Democracy, republicanism and war

Are democracies inherently flawed when it comes to running a war? Does a strong executive (to use the modern terminology) make the running of a war more efficient, if not always more successful?

Thucydides would say so, and indeed he lays the blame for Athenian defeat mostly at the hands on the demagogues, who were non-aristocrats who became leaders. Lincoln and Roosevelt would also say so, and both took extraordinary steps to suspend basic liberties in light of wars, intending to relinquish their hold once the crisis passed. Romans would agree, having two consuls run the war efforts, but when times became most critical they nominated a dictator to take over all power for six months and completely direct the war effort. Napoleon would agree, Han Solo would agree, and every president since Vietnam would agree, the list goes on.

The virtue of having a sole, or very small group of leaders does not guarantee success in a war, and in some instances the virtue of having one person in command of the overall strategy could guarantee defeat, but there is not the fickle aspect of democracy and there is a time when one person needs to step to the fore and expedite the process.

Thermopylae – Problems of Propoganda

Thermopylae was a failure. No really, it was an unmitigated disaster for the Greek defenders, with the only real questions being about what caused this (Leonidas’ generalship, failure of intelligence, sluggishness, indecisiveness, or infighting in the high command such that it existed). Just for a reference point, there were 300 full-blooded Spartans, 298 of whom lost their lives at Thermopylae, while a bit over 50 years later, 175 were captured at Sphacteria and this was enough to precipitate a truce in the Peloponnesian War. 300 was a huge number for Spartans.

Of course the problem with trying to figure out the series of events and why the 300 Spartans and volunteers from other states stayed behind and died is that the truth of the catastrophe is concealed by later propaganda which hails it as a noble sacrifice that helped saved Greece. The saviours who stayed for a suicide mission to hold off the horde as long as they could to allow Athens to evacuate.

The greatest problem with this chain of events is that the force sacrificed thousands of lives for three days, certainly not enough time to evacuate Athens in and of itself. Further, most of the army retreated in advance of the last day, so it seems possible that Leonidas and the volunteers were simply acting as a rear guard action and planned to withdraw themselves; then Leonidas died. Leonidas fell before the flanking force actually cut off the Greeks, but the tradition has a fierce fight over Leonidas’ corpse, and then before the Greeks could possibly disengage or withdraw, the trap was sprung.

Surely the Greeks fought nobly and fiercely, but they died. The survivors and the rest of the coalition remained quite pessimistic after this setback and did so until Salamis or well thereafter, but one effort to encourage them was to spin this disaster as a heroic sacrifice.

As popular media confirms to this day, the story has survived and flourished as a heroic stand of liberty and freedom against oppression, but one must not forget that the overarching message is actually one of complete failure.

The history of logistics

As much as military campaigns and battles are the product of military strategy, tactics and the intent of the commanders, in some ways it can also be subscribed simply to logistics. This is particularly true in Pre-modern History.

In a unique study of Alexander’s campaigns, Engels aligned the speed of the army, all delays, and strategic choices to the logistical necessities of moving 40-100,000 men and animals across mountains, deserts and all manner of terrain. While there is some opposition to his conclusions, it is a worthy endeavour.

I drew parallels to this work when reading the later books of Herodotus where Xerxes purportedly led nearly two million people across the Hellespont and down through Greece. Even if he led just a fraction of that number, assessing the speed, movement and strategic choices in light of the logistic nightmare before him–and in particular that of fresh water, would be worthwhile.

In particular withdrawing from Attike after the first harvest they destroyed (or harvested themselves) in 479, and then returning in 480 around harvest time again. Further, since he divided his force between Ionia (largely because they could have revolted again–and did so after the Battle of Mykale), Thrace and Thessaly, while dismissing some portion of it entirely following Salamis, Xerxes enabled his armies to function effectively, guard all its territory, including the satrap that was Thrace and Macedonia, and, most importantly, feed them.

This is not to say that all decisions are made based on the ability to feed the troops, but the truism that soldiers fight on their stomachs exists for a reason. Certainly how the troops were to be fed must be accounted for when thinking about overarching campaign strategy and movement.

The Spartan Myth – Martial Prowess & Invincibility

On the eve of the Persian Wars1 Sparta was undeniably the most powerful military force in Greece. The only true competitor during this period was Argos, but under Kleomenes, Sparta annihilated their army at Sepeia, supposedly killing half of that generation’s military capacity. Athens had a naval component of sorts, but it was not until almost fifteen years later that the first large naval buildup took place after an especially profitable year at the Laurium mines, but I digress.

There is some evidence that suggests that the Ionian rebellion and Croesus of Lydia tried to enlist Spartan aid for their cause, not Athenian, though ultimately it was an Athenian fleet that took part in the sack of Sardis. On land Sparta could call upon more hoplites than could Athens, between 5,000 Spartitiates, 5,000 Periokoi of Lakedaimon, and several thousand (up to 15) from their Peloponnesian allies, as demonstrated by the campaign leading up to Plataia. Now this force was a more or less all out attempt, though some number must have remained behind to prevent uprising and intervention from Argos. There is logic behind these capabilities, the Peloponnesian League and the storied agoge for acquiescing to Spartan hegemony against Persia. Further, in the years leading up to the wars two Spartan kings, Kleomenes and Leonidas, may have spent their energies enlisting a panhellenic effort against Persia.

Yet in the modern mind, and possibly even the ancient (though this is harder to prove, if it was even the case), Spartan prowess in battle devolves to one heroic three-day stand on road through a narrow passage north of Boiotia: Thermopylae. Poems, books, and movies have all been made about this one event, with the epitaphs about it evoking shivers. So prominent is it that it is easy to forget that it accomplished exactly nothing, and was a total defeat which cost Sparta 300 homoioi (equals).2 While the Persian losses were large at Thermopylae, he had troops to spare, so that when he left for Asia following Salamis, he still left behind Mardonios with an army larger than the combined Greek force, plus a second army somewhat smaller to protect the road through Macedonia, and a third in Northern Asia minor. It was costly to take the pass, but not in a significant manner.

There is also one brand of scholarship that argues that Leonidas himself was disobeying orders by remaining at Thermopylae when the situation had become untenable, though he may not have known how quickly the Persian flanking force would arrive and therefore thought that he could beat a fighting retreat. The suggestion from this derives from the boat that was to inform the Greek fleet of the defeat which did not leave until relatively late on the third day, suggesting that it was not a suicidal last stand, in which case the boat would have departed immediately.

The argument that he was buying time begs the question: time for what? The “final stand” he was buying time for their retreat, but as suggested he was only a rear-guard, not a suicidal mission and expected to beat a retreat later. Yet the initial deployment to Thermopylae is often seen as a delaying mission, so the question again arises. It was not to raise an army, since three days matters not at all when the actual land battle was not fought for another year. It was not to evacuate Athens, though three days would matter more there, since they must have already been evacuating, and it would take the Persians another week or more to reach the city from Thermopylae. No, sacrificing four or more thousand Greeks for three days is a ludicrous possibility.

I agree with the line of thinking that says that Leonidas did not intend a suicidal stand, but a fighting retreat; he held Thermopylae as long as he could, expecting reinforcements–for example, one of the two surviving Spartans missed the battle because he was off as an envoy gathering reinforcements. Thus Leonidas expected more troops and fully expected to be able to stave off the Persians, effectively stemming their invasion, while the fleet at Artemesion held off or defeated the Persian fleet.

This logic, and the subsequent sacrifice leads to a logical conclusion of a legend about Sparta putting it all out for Greece. This aspect is not lost, but this sort of responsibility already existed and the other states seemingly expected that Sparta would do it, so Thermopylae was their duty, not the foundation of a new legend. Instead it is usually cited as the rigidity, discipline and martial prowess of Spartans and while their standing firm is impressive, they all died. Leonidas miscalculated his capacity to retreat and died early on the third day before they had reached the point of retreat. Disciplined to the point of stupidity, led bravely in a failed effort (though it should be noted that Leonidas led as he was supposed to and if he was given 40,000 hoplites, not all of whom would have fit in the pass anyway, he would have done just fine), the rise of the legend is perplexing. It does make a great story, but it was a heroic failure. Sparta was largely interested in defending the Peloponnese and if Leonidas was breaking with policy by standing and dying, then it shows a weakness on the part of the Greek alliance.

The Spartan Myth also has a great deal to do with the supposed absence of strife in Sparta during the classical period.

1 I will not go into a detailed discussion about the events leading up to the Persian Wars, though that topic may be forthcoming over this week. Note that at least some of my topical choices will be based in my course work this semester–Problems in Greek History and The Roman Empire.

2 Two issues about this number: 1) Actually it was 298, but one of the survivors committed suicide and the other died fighting in a frenzy at Plataia. 2) 300 was the traditional Spartan number for dangerous missions, though it is unlikely they were intended to be a suicide force, but moreover, during the Peloponnesian War around 175 homoioi were captured by Athens on Sphacteria and this was sufficient cause to offer a truce until they were returned. For a state with such a small population of full citizens, 300 was a large force, and too large of one for a suicide mission.

Grad school misgivings

Some clarification about the title: I am not having misgivings about attending grad school, nor really attending grad school here; the misgivings are about continuing to write on the blog while I am doing so.

For the first time in almost two years I am studying under someone who knows more about my field of interest than I do. Then I am surrounded by a host of people, each studying a different topic and most, if not all, knowing more about their topic than I do. It is intimidating, to say the least.

Second, the tone is a bit authoritative. I am writing as someone knowledgeable and, on rare occasions, insightful. With this new turn in my life, I have gone from a senior, then a manager who had to have the answers, to a first year student and one who is wrong far too frequently for comfort.