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  • Xenophon Roundtable: A Few Martial Rhymes

    Posted by historyguy99 on September 26th, 2009 (All posts by )

    Mark Twain wrote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The Anabasis of Cyrus is filled with events that have reappeared throughout history to form a rhythm that if not repeated, lends example and advice to other commanders faced with similar challenges.

    Not much discussed in the forgoing posts, has been Xenophon’s speech to the assembled soldiers before setting out on their march to the sea. Reading the speech, one will note several themes that have a familiar ring to any student of American military history. This account of how Xenophon dressed for the occasion has a twin in the way one American General outfitted himself for battle.

    “After this, as Xenophon stood up, having equipped himself for war as nobly as he could, for he believed that if the gods should grant victory, the noblest of adornment was fitting for being victorious, but if there should be the need for his life to come to an end, he believed it was right that considering himself worthy of the most noble thing, he meet his end in these noble arms.”

    Reading this passage brings to mind General George S. Patton, who in the 1920’s, read and annotated his copy of Anabasis among his many other readings of ancient history. One can begin to understand Patton’s theatre and how he might have been influenced to create his noble image in the shadow of Xenophon.

    Patton’s shiny helmet, bedecked chest of medals and ivory handled pistols served to fashion the image of noble leadership that not only fed Patton’s sense of history, but an image equal to the Prussian foe’s taste for martial dress.

    Xenophon’s speech could be characterized as the first example of marching orders; complete with composition, movement, logistics and order of battle. He cautioned against the alternatives, then lays out a plan of attack enlisting those in favor to vote to follow the leaders they had selected. In true democratic fashion, Cheirisophus seconds Xenophon’s plan and calls for a confirming vote that is followed by a vote to endorse the tactical deployment of the hollow square to protect the baggage train.

    In closing, Xenophon exalted every man to do his duty. “For the victorious kill, the defeated are killed.” This phrase is again echoed by General Patton with these bellicose words; “…no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You win it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” This excerpt from a speech given by Patton to the Third Army prior to D-Day has a tone much like Xenophon’s reference to being remembered as brave men when they return to their families.

    “Now, there’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home, and you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee, and he asks you, “What did you do in the great World War Two?” You won’t have to say, “Well, I shoveled shit in Louisiana.”
    General George Patton, May 31, 1944

    Patton’s coarse oratory was aimed to reach his yeoman soldiers, born of the cities, towns and farms of a country just past the grip of the Great Depression. We cannot know verbatim, the language used by Xenophon to inspire the Ten Thousand; it has been left to his hand to transmit. What we can surmise, is how it affected Patton and his leadership style, planning and execution.

    Patton fame has been colored by the famous slapping incidents that almost ended his career. Xenophon has a similar brush with fate, when he was accused of abusing a soldier. Xenophon avoided losing his command by proving his behavior was motivated after the man had fallen behind in the snow and had given up. Xenophon’s harsh treatment saved the man’s life and by the end of the trial, gained his gratitude.

    Other military leaders have come to employ Xenophon’s tactics. Think back to General William T Sherman as his army stood poised in Atlanta in the fall of 1864. He not only employed similar logistics, but began a campaign that also led to the sea. When one examines Sherman’s tactics after the Battle of Atlanta, the stories begin to rhyme.

    After the fall of Atlanta Sherman faced a dilemma, if he remained with his large force encamped around Atlanta and winter coming on he could expect to lose more men to illness than battle. His army would become complacent to hold territory and lose their fighting edge. This sounds vaguely familiar to Xenophon’s caution about remaining among the Persians, who after a time would accept them. Xenophon worried that once they became comfortable among the worldly pleasure of Persia, they would; “Forget our way home.”

    General Sherman then made a decision to follow the same tactics, advanced by Xenophon 2400 years earlier. He chose the fittest of his army, 62,000 strong and sent the others north. Then he destroyed the rail links out of Atlanta, burned all the non-essential material and marched off towards the sea. His army took only enough ammunition for each man to have 200 rounds, and enough food to begin the trek, the rest like the larder of the Ten Thousand would be filled with plunder as they marched.

    When Sherman’s Army reached Savannah on December 21, 1864, the campaign was dubbed “March to the Sea.” The event as noted by historian Victor Davis Hanson in his book, Soul of Battle, was reminiscent of Xenophon’s Anabasis where they cried out upon reaching the sea, these immortal words; The Sea! The Sea!

    Marching up country, has another lesser know thread that comes courtesy of Hanson’s book, Soul of Battle. Thirty years after the return of the Ten Thousand, Theban General Epaminondas led an expedition into the heart of the Spartan empire, using many of the tactics first used by the Ten Thousand in their march across hostile territory. It is ironic that Xenophon, by this time an admirer of Spartan life, would grudgingly admit to Epaminondas’s ability to prepare and lead his army. Even more ironic is that Xenophon’s son Gryllos was believed by Athenians to have killed Epaminondas in the Battle of Mantinea.

    These vignettes are but a few, who seem to have a rhythm first sung by the actions of Xenophon and the Ten Thousand in their long march up country.

    In the coming weeks I will add a few more examples of how history’s chimes sometimes ring on the same note.

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    2 Responses to “Xenophon Roundtable: A Few Martial Rhymes”

    1. zenpundit Says:

      Very nice post.

      “General Sherman then made a decision to follow the same tactics, advanced by Xenophon 2400 years earlier. He chose the fittest of his army, 62,000 strong and sent the others north. Then he destroyed the rail links out of Atlanta, burned all the non-essential material and marched off towards the sea. His army took only enough ammunition for each man to have 200 rounds, and enough food to begin the trek, the rest like the larder of the Ten Thousand would be filled with plunder as they marched.”

      The contrast is equally interesting. Where Xenophon was measured and restrained because he kept the political impact that his and the Ten Thousand’s actions would have back home on Athenian and Spartan opinion, Sherman was casting caution to the wind. His expedition, unlike Xenophon’s, was intended to be and was thoroughly punitive. “Making Georgia Howl” paled in comparison to what his troops did in South Carolina, the seat of the rebellion. Sherman’s actions were outside of the accepted practices of war (at least for the major “regular” armies during the Civil War. The quasi-irregulars, bushwacker insurgents (both pro and anti- Union) and raider units could be quite nasty).

      Of whose generalship would Clausewitz have been more approving, Xenophon or Sherman?

    2. historyguy99 Says:

      Hi Zen,

      Good observation regarding Sherman’s tactics. In regards to Sherman’s actions, they had the desired effect of hastening the end of the war and were viewed with robust support in the North. Whereas, Grant’s frontal assaults ground up over 90,000 souls in the months before Sherman began his march, and had brought the Northern public to the point of contempt for Grant and Lincoln.

      In the run up country, the Ten Thousand behaved much as Sherman’s men. When two companies disappeared while approaching Tarsus, angry soldiers plundered the city and the palace in revenge. They only began to concern themselves with measured approaches after reaching the sea and the Greek Colonies where their reputation would precede them.

      Your question regarding Clausewitz’s approval would probably place him on the side of Xenophon, given his understanding of the prevailing guidelines of war as defined by Grotius. Sherman, was a forerunner of modern war thinking, where destroying the ability of the enemy to support war, was viewed as less costly in the long run than head-on massed combat that had punctuated warfare since Xenophon’s time.