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A review of Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership by Barry Strauss
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Barry Strauss is an accomplished classical historian who has written a number of fine scholarly books and papers on the social and economic aspects of the Peloponnesian War. More recently, Strauss has broadened his interests into making classical history—especially the most famous wars of the Greeks and Romans—accessible to wider audiences through lively and well-researched accounts that resonate with contemporary interests and tastes. In these latter books he explored the Spartacus War—apparently well read by the makers of the hit Starz cable-channel series who seem to have borrowed generously—as well as the Athenian defense at Salamis and the Trojan War. His latest effort reflects those interests, but it differs in that it is not so much historical or biographical as didactic. Strauss seeks to review the careers of the three great military and political leaders of the ancient world to offer lessons about why they succeeded—and in some sense, ultimately failed—in their respective grabs for empire.
Strauss defines “masters” as those who most adroitly marshaled and directed armies, used them for optimum strategic effect, and transformed military victories into political power. When judging the relative leadership skills of an Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar, Strauss is not particularly interested in their ultimate aims, at least in the moral sense. After all, one could make the argument that Pericles had an ethical vision, at least as distilled by the historian Thucydides, quite different from Caesar’s. An Epaminondas or Scipio was a different sort from Alexander or Hannibal, at least in their efforts to defend or spread consensual government. We are interested here in skill sets, not the moral purposes for which they are used.
Strauss is well acquainted with the nineteenth-century “Great Captains” genre of assessing the world’s most capable military leaders—an Alexander, Caesar, Saladin, Wellington, or Napoleon—on their timeless talents (e.g. “judgment,” “audacity,” “spirit,” etc.), and distilling contemporary lessons from their successes. The theory of such handbooks is that human nature remains constant across time and space, and thus what vast differences there were between spears and bullets are minor in comparison to the human commonality of fear, calm, courage, and timidity, and how a universal military mind sizes up an enemy at any age.
Strauss narrows the traditional criteria of assessment a bit by innovatively focusing on five sequential phases of comparison that follow the course of a traditional war: “Attack” (crafting a plan of war); “Resistance” (adapting to the enemy’s pushback); “Clash” (defeating the enemy on the battlefield by any means necessary); “Closing the Net” (transforming battlefield success into strategic victory); and “Knowing When to Stop” (ensuring that winning a war results in a lasting and advantageous peace).
Rather than offering mini-biographies of the three, Strauss organizes his book in these five phases, and then judges each of the three great leaders on their relative merits in each category. Although the result is that we do not have continuous narratives of the three generals, the advantages are that we walk through a typical war with all three of them at our side. The book is not just a history, but intended more as a modern guide for political and military leaders—and it might be fair to infer that the influence of postwar conflicts is an important subtext of the entire book. While Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are not mentioned explicitly in Strauss’s conclusions, it is clear that he is interested in ancient advice about solving the most common problems in the modern West: not dealing well with insurgencies and on-and-off irregular fighting, and an increasing inability to translate initial victories into secure peace. It is no surprise, then, that Strauss’s last two episodes of war-making—“Closing the Net” and “Knowing When to Stop”—are the most relevant for modern American audiences.
The organization of the book in theory could lead to a sort of monotony, as each commander is rated—one to three—in each category, five times in succession. In some sense, Strauss does that: Hannibal was the best battlefield tactician; Alexander was a singular genius in the arts of mobilization, manpower, and mastering geography; Caesar knew best how the tesserae of battles fit into a mosaic of ultimate political victory; and so on. Of course, as Strauss also points out, it is hard to judge the three only from our view of their own strengths and weaknesses—given that their enemies had a proverbial say in who wins and who loses.
In this regard, all three faced quite different challenges. While the Persian Empire by 334 B.C. was little more than a huge ossified bureaucracy, the sheer distances from the Aegean to the Indus and lack of infrastructure made Alexander’s trek as much a huge ancient version of the Lewis and Clark Expedition or Napoleon’s explorations in Egypt as a war to destroy systemically an age-old enemy of Hellenism. Hannibal had only to cross the narrows of the Mediterranean, but there was never a more mobilized and capable ancient nation in arms as the Roman Republic in the Second Punic War—a dogged, eventually brilliantly led and equipped adversary analogous to the Israeli military of the 1960s.
The problem Caesar faced was one encountered by all Western commanders who fight largely within Western domains: The greatest danger to a European army is another like European army. Just as the American Civil War could prove more lethal to a nation’s armed forces in a single afternoon than were thirty years of frontier fighting, or just as the British lost more men in twenty minutes at the Somme than they did during the entire Zulu War, so too Caesar’s problems were not Gallic chieftains or even Mithridates’ Hellenized military, but the similarly armed and led legions under old Roman pros like Pompey and his sons.
What is the result of Strauss’s comparative analyses? Hannibal’s masterpiece of Cannae—double encirclement accomplished by a numerically inferior army thereafter became the dream of generals for the next two millennia—was a reflection of his preeminence as a tactician, but he was a poor grand strategist in matching Carthage’s limited means with its apparent grandiose aims of invading and defeating Roman Italy. By the time of the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. during the Second Punic War, his defeat was logical rather than just due to bad luck or Scipio’s genius. The ultimate legacy of Hannibal’s failed efforts was the annihilation of his entire civilization at the conclusion of the Third Punic War.
No one rivaled Alexander in branding himself as an emissary of Hellenism and appearing as a magnetic near-divine grandee, who parlayed his celebrity and charisma into almost unlimited manpower and money. Yet Alexander’s idea of a unified eastern empire dissolved the moment he died. The squabbling successor Hellenistic kingdoms, while long-lived, were largely Westernized dynasties of elites using superb militaries and Greek-inspired science to sit atop largely unassimilated Eastern populations. So much for Alexander’s new east-west empire and his myth of “The Brotherhood of Man.”
Caesar, despite his assassination in 44 B.C. at the height of his powers with all his enemies defeated, alone translated his battlefield victories into strategic success and eventual political stability—at least in the sense that the Augustan Principate was the logical denouement to both Caesarism and the second round of civil wars that followed Caesar’s death. In this regard, Strauss is surely right in his summary: “All in all, Caesar was the greatest of antiquity’s great commanders. Hannibal is the hero of lost causes and perfect battles. Alexander has an unmatched star quality. Caesar, for all his flaws, came closest to statesmanship.”
Strauss’s common sense and sober judgment also offer context to the dilemma of contemporary military and political leaders. These relevant analyses are made accessible to a non-classically-trained audience by fine maps, a chronological table, a helpful glossary of proper names, endnotes, and a brief bibliographical discussion. In short, after reading Masters of Command, a modern general would conclude that we can organize and fund armies in the spirit of Alexander’s genius and likewise have them fight well in the most inhospitable places on the globe. The American war colleges and long tours of duty turn out generals who, like Hannibal, can find ways to utterly destroy the enemy on the battlefield in weeks if not days—as happened to the Taliban in 2002, and Saddam Hussein in both 1991 and 2003. But despite the ubiquity of our four-star generals who find themselves as de facto proconsuls in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Balkans, there are few Caesars among us—thank God, in the case of undermining constitutional government—who can envision how and why even a successful occupation of Iraq, a “lead from behind” bombing in Libya, or an “intervention” in Syria leads to less not more war, brings on political stability, and ultimately contributes to the geopolitical interests of the United States. True leadership, Strauss argues from the ancient evidence, answers perplexing dilemmas like these—and in that regard Caesar towers over even his two more flamboyant and brilliant rivals.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 September 2013, on page 68
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