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?