Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Western Way of War?

A long time ago I wrote a bit about orientalism, on a post that I cannot even find now. Mind you, that may just be advancing years, not that it was chronologically a long time ago. Anyway, as you hopefully recall better than I, the basic idea was that the “west” looks at the orient through a strange and rather inconsistent lens, regarding the east as decadent, wealthy, cruel, enslaved and all sorts of other negative things. The west also regards the east as being a threat, and as being rather exciting.

This attitude can, in fact, be traced back no earlier than the Persian Wars of Greece. I have just been reading Harry Sidebottom’s “Ancient Warfare, A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford: 2004), and he observes in it that in the Iliad there is no anti-eastern bias. Both Greeks and Trojans are, more or less equally, good and bad, heroic and cowardly, and the gods intervene on both sides.
The shift comes, to some extent, with Herodotus’ account of why the Greeks won the Persian wars. In Herodotus the Persians are equal in bravery to the Greeks but untrained, unarmoured  and unskilled.

A more complete shift is to be found in The Persians, a play byAeschylus, set at the Persian court awaiting news of Salamis. Asia is rich, fertile and essentially female, Greece is rugged and masculine. The Persian king has an enslaved population and is cruel and cowardly. Greeks are not named, they fight as a commune, while many Persians are and do not. And so on.

The upshot of this, for some scholars of the classics, is that the Greeks formed the ideal of the western way of war. Looking at the Persian wars, they saw the four battles of Marathon, Salamis, Plataea and Artemisium as typical of the way the west fought. While, the argument seems to go, the Persian approach was characterised by huge, slow armies, hesitancy and sloth, the Greeks sought out and fought decisive battles.

Furthermore, it was argued, the Greeks fought for their freedom. The citizen soldiers who formed the hoplites were fighting for their polis, their city state, while the Persians were enslaved, fighting, (unenthusiastically, it is implied) for their king who embodied their state. So the Greeks won because they fought for freedom and sought a decisive knockout blow.

Now, I’m sure you can imagine that there are various holes in these arguments. The extent to which the Greeks were free, as opposed to the Persians can, in fact, be disputed. Further, the extent to which the Greeks could differentiate themselves from Persians, at least those in Asia Minor, is also problematic, although that fact may well have caused a more self-conscious differentiation. There is also the awkward fact that some Greek cities allied themselves with the Persians, and, also, that those darned easterners also, from time to time, sought their own decisive battles.

This last fact is used only to underline the inconsistency of the east’s response to the west. Oddly, it never seems to have occurred to those who promote this viewpoint that it counted against their overall thesis.

The main problem with the western way of war approach, however, seems to me to be the fact that it can be refuted in detail. For example, the Persian strategy after Salamis seems to have been one of hesitancy and defeatism. Xerxes went home, leaving a force in northern Greece. Hopeless inconsistency, we think showing a complete lack of commitment to the cause of conquering all of Greece.

Other options do exist, however. Greece was a bit of a sideshow to the Persians. Xerxes had a whole rest of an empire to rule, and could not spend all that time in the far west. Just because the Greek historians make a big thing of it, it does not mean that, to Persia, they were that important.
Secondly, it seems like that the Persian manoeuvers before Plataea were designed to ensure the Greek alliance (specifically the Spartans and Athenians) collapsed. One or the other would then go over to the Persians and the one left would be toast. Herodotus documents how closely this, in fact, came to pass.

Thirdly, the express intention of Xerxes (at least, according to Herodotus) was to punish the Athenians for Marathon – all that having a servant whisper ‘remember Athens’ into his ear at mealtimes and so on. Having razed the city to the ground he could, quite legitimately, declare ‘job done’ and go and do important things elsewhere.

The problem with the idea of the Greek ‘western way of war’ is that it is a nice, simple idea which people can readily grasp, and which, rather more scarily, can be applied to other wars and even modern military geo-politics. We still here echoes of it today, in the ideas of fighting for freedom (usually dressed up in terms of democracy) and even the idea that the west wins wars, but then struggles with insurgency because these easterners will not stand up and be beaten like proper armies.

Finally, the whole idea ignores the problem of contingency in warfare. The sort of thing I mean is that ‘this army lost because this general was killed at this point’. There is an idea around that warfare pits state against state and the strongest wins, in a form of international neo-Darwinism.
In a sense, that argument is provably true: Paul Kennedy’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ documents this extensively, especially for the alliance warfare of the eighteenth to the twentieth century. The side with the last dollar wins.

Even so, the problem is that the idea does not work with smaller scale wars. A war between Greek city states, for example, does not go to the side with the most gold. Small scale warfare has a much higher contingency factor. What might be acceptable across an alliance is not so in a small polis. Chance, or the intervention of the gods, has a much higher role to play here.

So the western way of war is an interesting idea, but it cannot really be supported by the facts and, to be slightly unfair to it, it is a dangerous idea for us to apply to the twenty-first century.

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