Fireside Friday, October 27, 2023 (On Politics in Strategy)

Fireside this week! Next week we’ll finally close out the addenda to the How to Roman Republic 101 series with a look at provincial governance, but I don’t think that will be done in time for this week, so I’m throwing a fireside in here in the meantime. That said, I thought it might provide a good opportunity to muse a bit on how strategy gets made, expanding on a Twitter1 thread I tweeted out earlier this week on how internal political calculations drive strategic decisions, often even more than strategic calculations.

Ollie (left) and Percy (right), both in moments where they are looking at their humans wondering why they are not currently being pet and/or fed (I am just on the other side of the window in the Percy picture, preparing to come through the door).

Since this is a touchy topic, let me note that assessing the strategic priorities of a given state or non-state entity does not mean I am endorsing them. As I have reiterated several times now on multiple social media platforms, I have a few key priors here. The intentional or indiscriminate targeting of civilians is wrong, abhorrent and deserves criticism in all cases, but being mistreated or even being the target of a war crime does not give one party in a conflict a free pass to ‘war crime back.’ Instead, all parties ought to follow the laws of arms conflict and should be criticized when they fail to do so.2 My sympathies are first and foremost with the innocent people caught in the middle of this conflict who may just want to live a peaceful life, free of falling bombs, exploding rockets and massacres. Unfortunately, I think this conflict resists simple solutions and even if the policy makers in question made the best decisions the results would often be very terrible. And I do not expect the best decisions.

Also, I really don’t feel like moderating the almost inevitable flame-war in the comments on this issue, so I am preemptively closing the comments for this post There are a thousand other places to discuss this crisis, so I do not think those who wish to weigh in will lack for outlets. To be frank, the comments in general have been trending in an undesirable direction for some time – less civility, less intellectual charity, more short-and-snippy responses, etc. – so perhaps a week-long break from them will do everyone some good.

The topic came to mind because of how clear it seems to me that the decision-making happening around the current Gaza crisis is motivated as much by internal factors as external ones. Take, for instance, the actions of Iran and Hezbollah. If they knew about Hamas’ 10/7 operation ahead of time and intended to become involved, the time to do that was on 10/7; Israel has a reserve-based military which takes time to mobilize and as such is vulnerable to surprise lightning operations. If they didn’t know about it, but still wanted to become involved, the time to do something was 10/8, for the same reason: act before Israel has raised the military capacity to retaliate. If the goal was a wider conflict, waiting until Israel’s formidable military was fully ready and the United States had moved substantial military resources into the region would have been truly foolish.

Instead, they’ve opted not to do nothing but also not to do something (of great significance). Hezbollah – an organization generally considered larger, more capable and better armed than Hamas – launched a few fairly desultory (by their standards) rocket attacks and some cross-border fire that reportedly resulted in six Hezbollah KIA and three IDF WIA. Hezbollah is capable of a lot more than this, so why risk the retaliation? I can’t know, of course, but I suspect the issue is the is the multiple-audiences communication problem.

Often individuals or organizations are put in a position where they need, with a single set of actions or statements, to communicate different, possibly conflicting, messages to difference audiences. Assuming Hezbollah does not currently want to find itself on the business end of the IDF and two American carrier groups (as President Biden has attempted to signal quite clearly that the United States would be quite upset if the war in Gaza widened), they have a tricky communication problem.

On the one hand, they want to avoid triggering a massive response from an opponent that enjoys escalation dominance; unlimited escalation is generally quite bad when your counter-parties are a global nuclear superior and a very prickly also nuclear highly militarized regional power. That means signalling to Israel and the United States that, whatever else you are doing, you don’t intend to become directly involved in the current conflict and if left out, will stay out. Now that sounds easy: just declare you aren’t a party to the conflict and then do nothing.

But. But you also have to communicate with members and supporters. And Hezbollah needs them to hear a very different message: ‘we are committed to the cause, we are effective and can achieve the cause, and we are actively moving towards that goal, inflicting pain on the enemy as we do.’ Doing nothing demoralizes their fighters and potentially costs them supporters as they are seen as impotent in the face of the enemy.

So the question becomes: how do you signal capability and commitment without jumping in front of the freight train currently heading towards Gaza? The answer may well be a search for a ‘minimum acceptable response‘ – leaders looking for the smallest strike they can make which will display resolve to their own supporters, while still being sufficiently small that outsiders interpret it correctly as a sign the group does not intend to intervene. And if that was Hezbollah’s intended message, Washington, at least, appears to have heard it quite clearly.

But of course that ‘minimum acceptable response’ puts Israeli leaders in the same bind. They also do not want a full-on second front with Hezbollah or a wider conflict. But they also need to show their own supporters – voters, in this case – that they are doing something. So they need to make a minimal acceptable response to the original minimum acceptable response. Ideally, both sides hope, the whole thing flames out after a while with everyone having the sense they ‘did something.’ But of course the risk is that escalating responses back one or both parties into a situation in which internal political demands come to require escalation. States and non-state organizations can thus be backed into strategically unwise conflicts by their own internal politics – often internal politics they have intentionally produced in order to generate enthusiasm for military operations or militarism generally.

Leaders all over this conflict are caught in similar binds. Israeli leaders have indicated they believe they need to reestablish deterrence, which means communicating resolve to the point of vengefulness to enemies, but at the same time the IDF is well aware they they cannot afford to exhaust international goodwill doing that and Israel has to consider as conflicting audiences its opponents, its allies, its own domestic population and key regional players it hopes to normalize relations with. American policy-makers are likewise caught in a domestic bind because most Americans support Israel, but folks who support Palestine are prominent both in some of the commanding heights of the culture and also in some key battleground states. Everyone is thus caught in a position of having to use a single set of actions or messages to communicate different messages to different audiences.

What is striking is that generally it is the domestic messages end up paramount. This is, in a sense, an unavoidable consequence of the Clausewitzian dictum (drink!) that ‘war is an extension of policy with other means.’ And of course domestic political concerns are nearly always paramount once you consider the interests of the individual actors involved. Few conflicts are existential, which means that actors within a political system will in most cases still be actors within that political system when the shooting stops: their relative position in the system will be, in nearly all cases, more important to them than the relative position of their system to some other, foreign system.

As an aside, one of the strangest arguments I think I’ve encountered is that the Roman Empire was incapable of strategy because the political concerns of individual emperors (such as their perceived need for glorious victories to shore up political support) dominated the strategic concerns of the state. But all state strategies are distorted in this way. The more secure the state, the stronger that distortion generally is for clear reasons of interest – the more secure you are, the lower the risk that any war you are in is existential – and the Roman Empire was, for most of its history, very secure indeed. As, of course, is the United States now – and notice how little concern was given in the recent House Speakership kerfuffle to the national security implications of whatever speaker might be chosen.

But this is not new, indeed it has always been so.

On to recommendations:

First off, I was on another podcast, talking ancient naval warfare, this time with Chase Dalton on the US Naval History Podcast. This was a fun conversation which particularly focused – appropriately for a podcast normally on US naval history – on the non-Mahanian nature of ancient naval warfare, which is to say the ways in which ancient naval warfare does not fit with the general theories advanced by Alfred Thayer Mahan (or as the Navy treats him, St. Alfred of Newport). That’s fascinating because while I actually think Mahan’s thinking about naval warfare largely holds up for the age of sail and steam, the fact that it breaks in the age of oars tells us that Mahan’s vision is not some absolute truth about naval warfare but rather technologically contingent in important ways.

Over at The Historian’s Sketchpad, a really interesting post examining the sources and what can be known about the famous Battle of Tours (and/or Poiters, 732). As the authors, Sam Ottewill-Soulsby and Fraser McNair note, this is one of those battles that has been told and retold by historians so many times that the public understanding of what we can actually know about it has been heavily embroidered. As it stands, the sources we have are often brief and don’t provide anything like enough detail to confidently reconstruct the battle, or indeed identify the battlefield, or indeed to even be entirely sure what year in took place in. It is clear the battle happened, and I will say I tend to agree more with Sam on the battle’s significance: earlier ‘raids in force’ had turned into conquests when they were not stopped and Tours could have gone that way too. In any case, the post is an excellent analysis and whats better, it comes with translations of all of the relevant sources in a convenient PDF.

Over at Pasts Imperfect, a number of interesting bits about the current study of the ancient world, including a discussion by Liv Mariah Yarrow on tracking affordable Classics graduate and bridge programs. The latter has some special meaning for me, because I needed a year of post-baccalaureate study to get my language skills up to what they needed to be for graduate work and that extra year was hardly cheap. These sorts of programs are going to become more important over time as many Classics departments even at flagship state universities shrink and wither and thus the opportunities for students interested in the ancient world to build the language proficiency necessary for graduate study decline.

I should also note that Liv Yarrow has her own blog, adventures in my head, where she mostly muses on her research specialty, ancient Roman coinage, complete with lots of close up pictures of Roman coins. Ancient coinage is a particularly interesting and valuable area of study because coins represent a form of what we might almost call ‘mass media,’ something quite rare in antiquity. These were, after all, objects, with images, that were mass produced and distributed widely, seen by a great many people, including common folk. That makes parsing their imagery particularly useful, quite apart from the obviously also important question of their role in commerce. Also – and as you might imagine this is a big interest for me – there are coin issues with militaria (helmets, naval rams, spears, daggers, etc.) on them, which can be a useful source of representational evidence for this sort of equipment.

For this week’s book recommendation, given our recent discussion of the court system under the Roman Republic, I thought it might be a good time to recommend A.M. Riggsby, Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans (2010). Riggsby’s book serves both as a useful reference on topics in Roman law but also as a valuable starting point for anyone looking to make a more extensive foray into the topic. Organized into twenty-two short chapters, each covering a different aspect of Roman law, the book provides a comprehensive overview of the topic which is still useful as a reference, as one can simply navigate to the chapter in question. The book also includes a relatively short collection of legal documents in translation (particularly a number of the Puteoli wax tablets, a series of documents relating to the business dealings of a family called the Sulpicii excavated at Murcine near Pompeii, as well as a handy glossary of terms.

The book is quite approachable for the lay reader. Some familiarity with Roman political and social structures will be helpful for a reader, but isn’t necessary to follow the text. Law is a world of jargon and particular terms and so Riggsby has to introduce a range of technical Latin legal terms, but these are all defined clearly when they appear; in any case a primer on Roman law would be incomplete if it did not instruct the reader on the meaning behind terms like sui iuris or infamia. Apart from Latin words used as particular terms (and defined), the book avoids untranslated Latin. This accessibility does come with one downside: the book features a ‘further reading’ section, but it is for the entire book rather than chapter-by-chapter, and the book does not have any form of notes. That makes this book really handy for someone who wants to understand Roman law, but a somewhat awkward first stop for someone looking to research Roman law.

But while the writing in the book is approachable, that doesn’t mean its presentation of Roman law is at all simplistic. Instead, the reader is given a real sense of the complexity of the topic. Riggsby both delves into what we know about how Roman law changed over time – although the book itself is mostly focused on the late Republic and imperial periods where our evidence is best – and gets into some of the complex nuances of Roman law. Riggsby covers the shape of the Roman legal professions, the evolution of Roman legal education, the basics of civil procedure and property law, along with the ins and outs of things like the laws around status (citizenship, free/non-free) and family law. It thus makes a fine first introduction to a range of important topics in Roman law, providing a foundation and a good sense of the scholarly consensus position on various topics.

  1. No, I will not call it X.
  2. Which is not the same as saying ‘no innocent person gets hurt.’ The LOAC aren’t that restrictive; for instance while certain kinds of structures and facilities are protected, those protections stop the moment another belligerent uses those places for military means. If Party A puts a military installation in a hospital – an ammo dump or firing position, for instance – that makes the hospital a valid military target for Party B and as far as the LOAC is concerned, any civilian casualties that result are the fault of Party A that militarized the site, not Party B who blew it up.