A Night at the Museum

Home for the holidays, I end up watching movies with my mother. Two nights ago on TV was the sequel to the “Night at the Museum” (the one set at the Smithsonian). I hadn’t seen the first movie, but the basic plot of both was fairly simple: each night a magic tablet from ancient Egypt brings to life the exhibits at a natural history museum (in the first) and the Smithsonian (the second), with the exhibits restored at dawn. Ben Stiller plays a night guard who befriends the exhibits in the first movie, and in the second saves them from a power-mad pharaoh, Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible, and some mobsters after the exhibits were transported to the Smithsonian for storage.[1] Along the way, Ben Stiller meets Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams, who falls in love with him), Einstein bobble-heads and Abraham Lincoln. The movie had its cute bits (Amy Adams among them), but it mostly just annoyed me–had I not been home (or had I the remote) I would not have watched.

Here are a couple of the reasons:

  • “Natural History” – I have some misgivings about history based museums as a general rule, though I do like looking at the art. This movie is set with exhibits of a natural history museum–which mixes animals, dinosaurs, Sacajawea, neanderthals, Mongolians, Romans, cowboys, and Teddy Roosevelt. As is hinted to in the plot of this movie, the key to the exhibits has little to do with “natural history” and everything to do with drawing visitors. Nevertheless, the general idea that natural history is stuff that happened outside and in the past without a link to science persists. This description has bothered me more as I age because it draws a distinction between civilization and nature and places the pre-modern beyond civilization.[2]In some ways, this is a semantic complaint since they could just call it a catchall museum (or antiquary?) and be done with it. Yet, sometimes the semantic concerns are the most insidious because it is possible to be entirely oblivious to what is happening.
  • The entire movie was reduced to stereotypes and caricatures. General George Custer being obsessed with his hair and being a terrible tactician, Napoleon’s obsession with his height (likely a product of British propaganda, as much as anything), and the romantic version of the photo “the kiss,” which, by all accounts was not nearly so welcome. The plot of the movie is designed as a vehicle for cameo appearances. The story can be done well (e.g. “Midnight in Paris”), but it can also result in excessively cheesy reductionism, which was the case in this film.

[1] The museum replaced the exhibits with animated and interactive displays.
[2] Throwing Teddy Roosevelt into that category also provides a level of unintentional comedy.

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.

Application of Force in the Age of Sail

I am not sure what book I read it in, but it may have been The Price of Admiralty where the strategies of Wellington and Nelson were compared. Nelson preferred the attack, deciding the flow of battle to an extent and using their superior sailing to place the inferior British ships in advantageous positions, be it between ships or on the shoreward side; Wellington was a defender, preferring to create hard points a la La Haye Sainte, and bringing up troops to support the larger battle line. At first glance these two plans could be no more different. In fact, Napoleon could be considered the Nelson of the land, with a preference for sharp application of force in a column, breaking through the opposing line; other Field Marshals, such as Davout often adopted the semi-static defense when pressed. In fact each military commander was taking advantage of their own forces and doing exactly the same thing: maximizing their potential force.

Nelson is the clearest example of this because he was not fighting on terrain. The seas provided their own challenge, but they were flat. No hills, no rivers. While his ships were smaller and of lower quality than their opponents, the British were better gunners and better sailors, which allowed them to place their ships in the most advantageous position and limit the ability of the French to fight back. The captains also knew what they were about, willing to take chances and assured of victory. This last was felt in the French navy. The French were afraid of Nelson, even while out gunning and out manning him. Nelson commanded the British equivalent of the Imperial guard and when he sailed towards the French, he did so in full view; everyone knew the greatest admiral alive and his elite fleet were bearing down on them. Not very reassuring.

Up until Waterloo Napoleon had the same advantage of fear. The Imperial Guard was loyal, strong, well trained and boasted never having fled. Further, they, as with the rest of the French army, attacked in columns, narrow, but deep, so that they could break through and then exploit this gap. This was even their intent when Napoleon sent forward the Imperial Guard at Waterloo.

Wellington proved himself a master of what I termed above “semi-static defense.” What I mean is that he chose a defensive position that covered some expanse of ground, relying on ridges, hills, farms, and whatever other landscape options were available to shelter his forces. He could then bolster his forces at the point of attack, with mobile reserves and pulling from unassailed portions of the line that his opponent couldn’t see. This was by far the most economical use of force, and would remain so through the American Civil War and was in some ways the precursor of trench warfare. It was also difficult to win a decisive victory with this stratagem as the attacker could simply withdraw. This would have been the case at Waterloo had the Prussian Army not attacked Napoleon’s flank. Strategic marches and defenses could win a campaign, but individual battles would more aptly be characterized as stalemates.

Wellington used this to keep his forces together and intact, something even more pressing for him because his troops largely did not have the elan of the French. They were not professionals, and their arrival did not inspire fear the way the Imperial Guard did. Wellington also knew that the French would attack. If he could hold, bolstering his line at the point of attack, using the farm houses, artillery, and even a surprise volley from the Foot Guards to maximize his own force, the way that Nelson crossed the French navy at Trafalgar, Aboukir and the Danes at Copenhagen, and the way that the French army attacked in columns and supported by massive artillery barrages. The key difference between the sea and the land is that while both offense and defense could concentrate force at the point of attack on land, this was much more difficult to do at sea; Nelson found that only in attack could force be concentrated.

It should also be noted that while the above is a quick overview of the strategy during this period and a few specifics, the concept is pretty much the same throughout history in that the first basic principle is to maximize your force and concentrate the attack. The real difference is whether that happens in the form of Nelson crossing between the French ships, Napoleon’s columns, Epaminondas’ oblique-heavy left, the Greek bottlenecks at Salamis, Artemesium and Thermopylae, Subodei’s diffusion and swarms of arrows in feigned retreats or swift moving tank columns of Rommel and Sherman.

Leuctra and Waterloo; The transience of invincibility

Waterloo, the final defeat of Napoleon by the joint Prussian and British forces was an incredibly well-orchestrated defense by the Duke of Wellington, who bore the brunt of the French assaults until the Prussian army arrived and finalized the defeat. But before the Prussians arrived Wellington drove off multiple charges of the French cavalry, defended Hougoumont all day, and held La Haye Sainte for most of the battle.

Mistakes were made on both sides, and at several points Napoleon probably could have routed the British Army and then turned to deal with the Prussian Army. Most importantly for Napoleon, his second in command was Marshal Ney, not nearly the same calibre officer as Marshal Davout, who was left in charge of Paris during this fateful campaign. Napoleon’s final move at Waterloo was to dispatch the Middle Guard, not the Old Guard, but a terrifying unit nonetheless, and one of his elite. The British Foot Guards broke this charge, prompting the disintegration of the French Army and end of Napoleon’s Hundred Days.

Spartan training was the stuff of legends in Ancient Hellas and from the days of Thermopylae and Plataea an aura of invincibility arose, not unlike that which Napoleon would enjoy. Before Thermopylae Spartans were feared, but not considered invincible (ironic that a defeat would do so much to further an aura of invincibility). Throughout the next hundred years or more Spartans were nigh undefeated on land, the major exception being on the island of Sphacteria off of Pylos, where a group of Spartans ignominiously surrendered. Then came Leuctra.

Thebes waxed while Sparta waned, became softer, more materialistic and lazy. In 371 the Spartan king Cleombrotus led the army up into Boeotia where a smaller force under Epaminondas caught it at a disadvantage and crushed it. In one fell swoop the Spartan predominance and invincibility disappeared.

In both situations armies were mismanaged and the loser could easily have emerged victorious; but in neither did they. Spartan hoplites could have held and the Imperial Guard could have kept advancing, but they didn’t. Both groups broke, both groups ran, auras of invincibility irreparably shattered. It took just one instance, one flight, one complete defeat.

Greatness and Reputation: opportunity vs action

Warning: little in the way of direction binds the following thoughts together.

Where to begin?

“Greatness” in generalship seems to be composed of a series of complementary pieces: tactics and strategy; dogged defense and speedy assaults; and then capacity for inspiring troops. Most often successful commanders exhibit multiple of these traits and the higher in rank they are, the more likely to require multiple of them, though the actual honorific “great” is a product of success more than any particular brilliance of operation.

In the Army of Northern Virginia Robert E Lee made extensive use of two men: James Longstreet and Thomas Jackson. Both men were capable of inspiring their men, though Jackson may have beenslightly better in this regard simply based on the feats of endurance his men accomplished, and both were tactical visionaries. Jackson earned his nickname “Stonewall” because of a dogged defense at Manassas I, but his greatest asset was the speed with which he attacked, while Longstreet’s was defensive tactics fifty years ahead of his time (he helped pioneer trench warfare used in World War I).

Does this mean that neither possessed superior strategic sense? No, but it is impossible to superimpose a situation because it was not something they dealt with and therefore would be supposition at best.

Two thousand years earlier, Alexander is considered the complete package, although in his own time there was some question of his overall strategy. But he won, so it is a bit hard to debate it. Phenomenal success rate, yes, but Alexander never really dealt with any situation that called for desparate defense, and validates the theory that the best defense is a good offense, but then it is hard to know the outcome if he was thrust into such a situation. Lastly, Alexander only had to subject people, he did not then have to rule them.

At the other end of Alexander’s battle line was Parmenion, who did not exhibit the attacking flair, but did the defense. At Issus and Gaugamela Parmenion’s Thessalian cavalry, 2,500 strong, held off five or ten times their number of Persian cavalry wit ha series of squadron level charges and counter-charges. Just as the strengths of Jackson and Longstreet were complementary, so, too, were those of Alexander and Parmenion. Perhaps they would have been able to take the other role, perhaps not.

Then there is Richard the Lionhearted, whose strategic failures overcame tactical success; Agesilaos, whose strategic grandiosity helped bring down Sparta; Alcibiades, whose bedroom and social antics doomed strategic and tactical brilliance, etc.

In these so-called great ones there are two factors: opportunity and personality. Do the great attackers have the patience for defense of who they launch an ill-advised attack? Would the defenders have that touch of impetuosity and recklessness to make the bold, unexpected charge? Or, if put in the right circumstance, would they adapt to the situation.

Is one more valuable than the other? Should a debate about ‘greatest general’ include that most were considered spectacular for one or two specific things? should generals be considered less “great” because they did not have to deal with certain aspects of military brilliance? Should there be a handicap for the culture and systems they are in (for example, with a traditional Phalanx, glorious charges were limited and it is much easier to be considered exceptional if you have the best army the world has ever seen).

I have my thoughts, but I would like to know what others think.