Mankind, Armies, and Strategy

I have always had great sympathy for Louis XVI. As far as moral character goes, he far outstripped his two predecessors. He had a genuine Christian faith and a genuine love for his family. The first several years of his reign show a movement towards humanitarian and scientific improvements throughout the country, and he sought to limit spending and the Versailles fluffery that characterized Louis XIV-XV. It seems ironic and almost non-sensical that the French Revolution should have come for him. It makes sense, however, when one realizes that for all his virtues, Louis could not play the role of King when it counted most. He had the very common foibles of indecisiveness, and wanting to be liked a bit too much. One can easily pass over such flaws in a common person, but at the wrong place and time, those in power with such flaws receive no mercy from history.

One can see this crucial difference between the three monarchs in their portraits. First, Louis XIV, then Louis XV:

Louis XV would have washed out as anybody but a king. His flaws would have overborne him as a blacksmith, lawyer, or baker. But . . . he could fill the royal robes. Whatever one can say about him, he cared little what others thought.*

Louis XVI in the same pose

comes up short. He shows the required leg, with none of the confidence. While Louis XIV and XV seem to leap out of the frame, Louis XVI wants us to go away so he can go back to fixing his clocks. Alas that 1789 came for such a decent, normal person. Pressed in trying times to puff out his chest and stand firm, he could not. Let us not say that he lacked the courage for this, for he proved at his trial and death to have plenty of it. Rather, we might say that leopards cannot change their spots. Faced with situations entirely unsuited to his temperament, he blundered into bad move after bad move, vacillating here and there in the process.

Some years ago I came across Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, a title that, at the time, struck me as bizarre yet intriguing on its face. I thought, like many, that the Byzantines blundered around willy-nilly for some centuries, with their hesitations and diplomatic ploys betraying a complete lack of strategy. But Luttwak masterfully pointed out that

  • Most wars of any people are unnecessary, and should be avoided if possible. Investing in diplomacy as the Byzantines did costs far less in cash and in human lives.
  • The Byzantines faced enormous problems of different kinds on. multiple fronts for centuries that called for flexible and careful thought.
  • Like anyone, they made mistakes, but their survival for 1000 years as essentially 1/2 of the Roman Empire shows that they had great success overall in managing their resources with accuracy and effectiveness.

Luttwak performs a similar turn with his The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. Emperors of varied quality came and went over the centuries. But, the Romans had a method to how they comprised and used their army. Again, having a strategy won’t always mean that one stays faithful to it, or even that they have a good strategy. But a method, unconscious or no, existed for the Roman Empire, independent of good generals and emperors.

His introduction lays out his basic approach regarding the use of force:

The superiority of the empire, and it was vast, . . . derived from the whole complex of ideas and traditions that informed the organization of Roman military force and it harnessed the power of the empire to a political purpose. The firm subordination of tactical priorities, martial ideals, and warlike instincts to political priorities was the essential condition of success. . . . In the imperial period at least, force was recognized for what it is, an essentially limited instrument of power, costly and brittle. Much better to conserve force, and use military power indirectly.

As an example . . . Romans considered the loss of a military standard something akin to a national tragedy. The Parthians captured a few such standards at Crassus’ disaster at Carrhae. Luttwak writes,

Augustus did not try and avenge the great defeat inflicted by the Parthians . . . in 53 B.C. Instead, in 20 B.C. he reached a compromise settlement under which Armenia was to be ruled by a king of the Arascid family, who would receive his investiture from Rome. Behind the neatly balanced formula there was strategy, for Parthian troops would thereby be kept out of a neutralized Armenia and far from undefended Anatolia and valuable Syria. There was also politics. The standards lost at Carrhae would be returned to Rome and received with great ceremony. Augustus issued coins falsely proclaiming the “capture” of Armenia.

Not very dramatic or inspiring, but Sun Tzu proclaimed that the best generals win without fighting.**

Luttwak organizes the book into a few different eras, i.e., the Julio-Claudians, the Flavians to the Severi, and so on. He examines the military composition at the time, what that should mean for how they used those forces, and to what degree the tactical situation on the ground matched policy in Rome. Certain eras interested me more than others, so what follows reflects that.

During the heyday of the Republic era, Rome’s legions had some variety and flexibility built within them, with light infantry (effective) and cavalry (not as much) attached to the standard Roman heavy infantry. As Rome underwent political changes, so too its army changed. During the early years of the principate they coalesced their forces to make them “heavier”–gone more or less were the javelin throwers and the horses. Exactly why this happened is hard to say, but interestingly, the centralization of political power mirrored itself in the centralization of the army.

However true this may be, it cannot explain everything–a diplomatic method existed behind it. Rome used client states to aid in their security, and used the militaries of the client states to supplement their own. So–Rome provided the main course, so to speak, and their clients the rest. Luttwak writes,

It is the absence of a perimeter defense that is the key to the entire system of Roman security during this period. There were neither border defenses nor local forces to guard against the “low intensity” threats of petty infiltration, transborder incursions, or localized attack. . . . such protection was provided, by indirect and non-military means. By virtually eliminating the burden of maintaining continuous frontier defenses, the net “disposable” military power generated by the imperial forces was maximized. . . . Thus, the empire’s potential military power could be converted into actual political control at a high rate of exchange.

Luttwak adds the following visual, which helps explain the idea of what he calls the “Hegemonic Empire.”

The weakness of such a system lies in that it requires someone with deft political skills to manage it, but Augustus possessed these in abundance. Some of his successors entirely lacked anything like it, but they ruled for a short time–i.e., Caligula. Others, like Tiberius, had sufficient ability, even if they lacked brilliance. Rome all in all prospered under this system because they had “good enough” emperors rule long enough to cover over the disasters. Rome tended to trust its clients and spent few resources watching over them. In turn, this meant that Rome made itself vulnerable to collapse if multiple clients rebelled at once. But again, the strength of the system and the overall competence of leadership made such a result quite unlikely.

In turn, the structure of the army and the attending political realities mean that,

the Roman army was clearly best equipped to serve an an instrument of warfare against enemies with fixed assets to protect–primarily cities, but also such things as arable lands or even irrigation systems. Conversely, Roman capabilities [declined] when enemies assets were not fixed, or at any rate, not concentrated.

This makes Roman disasters like Teutoburg Forest more understandable. You had Varus in command, one who lacked sufficient political ability in Germany. Perhaps more importantly, you had the Roman army far from any help from client states to supplement their ranks, and thus, able to fight well only against fixed assets. When the Germans under Arminius made his own army less “fixed” by “retreating” into the forest, the Romans got mauled. Rome won battles in subsequent years against certain German tribes, but the lack of fixed assets explains why they never could really conquer Germany, nor Parthia and the Sassanids. Grand strategic nuggets like this make Luttwak’s book a real gem.

Luttwak adds that at times the army could prevail in battle even against those lacking a majority of fixed assets. But such situations called forth the dark side of Roman power, writing that

the Romans could [not] apply their strength effectively against the widely dispersed rural base of warrior nations whose strength did not depend on the survival of city-based economic and social structure. Consequently, if the Romans persisted in their efforts, their only real alternative meant attacking the population base itself, in a war of extermination. . . . Thus at the conclusion of Domitian’s campaign against the Nasamones of North Africa, he reported to the Senate that the war had been won, and that the Nasamones has ceased to exist.

Though Luttwak’s analyzes almost everything dispassionately, one can see an example of the truth of St. Maximos’ dictum that man is a macrocosm of the universe, and that we should therefore interpret history through the lens of the human person. For example, I remember years ago when I tried my hand at fixing a plumbing problem in our house. I have no plumbing skills, but the problem seemed simple enough for me to try. Three trips to Home Depot and various tirades worthy of the dad in A Christmas Story later, I called a plumber, who humored me when he arrived by saying that he had seen worse.

My point here is that it would have been much better for me had the plumbing issue been bad enough that I never would have tried to fix it at all. Instead, it hovered in a tempting in-between space. Having waded in, I lost perspective and my cool. The same thing happened more or less to Roman armies in Parthia. And I can remember feeling akin to the Romans against the Nassamones–that if I bashed the pipes to oblivion, I could tell my wife that we had no more problem with the sink. Louis XVI had courage, and humility as well. In the case of serious invasion of France by a foreign enemy, I can imagine him deferring entirely generals while standing firm in an appropriately kingly way. In that case, the situation would have had clarity for him. When he tried to wade into managing internal social and political dynamics, he stumbled badly and tens of thousands died.

In time, Rome switched from a “Hegemonic Empire” to a “Territorial Empire,” to use Luttwak’s term. They switched from a “defense in depth” to having all the eggs in the “border security” basket. This mean that Rome either annexed, absorbed, or abandoned client states. Luttwak masterfully helps us not attach moral categories to this choice, or even to judge immediately the effectiveness of the switch. Rather, this choice involved different risks and problems.

The most common fallacy of analyses is the tendency to evaluate defensive systems in absolute terms. . . . Defensive systems should instead be evaluated in relative terms: their cost in resources should be compared to their military “output.”

Luttwak, p. 61

One can surmise that the “Territorial Empire” had the advantage of simplifying certain problems. More unity meant more control over various factors of defense. Rome need not have emperors equipped with cunning and subtlety to manage the empire effectively. A bulldog would do just fine. But–any penetration of the line brought a significant crises, and if the armies got either lazy or turned on each other–as (the latter) happened frequently in the 3rd century A.D., disaster would follow.

In my view, we should see the “Hegemonic” model of empire as a holdover from the Republic era. It’s flexible fringe with its solid core mirrors that of the structure of the Republic itself. We can see with hindsight that he principate system inaugurated by Augustus fell in between the stools of Republic and Empire, for which the Territorial model makes more sense.

For our own time . . . the NATO alliance in theory projects maximum deterrence and maximum fragility, akin to the Territorial model above. If someone does anything to any member of NATO, all in theory will respond. Possibly, the penetration of one of its members (by Russia) would rally everyone in the ranks for a defense. Possibly as well, an attack at any point might actually reveal the fragility of the system. NATO might abandon one of its own to prevent a general war, which would effectively end NATO as a viable entity.

A third possibility exists . . . one that shows that NATO in facts functions hegemonically. Perhaps the U.S, acting as NATO’s hegemon, might instead delegate defense based on complex diplomatic relationships. Such a move offers us a way out of the either/or of our current situation, and prevent a general war. But it also requires better political leadership than either or current or previous president could provide. If no one more deft arrives on the scene in 2024, we are stuck with the pro’s . . . and con’s of having all of our eggs in the “Territorial” basket.

Dave

*Incidentally, Charles II of England, a distracted (though certainly intelligent) debauchee much like Louis XV, also could transform himself. He knew how to be a king when it really counted, as this brief clip perfectly captures. If Louis XVI could have acted similarly in 1789 with the Estates General, perhaps things would have been different.

**I have nothing to add to the Russia-Ukraine situation except to say that hopefully, Ukraine can find something akin to a military standard to offer to Russia. It would have be something of little value to them, enormous value to Russia. I don’t know if anything like that exists between them.