Sunday, November 22, 2009

Byzantine strategy goes under the spotlight in the past and present

The recently released book The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire is becoming a big influence, among Byzantine historians as well as American military strategists.

The book is by Edward N. Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C., who spends most of his time working with governments to develop their foreign and military policies. Sometimes controversial, Luttwak has written over a dozen books, but this is only his second examining history. His first, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, generated buzz and criticism from Roman military historians, but also served to spur on new research.

In an interview with, a Luttwak explains that he was going to write the Byzantine volume over thirty years ago, but had to hold off because of a lack of access to texts. But then "Byzantine studies emerged from near-nullity to make great advances which allowed me to continue" says Luttwak, adding "by then I was far too fascinated by the great epic of Byzantine strategic success to give up."

The premise of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire is that Byzantium was actually quite successful in defending its lands against a multitude of enemies, including the Persians, Arabs and Bulgars.

Luttwak explains that the Byzantines did "everything possible to raise, equip and train (above all) the best possible army and navy, and then… do everything possible to use them as little as possible. Instead of seeking the battle of attrtition and annihilation in the classic Roman manner, every alternative was to be tried to avoid , or at least minimize the destructive “attrition” combat of main forces. Instead, potential enemies were to be dissuaded, bribed, subverted, weakened by getting others to attack them, sidetracked into other ventures; if enemy forces attacked nonetheless, they were to be contained and delayed by skirmishing, feints and demostrations while the search went on for other powers near or far willing to attack or at least threaten the enemy power; if enemy attacks persisted nonetheless, they were to be met by countering maneuvers designed to exhaust them rather that the destructive combat of main forces, the very last resort."

John Haldon, one of the leading historians on the Byzantine military, largely agrees with Luttwak. "The Byzantine approach to warfare was very conservative," Haldon says. "It was a much more sensible approach," considering that the Byzantines were often surrounded by enemies and did not have the economic resources that their neighbors possessed.

Haldon suggests that "the big picture argument" of Luttwak will hold up from academic scrutiny, although one can "nitpick at certain points." For example, Haldon believes the book would have been better served if it focused more on the sixth and seventh centuries.

The popularity of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire lies not only with medievalists. Because of Luttwak's credentials as a military strategist, his book is being seen by many as having relevance for America with its current troubles in the Middle East and Afghanistan. For instance, a reviewer for the Washington Times notes "American soldiers and diplomats who helped turn enemies into allies in creating the Sunni Awakening in Iraq will recognize and empathize with what the Eastern Romans did for centuries. This is a timely and relevant work."

Luttwak added to this perception by writing an article in Foreign Policy, an influential political magazine in the United States. In his article, "Take Me Back to Constantinople: How Byzantium, not Rome, can help preserve Pax Americana," Luttnak offers seven lessons for the United States "if it wishes to remain a great power." They include 'Avoid war by every possible means' and 'Subversion is the cheapest path to victory'.

Luttwak admits that the he was convinced into writing the article "by a devilishly persuasive editor, who reacted over-enthusiastically to the book and actually wrote the heading and opening paragraph." But he adds that while comparing Byzantium with America can be a stretch, "I must nevertheless recognize that in extreme cases something can perhaps be learned from the Byzantines after all. For example, instead of keeping tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan at a cost of roughly one million per soldier per year, for an annual expenditure of more than forty billion dollars to fight perhaps 25,000 Taliban, the Byzantines would have sent a couple of Pashtu-speaking eunuchs to the Khyber Pass border with bags of gold to buy out and relocate Taliban leaders and followers–and they would have run out of Talibs to purchase long before spending four billion, let alone forty."

Click here to read our interview with Edward N. Luttwak