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Carnage & Culture: Why The West Won Wars

THROUGHOUT THIS BOOK I use the term “Western” to refer to the culture of classical antiquity that arose in Greece and Rome; survived the collapse of the Roman Empire; spread to western and northern Europe; then during the great periods of exploration and colonization of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries expanded to the Americas, Australia, and areas of Asia and Africa; and now exercises global political, economic, cultural, and military power far greater than the size of its territory or population might otherwise suggest. While the chapter titles reflect key elements of this common Western cultural tradition, they should not imply that all European states always shared exactly the same values, or that these core institutions and practices were unchanging over some 2,500 years of history. While I grant that critics would disagree on a variety of fronts over the reasons for European military dynamism and the nature of Western civilization itself, I have no interest in entering such contemporary cultural debates, since my interests are in the military power, not the morality, of the West.


Why the West Has Won

When the trumpet sounded, the soldiers took up their arms and went out. As they charged faster and faster, they gave a loud cry, and on their own broke into a run toward the camp. But a great fear took hold of the barbarian hosts; the Cilician queen fled outright in her carriage, and those in the market threw down their wares and also took to flight. At that point, the Greeks in great laughter approached the camp. And the Cilician queen was filled with admiration at the brilliant spectacle and order of the phalanx; and Cyrus was delighted to see the abject terror of the barbarians when they saw the Greeks.

—XENOPHON, Anabasis (1.2.16–18)


EVEN THE PLIGHT of enterprising killers can tell us something. In the summer of 401 B.C., 10,700 Greek hoplite soldiers—infantrymen heavily armed with spear, shield, and body armor—were hired by Cyrus the Younger to help press his claim to the Persian throne. The recruits were in large part battle-hardened veterans of the prior twenty-seven-year Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.). As mercenaries, they were mustered from throughout the Greek-speaking world. Many were murderous renegades and exiles. Both near adolescents and the still hale in late middle age enlisted for pay. Large numbers were unemployed and desperate at any cost for lucrative work as killers in the exhausted aftermath of the internecine war that had nearly ruined the Greek world. Yet there were also a few privileged students of philosophy and oratory in the ranks, who would march into Asia side by side these destitute mercenaries—aristocrats like Xenophon, student of Socrates, and Proxenus, the Boeotian general, as well as physicians, professional officers, would-be colonists, and wealthy Greek friends of Prince Cyrus.

After a successful eastward march of more than 1,500 miles that scattered all opposition, the Greeks smashed through the royal Persian line at the battle of Cunaxa, north of Babylon. The price for destroying an entire wing of the Persian army was a single Greek hoplite wounded by an arrow. The victory of the Ten Thousand in the climactic showdown for the Persian throne, however, was wasted when their employer, Cyrus, rashly pursued his brother, Artaxerxes, across the battle line and was cut down by the Persian imperial guard.

Suddenly confronted by a host of enemies and hostile former allies, stranded far from home without money, guides, provisions, or the would-be king, and without ample cavalry or missile troops, the orphaned Greek expeditionary infantrymen nevertheless voted not to surrender to the Persian monarchy. Instead, they prepared to fight their way back to the Greek world. That brutal trek northward through Asia to the shores of the Black Sea forms the centerpiece of Xenophon’s Anabasis (“The March Up-Country”), the author himself one of the leaders of the retreating Ten Thousand.

Though surrounded by thousands of enemies, their original generals captured and beheaded, forced to traverse through the contested lands of more than twenty different peoples, caught in snowdrifts, high mountain passes, and waterless steppes, suffering frostbite, malnutrition, and frequent sickness, as well as fighting various savage tribesmen, the Greeks reached the safety of the Black Sea largely intact—less than a year and a half after leaving home. They had routed every hostile Asian force in their way. Five out of six made it out alive, the majority of the dead lost not in battle, but in the high snows of Armenia.

During their ordeal, the Ten Thousand were dumbfounded by the Taochians, whose women and children jumped off the high cliffs of their village in a ritual mass suicide. They found the barbaric white-skinned Mossynoecians, who engaged in sexual intercourse openly in public, equally baffling. The Chalybians traveled with the heads of their slain opponents. Even the royal army of Persia appeared strange; its pursuing infantry, sometimes whipped on by their officers, fled at the first onslaught of the Greek phalanx. What ultimately strikes the reader of the Anabasis is not merely the courage, skill, and brutality of the Greek army—which after all had no business in Asia other than killing and money—but the vast cultural divide between the Ten Thousand and the brave tribes they fought.

Where else in the Mediterranean would philosophers and students of rhetoric march in file alongside cutthroats to crash headlong into enemy flesh? Where else would every man under arms feel equal to anyone else in the army—or at least see himself as free and in control of his own destiny? What other army of the ancient world elected its own leaders? And how could such a small force by elected committee navigate its way thousands of miles home amid thousands of hostile enemies?

Once the Ten Thousand, as much a “marching democracy” as a hired army, left the battlefield of Cunaxa, the soldiers routinely held assemblies in which they voted on the proposals of their elected leaders. In times of crises, they formed ad hoc boards to ensure that there were sufficient archers, cavalry, and medical corpsmen. When faced with a variety of unexpected challenges both natural and human—impassable rivers, a dearth of food, and unfamiliar tribal enemies—councils were held to debate and discuss new tactics, craft new weapons, and adopt modifications in organization. The elected generals marched and fought alongside their men—and were careful to provide a fiscal account of their expenditures.

The soldiers in the ranks sought face-to-face shock battle with their enemies. All accepted the need for strict discipline and fought shoulder-to-shoulder whenever practicable. Despite their own critical shortage of mounted troops, they nevertheless felt only disdain for the cavalry of the Great King. “No one ever died in battle from the bite or kick of a horse,” Xenophon reminded his beleaguered foot soldiers (Anabasis 3.2.19). Upon reaching the coast of the Black Sea, the Ten Thousand conducted judicial inquiries and audits of its leadership’s performance during the past year, while disgruntled individuals freely voted to split apart and make their own way back home. A lowly Arcadian shepherd had the same vote as the aristocratic Xenophon, student of Socrates, soon-to-be author of treatises ranging from moral philosophy to the income potential of ancient Athens.

To envision the equivalent of a Persian Ten Thousand is impossible. Imagine the likelihood of the Persian king’s elite force of heavy infantry— the so-called Immortals, or Amrtaka, who likewise numbered 10,000— outnumbered ten to one, cut off and abandoned in Greece, marching from the Peloponnese to Thessaly, defeating the numerically superior phalanxes of every Greek city-state they invaded, as they reached the safety of the Hellespont. History offers a more tragic and real-life parallel: the Persian general Mardonius’s huge invasion army of 479 B.C. that was defeated by the numerically inferior Greeks at the battle of Plataea and then forced to retire home three hundred miles northward through Thessaly and Thrace. Despite the army’s enormous size and the absence of any organized pursuit, few of the Persians ever returned home. They were clearly no Ten Thousand. Their king had long ago abandoned them; after his defeat at Salamis, Xerxes had marched back to the safety of his court the prior autumn.

Technological superiority does not in itself explain the miraculous Greek achievement, although Xenophon at various places suggests that the Ten Thousand’s heavy bronze, wood, and iron panoply was unmatched by anything found in Asia. There is no evidence either that the Greeks were by nature “different” from King Artaxerxes’ men. The later pseudoscientific notion that the Europeans were racially superior to the Persians was entertained by no Greeks of the time. Although they were mercenary veterans and bent on booty and theft, the Ten Thousand were no more savage or warlike than other raiders and plunderers of the time; much less were they kinder or more moral people than the tribes they met in Asia. Greek religion did not put a high premium on turning the other cheek or on a belief that war per se was either abnormal or amoral. Climate, geography, and natural resources tell us as little. In fact, Xenophon’s men could only envy the inhabitants of Asia Minor, whose arable land and natural wealth were in dire contrast to their poor soil back in Greece. Indeed, they warned their men that any Greeks who migrated eastward might become lethargic “Lotus-Eaters” in such a far wealthier natural landscape.

The Anabasis makes it clear, however, that the Greeks fought much differently than their adversaries and that such unique Hellenic characteristics of battle—a sense of personal freedom, superior discipline, matchless weapons, egalitarian camaraderie, individual initiative, constant tactical adaptation and flexibility, preference for shock battle of heavy infantry—were themselves the murderous dividends of Hellenic culture at large. The peculiar way Greeks killed grew out of consensual government, equality among the middling classes, civilian audit of military affairs, and politics apart from religion, freedom and individualism, and rationalism. The ordeal of the Ten Thousand, when stranded and near extinction, brought out the polis that was innate in all Greek soldiers, who then conducted themselves on campaign precisely as civilians in their respective city-states.

In some form or another, the Ten Thousand would be followed by equally brutal European intruders: Agesilaus and his Spartans, Chares the mercenary captain, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and centuries of legionary dominance, the Crusaders, Hernán Cortés, Portuguese explorers in Asiatic seas, British redcoats in India and Africa, and scores of other thieves, buccaneers, colonists, mercenaries, imperialists, and explorers. Most subsequent Western expeditionary forces were outnumbered and often deployed far from home. Nevertheless, they outfought their numerically superior enemies and in varying degrees drew on elements of Western culture to slaughter mercilessly their opponents.

In the long history of European military practice, it is almost a truism that the chief military worry of a Western army for the past 2,500 years was another Western army. Few Greeks were killed at Marathon (490 B.C.). Thousands died at the later collisions at Nemea and Coronea (394 B.C.), where Greek fought Greek. The latter Persian Wars (480–479 B.C.) saw relatively few Greek deaths. The Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.) between Greek states was an abject bloodbath. Alexander himself killed more Europeans in Asia than did the hundreds of thousands of Persians under Darius III. The Roman Civil Wars nearly ruined the republic in a way that even Hannibal had not. Waterloo, the Somme, and Omaha Beach only confirm the holocaust that occurs when Westerner meets Westerner.

This book attempts to explain why that is all so, why Westerners have been so adept at using their civilization to kill others—at warring so brutally, so often without being killed. Past, present, and future, the story of military dynamism in the world is ultimately an investigation into the prowess of Western arms. Scholars of war may resent such a broad generalization. Academics in the university will find that assertion chauvinistic or worse—and thus cite every exception from Thermopylae to Little Big Horn in refutation. The general public itself is mostly unaware of their culture’s own singular and continuous lethality in arms. Yet for the past 2,500 years—even in the Dark Ages, well before the “Military Revolution,” and not simply as a result of the Renaissance, the European discovery of the Americas, or the Industrial Revolution—there has been a peculiar practice of Western warfare, a common foundation and continual way of fighting, that has made Europeans the most deadly soldiers in the history of civilization.

Interesting presentation. Is this your work, John? I don't see attribution, except for Xenophon.

Rodney Stark (in How Christianity (and Capitalism) Led to Science) writes in much the same vein. Of course, he included the advent of Christianity, in which science was codified as something that was constant and learnable - and not Quixotic. like non-Christian cultures, wherein the universe was based on fickle gods who changed how the universe worked at their whims. One example may be the invention of reins and stirrups which Charles Martel used with his much smaller forces to literally destroy the much larger "master horsemen" of the Umayyad Caliphate. I say may - because historians disagree if horsemen actually rode horses in that conflict.

Dr. Burton W. Folson is another historian that follows your logic.

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