Teamwork matters, lessons from the ancients

When you go to see a typical “sword and sandals” epic movie there will inevitably be a battle scene depicted at some point.  The normal depiction is lots of individual hand to hand combat between two foes and everything is willy nilly and a confused mess.   Even to the casual eye there is little if any organization to the fight.  One fellow fighting another then on to the next without any military structure.  There have been a few notable exceptions over the years but the above is generally the way those scenes are portrayed.   It leaves the distinct impression that the battles of yore were carried out by an aimless mass of men running to each other and engaging in a melee where the victor is the one with the most individual courage.   That is mostly fictitious.  

They weren’t idiots in the Greek and Roman times and their generals were thoughtful men with a regard to tactics, strategy and training.   It was the barbarians who were most likely to fight in such a disorganized fashion.  How do you think the Romans achieved their conquest of Gaul, Spain and central Europe where the local populations outnumbered them substantially.   Yet the Romans were never hesitate to take them on in battle.   The Romans weren’t running around like a bunch of bandits attacking pell mell without teamwork.  Those disorganized battles scenes did occur on occasion but that was normally after the main action had been fought and one side had begun its retreat and the winning side used its cavalry to decimate the retreating foe when they were disorganized by retreat.  The Greeks and Romans were much more disciplined than the movie battles.  That is how they won.   Lots of peoples had armies composed of brave men who exhibited individual heroics and were often heedless of injury or death.  Indeed death on the battlefield was considered the height of honors in many of those primitive societies.  They could become martyrs.  Sound familiar today with our friends the Arab terrorists?

The Spartans are a good example of the ancient art of warfare and military training.  They did put more effort into than most at the time.  They had too because they were pretty small in numbers and to succeed they needed the best army possible.  History is replete with examples of a smaller but well trained, disciplined and motivated army defeating  much larger enemies.  Those examples run from Biblical times, to Alexander the Great to Charles Martel and the English in the Hundred Years War.   Those are only a few.  The Spartans main army was composed of Peers or Equals as they were called.  They were landowners and full citizens of Sparta.  There weren’t that many of them.  Their usual army consisted of only a few hundred of these men.  The next rank was what was called the Gentleman-Rankers.  These were folks who had only partial citizenship –they enjoyed the protection of the law but didn’t have a voice in political affairs.   The British used the same phrase to describe the second rank of its army.  See Kipling.  Lastly, came the helots.  These were support troops who were used as bowmen and carried extra supplies and equipment for the Peers.  Each Peer would typically have at least one Gentelman-Ranker and one Helot in support of him.  Their training started when they were teenagers and it was brutal.  Think of all those movies you’ve seen about the Marine or Army recruits going through basic training and then imagine it being even more brutal than that and it goes on for years, not just a few months.   They fought in formation.  The shape, size and cohesiveness of the formation was critical to success.  It was much more than merely lining up in rows.  It had to be kept tight.  Their shields were large.  They reached from their neck down to below the knees and when in formation they were held in front and close together.   They weighed in about 50 pounds and then there was the helmet with a few more pounds and breastplate and shin armor.   It was rigorous work merely carrying yourself into battle.  Your armament was the shield, lance and sword.   You depended on the man to your left and right to maintain the integrity of the formation.  If he lowered his shield or moved it off left or right then you were immediately exposed.  They practiced for hours how to move and advance or retreat while keeping the formation intact.  They learned how to separate to go around obstatcles like boulders or trees quickly and tightly then reform so the shields were almost touching one another again.   They all fought right-handed.  Sorry you lefties but there was no room for a leftie in the formation.  That would have caused a gap and that would have meant instant injury or death.  They practiced how to reform when a comrade went down.  Nothing was left to chance.  Just as modern armies have “war games” where they practice every possible scenario so to did the Spartans.  

When attacking the first thing they would do was to bulk up the formation as tight as possible and often would ram into the foe en masse and literally try to knock them over or push them into an unfavorable position on the battle field.  It was a tug of war in reverse.  Except here the loser was likely to die.  When they could break the ranks of the enemy then that opening would be exploited immediately and they would attack to the exposed enemy’s flank were there was no protection.   This movement was practiced also.  Otherwise you could expose your own flanks.  They practiced moving up new spears when one was broken or moving up a replacement when a man fell to death or injury.  It was not a WWF match.  It was battle by trained soldiers.

That teamwork paid dividends for Sparta over the centuries.   It held its own against larger foes many times. Sometimes they were outnumbered by ridiculous amounts like by the Persians on more than one occasion.  That basic brutal training has endured over the centuries for successful armies i.e., Napoleon.   It will likey endure as long as we have armies.   Those ancients were not rabble running around swinging their swords wildly at a foe.   Teamwork can produce a sum greater than its parts. 

Robert Heinlein was one of my favorite authors.   He wrote of basic training for soldiers in the far distant future.  It was called “Starship Troopers”.  They made a bad movie about the book.  Read the book.  It is well done.  Even  centuries from now he predicted that soldiers would still train with knives and hand to hand techniques.   In fact read more of Heinlein.  He had very thought provocking ideas.  You are warned he was a Libertarian so he was not very politically correct.  He was egalitarian for sure.   His comments on political and social mores are very thoughtful.  Needless to say he had a very negative attitude toward any Government with control over people’s lives.

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Filed under Culture, government, military history

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