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The Great Conversation: Battle/Debate Strategy–Misdirection

 

Two events spurred the idea for a series of posts about strategy. The first was when I was talking with my wife about ways to win arguments with people. My favorite tactic is to lead my adversaries down a string of seemingly logical statements which are building to their position (with them agreeing with me all the time) until they agree to an illogical or absurd conclusion which I have set up. Then, on the basis of their logical folly, I discredit their entire argument. That’s fun. The second was that, as I was lying in bed the other night, I realized that the “Hail Mary” maneuver conceived by Norman Schwarzkopf through the Iraqi desert is essentially a modern replica of Alexander’s opening maneuver at the Hydaspes (modern Jhelum River) over 2300 years earlier. Whether Stormin’ Norman specifically invoked Hydaspes as a template I am not certain, but, as with all of history’s highly-educated captains, he knew of the battle and of many others like it in which the strategy hinged on I’m not where you think I am. Then I started breaking down the strategies of some of the great battles into general concepts such as I’m not where you think I am or my above I’m leading you into a compromising position. So in a series of posts, I’ll enumerate some of the age-old battle strategies and talk about a couple of exemplars and the backgrounds and tactics thereof. While these probably won’t be directly useful to you in a military sense (for most of you, I’d hope not), they may make you consider or reconsider some of your strategies for winning legal (or domestic?) arguments.  Onward.

I’M NOT WHERE YOU THINK I AM: MISDIRECTION

History is full of examples of this battle strategy. Think of Operations Fortitude/Overlord in 1944. Think of Operation Desert Storm when the American Marines on the Kuwaiti-Arabian border were essentially yelling “Yoohoo! We’re over here!” while the majority of American, French, and British divisions moved undetected through the “impassible” western desert to emerge on the flank of the Iraqis. Two of the great uses of this strategy in Classical Antiquity came in 326 BC and 217 BC and were executed by perhaps the two greatest generals of all time, Alexander and Hannibal.

HYDASPES

After Alexander’s victories at Issus and Gaugamela, the Persian Empire was his. On its northeastern fringes, however, the technically-incorporated but incompletely subdued and fiercely independent-minded inhabitants of Sogdiana had to be subdued before he marched east to find the mythical surrounding Ocean. After cleverly dispatching the Sogdian threat, his flank was secure, so he continued his eastward march. In early 326, Alexander encountered forward forces of Porus, king of Paurava (in modern Pakistani Punjab). In May, the two forces camped across the Jhelum River from each other, probably in the Jalalpur/Sharif region. In late spring and early summer, the river was high and the current strong, and to risk a frontal assault through the river against a numerically superior foe would have been madness. Alexander, almost always impetuous, had a better idea than to wait for river levels to drop later in the season.

Hydaspes

Alexander stationed his right-hand man, Craterus, with a small but noisy and energetic contingent, directly across from Porus. That force made itself busy by staging raids, reconnoitering, preparing materiel for crossing, and feinting across the river to keep Porus’s attention.  Meanwhile, Alexander took his main force (perhaps through the pass immediately to his north) to a narrower and shallower stretch several miles upriver, possibly near modern Darapur. From there, under cover of a tempestuous night, the main force crossed to the far side of the river without incident. Indian scouts soon alerted Porus to the crossing, but the damage had been done: thanks to misdirection and maneuvering, Alexander’s intact army lay across an open plain. Porus turned his front to the northeast to face Alexander but had to leave a contingent to counter his flank, which Craterus now threatened. I will leave the general tactics of the ensuing battle (which include a masterful cavalry flanking maneuver) to the schematic on the right.

LAKE TRASIMENUS

After decisively losing an opening skirmish at the Ticinus River and a slaughter at the Trebia, the Romans continued their dogged but unsophisticated pursuit of Hannibal; it was 217 BC. On his way to Perusia (modern Perugia), he took the road along the northern shore of Lake Trasimeno, then Trasimenus, and must have wondered at the topographical gift it offered.  At the lake’s northwestern corner, a ridge creates a narrow defile which then opens into a broad plane bordered by hills on the north and the lake on the south.  This first plane ends at another defile which, in turn, opens into a plane (but this one much narrower than the first) some four miles long around the northeast corner. The outlet of this narrow plane was by yet another defile, the hill above which Hannibal prepared as a camp for the night.

tras

In full view of the Romans who were camped on the ridge in the northwest, Hannibal had a skeleton crew set campfires ablaze, pitch tents, and the like, in order to convince the Romans that they were settling down to rest. Meanwhile, he readied his army–his entire army–for an ambush.  Hannibal saw the opportunity to draw the Romans into an epic trap, and he knew he could count on Roman impetuosity to drive them headlong into it.  Never before and never since do we have knowledge of an entire army lying in ambuscade. With utmost secrecy, the Carthaginians moved to battle positions on the forested slopes above the narrow plane and waited for the Romans to follow. As expected, before sunrise the next morning, the Romans broke camp and proceeded through dense fog cast on the shores by the lake toward the “still-slumbering” Carthaginian encampment.  The Roman general, Flaminius, wanted to catch up with Hannibal’s rear before the invader could escape to do further damage in Perusia and beyond.

trasimenus schematicThe trap was laid. On the slope above the narrow plane’s exit, Hannibal hid his heavy infantry who would engage the head of the Roman column. To their right, above the final portion of the plane, stood the heavy cavalry. Lighter troops, including infantry, bowmen, and slingers were stationed along the wooded slopes forming the body of the plane. Finally, at the entrance defile, additional contingents of heavy infantry and cavalry planned to slam shut the door. The trap worked as planned: the entire Roman army entered the plane before the assault. The Roman vanguard was first to hear the blare of war-crying trumpets, a sound which renewed itself along the length of the nearby slopes until the final call at their rear. Next, through the rolling fog, came the terrible sight of the Carthaginian phalanx and the hoof beats of charging cavalry.  The Roman army, lined up for marching rather than battle, was cut down or pushed into the sea.

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There you have it–skillful application of misdirection in a fight gives you an edge. Not too surprising. Now, how can you apply this knowledge to your life and work?

For additional reading on these topics, see TA Dodge’s works Alexander and Hannibal, both from Da Capo Press (and both of which were aids for me in writing this article). His books are spectacular. Dodge (and I) also works from primary sources, in these cases Polybius, Livy, Arrian, and Quintus Curtius Rufus, all of which are available at the Perseus Project.

 

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About David L. Smith

Columnist: Great Conversation. Passionate student of ancient history. Smith has a BS in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology from Yale, and is a radiologist. During his day-job he is more apt to write articles like: Disseminated Histoplasmosis in an Immunocompetent Patient. Seriously, that’s on his CV. Ugh.

5 comments

  1. The difference between winning a battle and winning an argument is what your objective is. In an argument the goal is often not to defeat the other side, but to bring them on to your side. Cleverly out-maneuvering the opponent in an argument isn’t a great way to win them over. It’s like a guy trying to apply reasoning and evidence and argue with a girl until she becomes convinced that she is attracted to him. Just doesn’t work that way.
     
    Instead of lighting camp fires to convince the opposing army that you’ve tucked in for the night, you should light even more fires, crank up some music, roast a bunch of pigs, and let the opposing army see just how awesome of a party your camp is having.

    • Touche. I agree on all points. One of the good things about my life, as it currently stands, is that most of my arguments are with my friends for fun. So I get to toy around with them as they do me. If I were in another situation, it wouldn’t be so fun. I completely agree with your perspective on the more productive means and methods of argumentation. And next time you have a camp party, I want to be invited!

    • @BL1Y I agree on all points. One of the good things about my life, as it currently stands, is that most of my arguments are with my friends for fun. So I get to toy around with them as they do me. If I were in another situation, it wouldn’t be so fun. I completely agree with your perspective on the more productive means and methods of argumentation. And next time you have a camp party, I want to be invited!

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