/ Published December 13, 2011
Makers of Ancient Strategy by Victor Davis Hanson. Princeton University Press, 2010, 278 pp.
“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” These nine words penned by William Faulkner serve as a reminder that history, more often than not, is manifest in the present and we should not ignore it. Makers of Ancient Strategy reinforces this ideal through a compilation of 10 essays relating the past to the present by examining the experiences of the classical empires of Greece and Rome through the exploits of its greatest leaders and generals. Victor Davis Hanson, currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a noted scholar on ancient warfare, serves as editor and contributor to this self-proclaimed prequel to another classic anthology on strategy: Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler. Each essay in this anthology draws uncanny parallels between the complex problems faced by contemporary nation-states and those of the Greek and Roman empires of 2,000-plus years previous. Together, the 10 essays provide an invaluable perspective on ancient approaches and solutions to the same problems the world faces today.
As Hanson points out, a primary purpose of such a book is to reinforce the notion that “the study of history, not recent understanding of technological innovations, remains the better guide to the nature of contemporary warfare.” A proper study of ancient military history not only provides a window through which to view the past but also a glimpse of what the future may hold if we ignore the lessons of those who came before us.
To keep the lessons of the past in proper context, Hanson offers fair warning that classical history often suffers from a lack of clarity as to why certain grand strategies were pursued. A scarcity of records, exacerbated by the tyranny of time, can lead to producing “novel” conclusions to then exceptional circumstances. Nor are there many firsthand accounts by the principal instigators describing why they embarked upon their chosen paths. This leaves much of what we know about ancient grand strategy to be implied by historians such as Thucydides rather than explicitly detailed by the actors themselves.
Certain truths ring true throughout the annals of history. A central tenet of Makers of Ancient Strategy is that even though technology may change how we fight, “human nature, which drives conflict, is unchanging.” Violence is an innate, enduring characteristic of humanity itself and is not confined to one culture or another. The ability to rationalize violence to consolidate or protect power has been perhaps the most defining characteristic of any civilization, whether democratic in nature or not.
The strongest, most relevant essays touch on subjects comprising the strategic landscape of today’s conflicts. As Hanson points out, the strength of a book such as Makers of Ancient Strategy is that it “reminds us that the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The breakouts of extreme violence occasioning modernity are not so unfamiliar to the classical world of the Greeks and Romans. The historical importance of this book lies in the exceptional ability of the authors to relate the discussion of ancient strategy to a modern-day context. One walks away from reading this book feeling that the predicament the world finds itself in today is not unique after all. Urban warfare was as perilous and undesirable then as it is now. Counterinsurgency and nation-building are daunting challenges for any culture. Launching a preemptive campaign is a risky venture, the long-term benefits of which must be protected by heavy investment in the postwar phase. These are but a few contemporary issues that resonate with the same levels of complexity and difficulty as they did over two millennia ago.
Hanson’s essay on preemptive war is an excellent dissertation on this controversial doctrine. Epaminondas’s campaign against the Spartan Empire in 370–369 BC reveals lessons highly applicable to today. Citing preemptive war as a paradox, Hanson details the need to balance the attractiveness of gaining a short, decisive victory in which the enemy has no means to withstand the attack with a proper postwar investment to ensure the results remain over the long run. As we see today amongst the many years of chaos in Iraq, the cost of not planning and investing for postwar operations is costly and undermines domestic support.
Equally compelling is John W. I. Lee’s essay on urban warfare in the classical Greek world. Lee reveals how fighting within a city becomes “vicious and uncertain.” Unfamiliarity with city topography proved isolating and confounding to attackers. Lack of communication and control restricted freedom of movement. As Lee points out, the urban warfare in Plataea during 431 BC is no different than Mogadishu in 1993. Accurate intelligence and knowledge of the local surroundings and language is just as important now as it was then. Moreover, the Greek experience provided the lesson that urban war requires more than holding a central point; it requires living in and around the population to exercise control. Sadly, this is a premise that had to be relearned through years of experience and many casualties in Iraq.
Makers of Ancient Strategy is very well worth the read and is an excellent companion to the Makers of Modern Strategy volumes. Each essay is well written and immerses the reader in subjects just as relevant and pressing today as they were over 2,000 years ago. Each author frames the subject and players well and provides thought-provoking linkages between ancient history and contemporary conflicts. Because each essay concludes with lessons learned, there is much to be gained from reading this anthology. It is a foregone conclusion that technological revolutions have largely reshaped how war is fought. However, war is and always will be an innate flaw of the human character. Only the study of history will prepare one to confront the problems of the future by experiencing the past.
Col Christopher J. Brunner, USAF
Air War College
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."