The young Abraham Lincoln once reflected on the nature of ancient conquerors like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and their modern counterpart, Napoleon. He described them as being members of “the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.” Such men, he noted, could not be satisfied with ordinary military or political life and ordinary rewards.
Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. —It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it.
Cornell University historian Barry Strauss, the author of a number of popular histories about antiquity, considers the “tribe of the eagle” in his new book, Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership. He compares these three Great Captains of the ancient world to draw lessons from their experiences on and off the field of battle.
They had to look far beyond the battlefield. They had to decide not only how to fight but whom to fight and why. They had to define victory and know when to end the war. They had to envision the postwar world and to design a new world order that would bring stability and lasting power. In short, they were not only field commanders but also statesmen.
In battle they were peerless but, as Strauss makes clear, as statesmen they all fell short. “Neither Alexander nor Caesar, much less Hannibal, ever solved the problem of how to bring about or how to maintain the new world order that each one sought.”
If one is keeping score, Strauss regards Caesar as the greatest of the three because he was, relatively speaking, the most statesmanlike. (Strauss’s case study of Caesar covers the Civil War, not his conquest of Gaul.) Hannibal was the greatest field commander (and the worst strategist). Alexander was the prototype of the charismatic conqueror, in the original sense of claiming divine grace and in the modern sense of possessing star power. Alexander was also the most balanced of the three in terms of managing the full range of war, including grand strategy, operations, tactics, and logistics. The times, of course, are different, and what Strauss calls the “Great Captains” seem to have left the stage of history. Today’s democratic leaders do not command armies and their generals do not decide on when to go to war or for what purposes. (Strauss perhaps neglects here the complexities of civil-military relations in the United States.) Strauss does not consider the possibility of a totalitarian Great Captain but one might say that although totalitarians have excelled as tyrants towards those under their control, that talent has not translated into military genius (see: Hitler); and that totalitarians will eventually kill or emasculate their most successful generals (see: Stalin, Mao).
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Be that as it may, Strauss believes that the Great Captains of antiquity have something to teach us, if only in the breach. Tactics and weapons change, but war itself remains much the same. If we can understand better where each of these three commanders succeeded and failed, we can improve our own ability to think strategically. Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar understood clearly that war is politics and yet in the end they forgot politics and let their vanity and urge to conquer overcome the inherent limits of strategy.
According to Strauss, most people think that war is a three-step process: attack, fight, win or lose. He argues that this model is wrong “because it simplifies and distorts the nature of war. We cannot understand war without allowing for its unpredictability and its fundamentally political nature.” He proposes instead a five-stage model that fits (he claims) not only the wars of the Great Captains but war generally, including more recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Strauss believes that although the model describes conventional warfare best, it also fits guerrilla wars and wars of attrition.
The first stage of the war, in Strauss’s model, is attack. Starting a war is a high-stakes gamble. Yet each of the ancient commanders found peace even more risky. The legitimacy of Alexander’s reign depended on following his father’s plan to invade Persia. Hannibal was not wrong in thinking that the survival of Carthage was at stake in war with Rome. Caesar knew that standing down from his political rivals would have cost him his career and probably his life. As aggressive as they were by inclination, they actually played it safe by going to war, and that meant taking the war to the opponent. Their success depended not only on knowing themselves but the other side. Within a month of stepping on to enemy soil, Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar felt they had judged their adversaries, and their strategic situation, correctly.
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“No plan survives contact with the enemy,” Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) famously said. Boxer Mike Tyson put it more pithily, “everyone has a plan until they get hit.” Thus the second stage of war, resistance. Polybius reminds us that while most generals and political leaders think only about success, they “do not envision the consequences of misfortune or consider at all how they should behave and what they should do in the event of disaster.” Shock and awe, the preferred approach of most Great Captains, often gets a campaign off to a good start but it often does not end the war.
Soon after invading enemy territory and achieving initial success, each commander had to reconsider his approach. They were surprised at the enemy’s countermeasures and made serious and possibly fatal mistakes, such as Alexander’s belief that it was possible to defeat a seapower by military operations on land. In fact, the history of war is a history of mistakes. The mark of a good general, according to Strauss, is less knowing how to avoid errors than being able to recover. Each began the war with the hope that the enemy would honor the established protocols of warfare and seek decision by pitched battle, where their own military genius, also reflected in the superiority of their forces, would tell. The enemy had other options, though, such as dragging out the war and relying on attrition, as Fabius proposed to do against Hannibal’s army; or by engaging in a counteroffensive in other theaters, which was the preferred strategy of Scipio Africanus.
Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar thus had to find a way to bring their opponents to the battlefield so that the third stage—clash—could begin, at a time and place of their own choosing. They could play upon the fact that ancient culture put a higher premium on honor than on cunning. For their enemies to turn down a battle was to risk losing face, which might have led waverers in the enemy’s camp to switch sides. Their enemy could also not be completely confident that its side could survive a war of attrition. The adoption of a Fabian-like strategy meant a long war where the genius of the Great Captains might well tell. Chance and the gods might favor the inferior side in a single throw of the dice.
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In fact, chance and the gods were not enough to overcome superior military command in a decisive pitched battle (Alexander at Gaugamela in 331 BCE, Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BCE, and Caesar at Pharsalus in 48 BCE). Each of the Great Captains correctly analyzed his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and responded accordingly. They demonstrated a healthy mix of respect and contempt for the enemy. Each guessed the enemy’s plans through spying or intuition. Their armies reflected a superior professionalism and especially a better infrastructure (logistics and the like). They established unquestioned leadership over their armies, the sort by which a commander binds his officers and soldiers personally to him. They displayed the agility to come up with new tactics and the audacity to carry them out. Finally, they exercised good judgment in the heat of combat, the combination of intuition and expertise that had them do just the right thing at just the right time.
Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar then needed to close the net, the fourth stage of war, to prevent their adversaries from rallying in defeat and continuing the war. Success does not always fall into one’s lap automatically after a major victory. Necessity is the mother of invention and the enemy commanders were literally fighting for their lives. They were likely to be more ingenious than ever, and perhaps even more dangerous. The Great Captain had to judge his next move carefully. Was this the moment to negotiate or to press home his advantage? If he decided to renew his attack, what was the right target-the enemy’s capital, his army, or his leadership? Assuming that he chose correctly and attacked successfully, how would he know when the war was won? Should be demand unconditional surrender and if not, what terms were acceptable? If his attack failed and the enemy bounced back, should he consider cutting his loses and pulling out?
Two of the three ancient commanders, Alexander and Caesar, closed the net successfully, in the most timely and cost-effective way. They understood that the longer the war dragged on, the higher the toll they would have to pay in blood and treasure and the less chance they had of winning a lasting peace. They managed the necessary political and military changes, from refining troop organization and tactics to reevaluating their grand strategy. They correctly assessed the internal workings of their enemies while shoring up support at home. They demonstrated renewed strategic agility, whether carrying out pursuit, taking a city by siege, countering raids and ambushes, or winning over civilian populations. They developed a new resource infrastructure and successfully managed morale, which was necessary to overcome the frustrations of a long war and to maintain support both in their armies and in their political base.
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Strauss finds Hannibal at fault in making the transition from a potentially decisive pitched battle to a war-winning outcome. Strauss is one of those who believe that Hannibal should have pressed on directly to Rome after his historic victory at Cannae, instead of opening negotiations designed to gain a psychological advantage. Rome, to be sure, was protected by formidable walls. But at the moment the Romans had no great number of soldiers to deploy for the city’s defense. After the shock of Cannae, the sudden appearance of Hannibal’s cavalry before the walls, followed by the forced march of the main body of his troops, might have tipped some of Rome’s key allies in central Italy over the edge and into the Carthaginian camp. A more agile commander could have transformed his army into one capable of undertaking a siege. In Strauss’ judgment, however, Hannibal was determined to stick inflexibly to his war aims (to cut Rome down to size, not to destroy it) and to his philosophy of operations and his military strategy (that of mobile, not static warfare), none of which called for attacking Rome directly. Although a siege would have taken time, this was nothing compared to the time that Hannibal eventually spent in Italy without any apparent purpose. And time was Hannibal’s enemy.
This brings us to the fifth and final stage of Strauss’s model of war, knowing when to stop. Unfortunately, as Winston Churchill wrote: “Those who can win a war well can rarely make a good peace, and those who could make a good peace would never have won the war.” At the pinnacle of their success, these men had become war addicts who would rather go off to fight new battles than to stay and build a stable society at home. Alexander might have come back much sooner from his eastern campaigns and devoted himself to governing his empire instead of building a new army for more fighting. Hannibal might have left Italy years earlier and protected Carthage and its empire. Caesar might have negotiated a peace agreement with his Roman opponents. But that wasn’t in their character.
Or perhaps they saw things differently. Whatever their stated political objectives—the unity of Europe and Asia, revenge against Rome, the remodeling of the republic—these Great Captains really wanted war and eternal fame. That they got.
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We can debate the utility of Strauss’s model of war, derived from the histories of a few great commanders. If nothing else, however, Masters of Command serves as a reminder that future Great Captains, if they exist—or would-be great captains, which do exist—are probably motivated by something else besides political rationality and limited objectives.
We might point to another, more modest, republican model of a Great Captain. As we detail in this month’s essay on George Washington’s grand strategy, the Father of His Country successfully managed the war-peace divide that eluded many of his ancient and modern counterparts. He was perhaps not the equal of Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar as a brilliant and innovative operational commander but he demonstrated strategic agility (fighting sieges, set-piece battles, and meeting engagements) and he understood the importance of infrastructure. He commanded the loyalty of his men. He attacked at the outset of the war (the siege of Boston), faced and overcame resistance (New York; the battles of Trenton and Princeton), brought about a decisive clash (Yorktown), closed the net (by keeping his army intact and out of politics), and knew when to stop (by resigning his commission, thereby setting the stage for a republican political career that saved the Revolution).