Monday, February 27, 2012

500 Words or Less

When General Mattis was preparing for the invasion of Iraq, I have a suspicion he may have been reading Livy's books on the Punic Wars.  After all, there are very few places to go when looking for an answer to the question "How do I get a tribal society to join my team?"  Livy's History of Rome is one of them.  

In book 21 of his history Livy begins the story of Hannibal's invasion of the Italian peninsula, and his ultimate defeat at the hands of Scipio Africanus.  However, before Scipio defeated Hannibal he had to defeat Hannibal's brother in Spain.  Spain in the late 200s B.C. was much like societies are in the middle-east today, tribal.  So in order to win in Spain, Scipio had to get the Iberian tribal chiefs on his side. 
Scipio undertook a two-prong approach to the Iberian tribes.  There is a great line in Livy attributed to Scipio that sums up this approach.  It might sound familiar, "there is no nation in the world today which you could less wish to be the enemy of you and yours, or more wish to be your friend."

There are a number of things in this world that are practically universal and unchanging, like man’s behavior in war, and relations between countries. There is nothing new under the sun, and no revolutionary is truly revolutionary.  Almost every new idea is an old idea that you can find in classical antiquity.  This is why leaders like General Mattis extol the benefits of reading and intellectual development. 

Reading directly contributes to your ability to reason through most complex situations.  It gives depth and clarity to your vision of how things really are.  The greater the clarity of your vision of reality, of human nature, of cause and effect, the closer you are to solving your problem. When you grasp the reality of a situation, you’ll be more likely to choose the course of action that will bring you the most success. 

On another note, Livy’s “History of Rome” isn’t on the Commandant’s Reading List. In spite of this, Livy (most likely) reached out from his two thousand year old grave and influenced 21st century Marine Corps doctrine.  Maybe next time you reach for a book, consider going beyond The Reading List. Read something ancient, something medieval, or something modern, but modern before WWII, and while you’re at it, think about writing and sharing some of your insights.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me, of course, of the quote about how we can't do anything about our bodies, but there is no excuse for not having a 2,000 year-old mind. History is important to everyone, but I would argue that it's most important for warfighters, due to the absolute, i.e. fatal, nature of our business. Kudos to Gen. Mattis if he did purposefully "strategically plagiarise" from Scipio Africanus. I read this message in 2003 as one of his artillery section chiefs, and reading it again now, as a public affairs officer, I can appreciate it's intent even more.