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What We Can Learn About 21st Century Wars From The Byzantines

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What We Can Learn About 21st Century Wars From The Byzantines

Gary Anderson

General John “Mick” Nicholson, the outgoing commander of US forces in Afghanistan, recently created some controversy by stating that US strategy in Afghanistan is working. Some critics point out the near catastrophe that befell Afghan forces in the provincial capital of Ghazni as proof of the ultimate failure of the Americans to adequately prepare the Afghan armed forces and their government for independent operations against the Taliban. Others, including the Editorial Board of the Washington Post, have called for an abandonment of the Afghan enterprise entirely. If General Nicholson had been a senior commander of the Byzantine Empire, his comments would have made nary a public ripple. He would have been stating a plain fact of the new strategic normal.

When the Western Roman Empire finally collapsed in the Fifth Century AD, its eastern sister- called the Byzantine Empire- managed to survive for another thousand years. Until close to the end, it probably remains as a good example of how to maintain a healthy and relatively prosperous society can survive in a turbulent world surrounded by potential enemies and sometimes feckless friends and allies. Byzantium’s wars can also teach us a lot about our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reality was that the Byzantine Empire was almost constantly at war somewhere on its periphery. Most of these were small wars fought by expeditionary forces, much like our current efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were wars of area denial in that they were designed to keep unwanted adversaries out of areas considered to be of strategic importance. Some of the adversaries were familiar as well. Islamic radical groups came and went as did Persians, Arabs, Slavs, and Turks.

There are other parallels with today’s American wars. Ample use was made of mercenaries and other kinds of military contractors - particularly as cannon became available. The Byzantines were not afraid to make frequent use of bribery as an economy of force measure to keep one foe at bay while trying to deal with one or more other adversaries. War and diplomacy were seen as totally integrated and negotiated settlements rather than absolute victory were seen as desired end states. Thus, General Nicholson’s comments would not have been seen as odd in Constantinople. The total destruction of an opposing government meant that the Byzantines would have to spend people and treasure governing the conquered territory. This was not an optimal solution to the thrifty men and women who governed Constantinople although they were occasionally forced to do so.

In fighting its wars of area denial, the Byzantine Empire at its peak used a professional standing army - a mix of citizens and soldiers - but for homeland defense it used citizen levies gathered from the Themes (provinces) thus avoiding the danger that mercenaries would become strong enough to launch a military coup.

One area where the Byzantines were very much like post-cold war America is in the handling of clients and would-be allies. Like us, the Empire was willing to tolerate wide deviations in self-governance and even competence in its allies as long as they remained reliable. When they weren’t feuding with the Byzantines, the Bulgars could be every bit as feckless as the Afghan and Iraqi governments are today as allies. However, in periods of alliance they provided a useful buffer against even more undesirable nomads - freeing the Empire up to use valuable professional expeditionary troops elsewhere. The expeditionary army was reasonably small, mobile, and - best of all - affordable.

As with us, one of the most persistent foes of the Byzantines were various incarnations of what we now call radical Islam. In the millennium that it existed, the Byzantines faced at least ten iterations of radical Islam. Fortunately for the Empire, no matter how dangerous the Islamists were in the near term, they eventually ran out of steam. In our case, ISIS and al Qaeda appear to be losing steam, but there will other messianic leaders rising, and they will need to be dealt with.

The major difference between the ancient Byzantine and modern American security systems is one of scale. Even through it was huge by the norms of the times, it constituted a relatively small-scale security challenge compared to what we face today. In addition, the threats that surrounded it were relatively compact. Consequently, the empire was nearly constantly at war someplace on its periphery. Prolonged periods of peace, not war, were anomalies.

Many believe that we have been in forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, but we also saw a decade of relative peace following the fall of the old Soviet Union. However, our wars of area denial may be less frequent than those of the Byzantines as we advance in the 21st Century, but there will almost certainly be more of them. Our security perimeter stretches from the Philippines and South China Sea to the Baltic States, and some would say that our own southern border has become a de-facto irregular warfare zone. Periods of peace will likely be seen as relatively rare by future historians.

Most modern Americans would not have wanted to live in the Byzantine Empire. It was a religiously intolerant and rigidly socially stratified society, but most of its citizens probably would not have wanted to live anywhere else given the alternatives. American military planners seeking to understand the new normal of 21st century strategy would do well to spend more time studying the Byzantines than the wars of the 20th Century.



About the Author(s)

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.


The following assertion, also, addressed in a Congressional Research Report, may have some bearing on the matters were are discussing here:


In September 2000, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest published a series of articles whose central premise was Combatant Commanders wielded an inordinate amount of political influence within the countries in their areas of responsibility and "had evolved into the modern-day equivalent of the Roman Empire's proconsuls—well-funded, semi-autonomous, unconventional centers of U.S. foreign policy."128 Some national security experts consider this series as the catalyst of the continuing debate as to whether or not COCOMs have assumed too much influence overseas, thereby diminishing the roles other U.S. government entities play in foreign and national security policy. Despite the post-September 11, 2011, ascendancy of the Interagency in foreign policy and national security matters, the debate over the COCOM's role continues. ...

The assertion that COCOMs have usurped other U.S. government entities in the foreign policy arena may deserve greater examination. Geographic Combatant Commanders generally agree their role is more political than military. A former USEUCOM and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) estimated he spent about 70% of his time on political-military issues, despite having ongoing combat operations in the Balkans.130 USCENTCOM commanders have reportedly spent a significant amount of time meeting with the senior Iraqi and Afghan political leadership over the past 10 years discussing issues of building and maintaining armed forces, civil-military relations, and other national security matters. While these discussions might not conform to what have been traditionally considered war fighting-related topics, the complexities of U.S. involvement in these two countries suggests Combatant Commanders have been required to play a more pronounced political role.


Not sure whether such things as "imperial policing" fall best under the heading of "empire," "hegemony," neither or both, but Emile Simpson says that this ("imperial policing" or as he calls it "imperial politics") is what we are doing in Afghanistan and that, accordingly, we should not -- much as would be the case in a domestic setting - (a) see ourselves "at war" there and, thus, should not except to "win."


In a domestic context, everyone understands that policing is a continual activity. The idea is constantly to maintain order. There is no moment of victory as such but, rather, an ambition to achieve and maintain relative “stability,” which is only ever a provisional state.

To think about the conflict in Afghanistan as an armed policing operation (in my book I call it “armed politics,” but it’s the same business of enforcing the writ of a government over its own state) makes sense historically. Take for example the British experience of policing the other side of the lawless “North-West Frontier” between what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan against rebellious Pashtun (then called Pathan) tribes. Virtually not a single year passed between 1849 and 1947 without some kind of large military expedition to quell unrest.




Here is an excerpt from an article, interestingly enough, entitled "Hegemony or Empire" -- by this self-same Niall Ferguson -- that I found in the Sep/Oct issue 2003 issue of "Foreign Affairs."  Perhaps it helps explain his position on these matters:


Perhaps the book's real problem is that the very concept of "hegemony" is really just a way to avoid talking about empire, "empire" being a word to which most Americans remain averse. But "empire" has never exclusively meant direct rule over foreign territories without any political representation of their inhabitants. Students of imperial history have a far more sophisticated conceptual framework than that. During the imperial age, for example, British colonial administrators such as Frederick Lugard clearly understood the distinction between "direct" and "indirect" rule; large parts of the British Empire in Asia and Africa were ruled indirectly, through the agency of local potentates rather than British governors. A further distinction was introduced by the British historians Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in their seminal 1953 article on "the imperialism of free trade," in which the authors showed how the Victorians used naval and financial power to open markets well outside their colonial ambit. There is an important and now widely accepted distinction between "formal" and "informal" empire. The British did not formally govern Argentina, for example, but the merchant banks of the City of London exerted such a powerful influence on that country's fiscal and monetary policy that its independence was heavily qualified.

A more sophisticated definition of "empire" would have allowed the book's authors to dispense with the word "hegemony" altogether. Instead, they could have argued that the United States is an empire -- albeit one that has, until now, generally preferred indirect and informal rule. (Whether its recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq presage a transition to more direct and formal imperial structures remains to be seen.)


(The book that Ferguson is referring to here is: "Two Hegemonies: Britain 1846-1914 and the United States 1941-2001." Patrick Karl O'Brien & Armand Clesse. Aldershot, U.K.: Asghate, 2002.)

In addition, the two items I provide above seem to somewhat address these matter also.

Anderson's analogy is useful, but don't stretch it to literal truth.  As Mr Ronan points out, the U.S. generally seeks to influence, not directly govern other places.  (Niall Ferguson, while aggressively grinding an axe to a blunt edge, has proven he doesn't understand much about the U.S., and in some cases, not much as he thinks about empires.)

1.  Empire, no...hegemony, yes, at least as far back as the Monroe Doctrine, and arguably all the way back to the beginning of the nation.

3.  You're talking about Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and a few former Soviet republics being part of a U.S. "empire"?  Not even a consistent list for hegemony. 

2 & 4.  There are the questions that should have been openly debated in 2002!   Substituting "hegemony" for "empire", the answer's probably:  they're of strategic importance to us, if for no other reason than helping to keep Iran contained.  Does that require governing -- doubtful.  Defending -- maybe as an enabler.  Influencing -- if we can...if we can't, there's always the British approach to Afghanistan, which was to make it ungovernable and uninfluencable by anyone else.  

The USA has been at war since 1776. During our War for Independence the USA fought the British and their Indian surrogate and allies. And, during our Civil War while the Eastern US was engulfed in battle, a separate Indian war was fought in the West. After 1865, this war continued until 1890 making it a one hundred and eleven year war. The US also drove five foreign powers from what is now our territory, suppressed a rebellion and put paid to the Spanish Empire. In the 20th century, with out gallant Allies we helped put paid to Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and caused the disintegration of the Communist Bloc. Our greatest Triumphs were the demilitarization of Germany and Japan and the preservation of the ROK. Regarding the Middle East, a friendly government in Iraq on the west and Afghanistan on the east could serve the same function the UK served in WW II; an unsinkable aircraft carrier in a struggle with the Islamic Republic of Iran. It also seems to me that in relation to ancient history and its lessons for us that the One Belt One Road project of our adversaries in the PRC in Asia  is akin to the Heraclean Way in the ancient struggle to control the Mediterranean.

Think the USA is a hegemonic power (in the best sense of the term). But it is not an empire. Cannot see Governor Pliny of a US state or territory or as head of state of an allied power writing to President Hadrian requesting advice or approval in provincial matters. Nor do I see our overseas forces funneling the tax receipts to the US Treasury or securing the wheat supply to the populace of the capitol. And, the Pax Romana, the Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana kept (or are keeping) the barbarians from the homeland'  Confronted with the modern equivalent of Goths, Avars, Pechenegs, Arabs and Turks, we have much to learn about using diplomatic, financial and military power to offset the enemies of the Republic.

Addendum to my item above:

We should note that Niall Ferguson, and indeed numerous others, DO consider the United States to be an empire -- of sorts -- acting, re: the Greater Middle East, more in an offensive/expand the empire -- rather than in a defensive/defend the empire manner?


Wheresoever the Roman conquers, he inhabits. -- Seneca ...

Let me come clean. I am a fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang. Twelve years ago -- when it was not at all fashionable to say so -- I was already arguing that it would be ''desirable for the United States to depose'' tyrants like Saddam Hussein. ''Capitalism and democracy,'' I wrote, ''are not naturally occurring, but require strong institutional foundations of law and order. The proper role of an imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, if necessary . . . by military force.'' Today this argument is in danger of becoming commonplace, at least among the set who read The National Interest, the latest issue of which is practically an American Empire Special Edition. Elsewhere, writers as diverse as Max Boot, Andrew Bacevich and Thomas Donnelly have drawn explicit (and in Boot's case, approving) comparisons between the pax Britannica of Queen Victoria's reign and the pax Americana they envisage in the reign of George II. Boot has gone so far as to say that the United States should provide places like Afghanistan and other troubled countries with ''the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.''

I agree. ...


From our article above:

"The reality was that the Byzantine Empire was almost constantly at war somewhere on its periphery. Most of these were small wars fought by expeditionary forces, much like our current efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were wars of area denial in that they were designed to keep unwanted adversaries out of areas considered to be of strategic importance."


1.  Before 9/11 -- and/or currently -- was/is the United States, much like the Byzantine, an "empire?"

2.  If so, then are Afghanistan and Iraq to be considered (a) part of our "empire" and, thus, (b) areas that we must defend?

3.  If not, then are Afghanistan and Iraq to be considered, instead, as being "on the periphery of our empire?"

(The U.S., thus, occupying and/or controlling -- directly and/or indirectly -- the states and societies which immediately adjoin Afghanistan and Iraq.  These such states and societies, which immediately adjoin Afghanistan and Iraq, actually being part of our empire?)

4.  Finally, in Afghanistan and Iraq, are we actually working to keep unwanted adversaries out of areas considered to be of "strategic importance" to us?  (Explain?)

James Ronan

Sat, 09/01/2018 - 8:29pm

IMHO Colonel Anderson has hit upon something missed by many. So much to learn from the Romans of the Classical period and Late Antiquity; and, from their successors in Constantinople. Some months ago read a piece in Proceedings that said that despite the Thucydides Craze as much or more could be learned, applicable to modern times, from the epoch of the Roman Empire. Two excellent books on the subject are The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire and The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire by Edward N. Luttwak. Although the author does not expressly state the thesis stated by Colonel Anderson, it is obvious in an instant that Luttwak is comparing these ancient polities to the United States of America in the 21st century. Another work, Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles outline how a rising power, Rome, challenged an established power, Carthage, for control of the Western Mediterranean.. The Romans (read China) had to build a navy to challenge Carthage (read the USA). They did it by stealing technology (salvaging a Carthaginian wreck and copying it). Sound familiar?


James Ronan

Lake Wylie, SC