Ancient and modern

What the Roman general Vegetius could teach Obama about Syria

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

So the USA must launch its onslaught against Syria without the Brits. Well, if Obama will make public announcements of what he is going to do, more fool him. The Roman military tactician Vegetius (c. AD 400) would be shaking his head in despair.

Vegetius was writing after Rome had suffered a devastating defeat against the Goths at Adrianople (AD 378), a foretaste of things to come in the western empire. Consequently, he regularly counsels caution in attacking an enemy unless you can be sure you will achieve your ends. Fabius Maximus, nick-named Cunctator (‘delayer’), provided the archetypal example. When Hannibal on his arrival over the Alps in 218 BC had inflicted a series of crushing defeats on the Roman army, Fabius assumed command and adopted guerrilla tactics: hound and harry, but do not engage. This worked, but was not felt to be the gung-ho Roman way. So he was dismissed, and the Romans took on Hannibal in pitched battle again at Cannae (216 BC). Result: 50,000 killed, 4,500 captured and 17,000 surrendered. They did not do that again in a hurry. Fabius was reinstated. It is a matter of Obama’s tactics: will gung-ho announcements of missile strikes help him achieve his ends? Politically and militarily, it seems disastrous.


Obama should have followed Vegetius’s stricter doctrine. Time and again, he argued that keeping your plans secret from the enemy was a key component of success. He pointed out that the Minotaur was often depicted on legionary standards because ‘he was hidden away in the innermost and most secret labyrinth’, as all general’s plans should be. No surprise, then, that one of his top tips was ‘No plans are better than those you carry out without the enemy’s knowledge in advance.’

Obama has trumpeted his from the rooftops. But Britain is rather good at more discreet, but no less effective, military operations..

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