Saturday, 9 July 2016

Ambush in the Western Tradition

I have just been reading ‘Ambush: Surprise Attack in Ancient Greek Warfare’ by Rose Mary Sheldon (2012, Frontline: Barnsley). The aim here is to disabuse the reader of any concept of there being a Western Way of War which revolves around stand up, knockdown, drag out battles. As I have observed before, recent historiography of warfare has rather claimed that there is such a thing as the Western Way of War, that it started with the Greeks and comes up to date with such operations as the invasion of Iraq.

Such claims started with Victor Davis Hanson, particularly with his book of the same name. There has been a fair bit of heat generated by it and, surprisingly for scholarly activity, a fair bit of light, as well. Even more surprisingly, some of it is of potential use to wargamers.

A fair number of people have taken the trouble to attempt to refute Hanson. For example, John Lynn’s Battle is an extended look at the western way of war, and if there is such a things as an extended tradition from the Greeks through everyone else to today. His answer is ‘no’. There is no such thing as an universal soldier, who has basically been doing the same things for centuries while the technology of doing it has change. Battles were fought as battles, each in their own way, with people with a given world-view, technology of a given time and place, and so on. There is no tradition of decisive battle reaching back to the Greeks.

A secondary thesis of the Western Way of War concept is that the Greeks, and everyone else who derives their concept of winning a war from them, are good, noble, courageous, moral and upstanding. By contrast, of course, everyone who is not western in this sense is devious, immoral, decadent, cowardly, and, most of all, likely to ambush you or attempt to kill you at night, rather than stand up and be slaughtered by Western armies. This stance, which has been named ‘military orientalism’ can, of course, have overtones of racism and cultural superiority. It rather ignores the fact that a opponent who is under-armed and overrun does not have that many strategic and tactical options. All you can really do are surrender and hope your opponent goes away or use guerrilla tactics. I think very recent history tells us which is most likely.

Anyway, Sheldon’s book aims to show that, in fact, Greek warfare had as much to do with the sneaky, indirect, surprise attack and ambush as with good classical toe to toe stabbing and screaming. She starts with the Iliad, for the very good reason that this was basic cultural information for educated Greeks the world (Mediterranean) over. It may not have happened, and not have happened in the way described, but it did and does proscribe warfare for ancient Greek culture. The point is that the Greeks and their opponents spend as much time ambushing and surprising each other as they do in massed battles.

Sheldon goes so far as to suggest that there are two strands in the poetic tradition, that of Achilles and that of Odysseus. Achilles is the prime example, the exemplar, of the good warrior – shining arms, ready to go nose to nose with anyone. The fact that he is hugely prickly, thinks more of his honour than of his side, and is a regular pain in the neck for his commanders might, or might not, have some bearing on this.

Odysseus, on the other hand, is the exemplar of the ambush, the surprise attack, the indirect approach. Book X of the Iliad shows him capturing a spy and obtaining the intelligence required. Of course, further to this, it is Odysseus who comes up with the stratagem which, finally, takes Troy. Achilles is dead by then, a victim of his own courage and bravado.

Sheldon traces these two themes down through Greek history, attempting to trace the evolution of the phalanx (a subject mired in controversy and lack of sources) to the emergence of the peltast. Greek armies, she observes, would not have needed peltasts if all their battles had really been knock ‘em down and drag ‘em out massed phalanx encounters. She also notes that part of the Spartan training was to go and steal things (including food). These are hardly skills needed to fight in a phalanx. Inherent in all this history is the idea that both ambushes and formal battles were necessary parts of Greek warfare.

It did come about, however, that later writers started to look upon the battle as being more virtuous, more courageous, than the ambush. Ambushes are for the weak, the devious, the Eastern. Battles are for the brave, the strong, and the moral. There emerges some sort of denigration for the coward who takes away life from cover, or in the night. This, Sheldon suggests, is firstly not true in the Greek tradition anyway, but, secondly, the way in which some sort of Western Way of War can be put together. It ignores vast swathes of evidence, and also takes an ethical stance on ambush which the original protagonists would not have recognised.

Throughout history, I would guess, well-armed troops have complained when the enemy has refused to come out and fight in the correct manner. By this, I suspect, they mean ‘get slaughtered’. Certainly in 17th Century North America the ‘skulking way of war’ adopted by the natives was despised and disparaged by the colonists. This is propaganda, rhetoric, of course. The colonists would have blown any native contingent away who did come and fight in their manner, so why would the natives do such a thing? Whatever else the Native Americans might have been they were not stupid.

And so to the wargaming question. I have a feeling that ambushes and surprise attacks do take place on our tables, but the question is whether we really write rules and scenarios that are suitable for them. Most wargame rules I am aware of are for big battles. Are we then in danger of falling into the military orientalism trap?


  1. I'm not sure that it is military orientalism so much as that it is just easier to write rules for big battles. To my mind ambushes require more thought putting into the scenario and may require an umpire, while a toe-to-toe big battle with equal points is easier to organise and quicker to set up.

    1. That is probably true, but I wonder if we have in our mind's eye as we wargame some big pageant, rather than a few rather muddy individuals trying to get the drop on the opposition.

    2. The big pageant would not surprise me. I know I love to see a table with thousands of soldiers massed together with standards and banners flying in the breeze like a miniature May-Day parade. The painting of wargames armies in their best uniforms may support this view too.

    3. Yes, there is something in the aesthetics, and i wish I knew enough about it to comment.

      Roger Scruton does say something somewhere about a nicely laid dinner table being an aesthetic pleasure, and a nice wargame table seems to me to have something similar about it, although without the meal...

  2. Well coming from a clan whose name was attached (locally) to that celestial orb that sometimes shines in the night sky when certain industrious farmers are out increasing the size of their livestock herds, its hard to deny that raids and ambushes have played a role in warfare (and commerce) for as far back as we have evidence. Certainly we do not need to go back as far as the Iliad, even Greek writers such as Thucides and Xenophon who were combat veterans describe raids, ambushes and strategems as well as pitched battles. Many more of the former than the latter.

    I think the real problem is in describing any complex thing as 'just this and only this'. To my mind the idea of a decisive battle/siege/ambush is not about the event, it is about the appreciation that if you can manage a knock out blow then the war will end sooner. It tends to be either the weaker side who wishes to avoid a decisive encounter or an agressor who isn't looking for a conclusion that is most in favour of petite geurre. Forcing an enemy into a decisive event against their will is often beyond the capability of many generals while sometimes, especially for the defender, the potential cost of losing is greater than the cost of avoidance. The choice is then easy to dress in cultural clothes.

    1. I suspect that the issue does turn on 'dressing things in cultural terms'

      If our historiography has, somehow, taken a turn to regard battles as ethical and ambushes as not ethical, then the latter is projected onto the 'not-us', for 'we' would never do anything so underhand, unless we were forced to.

      Sometimes historiography seems to care more about the method of winning than the winner.

  3. Anybody who has heard anything about a certain large wooden gift horse would know better than to think that the Greeks were paragons of honest, manly, toe to toe conflict.
    I think the problem with simulating ambushes on the table is one of scale and period. A Napoleonic or SYW battle is mostly going to be a stand-up in the open brawl if done at battalion level or higher. A skirmish game, with Cossacks ambushing foragers, might capture that kind of fighting in that period, but it would have to be a pretty small-unit scale affair. Tactical WW2 and modern games by contrast tend to be one side uses blinds or conceals his position on the map, the other player rolls on, and much shooting, shock and surprise ensues, but again, that's a dynamic of the small-scale action.

    1. Sheldon's book does have a painting of the wooden horse on the cover, which rather makes the point. But some historians choose to ignore the evidence; at least, that is how I understand her.

      I do wonder if ambush games make boring wargames. An ambush only stands a chance with surprise, and then only if the ambushers get in the first effective shots. Otherwise they are likely to get blown away by the superior ambushee forces.

      I'm also a bit surprised that no-one has raised the big battle ambush, like Cannae. But i was really talking about le petit guerre.

    2. Ambush games can be boring if put together poorly. Where I have played them and they have been good, the umpire has controlled the ambushers and the players have all been on the same side, advancing to contact against an unknown enemy.

    3. I think Charles Grant's 'Tabletop Teasers' had a couple of nice ambush scenarios which relied on either random placing of the ambushers or umpire / map control of placed units.

      Altogether a bit more complex than your average bash, I admit.

    4. Ambushes actually make very good games, Grant has several teasers of the ambush sort where they are not players vs umpire but rather make use of hidden deployment so the ambushee knows he is entering a dangerous area but not when or where the enemy will strike. Variations on his "wagon train" are a staple. Over the last 30 years I've played or run probably close to 100 iterations and variations of it in periods ranging from various ancients up to WW2.
      Ambushes are not the only petit geurre though. One can get good games based on such things as a clash between advance guards to control a ford or bridge, raids on supply dumps or villages including amphibious landings, forcing passes etc Xenephon, Thucides, Caesar and other authors are full of examples that provide inspiration for games.Its best if using rules designed for smaller actions with units of a few hundred rather than thousands. Cohorts or maniples rather than legions as units etc.

    5. Oh, agreed. But historiography, at least, seems to regard ambushes as ethically compromised; on and off through history, this seems a common theme. But it doesn't seem to have stopped people ambushing anyway.

      Perhaps it is part of the general oddness of the human mind.

      But we do need specific rules, I think, although I did play a successful ambush game with PM: SPQR, which isn't what it was designed for.