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Ancient Backbone: Using Ancient Texts to Train Modern Allies
Military advising is hard. To advise properly, an advisor must understand their own profession, know how to teach it, understand the individual and the culture of the people he is advising, and keep in mind the over-arching goals of their own military/government as well as those of the host government. In my time as an Air Advisor in Afghanistan, I saw that the majority of US personnel I worked with knew their own jobs and how to teach Americans, but few who understood or even tried to understand the Afghans, their military, or their culture.
My own experience in advising was non-existent prior to my deployment as an Mi-17 advisor in 2012. I did a little reading ahead of time, but I am hardly a Green Beret or Air Commando and to this day will not claim that level of knowledge or ability. However, while I was there I did the best I could and always tried to understand the Afghans I was working with. I found dealing with the Afghan pilots to be relatively simple compared to the challenges faced by my enlisted brethren. The pilots tended to be the cream of Afghan society. They were well educated, often very experienced in the aircraft, and many spoke English well enough that we did not require a translator. The enlisted force was not so lucky, and from what I observed from joint training with the Afghan National Army, the problems were the same throughout those ranks.
To train a less educated force from an alien culture I concluded that advisors, at least Air Force advisors, could use some basic help. I believe that our advisors would do well to reference the works of Flavius Vegetius Renatus, an ancient writer who was charged with summarizing the military exploits of the great Roman generals in order to transform Emperor Theodosius’s Byzantine forces into an army worthy of the title “Roman.” His military treatise On Roman Military Matters (technically three books) has been referenced by military leaders for over 1500 years, and can be used again by modern American military advisors.
The idea of using Vegetius did not arise from dealing with my aircrew counterparts, but rather from an Afghan Security Forces lieutenant who I’ll refer to as Hasan. My fellow CGO’s and I were sitting down with a group of newly minted Afghan lieutenants for some mentoring. Our conversation turned to leadership, and as a well-trained Air Force captain and graduate of Squadron Officer School (SOS), I did my best to explain how Westerners viewed great leaders. I parroted a form of the “Full-Range Leadership Model”, the latest in vogue explanation of leadership taught at SOS. In short it describes three types of leadership from Laissez-Faire (absent leadership from those in charge), to Transactional (give-and-take between leaders and led), to Transformational (inspiring leaders get people to follow them). Basically the Air Force insists that everyone should try to be some form of Transformational Leader, being the example and showing the way so followers are motivated to accomplish the mission. SOS discussions, at least in my groups, arrived at the conclusion that Transformational Leadership is the “best” leadership and therefore what everyone should strive for and implement that style. I’m quite certain some of my lecture was lost in translation, but many of the Afghan lieutenants still nodded in agreement. There were certainly Afghan leaders that practiced this style effectively throughout their history. But not Hasan.
Hasan was trained as a Security Forces officer, and had already led more than one patrol that resulted in a firefight. He was also actively involved in training a new batch of recruits that had just arrived at our base into Security Forces soldiers. He thought that my description of Transformational leadership was hogwash, and he had no qualms explaining it to the group. Hasan stated bluntly that his soldiers were largely illiterate hill-folk. They were not dumb, but they were simple, and to him only simple leadership would suffice. He stated that his men would fight, but what they really wanted was hot food, warm beds, and safety for themselves and their family. They weren’t looking to follow an Afghan version of Henry V into the breach, they wanted a paycheck that could support their family, and if that happened to help out the greater goals of a stable Afghanistan then so be it. Hasan felt his job was to get his men to earn that paycheck, nothing more and nothing less. He favored a more Transactional form of leadership, one of carrot and stick, and he mentioned he was fond of using both when the situation merited.
His words sounded harsh to my group of US airmen, but when I thought about his comments they made a lot of sense. He wasn’t leading inspired, service minded airmen like we were. His culture was also considerably rougher around the edges than ours. His self-described methods of shouting, manual labor punishments, and even the occasional slap upside the head brought results. Better for him, his methods of discipline kept his men in line and allowed them to be effective on the battlefield. Those methods are not politically correct in the US, but they work in Afghanistan. And if those methods work for the allies we are training, why are we not helping to implement those methods to make our allies as effective as possible?
Enter Vegetius. I doubt Hasan had ever heard of the Byzantine writer, but I think he would have approved of the ancient’s emphasis on discipline. Forget inspiring your men: instead apply strict discipline to keep the men in line and then pay them appropriately. The system worked then, and Hasan showed that it can and does work now.
So what how did Vegetius recommend his emperor, Theodosius train his army? In a word, it was discipline. He did not preach anything that looked like Transformational leadership, but rather use a carrot and stick approach with deep-seated discipline as the bedrock of effective fighting forces. Only through discipline could a leader hope to field an army capable enough to defeat the various threats against the Empire.
The opening line of Vegetius’s first book should ring true with any advisor, “Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it.” He goes on to observe how the victory of past Roman armies was based almost entirely on continuous military training and “exact observance of discipline.” The ancient writer does not leave “discipline” as a nebulous term though, and instead provides criteria to apply it. Hasan would likely employ many of Vegetius’s methods, if he were not attempting them already, thus proving the merits of a Transactional style of leadership in a non-Western society.
Vegetius goes on to describe the ideal recruit and what weapons he should be trained with. While his descriptions do not necessarily reflect the needs of a modern soldier, the emphasis on physical fitness and endurance training are crucial for recruits in areas like Afghanistan. This may seem like an obvious concept for the American military, but in militaries that will have to rely on less firepower, coordination, and intelligence than US forces, physical fitness should be emphasized as both a form of discipline and as a path to surviving a modern battlefield. Indeed, the physical demands placed on a soldier with a spear under Julius Caesar are not less or more than those placed on a modern combatant with a rifle.
The second book of On Roman Military Matters better describes ways to instill discipline into an army. He noted that the newest members of Roman legions trained physically twice a day under the watchful eye of veterans, who joined them in the routines at least once. This exhausting physical training was similar to US basic training, in that it was designed to harden bodies and sharpen minds in the face of physical exertion. But unlike boot camp, the activities did not end at the physical exercise. Vegetius demanded that all troops be subjected to continuous camp work such as wood cutting, hauling equipment, and conducting maneuvers under full battle dress. Only through these exercises could a leader mold a proper army, ready for the rigors of long campaigns and individual battles. These same methods are easily adapted to any military today. Lt. Hasan would agree that the need to work his troops was essential to prevent problems that arise from idle hands.
The third and final book of On Roman Military Matters deals with how to field an army. While Security Forces and Infantry members can better judge the applicability of Vegetius’s advice on topics such as “Marches in the Neighborhood of the Enemy” and “Rules for Encamping an Army” than I, Book 3 provides another insistence on an army’s discipline. He also adds sage advice for Transactional leaders. Under “How to Manage Raw and Undisciplined Troops” he wrote:
If therefore [a leader] finds his army composed of raw troops or if they have long been unaccustomed to fighting, he must carefully study the strength, the spirit, the manners of each particular legion, and of each body of auxiliaries, cavalry and infantry. He must know, if possible, the name and capacity of every count, tribune, subaltern and soldier. He must assume the most respectable authority and maintain it by severity. He must punish all military crimes with the greatest rigor of the laws. He must have the character of being inexorable towards offenders and endeavor to give public examples thereof in different places on different occasions. 
Here we have the first true dose of a leader’s responsibility to his troops. He must have the character to uphold discipline, to meet it out as needed and to do so publicly. This is the best and perhaps only way to uphold discipline. I believe Hasan would agree.
Finally, Vegetius provided several maxims for leading an effective army. The most applicable to advisors are thus:
- Men must be sufficiently tried before they are led against the enemy.
- Few men are born brave; many become so through care and force of discipline.
- Punishment, and fear thereof, are necessary to keep soldiers in order in quarters; but in the field they are more influenced by hope and rewards.
These maxims are sound, and require little further explanation. They suggest that discipline is key, but a leader must build that discipline through rigorous training before battle, and that men will fight for proper rewards. Again, I think Hasan would agree and that Transactional leadership is the model that advisors should uphold.
But rules in and of themselves are useless unless we can assess their impact on actual military operations. If we assume that Theodosius was the intended recipient of De Re Militari, the ultimate example of the writing’s effectiveness should be the military record of Theodosius’s armies. Theodosius is remembered as a reformer, and the changes he implemented clearly paid off. From 378 to 395 he enjoyed outstanding success on the battlefield, and his army’s successes helped back several important international treaties. After taking control of the Eastern Roman Empire, he spent five years fighting the Goths to a standstill. These tribes had previously routed an army under Theodosius’s predecessor Valens, and taken the emperor’s life in the process. Shortly thereafter he negotiated a treaty with the Persian Empire. Without the backing of a credible army it is unlikely that the long-time Roman rival would have accepted any sort of settlement. The following year Theodosius marched his army west to meet the Western Roman forces of Magnus Maximus and defeated him at Siscia and Poetovio. Seven years later he again attacked the West to defeat the usurper Eugenius.  Each and every time his disciplined army triumphed in battle. It is safe to say that the Transactional leadership recommended by Vegetius helped Theodosius build his army and win those campaigns.
Theodosius and subsequent Byzantine emperors were not the only ones to apply Vegetius’s suggestions. On Roman Military Matters became popular in Europe as the continent emerged from the Dark Ages. As one of the few Roman military manuals to survive, many of Europe’s great generals applied its teachings to create their own effective armies. The Dutch general Maurice the Orange is often regarded as the heaviest “user” of Vegetius’ work in reforming his army which proved highly effective against his 17th Century opponents. Like Theodosius, Maurice used Transactional leadership and the principle of discipline to train his troops. Maurice focused on physical activity, both under arms and during “downtime” in which soldiers provided manual labor to improve camp security. When not working with shovels, his troops were constantly drilling with their weapons and in increasingly larger and more complex formations. Maurice abhorred idleness. Finally, to encourage soldiers’ self discipline he drafted articles of war for his troops instituting rewards and punishments for their actions.
Judging the tactical success of Maurice’s troops during the messy Thirty Years War involves a lengthy discussion, so to prove the usefulness of his Transactional leadership and Vegetius inspired reforms it is best to look to historians. Maurice’s reforms are credited by several noted writers as integral in sparking a Military Revolution leading to increasingly coordinated and lethal armies. Such revolutions are considered turning points in military history, and it is clear that Transactional leadership helped make simple hill-folk into the effective soldiers that enabled that particular revolution.
Such examples demonstrate that Vegetius’s writings can truly form the bedrock of how to train allies who do not possess what we would consider a modern military. Transactional Leadership is the key to helping our advisors understand and work with “simple” societies. Focusing on drill, physical activity, rewards/punishments, and discipline makes sense. Advisors need to seek and apply tools that may not be considered ideal in the US military. Transformational Leadership is not “better,” and Transactional Leadership is not inferior. They are different approaches to the problem of leading people, and both have merits. As Hasan explained to me, Transactional leadership works in Afghanistan, and his lesson is one we should heed.
Military Advising is an important tool that currently holds favor with a US policy that seeks to avoid “boots on the ground” and committing US forces directly to armed conflict. Advisors should consider using the methods described here because they would work as easily for Syrian “moderates”, Iraqi troops, or anywhere else US soldiers find themselves training locals as they did in Afghanistan. If training and using allies continues as the US way of war, then the latest generation of US Advisors should add Vegetius to their bookshelves.
 Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Vegetius.” There is debate over exactly when Vegetius wrote or for exactly which emperor. The translated text is addressed to “Emperor Valentinian.” While this is an interesting historical debate, it does not change the impact of his writings on the Byzantine military or medieval armies. Additionally, the title “Byzantine” may be anachronistic for the Eastern Roman Empire of the late fourth century, but in this case is used to help differentiate from the Western Roman Empire.
 “The Full-Range Leadership Model”, Personal notes from Squadron Officer School lecture/classes, May 2011.
 Vegetius, On Military Matters, 7.
 In this case, I do not consider the recruits of the Repbulician, Imperial Roman, or Byzantine army to subscribe to the same ideas as modern “Western” societies. Instead, the bulk of the Roman recruits likely mirrored average modern Afghan recruits in their “hill-country” roots and education, especially the “barbarian” recruits of Theodosius’s army.
 Vegetius, 8-19.
 Ibid., 47-48.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 70-71.
 Ibid., 90-92.
 Warren Treadgold, Byzantium and Its Army: 284-1081 (Standford: Standford University Press, 1995), 11-13.
 Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Theodosius.”
 Ibid., 1584.
 William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 127-129.
 Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy, Paperback ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 140.
 Michael Roberts, “The Military Revolution, 1560-1660” in The Military Revolution Debate, ed. Clifford J. Rogers (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), 13-35; John Lynn, “Forgin the Western Army in Seventeenth-Century France,” in The Dynamics of Military Revolution: 1300-2050, ed. MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 48.