Thursday, January 23, 2014

Aristotle Quote

No, not that Aristotle. A tidbit of wisdom from the Metaphysics, again translated by Hippocrates G. Apostle:

"We must also inquire in which of two ways the nature of the whole has the good and the highest good, whether as something separate and by itself, or as the order of its parts. Or does it have it in both ways, as in the case of an army? For in an army goodness exists both in the order and in the general, and rather in the general; for it is not because of the order that he exists, but the order exists because of him." (p. 210)

While this is somewhat unrelated to his general point Aristotle distributes uncommon wisdom with this realization. In the modern age where there hasn't been a "great mover" (as Aristotle might say) in almost 200 years you run into this situation where command exists because command exists; the authority does little to establish or justify his existence and thus generates dissent and ineffectuality amongst the men. Order without purpose is not useful nor productive in generating an efficient fighting machine. Thus with no agent to shake things up the present system decays into a lethargic state, ripe for exploitation and destruction at the hands of a more skilled, disciplined, and indeed "ordered" opponent.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Great Captains - Caesar

Caesar is perhaps the only person in the history of mankind to embody both the role of Great Commander while also being a "Sage" or person of great diplomatic influence. Sages are a sort of debatable set but you can get the idea of who they might be (Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Jesus, Homer, perhaps even Hitler based on oratory skill alone*), Caesar was certainly one of the foremost public speakers of his day and obviously by far the most influential. His military conduct is very interesting, as he certainly performs with exceptional skill but in some respects also acts recklessly in certain situations (though one could say Alexander acted recklessly in all situations with regard to his own personal safety).

* For Kongming it becomes a matter of debate, his historical merit on the political front is unquestionable but his merit as a general is exceptional to be sure but not necessarily transcendent; even his direct peers seem to be somewhat superior.

Dodge begins by discussing his campaigns in Gaul; Caesar, despite no such order from the Senate, decided to conquer the rest of modern day France and the "barbarian" tribes therein; but such tribes were actually fairly well organized and militarily capable; they might not have had the quality of the Roman Legions but they were a respectable fighting force with reasonably competent commanders in charge. Caesar at this point was largely unproven as a military commander, despite being at the ripe old age of 42 (ancient for a Western commander, though not all that old for an Eastern one or even Saladin or Salah al-Din if you prefer), being that he was primarily a diplomat up to that point in his life. But he still had that certain knack and incredible intellectual ability to be able to embrace this new, perhaps highest of arts.

He began by countering a flanking maneuver with a flank of his own; I suppose a prelude to his later actions. Dodge's criticism of Caesar is that he was too prone to maneuver, though this ultimately makes no sense because maneuver is the most difficult and most rewarding aspect of warfare. The most impressive victories are those that come with no bloodshed; one of Napoleon's proudest moments was his total outflank and capture of the Austrian army at Ulm; scarcely firing a single gun in the process of capturing 30,000 men. Additionally quite a few battles are decided by the maneuvers before the battle begins; they don't have the formation brilliance of something like Cannae necessarily but they have the maneuver phase of an ascendant nature. The outflank at Leuthen, the absolutely masterful maneuver at Rossbach, the forcing of the battle of Borodino, the contested crossing at Wagram, Kongming's campaigns in Shu, the battle of Chancellorsville, the number of battles where maneuver determined the result is staggering. Thus, maneuver is paramount and one can not maneuver "too much" unless one does not value the life of his men.

Of course Caesar also had the dubious reputation for slaughtering hundreds of thousands of helpless Gaul "Barbarian" civilians, which amongst Dodge's list of Great Captains is certainly unique and not exactly respectable. From a military aspect there can be value in both being cruel and being fair and kind, Caesar I suppose tried to be both and it is hard to argue with his results though the means are unjustifiably inhumane. There's always some lingering question as to whether the cruelest or the most righteous man would win in a contest of equal wits and standing; but there is no clear-cut answer. Personally I would aid the cause of righteousness but I can't say that I would have no doubts so doing.

Caesar's most remarkable feat was the siege of Alesia, shown above. Sieges are not a particularly interesting element of warfare for most of the time they are simply matters of pure attrition; however numerous examples from Chinese history and a handful from Western history show that this need not always be the case. Alesia is perhaps the foremost example of ingenuity deciding a siege. Caesar trapped his most able opponent in a siege but was then onset by a much more numerous force from the exterior. To counter this he trapped his own men with a second larger wall on the exterior; knowing his supplies to be the superior of his opponent's. So doing he managed to defeat Vercingetorix and pacify Gaul, for the time being. Alexander's Siege of Tyre may be more ridiculous and unbelievable (though the remnants of his earthen bridge remain to this day) but in terms of intellectual calculation there is no finer example of how to hold a siege in Western history.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Great Captains - Hannibal

Hannibal is a difficult topic for discussion; since his successes were so enormous but yet did not produce a successful strategic result. A sort of extremely efficient and mortifying terrorist is perhaps a decent way to describe this legendary figure. Hannibal managed to face a technologically superior foe with better troops and best him on repeated occasions. Dodge suggests that Hannibal is sort of the birth of our modern conceptions of tactics and strategy, for in teaching the Romans how to fight wars he also was teaching all future western generations.

With his first 4 major victories he showed the Romans that "there is something in the art of war beyond merely marching out to your enemy and beating him by numbers, better weapons, or greater discipline." As much as Caesar or Augustus or Octavian Rome has Hannibal to thank for its transcendence; for such grander conquests would not be possible without learning first from an utterly exceptional leader.

Perhaps the most interesting aspects of Hannibal come from modern comparisons; how would a tactically inept, well constructed, well armed force fare against an extremely competent commander in charge of a heterogeneous force? In some ways we already have our answers; in the Korean and Vietnam wars an absurdly superior force was ably defeated, albeit not without cost. Of course Hannibal's campaigns were in enemy territory, against vastly more numerous forces.

The famed Battle of Cannae is discussed at length by Dodge; as by anyone else who discusses Hannibal. It is perhaps the foremost example of a numerically inferior force winning purely on the strength of tactical ingenuity; and not only winning but completely slaughtering the opposition. The standard idea that the center "must not fall" is turned on its head in this battle where the powerful flanks decide the outcome instead of the core conflict; the battle even  utilizes the hotheadedness of the opposing commander effectively. With 30-50,000 men Hannibal completely eradicated a force of 60-80,000; the roman legions' most embarassing loss in history.

Most interesting about this battle is the composition of Hannibal's force; with soldiers from Gaul, Spain, Carthage, Nubia, and other parts of North Africa; this is perhaps the most effective truly diverse force in the history of warfare. Even going to the Eastern commanders only the Mongolian hordes have similar amounts of diversity in their eventual conquering forces; though mainly due to necessity. One wonders how World War 2 would have gone if the Germans had been able to fully utilize their Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian allies. Even Napoleon himself frequently refers to the absolute inferiority of non French soldiers; this is a very common theme throughout history where the strongest force is the most ethnocentric one; but Hannibal just completely ignored that concept and was extremely successful as a result. Such a leader's communication abilites are beyond compare; to fully utilize such a diverse force effectively is incomprehensible.

Following Cannae Hannibal was offered a choice: to attack Rome immediately or instead wait for reinforcements from Carthage /defections of the Italian supporting states. However one does not lay siege to a million strong city with a force of 35,000 so his method of attack would have had to have been quite interesting. The various wars in China frequently had to deal with the issue of besieging a fortified city, as almost every large city in China had enormous, even unnecessarily large walls. So perhaps if Hannibal had been privy to Chinese sieging methods and tactical ingenuity he may have been able to take Rome; but it is certain that with western methods the task was impossible.

Instead Hannibal roamed the Italian countryside for 13 years; the Romans became more and more effective but still dared not face him in combat even with ridiculous numerical and functional superiority; this is where his existence as a terrifying being came to be; why the name of Hannibal still has tremendous connotations to this day. In some ways this is even better than Napoleon's numerous successes in the battles after Waterloo; where he frequently bested numerically superior forces and the "best strategy" became attacking where Napoleon wasn't. Dodge stipulates that he was able through being the original master from whom the Romans learned the art of war to completely stagnate the opposition; to prevent them from taking any truly offensive action. To forge for one's self an image of invincibility is a core component of any great commander's strategy; and Hannibal was the foremost at this aspect.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Frank Thomas

The Big Hurt
Today is a good day, today Frank Thomas went into the hall of fame on the first ballot with a solid 83.7% of the vote. While there's lots to say about the ballot and the general silliness of Bonds and Clemens not being in the Hall of Fame I'm still extremely happy. When I was growing up Frank Thomas was easily the best player in the league, and thus I became a White Sox fan; and through thick and thin (63-99 this year) I still am. Miraculously we did win a World Series on the way and Frank was on that team (albeit injured for much of the season); which was the most exciting baseball thing ever to occur.

When Frank started being injured in the late 90's/early 2000's my interest in baseball waned; meanwhile Bonds had the 4 best offensive seasons of all time and I only watched parts of the last one in 2004. I didn't have cable for a while so watching baseball was challenging to say the least and without Frank being there it never felt quite right. Of course he came back and had a really good end to his career with excellent seasons in Oakland and Toronto; despite him not being on the White Sox at the time I was still really invested in his performance.

Fortunately we eventually got TBS and WGN so I was able to watch a fair number of White Sox, Cubs, and Braves games and even tuned in to watch Randy Johnson's perfect game in 2004. Still, an entire 3-4 years was lost solely due to the incredible presence of Frank Thomas missing or being injured; that is how influential he was on my baseball life. A naturally enormous person who spoke out against steroids when no one cared, now he gets in on the first ballot as a result. Note: I don't actually care about steroids but it definitely swung Frank from a 76-77% of the vote type of guy to an 80-85% type; so that's pretty cool.

I don't even have to look up his stats, .301 batting average, 512 Homers, 1701 RBI; he's easily the best offensive player of the 1990s and just an utter beast. One of the best right handed hitters of all time gets his due, and I think for the first time the White Sox have a first ballot HoFer; though we have had quite famous borderline cases such as Minnie Minoso and even Harold Baines. Baines might eventually get in on the Veteran's committee and he'll have Frank to thank, he is the first DH for the majority of his career to make the Hall and sort of paves the way for David Ortiz, Edgar Martinez, and Harold Baines in the future.