Friday, January 4, 2008
Marching Up Country
I finally got my own copy of Xenophon's Anabasis a couple weeks ago. It's not one of the better known historical documents of the world. Still, it's one of the greatest military sagas and adventure stories ever written. The story itself is fairly simple. Some time around 401 BCE, Cyrus, the brother of the Persian king Artaxerxes, decided that he should be the king. So he assembled an army, including a large cohort of Greek mercenaries. Cyrus pressed through Turkey and in to modern-day Iraq. Somewhere near Babylon, the Great King finally brought the usurper to battle. The Greek hoplites beat all comers, but Cyrus died and his allies abandoned the Greeks in the middle of hostile territory with no way home and no friends. After Persian duplicity resulted in the murders of the five Greek generals, Xenophon was elevated to fill one of the vacancies and was instrumental in leading the Greeks out of enemy territory. At one point they resolved to head in to a mountainous territory to the north of Babylon held by a people called the Karduchians (The Dakyns translation I'm using spells it Carduchians, but its now generally more accepted that the Greek and Roman letters we translate to "C" is a soft sound, analogous to the "S." The Karduchians should have the "K" sound, for reasons which will be presently made clear. Either way, it's not an entirely clear-cut issue, as some words with the "K" sound have switched, but others, like Corinth, retain their older spelling. I generally use K in these situations, but if I quote Dakyns I'll use C). Xenophon describes the Karduchians thusly: "They were a people, so said the prisoners, dwelling up in the hills, addicted to war, not subject to the king; so much so that once, when a royal army one hundred and twenty thousand strong had invaded them, not a man came back, owing to the intricacies of the country."1 The Greeks though that the Karduchians would be friendly to them, owing to their mutually negative relationship to the Great King. It was not to be. After a grueling week in that unfriendly land, Xenophon records, "seeing that the last seven days spent in traversing the country of the Carduchians had been one continuous battle, which had cost them more suffering than the whole of their troubles at the hands of the king and Tissaphernes put together."2 (Tissaphernes, for the record, was one of Artaxerxes' most capable generals. He was the one who originally tricked the Greeks and would dog them throughout the journey.) The Karduchians still exist today and live in almost the same exact place where Xenophon and the Greek mercenaries fought them more than two millennia ago. We no longer call them Karduchians, however. We call them Kurds. Empires have come and gone in the land of the Kurds since Xenophon met them There were, of course, the Persians, but from there the short list includes the Greeks, Seleucids, Romans, Sassanids, Ottomans, and, of course, Saddam Hussein's regime. That section got me thinking of something one of my profs used to bring up on a fairly regular basis. There's a concept out there known as "American Exceptionalism." It, in and of itself, is not a philosophy but instead attempts to describe a philosophy. It's a two pronged concept, first that America does everything according to the highest possible levels of virtue and second that America is more capable than any other people in the history of the human race to achieve any given task. The Vietnam War is the perfect example of American Exceptionalism. We engaged in war with the Vietnamese people in spite of the fact that we had just spent a decade supporting a failed French attempt to hold on to its old colony. The US military made an assumption of victory based on tactical decision making, yet did not think for a moment about the strategic considerations of the situation. One of the known facts about the Vietnam War is this: the United States won every battle it fought. Yet it lost the war. It even set up a situation exactly like Dien Bien Phu, the battle that forced the French out of Indochina. At Khe Sanh, the U.S. won. Fairly convincingly. In the end, though, it didn't matter. The United States ignored recent history. The French hadn't been able to hold Vietnam and it hadn't exactly been a picnic for the Japanese during WWII, either. Furthermore, the U.S. ignored ancient history. The Chinese had attempted to take Vietnam on and off again for a thousand years or so and never managed to succeed in holding the territory, mostly because the Vietnamese fought guerrilla wars from caves and tunnels. By the time the Japanese, French, and Americans showed up, the Vietnamese had at least a millennia worth of experience fighting against an overwhelmingly large foreign power. Afghanistan is shaping up to be a similar story. Thirty years ago Afghanistan was the "Russian Vietnam." The second most powerful war machine in the world went in and found it couldn't overpower a significantly weaker nation. A hundred years before the British Empire was unable to subdue the area, either. After 9/11 the U.S. went in with overwhelming force and it looked like we managed to accomplish something that the Russians, British, and, for that matter, Alexander the Great, had found rather difficult. Six years on the country has been handed over to NATO control and the countryside is far from pacified. Which brings us back to Xenophon and those intrepid Greek mercenaries. After Cyrus died in battle they didn't have a friend within a thousand miles. The entirety of the Persian Empire turned against them. They didn't even want to conquer, they just wanted to go home. Yet they were faced with an almost impossible task. A little bit of history is in order here (redundant much?). The Greek hoplite was the best heavy infantryman in the world at the time. Nothing would change that until the appearance of the Roman legions and any change in infantry structure up until that point was little more than a modification of the standard hoplite. (The Macedonians under Philip and Alexander the Great moved from an eight foot to a fourteen foot spear and incorporated heavy cavalry as a standard shock troop, but the hoplite was still fundamentally the same. Pyrrhus, using a similarly equipped hoplite army nearly brought Rome to its knees during the days of the Republic. Still, over the course of several months the Romans bled him white and even though he won the Battle of Asculum, he could not afford to maintain his campaign, famously saying, "Another such victory and I am undone," before returning to Greece. The concept of the Pyrrhic Victory remains with us to this day.) The Greek phalanx, meanwhile, was a nearly unstoppable formation. It had already won the day against the Great King's disorganized rabble at Marathon and Platea and proved unstoppable in the very battle where Cyrus died. Still, every tactical advantage the Greeks could bring to bear did not matter. They were in hostile country. Although they eventually got home (otherwise there would have been no Xenophon to write the Anabasis), it was no sure thing. Alexander the Great would later conquer the Persian Empire. It was only temporary, however, and Alexander and the successory Seleucid Empire took on far more of a Persian affectation than it took of a Greek culture. There's a lesson to be learned here (and, oddly enough, a roundabout application for the Mythology Project, but that's a story for another day). The United States went in to Iraq in 2003 with assurances from its leadership that all of the important lessons of Vietnam had been learned. Seeing as how the U.S. Army is fighting in Iraq from isolated firebases and having a hard time figuring out what the difference is between a normal Iraqi and an insurgent, something tells me that even that assurance was a lie. But there's a larger historical lesson that was never learned, possibly even never recognized. Most of the cultures on this planet are significantly older than the United States. Some of those cultures have been fighting tooth and nail for their own independence against outsiders for a thousand or more years. The modern-day Kurds descend from a line of people that were throwing rocks and firing arrows at Greeks twenty-four hundred years ago. That's a time period ten times longer than the history of the United States as a stand-alone political entity. We thought that we were better and smarter than history in Vietnam, then again in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet what we've actually learned is that American Exceptionalism is a lie. This is something to consider as the saber-rattling over Iran continues. 1Xenophon, Anabasis, trans. H.G. Dakyns (Charleston, SC: BibiloBazaar, 2007), 113. 2Ibid., 125.