War and Empire, Part II

In the conclusion of this two part essay, Byron King picks up where he left off yesterday – in the middle of the war that would not end…

After one good spell of advances toward Syracuse, Nicias believed that the people of the besieged city were on the point of giving up. Nicias delayed finishing the siege works that he had been constructing while he negotiated with factions inside the city. That is, he neglected to focus on the military principle of seizing the advantage. In fact, the delay worked to his detriment.

Meanwhile, a Spartan general named Gylippus, freshly briefed by Alcibiades, had arrived in Sicily to aid Syracuse. Upon learning that Syracuse was not yet entirely cut off by land, he gathered his own troops as well as some Sicilian allies and succeeded in fighting his way into the city. His arrival immediately bolstered morale within Syracuse. From this point on, things began to go wrong for the Athenians. It was certainly friction of battle and fog of war at work. But it seems also as if the fates had conspired to throw all of their ill winds against the Athenians.

It was bad enough that Lamachus had been killed in action. Then Nicias fell ill from the effects of the Sicilian climate. Nicias wrote to the leaders in Athens for reinforcement, and asked to be replaced. The Athenians in Sicily had lost their entire leadership and command structure. The Sicilian expedition, which had started as what Clausewitz labeled as a "bold stroke," was rapidly transforming into not just error, but a colossal blunder.

Were the Athenians simply unwilling to reassess their situation? Or were they perhaps unable to do so, due to the stubbornness and hubris of their character? Certainly, they did not entertain the prospect of conceding the defeat of their Sicilian plan, nor to make arrangements to salvage what was possible. Instead, Athens sent a second expedition to Syracuse led by two more generals, Eurymedon and Demosthenes, with 73 more triremes and 5,000 more foot soldiers. Now the Athenians had staked more than half of their navy, and about one-third of their army, on this distant expedition to Sicily. Athens had risked its fleet and army, but for what?

The Peloponnesian War: A Fatal Delay

At one point, an otherwise prudent Athenian attempt to retreat failed to occur, due entirely to Athenian superstition regarding an eclipse of the moon, which occurred the night before the Athenians had planned to leave. Superstitious Nicias refused to sail until the Athenians had waited the required 27 days. To the detriment of military necessity, Nicias was subservient to convention.

This delay by Nicias proved fatal. In the narrow harbor of Syracuse, the Athenians were at a disadvantage, and the soldiers of Syracuse, like the Greeks against the Persians at Salamis in an earlier time, were fighting for their freedom against foreign invaders.

The forces of Syracuse had obtained a technical advantage in, of all things, their navy by adopting a procedure to strengthen the hulls of their ships. Thus could the ships of Syracuse better fight at close quarters with Athenian vessels. As a result, the much smaller navy of Syracuse defeated the Athenian fleet, killing Athenian general Eurymedon in the process. The victors began mooring a line of ships across the entrance to trap the Athenians completely.

The Athenians sailed out again into the harbor of Syracuse to try to destroy this blockade, but they were driven back in a furious battle in the confined space of the body of water. Athenian warriors were confused by the shouts and war cries, called "paeans," of their Sicilian allies, which sounded like the war calls of the forces of Syracuse. In the fog of battle, this confusion gave advantage to the opponent. Athens was repulsed.

Demosthenes wanted to attack the barrier again the next morning, in that the Athenians still had more ships than the navy of Syracuse, but the demoralized Athenian sailors refused to man their stations. The Athenian fleet was trapped, defeated, and destroyed. This was, in its own way, an Athenian Tsushima.

The only choice left was to retreat by land. Athenian general Nicias, however, lacked an appreciation of the urgency of his predicament. In his own fog of war, he gave his troops one day to pack their equipment before decamping. But this delay allowed Spartan general Gylippus to move and position troops at strategic points along the Athenian route of march. Thus the Athenian army struggled on for eight days under constant attack by horse-mounted cavalry of Syracuse. After his main body was surrounded, Demosthenes surrendered.

The Peloponnesian War: Few Return Home

The vanguard of the Athenian army, under its general Nicias, kept on for two more days until the soldiers of Syracuse caught up with it at the Assinarus River, on the southeast side of Sicily. There, the thirsty Athenians were slaughtered in droves as they trampled each other trying to get to the water.

Demosthenes and Nicias were quickly executed. Most of the other survivors of their mighty Athenian expedition perished while imprisoned by the victorious forces of Syracuse, in horrid conditions in a rock quarry. In one of the saddest accounts in all of military literature, Thucydides called the Sicilian Expedition the "greatest achievement" in Greek history. But in the end "they were destroyed, as the saying is, with total destruction, their fleet, their army, everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home. Such were the events in Sicily."

"Everything was destroyed," we are told. So with such an outcome we are entitled to ask, was the Sicilian campaign a good strategy, but poorly executed? Or was it simply bad strategy from the outset? It is too facile merely to look at the result and reason backwards. We must know more. The first rule of winning a war is to avoid defeating yourself.

So let us ask questions and think in terms of principles of war. If Alcibiades’ proposal to send 60 triremes and a modest number of troops was a good idea, was it "better" operational planning to adopt Nicias’ proposal and more than double the force? This gets into issues of simplicity versus complexity, mass versus economy of force, maneuver versus security. If the original plan was for a relatively small force of Athenians to make allies on Sicily, and leverage these allies to subdue Syracuse, was it "better" to send a larger force that was perceived by the locals as an army of conquest?

And what would have happened had the Athenians pardoned Alcibiades for any perceived slight to the gods, and kept him fighting in the field instead of recalling him to stand trial? This poses a contrast between the leadership at home interfering in personnel issues, versus supporting mission accomplishment.

As to the things that you cannot foresee, what would have happened had Alcibiades not defected in the process, and compromised the security of the entire Athenian plan? Here we see an issue involving having to take a known objective, versus working without the element of surprise. Would the forces of Syracuse have been able to defeat the Athenian effort, absent the treachery and insider knowledge of Alcibiades, leveraged with the able assistance of Sparta’s Gylippus?

Finally, what if Nicias had not hesitated at crucial moments in a series of battles, again and again, and on numerous occasions, thus handing the initiative to the opponent? Here are issues of when to seize the offensive, versus when to remain defensive.

The Peloponnesian War: How Could This Have Been Avoided?

As Sun Tzu said, "The skillful warrior can achieve his own invulnerability. But he can never bring about the enemy’s vulnerability." The Sicilian campaign highlights a litany of Athenian strategic, operational, and tactical mistakes that brought about their vulnerability, and led ultimately to their "total destruction."

The news of the destruction of the Sicilian Expedition stunned Athens. At first, people simply did not believe that their mighty forces could have suffered defeat in a distant land and at the hands of what the Athenians viewed as primitive people. Could anyone have seen this coming? If so, why did no one listen? This raises the question of when and how should the messenger break the news of catastrophe to the leadership, let alone to the people? How do people mentally process such unwelcome information of utter disaster?

How does a nation absorb the magnitude of its loss? By way of example, during World War II, it was several months before the leadership of the Imperial Japanese Navy even informed the emperor of the losses at Midway. And after Stalingrad, German citizens were seen to wear black armbands for many months.

But with the news of the Sicilian disaster, it was as if the end of the Athenian Empire was at hand. The Athenian treasury was nearly empty, her docks were depleted, and thousands of her soldiers were dead and unburied, or imprisoned as slaves in a foreign land. Was this the beginning of the end?

The Athenians correctly feared that the disaster in Sicily would inspire revolts throughout their empire and lead to redoubled efforts by the Spartans. Closer to home, war with Sparta had broken out again earlier that year, 413 B.C., when the Spartan king, weary of suffering raids on his territories without retaliation, invaded the agricultural lands of Athens for the first time since 425 B.C. This time, however, following the template provided by Alcibiades, he constructed a fortress in the midst of the Athenian territories, and thus controlled access to the Athenian hinterland. For the rest of the war, this Spartan garrison wore down Athenian morale with constant raids. The garrison also provided refuge for many thousands of runaway slaves, which greatly harmed the Athenian economy.

But still, the Athenians managed to survive a while longer. How did they accomplish this? Thucydides said it best. "(I)n the panic of the moment they were ready to be as prudent as possible….Summer was now over."

The war between Athens and Sparta continued for another nine years, until Sparta was able to defeat the remaining elements of the Athenian navy at a place called Aegospotami. In this battle, the Athenians lost 168 ships, or essentially all that remained of their navy. Only 12 Athenian ships escaped.

Athens held an empire, and its continuous expansion caused Sparta such great fear as to convince the Spartans to start a war. After much fighting in their own regions, Athens attempted to widen the war by invading and subduing Sicily, but this turned out to be an utter disaster for the Athenians. Perhaps the disaster could have been avoided. But the facts of history are that the Athenians gambled and lost, and blundered their way to defeat on Sicily.

After Sicily, the Athenians returned to their strategic element, which was the sea. They fought on for a time, and bravely. But they did so only because they were using their last strategic reserves of ships and funds. At this stage, the Athenians could not afford to make mistakes, let alone to incur losses that could not be replaced. And as Sun Tzu might have put it, after many years of "bringing about their own vulnerability," the Athenians made their fatal mistake at Aegospotami.

So, finally the Athenians were compelled, by an accumulation of acts of force, to do the will of the Spartans. Facing starvation and disease from prolonged siege on her landward side, and now with her navy defeated, Athens surrendered in 404 B.C. Her allies soon surrendered as well. The terms of surrender stripped Athens of her walls, her fleet, and all of her overseas possessions. The war ended. Athens was ruined. The world and its destiny would belong to others.

Until we meet again…

Byron W. King
for The Daily Reckoning

November 09, 2005

P.S. If you want to read more about the folly of empires past and present, please purchase a copy of Empire of Debt, written by Agora’s own Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggin. The book packs a lot of history into its many pages. With its unique Bonner-Wiggin writing style, the book manages to connect all of the dots to current events.

Byron King currently serves as an attorney in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He received his Juris Doctor from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1981 and is a cum laude graduate of Harvard University. He is a regular contributor to the free e-letter, Whiskey and Gunpowder, which covers resources, oil, geopolitics, military history, geology and personal freedom.

Empires always end in misery.

"State of Emergency in France," declares one of today’s headlines. More than 300 French cities and towns have been set alight, say the reports. Roving gangs of "youths" hit and run, police and firefighters have been shot. At least one man has been killed.

Whence cometh these "youths?" They come from France’s former colonies in Africa. Now they have their revenge. They were let into the France homeland like barbarian tribes allowed to cross the Rhine. Surely their jaws would drop when the saw the splendor in which their betters lived. Surely they would fight for France. Surely they would work for her. Surely these new immigrants would do as immigrants always do – bring new blood to create a stronger society and a more dynamic race.

Instead, the ingrates set her afire!

The euro has fallen to $1.18, as a result. France’s hotels and restaurants are emptying out. And now the "European model" of high social spending, high taxes, high wages and high unemployment seems to be in jeopardy.

Why did the French colonize Africa in the first place? Because it was there…waiting to be conquered, and because it was their duty to bring democracy and technology. In his heart, every African longed to put on a suit, to vote, and to ride a in a passenger car. It was France’s "mission civilisatrice" to bring these things to them. This was just "the white man’s burden," said Kipling.

But now, the poor white men in London are getting blown up by second-generation immigrants from Pakistan and in Paris, their cars are on fire.

America took up the white man’s burden in a different way. Rather than bring civilization to the heathen, it brought the heathen to civilization…in slave ships. Once on the terra firma of the New World, the poor savages were dressed up in hand-me-down clothes, taught to sing Gospel songs and set out to work the fields with a hoe. Five or six generations later, in the 1960s, their descendants, too, set cities ablaze. The white men had it coming for a long time.

Then, American politics took a lurch to the right. The liberals had been mugged more than once. Welfare benefits were tightened. Birth control access was loosened. And soon, there were fewer "youths" with time on their hands to cause trouble. This, not the policies of Mayor Giuliani, eventually brought down crime rates in New York and other major cities.

France’s leadership is said to be "flailing," "clueless," "impotent," in the face of this new challenge. What can they do? Our guess is that they will eventually follow the American example.

But the problem with running an empire is that the empire eventually runs you.

More news from the pundits at The Rude Awakening…


Eric Fry, reporting from Wall Street:

"There is no "buy" signal known to man that is more compelling than a mass, simultaneous "sell" recommendation from Wall Street. Knowing this fact, what choice did I have but to write about bonds again?"


Bill Bonner, back in London with more irritating opinions…

*** We say irritating, because we have heard from a number of English readers. They did not like being accused of murder. But what else can you call the deliberate killing of men, women and children in Dresden? It is the right of every great empire…or even of every petty tyrant, such as Saddam Hussein…they maintain, to meet violence with violence raised to the 10th power. The Germans killed 20,000 in London. Why not kill 200,000 in Dresden?

When the orders came to bomb Dresden – with a force greater than had ever before been put in the air – even the bombardiers themselves were puzzled. Dresden had never before been a target. It had no military importance. The city was full of civilians, refugees fleeing the on-coming Soviet army in the East. The English fliers had to double check with their superiors to make sure they were really meant to destroy Dresden, rather than a military target.

"Yes," came the answer, dooming thousands of people whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After the news came out, Churchill was embarrassed. Maybe we should pick our targets more carefully, he said. Later, as international outrage mounted, the whole apparatus of British propaganda was called out to turn Dresden into a "vital communications center" in need of obliteration.

Here at The Daily Reckoning our sentiments are no daintier than those of anyone else. We like a hanging or a war as much as the next fellow. But we see no reason to lie about what is going on.

*** "Having made such a success of the U.S. economy," begins an e-mail from an Indian reader, "John Snow is on a altruistic mission to tell the rest of the world how to sort out their economies and emulate American perfection. Today’s stop is…India."

"U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow will be aiming to nudge India ahead on reforms," begins an article on Reuters, "including greater scope for foreign ownership in financial services, as he begins a four-day visit on Monday.

"Snow’s trip, which takes him from Mumbai, the financial centre of Asia’s third-largest economy, to the capital New Delhi, extends a series of visits to countries the U.S. Treasury sees as having a vital role in shaping the global economy in the future.

"India’s $700-billion economy has been growing at a rate of more than six percent on average over the past five years."

The Daily Reckoning