Which Greeks in the Western Way of War?

Dr Kevin Blachford, Defence Studies Department. King’s College London

The “Western way of war” (TWOW) is a concept that was most notably defined by the historian Victor Davis Hanson who viewed the Ancient Greeks and their form of decisive infantry battle as the wellspring of a unique Western tradition. It is an ideal of well drilled citizen-soldiers able to defeat the enemy in a decisive battle, with a clear distinction between war and peace in a free society. Central to this tradition of Western warfare is the idea that consensual governments are able to make use of direct force to overcome an adversary in a clear emphatic manner. The “shock and awe” and lethality of TWOW, with its reliance on better technology and decisive overwhelming force stands in contrast to the ambushes, skirmishes, or individual combat that are viewed as uncharacteristic of liberal Western states.

Today, this ideal of waging Western war continues to inspire debates about whether the US has lost the ‘art of killing’, or how the US is constrained by its Western ideals, with even a RUSI podcast dedicated to understanding this term, ‘the Western way of war’. Crucially, there is also increased concern that the ‘dragons and the snakes’ of non-Western powers have learned to overcome the Western advantages and approach to warfare. The British Ministry of Defence even raises concerns that ‘adversaries have studied the Western way of war’ and have learned to adapt with new capabilities. Uniting these concerns of a Western way of war in decline is the fear that the West’s military dominance is under threat and that rival powers will not play by the rules in seeking direct confrontation.

TWOW and its framework of Western exceptionalism stretching back to Ancient Greece is a poor guide to understanding contemporary challenges. Current trends in strategic literature all too often fall into essentialist arguments which focus on cultural differences to explain broad outcomes. This is particularly apparent with the cottage industry which has sprung up to explain hybrid warfare and ‘little green men’ as a uniquely Russian phenomenon based on flaws in the Russian national character and a culture of otherness among Russians. Creating such primordialist reasons to explain strategic behaviour simplifies history and exaggerates difference. Contrasting a rational West with focused overwhelming power against an irrational East reliant on cunning and deception creates ahistorical arguments based on questionable assumptions. The notion that the West fights in a distinct manner also raises troubling stereotypes, cliches, and is open to critiques of orientalism, as the following explains.

TWOW builds upon a mythologised view of a free polis with citizen-soldiers defending the liberal state which dates back to the classical age of antiquity. It therefore develops a moral narrative and ideological view of Western war which is not supported by the history of Ancient Greek warfare. This idealism of citizen-soldiers defending a free polis overlooks that there were often Greek mercenaries used by both the Greek city states and by their eastern Persian adversaries. But this is just one of the many historically problematic beliefs which underlie the concept of the West having a distinct way of war.

The idea that the West seeks direct confrontation in an overwhelming show of force may surprise the Ancient Greeks themselves who celebrated legendary heroes, such as Odysseus, for his cunning, sly and manipulative acts which confounded and surprised opponents. The belief that the West refrains from such forms of guile suggests that only Eastern powers are capable of using indirect force and trickery to gain an advantage. TWOW’s claim that the West seeks direct decisive battle then quietly overlooks that the unipolar era has seen the dominance of Western technology with drones and stealth bombers which are explicitly used to surprise an opponent and deceive adversaries. It is far from clear therefore, that there are any distinct cultural differences between a Western or Eastern approach to war.

Orientalist portrayals of Eastern war may focus on Sun Tzu’s masterful strategies of deception, or the honorable style of the Samurai warriors. A clear example of the Eastern way of war could be seen in the kamikaze pilots of the Japanese empire in the Second World War. The calm, measured self-sacrifice of kamikaze pilots to target areas of weakness at the cost of their own lives is seen as antithetical to a Western way of war. Yet, the slow onward march of Western troops across the fields of the First World War suggests interesting parallels of sacrifice, nonsensical acts of bravery and the loss of life against much stronger forms of defence.

Such historical examples challenge the notion of a Western and Eastern way of war as distinct and stable categories. TWOW approach builds upon an idealised history of classical antiquity as the wellspring of a unique Western tradition, but the less glamorous era of late antiquity and the ‘dark ages’ presents a more complicated picture. To understand declining power, the rise of new rivals and technological adaptation perhaps we should look not to the Ancient Greeks, but the Greek speaking Byzantines.

The history of the Byzantine empire shows that both different cultures and approaches to war can convene on similar tactics and strategies to face similar material and operational constraints. One example of this can be seen with the responses of the Byzantine empire and China’s Tang dynasty to the arrival of nomadic steppe warriors. Byzantium was the east Roman empire centred on Constantinople, which existed over 3,000 miles away from the Tang dynasty in China and yet both powers around the 6-7th centuries A.D faced considerable incursions by steppe nomads.

The large incursions of Türk cavalry forces during this era of late antiquity threatened to overwhelm the sedentary societies of both Byzantium and China. Nomadic warriors who were highly proficient in warfare that utilised horseback archery, fast raids, ambushes and tactics of feigned flight created a similar set of problems for defence despite the considerable distance between these two empires. The Chinese general Li Jing and the Byzantine manual of war, known as the strategikon, developed common themes in response to the nomadic ways of war. Both sought to exploit negotiations in order to attack the camps of the Türks and both saw the importance of defending baggage trains in hostile territory.

Equally, the Byzantines and Li Jing advocated having defensive troops to control positions on the battlefield, with separate troops for assault and moving forward. Most notably however, the Chinese and Byzantines each expressed concern for the order and the control of formations in order not to fall into the trap of the nomad’s feigned flight. The appearance of the nomadic steppe warriors created a new form of warfare which challenged the sedentary empires of China and Byzantium. In response to the tactics of steppe nomads each empire developed similar solutions focused on concentrating mass, protecting logistics and controlling disciplined formations. What this brief example suggests is that similar processes can develop due to material and strategic constraints, rather than explanations based on cultural differences.

Today, the rise of China and Russian revisionism is a reflection that the US and its allies have lost their post-Cold War dominance. Yet, to understand the rise of China, strategic debates continue to look to Ancient Greeks and Thucydides. It is Thucydides’ famous statement on the causes of the Peloponnesian war arising from the growing power of Athens and the fear this causes in Sparta, which has been summarized as the “Thucydides trap”. Ancient Greek history is therefore used to portray the US-China relationship as heading on a railroad to war. But the Greek speaking Byzantines faced their own great power rivalry with the Sasanid Persians. The Byzantine-Sasanid clash of empires was not a story of a rising and declining power leading to a great power war, but a more complicated story of a 400-year-old rivalry that saw the two sides develop a buffer zone between them across Mesopotamia.

The competition between these two empires created a system of two divided spheres of interests, which the Persian King referred to as the “two eyes” of the Earth. The division of the world into two competing visions of international order is a realistic possibility for today. The Thucydides trap presents an air of inevitability, but it is just as possible that the US and China will equally seek to create spheres of interest. Ancient Greek history and Thucydides can be useful guides to strategic debates but recognising the later Greek speaking Byzantines offers a reminder that we should avoid making grand claims and essentialist arguments based on a limited reading of cultural identity. 

TWOW is a framework for myth-making about Western approaches to war which often begins with the Ancient Greeks and valorises an ideal of “the West” as a product of the classical world. The fall of Rome is largely viewed by the West as a cataclysmic event which ushered in a period of dark ages and the continuation of the Eastern empire as the Greek speaking Byzantines is therefore quietly forgotten. The empire of Byzantium does not fit neatly into the canon of “the West” and its historical lessons are neglected. But as this article has tried to briefly show, TWOW builds upon a simplistic approach of essentialist cultural differences. The history of Byzantine warfare presents a more complicated picture which unsettles the idea of a distinct Western approach to war.  TWOW is a hubristic and historically flawed concept which needs to be left behind.

One thought on “Which Greeks in the Western Way of War?

  1. In dealing with The West and TWOW, my questions are ‘what or who is The West?’ Why does the West pursue warfare in a particular way? Is the West an alliance rather than, as in the past, an empire, and does this matter? Did the West come into being with the advent of the British Empire and expanded industrial capability after the American civil war with the expansion and industrialisation of the United States? Did, post the English speaking world dealing with the German Empire, the countries of Europe enter the sphere of the West. Within the broad church of The West, are the former British Dominicans and Colonies part of the West? Or is the USA essentially The West with everyone else part of an alliance. If so, then the question becomes why the USA wages war in a particular way. War is about coercion and force used to coerce. The West (USA) applies technical and industrial capabilities in the application of force. This approach seems to be the same by past empires – use the assets at your disposal to achieve the aim.

    I agree with your sentence, ‘ TWOW is a hubristic and historically flawed concept which needs to be left behind’. Nevertheless, often to promote a case, military leaders, politicians, and academics refer to history and compare, contrast, and justify actions against past achievements. General Swartzkorf, post the Iraq War 1, claimed that Hannibal inspired his left hook. British Engineer intelligence and detailed terrain analysis demonstrated that plan A carried very high risk and that a proposed alternative was a much better option. The start was delayed, the forces redeployed, and the left hook worked. Schwarzkopf led the alliance forces, and he deserved his achievement and credits, but why bring in Hannibal? My final comment is that I think that TWOW should be TWWOW or the WWOW. Probably too late to change.

    Summary: Who or what is the West, and why does it wage war in a particular way.

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