Our generals today don’t seem to enjoy war very much. They usually appear grumpy on television, although distrust of their political masters might well have something to do with that. But even in a friendly biographical piece or autobiography, today’s generals appear somber and dutiful, more like Presbyterian clergymen than laugh-in-the-face-of-death beaux sabreurs. George Patton may have been the last American general to admit that he enjoyed battle, and even in the 1940s, his contemporaries thought him a bit mad. I blame grim old William Tecumseh Sherman, with his perpetual moaning about war being hell: He set a dismal example for those who came after him. The 13-years-older Robert E. Lee—if we can believe the line attributed to him—seems to have looked back to the more cheerful world of Napoleonic warfare: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.”
But perhaps we should not be too surprised at the grave and tired faces of our generals, because they have much to do. The U.S. Army staff departments usefully define a general’s functions: personnel, intelligence, operations and training, logistics, civil-military operations, communications, IT, and resource management. Those functions—eight in number, like the tentacles of an octopus—however reconceived and re-ordered by each succeeding generation, have slowly been strangling the general’s joy in battle since the 17th century.
As Masters of Command reveals, perhaps the most important thing to understand about leading an army in the world of the Greeks and Romans is how much less there was to do, and how much more fun the Great Captains had doing it. Ancient armies did not have IT departments to supervise. An ancient army tended to move not divided into many parts but as a single large blob. “Intelligence” consisted of finding the enemy blob—which was usually not hard to do, because enemy forces perpetually threw off deserters who were happy to help. “Operations” consisted of marching towards the enemy (with or without the famous celerity of an Alexander or a Julius Caesar) and fighting a battle. The deployment of an army for combat was usually stereotyped—the same or similar in every fight—consisting of a line of battle regulated by the relative precedence of units (as in Alexander’s or the Roman Army) or, in a Greek confederate army made up of allies, the precedence of city contingents.
In battle, armies tended to act as vast entities, advancing to combat or breaking into flight as single organisms. Once the two opposed armies began to move towards each other, a leader’s attempt to redirect a wing or contingent was an act so fraught with peril that it was rarely tried. So “communications” on the battlefield usually came to little: A shield raised on a stick sufficed to order the advance.
Modern historians often anachronistically find far more modern generalship in ancient warfare than actually existed. Perhaps the widest-spread misconception is that, as in a modern army, logistics was a constant anxiety, the commander being concerned about the procurement and transport of every clasp on his soldiers’ armor and every calorie his soldiers consumed. But reading the ancient texts without mentally inserting into them what is absent shows, instead, that supply was only an occasional concern for the ancient general; it was something to be dealt with mostly when he settled upon an eccentric move like marching before the spring harvest or trying to cross a desert.
In a low-tech world, any village blacksmith could make and repair armor and weapons. And rather than ancient generals having to plan for the gathering and transportation of food, during the normal campaigning season, an ancient army tended to be (in enemy territory as in friendly) besieged by farmers and carters eager to sell the troops things to eat, because a passing army offered the farmer vastly higher prices for his produce than he would ever get at the local market. An army, particularly a successful army like that of Alexander or Hannibal or Caesar, was a tremendous concentration of expendable capital. To ask Alexander, “How do you feed your army?” would have struck the Macedonian king as no less preposterous than a reporter today asking the mayor of New York, “How do you feed all the people in your city?” Food naturally seeks money.