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.

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