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.

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