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Byzantine Lessons in Hybrid War Pt 1

May 17, 2010

The East Roman or Byzantine Empire for much of its existence 330–1453. Author Bigdaddy1204.

There has been a concern that our force is too focused on counterinsurgency, and has lost its edge for complex, conventional operations involving multiple brigades or divisions.  The experiences of the British colonial army before World War One have been given as an example.  This is a legitimate concern, and we continue to work toward finding the right balance.  But the notion that the U.S. Army is turning into some sort of nation-building constabulary that is losing its core competencies – above all, to shoot, move, and communicate – does not reflect the realities of the tough combat that has taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan – as you know all too well…

To some extent, much of the debate between low-end and high-end misses the point.  The black-and-white distinction between conventional war and irregular war is becoming less relevant in the real world.  Possessing the ability to annihilate other militaries is no guarantee we can achieve our strategic goals – a point driven home especially in Iraq.  The future will be even more complex, where conflict most likely will range across a broad spectrum of operations and lethality.  Where even near-peer competitors will use irregular or asymmetric tactics and non-state actors may have weapons of mass destruction or sophisticated missiles.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates at the Command And General Staff College

A New Military for New Wars

More akin to the times than Clausewitz, and more adaptable to Western culture than Sun Tzu is the ancient Byzantine military treatise Strategikon. Probably written by the soldier/emperor Maurice (539-602 AD) or complied during his reign, its elements of the strategic defense is more suited in a time when the decisive battle continues to elude Western armies. It would be a proper fit for military forces like the America and her Western Allies, strained as they are on every point from myriad threats and enemies, but faced with static and even shrinking funds, to make them unable to contend with every foreseeable adversary. For instance:

  • Somalia-For reasons well known to America, it is both militarily and politically inconvenient to get involved in the strife-torn African state. The African Union, closest on the ground or even the UN have been helpless to restore order, and because of piracy or the potential for home-grown terrorism, the anarchy is spreading into the surrounding and strategically vital Gulf Waters.
  • Iran-For most of a decade, Tehran has threatened the West with the potential to manufacture nuke weapons, and since the 1977 revolution, has been exporting radicalism into the Middle East and elsewhere. To invade the nation is politically unfeasible, and militarily very difficult, stretched as we are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here also, international organizations with sanctions have utterly failed to temper Iranian ambitions for power.
  • North Korea-Under a communist dictatorship, and as in Somalia, the people of North Korea has suffered starvation and brutally for decades from its overlords, with no end in sight. Like Iran, the North threatens the world with nuclear holocaust if attacked. Her people suffer through abject poverty and brutality while her neighbors enjoy some of the world’s highest living standards. 

So we find our current strategy seeking world peace, or at least some order as a failure. The international system built up during the Cold War, probably helped inadvertently by the Soviet Union, is breaking down into numerous squabbling, power hungry factions, in which any could start a major war, leading to the suffering of millions. Besides the risk we take from upholding these failed states, spending trillions of sparse funds in the process, we must also watch for the rise of a peer adversary such as a China, or even a resurgent Russia bent on revenge for her fallen Empire.

In the case of China, though she may not ever match us carrier for carrier, or nuclear sub for nuclear sub, with new anti-access weapons she may not need to. Much of the her technology such as new submarines and advanced missiles, etc are geared to bypass our shrinking number of legacy weapons perfected in the Cold War. The warships, tanks, and planes of the last century have proved adaptable to new wars, but only at great expense, with modernization waning, and numbers slipping. Many Western warships go to sea without adequate armament or aircraft because of the expense to operate them. We threaten to be overwhelmed by numerous low tech enemies even in the midst of seeming great power and influence.

So, how do you manage a world of great challenges, but shrinking budgets and resources? How do you manage myriad foes, each of which may fight a different way, and in which a force of either all light or all heavy equipment will not do for all occasions? The heavy military which we prefer can no longer be afforded and might be at risk anyway from more agile and adaptable light foes. A military consisting only of light forces could be easily overwhelmed in a battle with one of the resurgent peer adversaries like China or Russia.

Enter the Byzantine Way of Warfare

Yet it was the western empire that faded away during the fifth century. In essence, the eastern, or Byzantine, empire so greatly outlasted its western counterpart because its rulers were able to adapt strategically to diminished circumstances by devising new ways of coping with old and new enemies. The army and the navy, and the supremely important tax-collecting bureaucracy that sustained them both along with the emperor and his officials, changed greatly over the centuries, but there is a definite continuity in overall strategic conduct: as compared to the untied Romans of the past, the Byzantine Empire relied less on military strength and more on all forms of persuasion–to recruit allies, dissuade enemies, and induce potential enemies to attack one another. Moreover, when they did fight, the Byzantines were less inclined to destroy enemies than contain them, both to conserve their strength because they knew that today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally.

Edward Luttwak–The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire

By the 6th Century AD, Byzantium whose capital was the fortress city of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) was learning how to contend with the fall of the Western Empire whose capital was centered at Rome. Under the energetic Emperor Justinian I (483-565 AD), the attempt began to restore the empire to its original size, or at least as much as possible. He found an excellent candidate to carry this out, an equally energetic general named Belisarius. Often with very sparse forces at his command, the general defeated insurrection at home, the Persians in the East, restored Carthage to the Empire with the annihilation of the Vandal Kingdom, and captured Sicily in anticipation of the restoration of Rome to the Romans.

Map of Gothic War (535-552), via Wikimedia Commons.

It is very tempting to compare Justinian’s Gothic War in Italy to today’s Iraq War. The Byzantines entered the country with very small forces, only about 7500 and quickly defeated all opposition. Rome was captured. Almost immediately, with so few forces deployed, and the Empire use to singular glorious battlefield victories, a war of attrition broke out, and soon the Imperials were besieged in their new-won capital.

Belisarius managed to hold his own, however, but only just, especially since Justinian consistently refused to send reinforcements to his beleaguered soldiers, much like the lack of helicopters, armored vehicles in Iraq a while back. Part of this was due to jealousy over his general’s many accomplishments. Mostly it was for reasons of economy, as the Byzantines sought not only to restore Roman military prestige but also its culture and architecture. Justinian performed many expensive and impressive building accomplishments during his reign, most notably the Hagia Sophia church,  still in existence as a mosque/museum. Today the distraction has to do with social spending or shoring up crumbling economies, i.e. both guns and butter.

In other words, the Empire was near bankrupt for its free-spending ways. While a new general and a Surge of troops helped to save the day eventually in Italy, the lessons learned would have lasting effects for the Byzantines. A new strategy was formed that could be utilized during the worse crises, even after the momentous Arab invasions that swept away another huge chunk of Old Rome. New ideas helped secure the Empire during the darkest of the Dark Ages, for yet another 900 years.

Tomorrow-applying the Empire’s lessons today!


12 Comments leave one →
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  5. Ruufus permalink
    May 21, 2010 2:42 pm

    Mrs. Davis comment is of concern.

    Please remember that many Roman emperors were not of old “Roman” ancestry e.g Trajan. And yet they upheld and fought for preservation of things Roman. The same can be said of the Eastern Roman empire which was more Greek than Latin but essentially cosmopolitan. The fight is for an ideal no matter the ethnic background those who fight for that ideal.

    As for the methods of said “fight” it seems that the present American administration is willing to combat the threats using more than just using the sword. Not all Islamic country are one mind set, nor all their citizens. By working with those of more moderate and with similar interests, America can avoid lone, superpower bully preception in the world.

    More truly Byzantine (in a more positive meaning) and more difficult but I think more worthwhile in strategic terms.

  6. Mrs. Davis permalink
    May 18, 2010 11:46 am

    It is difficult to imagine American being swept away like that other than by nuclear war.

    Haven’t been to the southwest lately, eh?

  7. Chuck Hill permalink
    May 17, 2010 5:54 pm

    It was also a victim of the Christian Crusaders who sacked Constantinople, sometimes your allies can be as dangerous as your enemies.

  8. May 17, 2010 5:06 pm

    Great post, Mike. Certainly an excellent encapsulation of the vast and, as Hudson notes, difficult to grasp Byzantine Empire.

    Sometimes, though, I find historian idealize the Eastern Empire in opposition to the Western, which fell so much sooner. It’s important to keep in mind that internal corruption (Justinian was notorious for grabbing up his people’s wealth, even to the point of forging their wills) and disease on a scale that we don’t see today in the Western world (plague wiped out much of the population, nearly killing Justinian and certainly leaving him paranoid if not down right mad) picked away at the Eastern Empire before it was over run by the Ottoman’s.

  9. MatR permalink
    May 17, 2010 3:37 pm

    Sorry, computer problem made it post twice…

  10. MatR permalink
    May 17, 2010 3:35 pm

    We’re in the last days of the Roman empire, old boy. Our Western societies have lost their self belief and grown complacent.

  11. Anonymous permalink
    May 17, 2010 3:35 pm

    We’re in the last days of the Roman empire, old boy. Our Western societies have lost their self belief and grown complacent.

  12. Hudson permalink
    May 17, 2010 1:31 pm

    The Byzantine Empire is one of the strangest empires in history to understand. It is much easier to comprehend the Chinese and Mongol empires and feudal Japan than it is to grasp the life of Byzantium. It is little more than a symbol of the exotic to us. I suspect this is due to its estrangement from Catholic Europe, which is the history taught in the West.

    The Byzantines had an impressive order of battle. Its heavy cavalry was the best armed of antiquity: sword, shield, lance, ax, and compound bow, double layer of chain mail and helmet.

    The Byzantines did buy off their enemies when feasible with treasure; they employed mercernaries including Vikings, Slavs, and Germans. I’m not sure that it’s easy to make comparisons between our situation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Byzantines, although I think Mike has made a good effort at the local level.

    The thing about Constantinople is that once it was gone it stayed gone. It was swept away by militant Islam, which transformed Asia Minor and penetrated into Europe, with lasting effects today. It is difficult to imagine American being swept away like that other than by nuclear war. Yet already we can see serious challenges to the core culture and the willingness of our leaders to defend our values and way of life in the face of diverse challenges, including resurgent Islam, particularly by the present administration.

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