Small Wars Journal

Ancient Backbone: Using Ancient Texts to Train Modern Allies

Wed, 07/15/2015 - 6:36pm

Ancient Backbone: Using Ancient Texts to Train Modern Allies

Ian Bertram

Military advising is hard.  To advise properly, an advisor must understand their own profession, know how to teach it, understand the individual and the culture of the people he is advising, and keep in mind the over-arching goals of their own military/government as well as those of the host government.  In my time as an Air Advisor in Afghanistan, I saw that the majority of US personnel I worked with knew their own jobs and how to teach Americans, but few who understood or even tried to understand the Afghans, their military, or their culture. 

My own experience in advising was non-existent prior to my deployment as an Mi-17 advisor in 2012.  I did a little reading ahead of time, but I am hardly a Green Beret or Air Commando and to this day will not claim that level of knowledge or ability.  However, while I was there I did the best I could and always tried to understand the Afghans I was working with.  I found dealing with the Afghan pilots to be relatively simple compared to the challenges faced by my enlisted brethren.  The pilots tended to be the cream of Afghan society.  They were well educated, often very experienced in the aircraft, and many spoke English well enough that we did not require a translator.  The enlisted force was not so lucky, and from what I observed from joint training with the Afghan National Army, the problems were the same throughout those ranks. 

To train a less educated force from an alien culture I concluded that advisors, at least Air Force advisors, could use some basic help.  I believe that our advisors would do well to reference the works of Flavius Vegetius Renatus, an ancient writer who was charged with summarizing the military exploits of the great Roman generals in order to transform Emperor Theodosius’s Byzantine forces into an army worthy of the title “Roman.”[1]  His military treatise On Roman Military Matters (technically three books) has been referenced by military leaders for over 1500 years, and can be used again by modern American military advisors.

The idea of using Vegetius did not arise from dealing with my aircrew counterparts, but rather from an Afghan Security Forces lieutenant who I’ll refer to as Hasan.  My fellow CGO’s and I were sitting down with a group of newly minted Afghan lieutenants for some mentoring.  Our conversation turned to leadership, and as a well-trained Air Force captain and graduate of Squadron Officer School (SOS), I did my best to explain how Westerners viewed great leaders.  I parroted a form of the “Full-Range Leadership Model”, the latest in vogue explanation of leadership taught at SOS.  In short it describes three types of leadership from Laissez-Faire (absent leadership from those in charge), to Transactional (give-and-take between leaders and led), to Transformational (inspiring leaders get people to follow them).[2]  Basically the Air Force insists that everyone should try to be some form of Transformational Leader, being the example and showing the way so followers are motivated to accomplish the mission.  SOS discussions, at least in my groups, arrived at the conclusion that Transformational Leadership is the “best” leadership and therefore what everyone should strive for and implement that style.  I’m quite certain some of my lecture was lost in translation, but many of the Afghan lieutenants still nodded in agreement.  There were certainly Afghan leaders that practiced this style effectively throughout their history.  But not Hasan. 

Hasan was trained as a Security Forces officer, and had already led more than one patrol that resulted in a firefight.  He was also actively involved in training a new batch of recruits that had just arrived at our base into Security Forces soldiers.  He thought that my description of Transformational leadership was hogwash, and he had no qualms explaining it to the group.  Hasan stated bluntly that his soldiers were largely illiterate hill-folk.  They were not dumb, but they were simple, and to him only simple leadership would suffice.  He stated that his men would fight, but what they really wanted was hot food, warm beds, and safety for themselves and their family.  They weren’t looking to follow an Afghan version of Henry V into the breach, they wanted a paycheck that could support their family, and if that happened to help out the greater goals of a stable Afghanistan then so be it.  Hasan felt his job was to get his men to earn that paycheck, nothing more and nothing less.  He favored a more Transactional form of leadership, one of carrot and stick, and he mentioned he was fond of using both when the situation merited. 

His words sounded harsh to my group of US airmen, but when I thought about his comments they made a lot of sense.  He wasn’t leading inspired, service minded airmen like we were.  His culture was also considerably rougher around the edges than ours.  His self-described methods of shouting, manual labor punishments, and even the occasional slap upside the head brought results.  Better for him, his methods of discipline kept his men in line and allowed them to be effective on the battlefield.  Those methods are not politically correct in the US, but they work in Afghanistan.  And if those methods work for the allies we are training, why are we not helping to implement those methods to make our allies as effective as possible?

Enter Vegetius.  I doubt Hasan had ever heard of the Byzantine writer, but I think he would have approved of the ancient’s emphasis on discipline.  Forget inspiring your men: instead apply strict discipline to keep the men in line and then pay them appropriately.  The system worked then, and Hasan showed that it can and does work now.

So what how did Vegetius recommend his emperor, Theodosius train his army?  In a word, it was discipline.  He did not preach anything that looked like Transformational leadership, but rather use a carrot and stick approach with deep-seated discipline as the bedrock of effective fighting forces.  Only through discipline could a leader hope to field an army capable enough to defeat the various threats against the Empire. 

The opening line of Vegetius’s first book should ring true with any advisor, “Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it.”[3]  He goes on to observe how the victory of past Roman armies was based almost entirely on continuous military training and “exact observance of discipline.”[4]  The ancient writer does not leave “discipline” as a nebulous term though, and instead provides criteria to apply it.  Hasan would likely employ many of Vegetius’s methods, if he were not attempting them already, thus proving the merits of a Transactional style of leadership in a non-Western society.[5]

Vegetius goes on to describe the ideal recruit and what weapons he should be trained with.[6]  While his descriptions do not necessarily reflect the needs of a modern soldier, the emphasis on physical fitness and endurance training are crucial for recruits in areas like Afghanistan.  This may seem like an obvious concept for the American military, but in militaries that will have to rely on less firepower, coordination, and intelligence than US forces, physical fitness should be emphasized as both a form of discipline and as a path to surviving a modern battlefield.  Indeed, the physical demands placed on a soldier with a spear under Julius Caesar are not less or more than those placed on a modern combatant with a rifle.

The second book of On Roman Military Matters better describes ways to instill discipline into an army.  He noted that the newest members of Roman legions trained physically twice a day under the watchful eye of veterans, who joined them in the routines at least once.[7]  This exhausting physical training was similar to US basic training, in that it was designed to harden bodies and sharpen minds in the face of physical exertion.  But unlike boot camp, the activities did not end at the physical exercise.  Vegetius demanded that all troops be subjected to continuous camp work such as wood cutting, hauling equipment, and conducting maneuvers under full battle dress.[8]  Only through these exercises could a leader mold a proper army, ready for the rigors of long campaigns and individual battles.  These same methods are easily adapted to any military today.  Lt. Hasan would agree that the need to work his troops was essential to prevent problems that arise from idle hands.

The third and final book of On Roman Military Matters deals with how to field an army.  While Security Forces and Infantry members can better judge the applicability of Vegetius’s advice on topics such as “Marches in the Neighborhood of the Enemy” and “Rules for Encamping an Army” than I, Book 3 provides another insistence on an army’s discipline.  He also adds sage advice for Transactional leaders.  Under “How to Manage Raw and Undisciplined Troops” he wrote:

If therefore [a leader] finds his army composed of raw troops or if they have long been unaccustomed to fighting, he must carefully study the strength, the spirit, the manners of each particular legion, and of each body of auxiliaries, cavalry and infantry.  He must know, if possible, the name and capacity of every count, tribune, subaltern and soldier.  He must assume the most respectable authority and maintain it by severity.  He must punish all military crimes with the greatest rigor of the laws.  He must have the character of being inexorable towards offenders and endeavor to give public examples thereof in different places on different occasions. [9]

Here we have the first true dose of a leader’s responsibility to his troops.  He must have the character to uphold discipline, to meet it out as needed and to do so publicly.  This is the best and perhaps only way to uphold discipline.  I believe Hasan would agree. 

Finally, Vegetius provided several maxims for leading an effective army.  The most applicable to advisors are thus:[10]

  • Men must be sufficiently tried before they are led against the enemy.
  • Few men are born brave; many become so through care and force of discipline.
  • Punishment, and fear thereof, are necessary to keep soldiers in order in quarters; but in the field they are more influenced by hope and rewards.

These maxims are sound, and require little further explanation.  They suggest that discipline is key, but a leader must build that discipline through rigorous training before battle, and that men will fight for proper rewards.  Again, I think Hasan would agree and that Transactional leadership is the model that advisors should uphold.

But rules in and of themselves are useless unless we can assess their impact on actual military operations.  If we assume that Theodosius was the intended recipient of De Re Militari, the ultimate example of the writing’s effectiveness should be the military record of Theodosius’s armies.  Theodosius is remembered as a reformer, and the changes he implemented clearly paid off.[11]  From 378 to 395 he enjoyed outstanding success on the battlefield, and his army’s successes helped back several important international treaties.  After taking control of the Eastern Roman Empire, he spent five years fighting the Goths to a standstill.  These tribes had previously routed an army under Theodosius’s predecessor Valens, and taken the emperor’s life in the process.  Shortly thereafter he negotiated a treaty with the Persian Empire.  Without the backing of a credible army it is unlikely that the long-time Roman rival would have accepted any sort of settlement.  The following year Theodosius marched his army west to meet the Western Roman forces of Magnus Maximus and defeated him at Siscia and Poetovio.  Seven years later he again attacked the West to defeat the usurper Eugenius. [12]  Each and every time his disciplined army triumphed in battle.  It is safe to say that the Transactional leadership recommended by Vegetius helped Theodosius build his army and win those campaigns.  

Theodosius and subsequent Byzantine emperors were not the only ones to apply Vegetius’s suggestions.  On Roman Military Matters became popular in Europe as the continent emerged from the Dark Ages.  As one of the few Roman military manuals to survive, many of Europe’s great generals applied its teachings to create their own effective armies.[13]  The Dutch general Maurice the Orange is often regarded as the heaviest “user” of Vegetius’ work in reforming his army which proved highly effective against his 17th Century opponents.  Like Theodosius, Maurice used Transactional leadership and the principle of discipline to train his troops.  Maurice focused on physical activity, both under arms and during “downtime” in which soldiers provided manual labor to improve camp security.[14]  When not working with shovels, his troops were constantly drilling with their weapons and in increasingly larger and more complex formations.  Maurice abhorred idleness.  Finally, to encourage soldiers’ self discipline he drafted articles of war for his troops instituting rewards and punishments for their actions.[15]

Judging the tactical success of Maurice’s troops during the messy Thirty Years War involves a lengthy discussion, so to prove the usefulness of his Transactional leadership and Vegetius inspired reforms it is best to look to historians.  Maurice’s reforms are credited by several noted writers as integral in sparking a Military Revolution leading to increasingly coordinated and lethal armies.[16]  Such revolutions are considered turning points in military history, and it is clear that Transactional leadership helped make simple hill-folk into the effective soldiers that enabled that particular revolution.     

Such examples demonstrate that Vegetius’s writings can truly form the bedrock of how to train allies who do not possess what we would consider a modern military.  ­­­­­Transactional Leadership is the key to helping our advisors understand and work with “simple” societies.  Focusing on drill, physical activity, rewards/punishments, and discipline makes sense.  Advisors need to seek and apply tools that may not be considered ideal in the US military.  Transformational Leadership is not “better,” and Transactional Leadership is not inferior.  They are different approaches to the problem of leading people, and both have merits. As Hasan explained to me, Transactional leadership works in Afghanistan, and his lesson is one we should heed. 

Military Advising is an important tool that currently holds favor with a US policy that seeks to avoid “boots on the ground” and committing US forces directly to armed conflict.  Advisors should consider using the methods described here because they would work as easily for Syrian “moderates”, Iraqi troops, or anywhere else US soldiers find themselves training locals as they did in Afghanistan.  If training and using allies continues as the US way of war, then the latest generation of US Advisors should add Vegetius to their bookshelves.

End Notes

[1] Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Vegetius.”  There is debate over exactly when Vegetius wrote or for exactly which emperor.  The translated text is addressed to “Emperor Valentinian.”  While this is an interesting historical debate, it does not change the impact of his writings on the Byzantine military or medieval armies.  Additionally, the title “Byzantine” may be anachronistic for the Eastern Roman Empire of the late fourth century, but in this case is used to help differentiate from the Western Roman Empire.

[2] “The Full-Range Leadership Model”, Personal notes from Squadron Officer School lecture/classes, May 2011.

[3] Vegetius, On Military Matters, 7.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] In this case, I do not consider the recruits of the Repbulician, Imperial Roman, or Byzantine army to subscribe to the same ideas as modern “Western” societies.  Instead, the bulk of the Roman recruits likely mirrored average modern Afghan recruits in their “hill-country” roots and education, especially the “barbarian” recruits of Theodosius’s army.

[6] Vegetius, 8-19.

[7] Ibid., 47-48. 

[8] Ibid., 49.

[9] Ibid., 70-71.

[10] Ibid., 90-92.

[11] Warren Treadgold, Byzantium and Its Army: 284-1081 (Standford: Standford University Press, 1995), 11-13.

[12] Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Theodosius.”

[13] Ibid., 1584.

[14] William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 127-129.

[15] Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy, Paperback ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 140.

[16] Michael Roberts, “The Military Revolution, 1560-1660” in  The Military Revolution Debate, ed. Clifford J. Rogers (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), 13-35; John Lynn, “Forgin the Western Army in Seventeenth-Century France,” in The Dynamics of Military Revolution: 1300-2050, ed. MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 48.


About the Author(s)

Captain Ian Bertram is a U.S. Air Force pilot stationed at Kirtland AFB.  He is an evaluator in the UH-1N and Mi-17 helicopters.  He has prior experience in nuclear security with Air Force Global Strike Command, and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 as a Mi-17 Advisor Pilot.  He holds a B.S. in History from the United States Air Force Academy and M.S. in Military History from Norwich University.


Bill M.

Sat, 07/25/2015 - 10:25pm

Thank you for the superb contribution to the SWJ knowledge base. You convinced me to put Vegetius’s writings on my long reading list. To add a little to the ideas you presented, I often think we fall short in assessing the impact of means on our strategies. When it comes to capacity building we're O.K. at assessing the tangible means such as money, trainers, equipment, number of trainees, etc. However, we're terrible at assessing the impact of intangible means such as, individual will, education of trainees, culture (it does provide boundaries on what we can accomplish), health of the trainees, etc. These intangible means are at least as important as the tangible means, and failure to account for them too often results in the development of faulty capacity building strategies.

James Harris

Fri, 07/24/2015 - 9:30pm

The above article does not apply just to non-western forces. In some situations, it may apply to western, including American forces -- to be determined unit by unit.

We make the mistake of assuming that all of us are inspired by the same high ideals -- and Ideally, we should be. But some people, due to life experience or upbringing or whatever, are so cynical that a different kind of leadership is required. Overtime, some of these folks can be brought to a different paradym (sp), but until they get there ...

It's like the supposed differences some see between the old and new testaments -- often the same basic gospel, but one had a harsher edge than the other.


Sat, 07/18/2015 - 11:21am

In reply to by Morgan

Agreed. As I've noted elsewhere here at SWJ, this is actually codified in several sections of FM 3-24, but has been almost entirely ignored in the efforts to equip and indoctrinate Afghan and Iraqi security forces. I think there's room for hybridization - e.g., mobile phones in lieu of milk carton sized handheld radios. I suspect that someone, somewhere, has thought of that sort of hybridization approach (not to be confused with Hybrid Warfare, which is potentially relevant, but different than what I'm describing), but it doesn't seem to have been borne out. As much as I bristle at conspiracy theories about the "military industrial complex", I suspect that one factor may be the desire to realize some return on investment by capitalizing upon obsolete equipment that remains in the American arsenal. There's also some knock-on strategic effect to providing equipment requiring continued American training and maintenance via FMS (one example being the influence America has been able to play on Egypt during its prolonged post-2011 instability by virtue of training and logistical relationships codified in the Camp David Accords). However, it seems obvious that in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, the results can and should be better than what we've seen thus far.


Fri, 07/17/2015 - 12:01pm

In reply to by thedrosophil

"......but with technology and organizational models more closely approximating the First World War than contemporary military models......"

The article and your comment are in line with what I and others have observed about Islamic forces, specifically those in Afghanistan, Iraq, and KSA: go "Old School". By that I mean precisely what you stated about older technology. These forces should NOT be getting M1117 Mobile Strike Vehicles or Harris radios or SATCOM or anything that we in Western armies currently use. These forces ought to have Sherman tanks or bolt action rifles or those milk-carton-sized hand-held radios...maybe even Willys jeeps. The same goes for our view of their methods of disciplining their troops as the author pointed out.

Our advisors (GPF and SOF) ought to become familiar with how to operate with 1930s equipment and avoid the typical US response of throwing ungodly amounts of money (in the form of high-tech, maintenance heavy weapons, vehicles, & equipment) at these forces. Our culture and education levels can support high-tech, theirs often cannot.


Thu, 07/16/2015 - 1:10pm

This article is absolutely wonderful, and I'm doubly shocked that it was written by an Air Force officer as many of these ideas run directly contrary to the corporate philosophy of the Air Force. My apologies for a bit of a ramble, but the author has brought up three thoughts.

1) Reading this essay reminded me of my undergraduate years, early in the Afghan and Iraq campaigns, when I was studying ancient history and elected to read Caesar's dispatches about the Gallic Wars (and particularly the portion about his expeditions into Britannia).

2) Longtime SWJ commenters will likely have grown fatigued with my frequent citations of the Dhofar Rebellion, but building upon the author's comments about Afghanistan, transactional leadership serves as an excellent allegory not only for how the British "advisors" built the Sultan's Armed Forces, but also for their manner of interaction with the local populace: "Help us to find and kill/detain the insurgents, and these are the material benefits we can offer in exchange."

3) Conversely, I've spent a great deal of the last couple of years studying the First World War, and I'd been thinking prior to reading this article that the Afghan and Iraqi security forces might perform better if trained to a First World War standard - not trench warfare, per se, but with technology and organizational models more closely approximating the First World War than contemporary military models. I'm reminded of Bernard Lewis' description of Western nations training Ottoman troops during the 19th century. The Turks and the Afghans have a long standing relationship, too.

Again, thanks for the article, very well conceived and some great observations.


Wed, 07/15/2015 - 10:22pm

This article makes a great deal of sense. Having studied philosophy to an extent, I think that since we comes from a “civilized” society a lighter hand in the discipline department can work. There are more pressures on the individual to perform: family, social, team, and so on. A leader can afford to inspire and lead from the front and put aside corporal punishment for a bit knowing that the individual in the unit has a burden to conform. Places like Afghanistan; however, have pressures of a different sort that don’t translate well into an American idealistic fashion, as the article mentions.
I think too that when the article stated that understanding a culture is important to advising this is a perfect remark on the entire situation, not just the advising. Western culture and the culture of the Middle East are quite different; they have a greater emphasis on things that seem strange to our “sensibilities.