Monday, December 30, 2013

Great Captains - Alexander






I have an enormous amount of respect for anyone who attempts to identify, let alone describe, the greatest commanders in history. The man in consideration today did so 124 years past in the grand old year of 1889 (not to be confused with 1898, Remember the Maine). He is our present day prototypical military history "buff" with a great attention to commanders of the west and none whatsoever considering the east. He also has a short lived military career, as one might expect; a veritable American Clausewitz with not so impressive an impact (though certainly deserving of no disparagement on the line of Clause either). He gave 6 hour long lectures considering Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Frederick, and Napoleon and eventually went on to write books about each of them, dying before completing the last sections on Frederick the Great. The term "Great Captain"* appears to be Napoleonic in origin or at least frequency, now we haven't such exalted terms to deal with commanders. I shall write a critique of each of Dodge's six lectures in order, beginning with Alexander; both as a better means to digest the information therein and as an exercise in potential future endeavours (though I do consider the east in my own deliberations).

* Napoleon himself identified Turenne (and possibly Prince Eugene) also as a Great Captain, whether this be French bias or an actual veritable selection is worth consideration.

Firstly, I fully admit to not knowing a great deal about Alexander and this continues to be a bit of a gap in my scope of knowledge (though knowing a great deal about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, King Wen, Wu Qi, and Cao Ah Man should suffice). But there does seem to be this pervasive element that persists even today citing Alexander as the "greatest," while he may have been the first of his kind in the West he was also facing largely inferior tactically incompetent commanders. Now this is where the argument begins, does his being the first ingenious tactician make it implicit that all other such tacticians stem from his accomplishments. Can all tactical innovation stem from one man? In a word, no, but the great leaps forward no doubt come from individuals of extreme competence placed in fortunate positions. The slow methodical evolution of warfare is undeniable, but so is its stagnation in the absence of true greatness.

Dodge's descriptions of Alexander focus on one key battle at the Hydapses; perhaps against Alexander's most skilled foe, Porus of India. Here he executed an exceptional strategic maneuver in crossing an ostensibly unfordable river unopposed and further executed a masterful tactical maneuver in outflanking the opponent's nigh invincible front (composed of 200 Elephants and 30,000 infantry); however it does seem that the opponent failed miserably on both the strategic and tactical fronts. This does not disparage Alexander's extraordinary performance nor the importance of the battle itself in a historical context, it simply brings forth the question: What if Alexander had faced a truly competent opponent? One can never say.

Following the descriptions of the battle Dodge quickly goes into a slew of praises and mild criticism, the lack of permanence of the Greek Empire evidently falls solely on Alexander's shoulders here; as does a certain over-lust for war in place of cultural innovation. This is a common theme no doubt, but I think the main issue is that Alexander died young, not that he would be incapable of creating a massive cultural restructuring of the known world. He also highlights that Alexander was prone to anger which is kind of crippling on the military front against a truly skilled adversary; however Dodge also says that "we can discover in him no military weakness." Thus, Dodge is too prone to praising Alexander on the military front and too prone to criticizing him on the domestic front, this is a very common historical outlook on Alexander and no doubt at least partially stems from Dodge's source materials; but I think it is somewhat short-sighted. A man of Alexander's competence could perhaps achieve almost anything if he set his mind to it and received no great ill-fortune along the way; but he was extremely fortunate in war and battle in terms of the capabilities of the opposition and extremely unfortunate in terms of the circumstances of his death (though perhaps his own excesses caused this premature downfall).


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