Saturday 2 August 2014

'Perfect annihilation' battles from Hannibal to today

Hannibal's finest hour
The carnage in Libya, Syria and Gaza makes today’s classical anniversary seem disgustingly appropriate. August 2nd 216 BC was the date of the Battle of Cannae, in which Hannibal’s Carthaginians slaughtered 50,000 Roman legionnaires, at a rate of 600 per minute, on the back of the ankle of the Italian ‘boot’. 

CANNAE: 600 killed a minute
Cannae always makes it into prurient shortlists of the Bloodiest Battles in Human History, alongside Gettysburg, Stalingrad and the Somme. Hannibal won, despite numerical inferiority, because he and his cavalry ‘enveloped’ the enemy on both flanks, depriving them of any escape route. 

This stratagem has been revered by military commanders as ‘a Platonic ideal of victory, an archetype possessing timeless and absolute validity’.[i]   The architect of the German offensive strategy in World War I, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, described Cannae as ‘the perfect battle of annihilation.’  Schlieffen argued that every great commander aimed to achieve ‘more or less’ the same as Hannibal: they had all repeated ‘the age-old programme of that battle,’ demonstrating the significance of ‘the decisive attack.’

Schlieffen died in 1913, before Germany actually declared war on France on 3rd August 1914 (this equally painful centenary is tomorrow). But Schlieffen’s treatise Cannae kept his influence strong. Although tanks and aerial bombardment have replaced the Carthaginian cavalry, Schlieffen’s advocacy of the Hannibalic bold military sweep, an attack of disorientating violence and rapidity, had its supporters on both sides in WWII. 

Norman advocates Total Annihilation
The Schlieffen version of Hannibal’s tactic has also been seen as the forerunner of Blitzkrieg and ‘Shock and Awe’ operations. It was fetishized by the late ‘Stormin’ Norman’ Schwarzkopf, US Commander in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, who was, disturbingly, impressed that even the pile of jewellery taken by Carthage from the Roman corpses was mountain-high. 

The Loser Long-Term
Cannae has also been discussed with approval by Israeli advocates of the annihilation of Hamas. But admirers of any ‘perfect war of annihilation’, in imitation of Cannae, are forgetting the most important point. Although Hannibal won that particular battle, and waded knee-deep in blood he had let, he lost the Second Punic War as a whole. It ended in his crushing defeat by the Romans, at Zama near Carthage in Africa, fourteen years later. 

What does this suggest that the Middle East will look like by 2028?

[i] T. M. Holmes, ‘Classical Blitzkrieg’, Journal of Military History, 67 (2003).

1 comment:

  1. Sun Tzu on the other hand suggested a surrounded enemy does not fear death, for death is inevitable and will fight without fear, therefore a general should always allow his enemy a means of escape.
    Hannibal's political situation was a great factor in his final defeat