocities which did eventually come were as a result of the wars, not part of the initial strategy. Conquest and overlordship were at stake, not the survival of Greece per se.

So, are wars bound up with cultural clashes? Some may well be. Ideological differences do influence decisions, and are part and parcel of how conflict arises. But cultures can and do mix. The Persian empire, after all, was heterogeneous and, if the Greeks had submitted they would have become another group within the empire, like the Lydians, Ionian Greeks, Medes, Assyrians and so on. And the Persians only had to be a bit lucky to win. The Greeks had to get lucky every time and, just they did. After all, before Plataea, the Greek alliance almost collapsed, several times. A bit more patience and a refusal to attack the Greek army would have put Mardonius in charge, in all probability.


  1. I'd have thought that some wars were about clashing cultures, others not, but the difficulty for wargamers is in the creation of rules that reflects those differences. So we might say that the cultural differences between the forces in the ACW or Franco-Prussian were so marginal as to make trying to incorporate them into a game a rather fruitless activity. On the other hand, a British Army and a Zulu Army in the C19 might be considered so culturally alien, and the tactical options available to their commander as so different, that they have to be reflected in the rules of a face-to-face game. This may aso be true if you think that the 'military cultures' of combatants varied even if their societies in general were not so different.

    Of course it might be easy to invent/overstate differences in cultures and then map that onto combatants who were actually very similar. Both the ACW and the ECW might be victims of this, from time-to-time.


  2. I think that we do tend to look for the cultural differences between any two cultures in conflict. The Cavaliers were wrong but wromantic with flowing locks and dashing looks, while the Roundheads were right but repulsive, the lobster helmets and grim expressions. Actually, they were all mid-seventeenth century English people.

    We like our cultural differences - maybe it makes us (the winning side) superior. I wonder when historians come to consider the Gulf wars whether the cultural difference between say, the French and the US (as describe by GWB: cheese eating surrender monkeys) will be a significant factor.

    Military culture is an interesting term, I think. Often victories and defeats are ascribed to it - such as the May-June 1940 campaign. However, on thinking about it, I do start to wonder exactly what it means, and how it 'grows out' of a 'civilian culture'.


  3. "Military culture is an interesting term, I think. Often victories and defeats are ascribed to it - such as the May-June 1940 campaign. However, on thinking about it, I do start to wonder exactly what it means, and how it 'grows out' of a 'civilian culture'."

    I think military culture is quite important in providing the framework for what its generals/poliical leaders deem possible. It includes such things as what should be a capital offence - many Russian and German soldiers were executed in WW2, far more than their Allied counterparts; or how literally phrases like 'at all costs' and 'to the last round' are understood. In other times, it migt constrain the ways in which certain warriors would fight (shock vs firepower/on foot or mounted or in vehicles/chariots). In theory, combatants from very similar cultures as understood by sociologists might belong to very different military cultures. Conversely, armies from very different political cultures might end up fighting in much the same way (I'd guess this is one of the underlying assumptions of many recent Phil Barker rules).



  4. Well, I suppose different cultures can produce military capabilities of different potentials. The Greeks did, by using hoplites who were citizens (except the Spartans, who practiced which spoilt the fun). Light armed troops were highly ignorable, not being out class, you understand.

    So I suppose that the Athenians and Spartans did have a sort of similar culture (Greek) but had different military cultures - the Athenians by sea and the Spartans by land. This did dominate the strategy of the Peloponnessian war.

    But then we have to ask the question: where the cultures really that similar? and there i'm afraid I can't reply, yet.

    Any other suggestions for comparisons are welcome!