What Would Caesar Do?

It’s the kind of speculation that maybe only a history nerd (like me) would love, but the Los Angeles Times published it, anyway — four historians discuss what Julius Caesar, George Washington, Genghis Khan, and Abraham Lincoln might say about Iraq. Excerpts —

Adrian Goldsworthy speaks for Julius Caesar:

When Caesar led his legions into Gaul — basically present-day France and Belgium — in 58 BC, many of the tribes there greeted him as a liberator. Six years later, almost all of them rebelled against him in a war fought with appalling savagery. Through skill and luck, Caesar won. He then spent the better part of two years in painstaking diplomacy. As one of his own officers put it: “Caesar had one main aim, keeping the tribes friendly and giving them neither the opportunity nor cause for war.” It worked, and Gaul remained at peace when he left in 49 BC.

Joseph Ellis channels George Washington:

Until the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, Washington thought of the war against Britain as a contest between two armies. When the British army presented itself for battle, as it did on Long Island in the summer of 1776, Washington felt honor-bound to fight — a decision that proved calamitous on that occasion and nearly lost the war at the very start. That’s because the British had a force of 32,000 men against his 12,000. If Washington had not changed his thinking, the American Revolution almost surely would have failed because the Continental Army was no match for the British leviathan.

But at Valley Forge, Washington began to grasp an elemental idea: Namely, he did not have to win the war. Time and space were on his side. And no matter how many battles the British army won, it could not sustain control over the countryside unless it was enlarged tenfold, at a cost that British voters would never support. Eventually the British would recognize that they faced an impossibly open-ended mission and would decide to abandon their North American empire. Which is exactly what happened.

Jack Weatherford represents Genghis Khan, who conquered Mesopotamia in 1258:

Genghis Khan recognized that victory came by conquering people, not land or cities. In contrast to the Americans in 2003, who sought to take the largest cities first in a campaign of shock and awe, the Mongols in 1258 took the smallest settlements first, gradually working toward the capital. Both the Mongols and the Americans used heavy bombardment to topple Baghdad, but whereas the Americans rushed into the capital in a triumphant victory celebration, the Mongols wisely decided not to enter the defeated — but still dangerous — city. They ordered the residents to evacuate, and then they sent in Christian and Muslim allies, who seethed with a variety of resentments against the caliph, to expunge any pockets of resistance and secure the capital. The Americans ended up as occupiers; the Mongols pulled strings, watching from camps in the countryside. …

… Fundamentalist Muslims look back at Mongol secularism as a scourge. But, although U.S. rule in Iraq has produced a constant flow of refugees, particularly religious minorities, out of the country, under Mongol rule Christian, Muslim, Jewish and even Buddhist immigrants poured into the newly conquered Iraq to live under the Great Law of Genghis Khan. It was said that during this time a virgin could cross the length of the Mongol Empire with a pot of gold on her head and never be molested.

Harold Holzer discusses Abraham Lincoln:

So what might Lincoln do today?

First, focus on the real enemy: terrorists. When advisors suggested he start a war with England merely to woo patriotic Southerners back into the Union, Lincoln replied: “One war at a time.” He also rejected adventurism against French-controlled Mexico. Today Lincoln would fight only the war that needs fighting.

Second, embrace flexibility. Seek the right generals, strategies, troop levels and weaponry, and be willing to change course and personnel swiftly.

Third, communicate objectives with frequency, passion and precision. No one can match Lincoln’s eloquence, but no president should abandon Lincoln’s commitment to engage the public.

Fourth, spend more time at the front. Lincoln visited the troops often, absorbing their pain and boosting their morale. Maybe his case was better, but his manner of symbolizing it was best.

Finally, abandon the notion of divine will to justify war. Even the pious Lincoln came to realize it was fruitless, even sacrilegious, to invoke God as his ally. “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God,” he lamented. “Both may be, and one must be, wrong.” As Lincoln understood: “The Almighty has his own purposes.”

It should be noted that Caesar and Genghis Khan achieved their goals in ways that are frowned upon in civilized circles today. But although tactics might have to be modified, it doesn’t hurt to look at their strategies.

20 thoughts on “What Would Caesar Do?

  1. Chenaeus Pompious Minimus had his plaustrum brought to a halt by mater matris Sheehan while she was conducting a “peace surge”.


    Throughout all of history, the opinions of the masses have been ignored and manipulated. Next week W will probably propose additional troops in Iraq. Please be prepared to help bury our new congress in email opposing a policy that is solely designed for leagcy modification.

  2. What a wonderful post. And let’s not forget that Bush is also trying to achieve his goals “in ways that are frowned upon in civilized circles today.”

  3. What would Jesus do is the more appropriate question..after all, it was Jesus who egged bush on by telling him to “take out Saddam”. And it was Jesus’ inspiration who provided the jawbone of an ass as the principle weapon to come against Saddam.

    To me, of the four examples given above..I think Washington’s understanding of his situation most aptly will apply to Bush’s defeat in Iraq. Although a common denominator of achievable goals was present with all of them.. Bush’s war in Iraq is more of a faith based initiative, so it will require a faith based solution. Just speak victory into existence, because there is no possibility of victory in the realm of the natural.

    I think it’s strange how prophetic the authors of the slogan,” quagmire accomplished” were in coining that phrase. Bush is now in a situation that has left him powerless over his eventual defeat and the only power at his disposal is the power to accept defeat. I’m heartened to know that Bush spent three whole hours on Thursday crafting a plan for victory in Iraq.

  4. Saddam will be executed shortly.. the cost will be almost a million lives and a half trillion dollars. Did Bush sell us a bargain or what?

  5. It’s worth it, Swami, because Saddam being executed will break the back of the insurgents. This is the turning point. One last push, a surge you might say, and we’ll be seeing the change in, what, six months.

    I just know it…

  6. An interesting perspective indeed. The one commonality is that all of them were able to be ‘flexible’ and adapt to changing conditions or new information. Success in any venture is more likely if one is able to react correctly in response to the exact circumstances in which one finds oneself, and not in ‘staying the course’, especially when the course proves to be in the wrong direction – and has been from the beginning.

  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timur
    In a letter I wrote to Chuck Hagel shortly before Operation Shock ‘N Awe, I compared George W. Bush to Tamerlane, arguing he would sack Iraq and kill many people in the process, then proceed through out the Middle East and Central Asia.
    Hagel answered my letter, which I hope mase an impression on him.

  8. While bush no doubt pictures himself in the same company as some of the great military minds of ancient times as described in the Old Testament I’m sure that future historians when looking back on his Middle East exploits will need to invoke an Alfred E. Newman-like caricature in order to explain what had transpired there.

  9. The main difference between Bush & Custer is that Custer bet his ass in his defeat; Georgeie is only sacrificing the futures of others. The conceit and quest for personal glory is the same.

  10. To find the right historical parallel for Bush you’d need to find another 5 year-old who was head of state.

  11. Which Roman emperor was it that went to war against Neptune? Little Boots, I think, is the translation of his name.

    The troops were not properly equipped, but it wasn’t his fault because the equipment to fight underwater wasn’t invented yet, and a couple of thousand years later, the equipment to fight a war against water has still not been invented.

    I suspect, though, that both campaigns succeeded in their real goals while failing utterly on the surface.

  12. Custer..

    The guy who wrote “Indian Yell” gave a talk on the book in C-span yesterday in which he praised Custer as youngest general and one that never lost a battle in civil war and he travelled all the way back to washington to complain about fake supplies sent to his soldiers.

    Also, maha, What you need to have a though exercise with your readers about “If you were the president and wanted to have permanent occupation of Iraq and control of Oil, how would you plan that”. In my opinion that current chaos is that plan and every one keep complaining that they didn’t plan.

  13. injun:

    Re Custer, General Grant had a low opinion of Custer, partly (as I recall) anyone in Custer’s command would be killed or wounded eventually, with 100 percent certainty. He was a damn reckless fool in the Civil War and remained so afterward.

    Re “In my opinion that current chaos is that plan and every one keep complaining that they didn’t plan.” Read the Thomas Ricks book “Fiasco.” It will open your eyes.

  14. The guy who wrote “Indian Yell” also wrote “Dances with Wolves”. What is custer’s major crime that he lost to brown people.

    As far as Thomas Ricks is concerned I have watched his three/four presentations on C-span.
    First thing he said that was telling was that only 1/3 of the commanders cared. 1/3 of commanders just wanted to kill. 1/3 didn’t have the training. also, if you can’t protect the people in an
    insurgency instead just protect yourself that is the problem. So if the military doesn’t have correct tactics obviously you are going to have fiasco. US didn’t have a insurgency school until one general set one up in Iraq. but that won’t help if you don’t protect your allies. All the professional people will leave the country.
    Obviously arrogance blinded the US but divide and conquer tactic was used as well. Once that happen it is hard to put things back together. This will insure presence of US troops in the region.
    Only thing complicates this is that Iran has other plans.

  15. As far as Thomas Ricks is concerned I have watched his three/four presentations on C-span.

    That’s OK, but it’s not the same thing as reading the book. It’s a BIG book, and he could only have presented little slices of it on C-Span.

  16. Qrazyqat:

    I can’t tell whether or not you’re being sincere, mainly because I think what you’re asserting about the effect of the Saddam execution makes little sense. I don’t think these insurgents care one iota about Saddam. They’re fighting our efforts there because we are the infidel occupiers, and they will fight us until we are gone.

    All bets are off if/when we leave. Chances are, Iran will move into the messy void ceated by the absence of Saddam. Saddam committed many atrocities of an inexcusable nature, yet he had something that we’ll be hard pressed to replicate anytime soon; a stable nation equiped to defend itself from enemies like Iran. I feel like all we’ve really accomplished is akin to kicking down a wasps nest i.e. agitated the hell out of a relentless group.

    P.S., let’s not forget that Saddam came to power by our support, and was our ally early on, mainly because of Iran and our desire to have a counterbalance to Iranian goals.

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