Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Suggested Reading: The Virtues of War by Steven Pressfield


I was going to review this book, but Chet Richards, here, has written a better one than I could. I am a great fan of Pressfield's work. I especially recommend Gates of Fire about the Spartans at Thermopylae and the mystery of the anodyne of fear.


The Virtues of War, a Novel of Alexander the Great
Steven Pressfield
Doubleday, 2004
348 pp.

Reviewed by Chet Richards,
Defense and the National Interest

November 3, 2004

Sometimes, when the complier isn’t too stuffy, novels make it onto military reading lists. Three seem to appear with some regularity: Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle, which illustrates John Boyd’s famous “To be or to do?” conundrum (Courtney Massengale or Sam Damon?); Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which takes even civilians inside the training and forging process that produces units of exceptional cohesion and fighting power; and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which the Marine Corps has used to help its members understand the fundamental principles underlying maneuver warfare. Now, Steven Pressfield, with The Virtues of War, may have written the fourth.

First, as a book it is a page turner. Alexander, near the end of his campaigns in Asia, is explaining his methods and motivations to a page, who will soon be given his first command. It becomes clear as he traces his major battles that Alexander is beyond prodigy, a savant who is certainly not an idiot, the Mozart of mayhem, a man who at age 18 was a vastly better commander than his father, Philip, who himself would have a strong claim as the second best general the Greek-speaking people produced. There is no use trying to explain a prodigy of this class: in the natural distribution of talent, they lie out beyond six sigma, not just one in a million, but one in a billion. When, though circumstance, they land in a place where their talent is nurtured, one gets a Mozart, Newton, or Alexander.

Others will have to judge the historical accuracy of the book, although from what I have read and from Pressfield’s introductory note where he confesses to a few liberties, the battles, marches, and major characters are within the envelope one expects of top notch historical fiction. Obviously the dialogue is invented, although quite well done, and where we know of Alexander’s actual speeches, their counterparts in the book capture the essence of what he is reported to have said. [1]

The battle scenes—always a Pressfield forte—are gripping. As Alexander explains the battles to his page years later, the reader finds himself riding alongside, beginning with the command to advance and then, as contact is made, slashing at the enemy but primarily holding on for his life as Bucephalus kicks and tramples his way through enemy formations. But there’s more than just clashing swords: Alexander was an early practitioner of many of the tactics later incorporated into maneuver warfare [2], and Pressfield weaves several of these techniques into his battle scenes. Here are some of the ones I found:

Extraordinary, intuitive competence, at all levels, so that when Macedonian units get to where Alexander feels is the decisive point, they get the job done, even against the other side’s elite units. Known to maneuver warfare aficionados as Fingerspitzengefühl.

Unit cohesion, based on mutual trust earned through years of rigorous training together

Grand strategy—pumping up our morale and degrading that of the opponent; conducting operations so as not to plant the seeds of future unfavorable conflict

Lead from the front. No great commander has exceeded Alexander in sheer leadership or suffered as many wounds as a result.

Creating, as opposed to just discovering or predicting, enemy weaknesses

Mission oriented orders, or as the military often calls it, Auftragstaktik

Deception, and in particular, “according deceptively with the intentions of the enemy,” to quote Sun Tzu

“As if one were commanding both sides” – a description great commanders often use of how the battle seemed

Directed telescope – a device for ensuring the commander isn’t being told only what subordinates think he wants to hear

Quick “OODA” loops – the ability simultaneously to take in information, decide what it means, and act upon it

Cheng/Ch’i - orthodox played against unorthodox tactics as a means to dislocate the enemy mentally and physically

Using timing and maneuver to overcome sizable disadvantages in mass

Surprise; selecting the maneuver that we feel will be the least expected

Emphasis on penetration as opposed to attrition along the line

Measures to deal with the fog of war (and the literal obscurity of the battlefield)

How well-trained units can shift focus and direction (Schwerpunkt) organically, that is, without explicit orders.

Tactics that bypass strong points (“surfaces and gaps”)

They worked well, enabling Alexander to win the three major battles that broke the Persian Empire, all against heavy odds. However, if you read the book carefully, you’ll see that Alexander would not have been considered a pioneer of maneuver warfare at the operational and strategic levels. Here, the idea is to avoid major battles, to use maneuver, deception, and particularly ambiguity to bypass or penetrate enemy formations and then exploit deep into the enemy rear. Alexander, instead, and this seems accurate, could be considered something of an early Clausewitzian, determined to bring the enemy to a decisive battle and defeat him. Even his tactics, for all their maneuver, had a Clausewitzian flavor in his fascination with the enemy king as the center of gravity.

Alexander, however, must be judged against the time in which he lived. Alexander was playing “kill the king” because Darius was indeed the source of connectivity and cohesion of the Persian army. Kill him or force him to flee and the bulk of his forces would quit the fight. The fact that this is not true (or should not be true) of a modern army does not mean it was not true for Alexander. Pressfield illustrates this important point subtly and effectively, even having Alexander explain why an upcoming battle was necessary to a subordinate who had suggested an operational maneuver scheme around the bulk of the enemy forces. Operational and strategic maneuvers as standard tools of maneuver warfare would have to wait for Genghis Khan, 1,500 years later.

So how good was he? He took on all comers and never lost, and you don’t get a better record than that. [3] Certainly he would not have defeated Genghis Khan using Macedonian tactics from the 4th Century B.C. But why would he have tried? Both were geniuses of time and maneuver, masters of deception and surprise, and cold-eyed students of the art of war. It would have been interesting.

As his victories mount, Pressfield hints at Alexander’s inevitable slide away from humanity and towards believing his own PR. By the end of the book, Alexander has become absorbed by his “daimon,” an alternative spelling of “daemon,” which to the ancient Greeks could mean an inspiring spirit or a being between man and the gods. His mother, Olympias, suffered no doubts.

If you want to understand maneuver as major category of how humans engage in conflict, in concert with attrition warfare and moral conflict, read the standards: Bill Lind’s Maneuver Warfare Handbook, John Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict, Marine Corps Doctrine Pub 1, Warfighting, and then pick up The Virtues of War to experience how it was practiced by one of its earliest and greatest masters.

Order The Virtues of War from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.


[1] None of Alexander’s words were captured verbatim, and even the descriptions of his battle tactics come from fragmentary eyewitness accounts written down years after his death.

[2] Boyd cited Alexander, along with Belisarius and Genghis Khan, as masters of cheng/ch’i in Patterns of Conflict, pp. 14, 20-21. Interested readers can download Patterns from Interestingly, Boyd never used the term “maneuver warfare” in any of his briefings. “Maneuver conflict,” one of Boyd’s three “categories of conflict,” has as its goal attacking the opponent’s mental processes (orientation) as distinguished from attrition warfare, where destruction is the primary device, and moral conflict, where the social bonds that hold groups together are the target. Any actual campaign will use all three in some combination.

[3] It is a small list. Among major commanders of the last several centuries, only Wellington and perhaps Grant (following J.F.C. Fuller) come to mind, and neither of these were conquerors on anything like the scale of Alexander (it might be as if Grant had embarked the Union armies after Appomattox and conquered Europe up to the Urals.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Looks like as good a place as any
to leave this comment. Last week's
Torah reading,Exodus 17:13-22 (Parshas Beshalach) reads: "The children of Israel were armed ["chamushim"] when they went up from Egypt. Page 367 of the Stone/Artscroll Chumash

The first lesson (among many)
that can be learned from this is:
ain somchin al ha-nes: do not rely on miracles

There's also this, from Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
Ideally, a Jew would rather have peace than war. However, not only history, but also the Torah, teaches us that a Jew has to be willing and able to fight - and win.

Rabbi Ullman instances Avraham's in Bereshis (Genesis 14:13) war to free his Lot and other captives and discusses the passage in Sanhedrin 72a (the Babylonian Talmud), and the Shulchan Aruch's comment, and the much quoted passage in Eruvin 45a on attacks or ostensible "mere trespassing" on Shabbat. Please read the full article for a fuller overview