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