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Ancient and modern

What Romans would have made of Obama's Syria strategy

They'd like that he doesn't admit to having one. Apart from that, however...

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

President Obama was assailed for saying that the USA had no strategy on combating Isis. Vegetius (late 4th century AD), the author of the only surviving Roman treatise on military science, would have approved, since ‘no plans are better than those you carry out without the enemy’s knowledge in advance’. Indeed, he went so far as to argue that the reason why the Minotaur was depicted on legions’ standards was because ‘he was hidden away in the innermost and most secret labyrinth’.

As it is, Obama has now revealed his strategy, which is to train up and equip local armies to do the job for him. Vegetius would not have approved of that. As Roman armies found from the 4th century BC, allied tribes that they had trained up in Italy could give them a bloody nose when alliances broke up. Still, needs must; and as Vegetius began, ‘in every battle, victory is not a matter of numbers or simple bravery, but of skill and training’. That was how Romans conquered the world: ‘continual military training, exact observance of discipline in their camps and unwearied cultivation of the other arts of war’. No wonder the Latin for ‘army’ was exercitus, from a root giving us ‘exercise’.


Vegetius was very sound on leading a newly recruited army. Knowing that confidence and morale were the key to military success, he recommended that raw recruits be combined with grizzled veterans to go on easy missions. The secret was to watch out for moments when the enemy was not paying attention, when e.g. they were eating meals, sleeping, resting, unarmed, exhausted after a long march, busy plundering and so on. Again, since ‘the unknown is greatly exaggerated’ (Tacitus), one must accustom recruits to the sight of the enemy, their weapons and tactics: ‘for what is familiar is not frightening’. That said, Vegetius also knew that, since luck often decided a battle, ‘it is better to subdue an enemy by famine, raids and terror’.

Ronald Reagan was right: ‘We [must] fight for [freedom], protect it, defend it and then hand it on.’


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