Why didn't the Persians create good infantry units?

Why didn't the Persians create good infantry units?

The defeat at Marathon, Plataea, march of the 10.000, and the hold up at Thermopylae really suggest the need for some heavy infantry that can fight on par with the Greek Phalanx.

Like how much of your infantry really needs to be very mobile? The battle of Gaugamela also displays the ability of the Greek heavy infantry to deal with flanking manuevers, sort of.


In hindsight, the Ancient Greek heavy infantry were vastly superior to the Persian armies. It was precisely their battles - Marathon, Thermopylae, Plataea - that demonstrated this. Before those battles, no one knew that the Greeks had a superweapon in the form of the Hoplite Phalanx in their hands. The Greeks were busy fighting each other.

As great as the Persian Empire was, its military was not its strongest point, instead it was its immense size and wealth. Due to Greece's remoteness, standard procedure was to play the various Greek city-states against each other - for example, during the Peleponnesian War, the Spartans were bankrolled by Persia.

Persia's size was intimidating to the Greeks; when Aristagoras was appealing to the Spartans to aid the Ionian Revolt, he suggested that the Persian military, as we now know, was weak. But upon hearing that it would take three months to reach Susa - one of the four Persian capitals, the Spartans firmly refused to help.

It was only after the Greco Persian wars, and knowledge gained from the Ten Thousand, that the Greeks knew it was possible to beat Persia, but first it would have to be united. This was achieved under Phillip II of Macedon, who soon planned an invasion of Persia. He was assassinated, but he was succeeded by none other than Alexander the Great.

Again, Persia turned to its strength - wealth - to compensate, in the form of funding Greek rebellions and hiring Greek mercenaries. But the misfortune of having to go up against a military machine, armed with a superweapon (Macedonian Phalanx) and not just one but two of history's greatest military minds (Phillip II and Alexander) was too much to bear.

Could Persia have produced its own heavy infantry to rival the Greeks? Arguably they did; historians like Herodotus had high praise for the Immortals. On the battlefield, although they were weaker than their Greek counterparts, they still held up well. The Persians were beaten with a combination of great logistics and tactics. Alexander could strike hard and fast, and the Persians simply couldn't keep up. The Battle of Gaugamela is typical of this: the Persian army was holding well on all fronts except for Alexander's daring attack, which drove a wedge that headed straight for Darius III, who broke and ran. This battle says more about Alexander's abilities than the quality of the two armies.

Could Persia have recreated the Greek heavy infantry? This is harder to answer. There's a theory that it's very hard to recreate superweapons like the Greek phalanx, as you need a unique combination of culture and martial tradition. The Greek Hoplite was perfected over centuries of city-state on city-state decisive warfare, over mountainous Greece. Superweapons like the English Longbow or Mongol horse archer were also inimitable for similar reasons.

So I find it hard to fault the Persians in not coming up with a good counter to Greek heavy infantry. They found out about how scary the Greeks can be as soon as anyone else, and dealt with it in a sensible way - by using their unrivalled wealth and influence to keep the Greeks divided. Having to face Alexander the Great is also a big ask; when the Romans faced Hannibal, at least they had Scipio Africanus. The Persians had Darius III.


Question: Why didn't the Persians create good infantry units?
The defeat at Marathon, Platea, march of the 10,000, and the hold up at Thermopylae would really suggest the need for some heavy infantry that can fight on a par with the Greek Phalanx. How much of your infantry really needs to be very mobile? The battle of Gaugamela also displayed the ability of the Greek heavy infantry to deal with flanking maneuvers

Why didn't the Mongols or Huns develop better heavy infantry? It was the style with which they were successful, and that model (horse based archers) remained effective long after the phalanx had disappeared from use.

I would argue that the Persians were a very successful and very respected military empire. They had battled and defeated both the Assyrians and the Babylonians. They had held off the Egyptians and they even gave Rome all they could handle in latter years. You don't conquer a large empire like Persia without having a very good army.

Yes, their heavy infantry was inferior to the Spartans at Thermopylae and Marathon but that's hardly a knock on the Persians. The Spartans went centuries without one of their armies losing. The Spartans were basically a military cult. Their entire culture and way of life was based around training for war. They even defeated the Athenians.

The battle of Gaugamela doesn't support your thesis. At Gaugamela, the Persian infantry was engaged with Alexander's phalanx. Alexander was commanding the companion cavalry and it was the use of Alexander's cavalry wedge which defeated the Persian infantry rather than the phalanx. The Persians were engaged with Alexander's phalanx and he flanked them with heavy cavalry.

In fact Alexander's phalanx with its longer spears were used to hold enemy units in front of them in order for his cavalry or archers to attrite them. Again this is not a knock on the Persians. I don't think it's a sign of incompetence to lose to Alexander the Great.

Alexander's two big advantages were:

  1. He commanded a full time professional army where other armies at the time were made up of farmers, or only part time soldiers. Alexander's father had built that Army and had trained Alexander how to use them. Their great innovation was not the Phalanx either.

  2. The Other Macedonians innovation was they had mixed units. Where other armies consisted of predominantly one kind of unit, the spartans basically used the phalanx and that's it. The Macedonians (Alexander) had heavy infantry, light infantry, heavy cavalry and light cavalry. They were flexible. Alexander was the first to use field artillery, siege weapons modified to be used against infantry. The Macedonians could put units against their enemies which maximized their enemies weaknesses. Heavy infantry was just one of the kinds of unites in Alexander's army. Alexander himself fought commanding cavalry; his companion cavalry. (heavy cavalry)


The Persian army at Marathon was (as at Thermopylae) at a serious disadvantage because of the terrain, which favoured the much smaller defending force tremendously.

Their failure to win in both cases is more to blame on the leadership insisting on frontal assaults on a narrow front against a force trained and equipped specifically to deter such an assault rather than on the forces sent to fight that assault. A better commander would have recognised that and kept a blocking force in place himself while sending the bulk of his forces in an encirclement in order to outflank the Greeks.

Why the Persians elected not to do this is a matter of debate among historians for a long time. Maybe they'd grown overconfident after decades or more of military successes, maybe they were cocky thinking those puny numbers of Greeks could never stand up to them, maybe they were under pressure to provide a quick victory.

Individually, I seriously doubt a Greek soldier was that much better than his equivalent in the Persian army. But the Greeks were employed much better, using the terrain to their utmost advantage where the Persians did not.

Remember also that both Greek victories came after heavy Greek losses in earlier engagements where similarly equipped and trained Greek units were wiped out by the Persians in pitched battles.


Another question is why did the Greeks develop good heavy infantry. Heavy infantry required a lot of discipline, mutual trust, and nerve--if part of the line broke, everyone's life was at risk (whereas in a cavalry rout individuals could still get away).

If you look at other good heavy infantry units in history, such as Flemish or Swiss pikemen, they all came from the same town/valley/canton. They knew and implicitly trusted one another, which made it easier to train them to act together. Likewise with the Greek city-state.

The Romans were the only pre-modern army, as far as I know, that developed a military machine capable of instilling sufficient esprit-de-corps in men from disparate regions. But they only did this because of their exceptional organizational abilities, which they used to scale up the infantry units of the earlier Italian city-states.

Now back to the Persians: much of their infantry was formed from auxiliaries from tributary regions. The antecedents of the core of their army were nomadic cavalry, which they scaled up into the most effective military force for thousands of miles. With such an outstanding specialty, and without any of the foundational skills to build a solid heavy infantry corps, it would be surprising if they ever did develop good indigenous heavy infantry.


One problem of Persia was that it was not one ethnicity, but a conglomerate of many different small countries. Each of these countries produced their own armies and formations, led by their own officers; there was really no central "Persian" army. So Persian military strength was on paper only; hundreds of thousands of men in "national" militias but with no central command or unified tactical doctrine. The (biblical) Book of Esther refers to "an hundred twenty and seven provinces, unto every province according to the writing thereof, and unto every people after their language," in which military commands had to be issued to the troops.

There were a "few" countries that produced better infantry formations than others. But the Persians did not identify them and insist that other countries' units learn from them. The Greek city states spoke a common language, and were geographically close, so it was easy for them to "compare notes" and develop similar infantries.

The Persians did better with cavalry troops; there were fewer of them, and they had better "natural" transportation, and hence communication, so Persian cavalry developed some cohesion.


Ancient Persian Punishments Beyond Your Worst Nightmares

The Persian Empire believed in justice. They had strict and careful rules about sentencing a punishment for a crime. No one, they believed, should be executed for a first offense, and every criminal&rsquos good deeds should be considered before handing down judgement. If someone was going to suffer, he should deserve it.

But if you did deserve it, the Persians made sure you paid for it. They came up with some of the most imaginative and brutal punishments in history. Justice in ancient Persia wasn&rsquot always swift&mdashit was a slow, prolonged, and painful torture torn from your worst nightmares.


Battle of Marathon: Greeks Versus the Persians

On the morning of September 17, 490 bc, some 10,000 Greeks stood assembled on the plain of Marathon, preparing to fight to the last man. Behind them lay everything they held dear: their city, their homes, their families. In front of the outnumbered Greeks stood the assembled forces of the Persian empire, a seemingly invincible army with revenge, pillage and plunder on its mind.

The Athenians’ feelings are best expressed by Aeschylus, who fought in the Persian wars, in his tragic play The Persians: “On, sons of the Hellenes! Fight for the freedom of your country! Fight for the freedom of your children and of your wives, for the gods of your fathers and for the sepulchers of your ancestors! All are now staked upon the strife!”

The two sides faced each another directly, waiting for the fight to start. The Athenians stalled for days, anticipating reinforcements promised by Sparta. But they knew they could not wait for long. The Persians, expecting as easy a victory as they had won against enemies so many times before, were in no hurry.

The Greeks, knowing the time for battle had come, began to move forward. Ostensibly, they advanced with focus and purpose, but beneath this firm veneer, as they looked on a vastly larger enemy — at least twice their number — many must have been fearful of what was to come. The Persian archers sat with their bows drawn, ready to loose a barrage of arrows that would send fear and confusion through the Greek ranks.

“The Athenians advanced at a run towards the enemy, not less than a mile away,” recounted the historian Herodotus. “The Persians, seeing the attack developed at the double, prepared to meet it, thinking it suicidal madness for the Athenians to risk an assault with so small a force — rushing in with no support from either cavalry or archers.”

Had the Persian archers been allowed to loose their bows, the battle might have ended before it had truly begun. Fighting their doubts and fears, the Athenians seized the initiative and rushed the Persians. Confronted by such a bold move and realizing their infantry would be pressed into action sooner than expected must have shaken Persian confidence.

The two Athenian commanders, Callimachus and Miltiades (the latter having fought in the Persian army himself), used their knowledge of Persian battle tactics to turn the tide further in their favor. As the clatter of spears, swords and shields echoed through the valley, the Greeks had ensured that their best hoplites (heavily armed infantry) were on the flanks and that their ranks were thinned in the center. Persian battle doctrine dictated that their best troops, true Persians, fought in the center, while conscripts, pressed into service from tribute states, fought on the flanks. The Persian elite forces surged into the center of the fray, easily gaining the ascendancy. But this time it was a fatal mistake. The Persian conscripts whom the Hellenic hoplites faced on the flanks quickly broke into flight. The Greeks then made another crucial decision: Instead of pursuing their fleeing foes, they turned inward to aid their countrymen fighting in the center of the battle.

By then, the Persians were in a state of utter confusion. Their tactics had failed, their cavalry was absent and their archers were useless. Their more heavily armed and armored opponents, who could sense that victory was close, were attacking them from three sides and pushing them into the sea. The Persians fled back to their ships. Many of the Athenians, buoyed by their success, dragged several of the Persian vessels to shore, slaughtering those on board.

When the day was over, the Greeks had won one of history’s most famous victories, claiming to have killed about 6,400 Persians for the loss of only 192 Athenians. The Spartans eventually arrived, but only after the battle was long over. To assuage their disbelief in the Athenians’ victory, they toured the battlefield. To their amazement, they found the claim of victory was indeed true. The Athenians had defeated the most powerful empire in the Western world.

Around the 5th century bc, the Persians under Cyrus the Great had rapidly expanded their domain. By the time of Darius I, the Persian empire covered most of southwest Asia and Asia Minor, reaching as far as the easternmost boundaries of Europe. The Persians demanded tribute and respect from all they dominated. The Greek cities in Asia Minor eventually decided to throw off the Persian yoke. Through those revolts, the assistance of the Athenians and the ensuing Battle of Marathon, the wheels had been set in motion to end Persian domination.

How did this sequence of events come to pass? From the time he ascended the throne, Darius, like all the kings before him, needed to conquer and add to the empire that his forebears had passed to him, to establish his worth as a ruler and maintain control. Establishing and retaining authority over such a vast dominion required thousands upon thousands of troops. To pay for the soldiery and to maintain the grandeur of the Persian capital, Persepolis (which Darius built to demonstrate his greatness), he needed more than the tribute from subjugated states. He needed to conquer more cities and territory to expand his treasury.

To the east of ancient Persia (modern-day Iran and Iraq) lay India and the Orient expansion there held unknown dangers. To take this route, Darius would risk overextending his empire. To the west lay the inhospitable Libyan desert. To the north were the barbarian lands of the Scythians. Expansion into Europe seemed the most promising option, but the scattered city-states of Greece constituted a major roadblock to Darius’ ambitions.

Before he could move on Greece, Darius had to achieve complete submission within his existing territories, and an empire of Persia’s size was impossible to control centrally. Therefore, the Persians had established local governors or satraps, whose main role was to oversee the day-to-day functioning of their provinces and to ensure that all tribute was collected and sent to the capital. Many of these satraps ruled as tyrants. Understandably, the Greek cities east of the Aegean Sea would become restless and desire change when they cast a glance westward at the seeds of democratic society planted in Athens.

Dissent first began to appear on the island of Naxos, which revolted in 502 bc. The Naxians appealed to the despot of the Ionian city of Miletos, Aristagoras, for assistance. He agreed, meaning to take control of the island once the revolt had been crushed. For his plan to succeed, he enlisted the aid of Artaphernes, Darius’ brother and the satrap of Lydia (modern-day Turkey). Aristagoras’ tangled web fell apart when the plot against the Naxians failed. Owing the Persian emperor and his brother money and promised conquests, Aristagoras had no option but to incite his own people to revolt.

The revolt of Miletos led other cities to follow suit. The Ionian Greeks had also maintained strong trade and cultural ties with their kin on mainland Greece. Forced to pay tribute to a distant king, feeling the tyrannical push of the Persian governors and encouraged by the Athenians, many of these city-states decided to revolt. Athens sent 20 triremes (oar-propelled warships) to Ephesus. Their hoplites and the citizens of Miletos marched on the Lydian capital of Sardis and sacked it. On hearing of this in Persepolis, Darius was infuriated according to legend, he instructed one of his servants to remind him three times daily of this Athenian outrage so he would never forget it.

The revolts in Ionia and an excuse to wreak vengeance on Athens gave Darius the perfect pretext to implement his plans of expansion in Europe. When he looked toward mainland Greece, he must have seen a disjointed conglomeration of city-states that bickered and fought among themselves. It must have seemed unlikely that such cities would form any lasting alliances and be capable of repelling a powerful foe. As the ruler with the largest army in the world, and with the success of his predecessors on which to build, Darius must have thought that one way or another victory would be assured.

In 492 bc, Darius gave Mardonius, his satrap in Thrace (northern Greece), command of 600 ships that sailed across the Hellespont (the Dardanelles) and along the coast. As it rounded Mount Athos, however, the fleet was destroyed by a freak storm, an event that would prove to have great significance. The Greeks took it as an encouraging omen that the gods must surely be on their side. Herodotus claims — with questionable accuracy — that the storm destroyed 300 ships and killed 20,000 men.

Two years later, Darius sent another 600 ships in a second attempt. Expecting little resistance, he sent emissaries to the cities of Greece asking for their submission and demanding offerings of earth and water. Most cities in the north and in Macedonia submitted to his demands. But war became inevitable when the Athenians refused, and the Spartans went even further and killed the Persian envoy.

A second Persian expedition was launched under the command of Datis and Darius’ nephew, Artaphernes. As they moved across the Aegean, they subdued many of the island cities such as Naxos and Delos. Eventually they reached Eritrea, a large island off the Attic coast, and made their way to Marathon. Herodotus explains why the Persians chose to land at Marathon: “The part of Attic territory nearest Eritria — and also the best ground for cavalry to maneuver in — was at Marathon. To Marathon, therefore, Hippias directed the invading army, and the Athenians, as soon as the news arrived, hurried to meet it.”

Marathon was also chosen to draw the Athenians away from Athens. While the hoplites were engaged on the field, the Persians planned to send their ships around the coast and easily capture the undefended city. The Persian plan was twofold: They knew that if the Athenian army was defeated outside of Athens, the city’s civilian inhabitants would have no choice but to submit.

Almost immediately after hearing the news of the Persian landing, the Athenians sent a runner named Pheidippides to Sparta to ask for their assistance. The Spartans promised to send aid, but with a major qualification: No help would be forthcoming until the Carneia (a religious festival) was over. The Spartan refusal to commit troops before then left the Athenians with three choices: march out and meet the Persians at Marathon defend the pass at Pallini or stay in the city and defend its walls.

The Athenians chose Marathon. There were several reasons for this. The food supplies they would need to survive a protracted siege came from the surrounding countryside of Attica, which could easily be cut off by the encamped Persian army. The soon-to-be-vaunted Athenian navy was at that time little more than a flotilla and had no chance of defeating the Persian fleet. If the Persians were able to blockade both the land and sea, Athens could not withstand a sustained siege. The pass at Pallini was high in the mountains, but the Persians had sufficient forces to continue to attack pass defenders until Pallini fell.

Confronting the Persians at Marathon offered the Greeks several tactical possibilities. As stated by Herodotus, the geography of the plain of Marathon was significant in the Persian decision-making. Measuring approximately 10 miles long and three miles wide, it was flanked by boggy marshlands. A large, flat plain, it was perfect for the use of the Persians’ main strike weapon: cavalry.

When the Athenians reached Marathon, they found the Persians camped along the coast. Obviously, the Greeks needed to take the high ground. Both sides sat encamped for nine days, each waiting for the other to make the first move. The Persians believed that the longer they stayed, the greater the fear that would rattle their opponents.

The outnumbered Athenians and their Plataean allies played for time in hopes that the Spartan hoplites would join them — not only to strengthen their numbers but because Spartan military renown stretched all the way to Persepolis, and a Spartan presence would surely dent Persian confidence. On the other hand, the longer the Persians stayed, the more cities would submit to them, lowering the confidence of the Athenian troops.

A meeting was held in the Greek camp to resolve the issue. The 10 Athenian generals (each of the original tribes that had first formed Athens had an elected general) voted, with five in favor of immediate battle and five voting to wait for the Spartans’ arrival. According to Herodotus, it was the influence of Miltiades that swayed the decision. “With you it rests, Callimachus,” he allegedly said, “either to lead Athens to slavery or, by securing her freedom, to leave behind to all future generations a memory far beyond even those who made Athens a democracy. For never since the time the Athenians became a people were they in so great a danger than now.” Whether Miltiades was as influential as Herodotus made him out to be is uncertain however, Callimachus voted in favor of starting the battle. Herodotus also stated that while each general normally took a daily turn in overall command, many of the lesser generals handed their turn over to Miltiades.

With approximately 1,000 Plataeans bolstering the Athenian ranks, the Hellenic forces mustered some 10,000 hoplites. The Persians may have numbered as high as 48,000. Familiar with the tactics and strengths of their enemy, the Greeks knew the Persian cavalry had to be taken out of the calculations. The Persians could not use the cavalry on one side because of the marshland. Nor could they use it on the opposite flank, as the Athenians had buried large stakes in the ground. It seems likely that the Persians, even without the use of either flank, would have used their premier weapon, but for whatever reason, the Persian cavalry was away from the battlefield. Miltiades may well have learned of the Persian cavalry’s absence and then decided it was time to attack.

The absence of Persian cavalry is one of the reasons for the Greek victory. The second is that the Persians were completely unprepared for and unable to adapt to the Greeks’ tactics. Persian battle tactics that previously had served them well entailed stationing their archers at the front to fire volley after volley of arrows into the enemy ranks, wreaking havoc and instilling fear. Once that objective was achieved, Persian infantry would move in to slaughter the confused opposition, with cavalry used only to complete the task when the enemy was routed.

The Greeks held an advantage at Marathon in the equipment of their infantry. An Athenian hoplite carried a heavy, 9-foot spear, wore a solid breastplate and carried an almost body-length shield. The Persian infantryman, in contrast, wore little more than robes and carried a shorter sword and a wicker or cane shield. Therefore, close-quarter combat favored the Athenians. The Persian disadvantage was exacerbated by the Greek use of the phalanx formation — an eight-hoplite by eight-hoplite square. The hoplites at the front would interlock their shields, as would the men to the side, forming an almost impenetrable barrier. Because of their lesser numbers, the Greeks had to thin their formation out, but even that would eventually further serve their purpose.

Although they had won a great victory, the Athenians knew the Persian threat had not passed, and they quickly marched back to prepare the defense of Athens from the attack they were certain would come. In an amazing feat of strength and endurance, they marched at double time directly from the battlefield and managed to reach the city before the Persian ships arrived.

With time of the essence, the Athenians dispatched Pheidippides to inform Athens’ populace of their victory before the troops arrived. The tale goes that after running the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens, Pheidippides exclaimed: “Rejoice! We conquer!” then died from exhaustion. Whether true or not, that is the source of the modern-day marathon race the distance of the modern race reflects the distance Pheidippides ran.

Even though the future battles of Salamis and Plataea were fought against a greater Persian threat, had Marathon ended in defeat, those later battles would never have occurred. Themistocles, who fought at Marathon, saw that Athens had been lucky the first time, and had the Persians conducted their campaign differently, the outcome might well have been different. Hence, soon after Marathon he successfully petitioned to have Athens build a stronger navy, which led to its success at Salamis.

Marathon smashed the myth of Persian invincibility, an achievement that lent a critical measure of confidence to the Greeks who fought the Persians again at Salamis and Plataea. It meant that many of the same commanders who served at Marathon were at the later battles and had knowledge of the Persian mind, and in the longer term, it would lead Alexander the Great on his conquest of Asia and the eventual decline and downfall of the Persian empire.

While most credit the second installment of the Persian wars with the birth of the Athenian renaissance, one could argue that Marathon was the catalyst for, and much of the reason behind, the Athenians’ belief that they were on par with the Spartans — which allowed them to flourish. Had Marathon been a defeat and Athens annihilated, the Western democracy, culture, art and philosophy that developed from this period in history might have been lost, and the Western world today could be very different.

This article was written by Jason K. Fosten and originally published in the January/February 2007 issue of Military History magazine. Jason K. Foster is a London-based teacher and historian specializing in ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!


The Immortals: An elite army of the Persian Empire that never grew weak

The first Persian Empire (550 BC – 330 BC), called the Achaemenid Empire, is known for having an elite force of soldiers. Named the “Immortals” by Herodotus, this army consisted of a heavy infantry of 10,000 men, that never reduced in number or strength. The Immortals played an important role in Persian history, acting as both the Imperial Guard and the standing army during the expansion of the Persian Empire and the Greco-Persian Wars.

‘The Immortals’ at the 2,500th anniversary of Persia in ceremonial dress ( Wikipedia)

The Immortals were called such because of the way in which the army was formed. When a member of the 10,000-strong force was killed or wounded, he was immediately replaced by someone else. This allowed for the infantry to remain cohesive and consistent in numbers, no matter what happened. Thus, from an outsider’s perspective, it would appear that each member of the infantry was ‘immortal’, and their replacement may have represented a resurrection of sorts.

They were sophisticated, well-equipped, their armor glittering with gold. As described by Herodotus, their armament included wicker shields, short spears, swords or large daggers, bow and arrow. They wore a special headdress, believed to have been a Persian tiara. It is often described as a cloth or felt hat that could be pulled over the face to protect from dirt and dust. It is said that compared to the Greeks, the Immortals were “hardly armored”. Yet what they lacked in armor, they made up through psychological impact, as the sight of the well-formed and highly trained army was enough to strike fear into their enemies.

A depiction of the traditional clothing, weaponry, and armor of an Achaemenid soldier ( monolith.dnsalias.org)

As they traveled, they were accompanied by carriages carrying their women and servants, as well as food and supplies. Being a part of this unit was very exclusive. Men had to apply to be a part of it, and being chosen was a great honor.

The Immortals played an important role in several conquests. First, they were elemental when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BC. They played a role in Cambyses II's conquest of Egypt in 525 BC, and Darius I's invasion of western Punjab, Sindh, and Scythia in 520 BC and 513 BC. The Immortals also participated in the Battle of Thermopylae 480 BC. During the Battle of Thermopylae, the Greeks had prevented a Persian invasion by blocking a narrow road. The Immortals took a different route, and attacked the Greeks from the rear. They were very strong, and feared by many, for their strength, replenishing numbers, strategy, and technique.

Unfortunately, historical knowledge of the Immortals is somewhat limited, beyond the writings of Herodotus, and it is difficult to confirm the details. Historians of Alexander the Great write of an elite group known as the Apple Bearers. They were called such due to apple-shaped counterweights on their spears. Some scholars believe they are the same as the Immortals.

A ball can be seen hear on the end of a spear carried by an Achaemenid soldier, suggesting the ‘Apple Bearers’ may be the same as ‘The Immortals’ ( livius.org)

While there is little verification of the details of the Immortals, they remain a symbol of military strength from ancient times. They are often depicted in popular culture, including the 1963 film “The 300 Spartans,” the 1998 comic book 300 and the film adapted from it, and a History Channel Documentation called “Last Stand of the 300.” Through these and other references, the legacy of the Immortals is likely to live on for many years.

Featured image: Four warriors of ‘The Immortals’, from the famous glazed brick friezes found in the Apadana (Darius the Great's palace) in Susa ( Wikimedia)


The Air Force cancels the OA-X flyoff after a deadly crash

Posted On September 12, 2019 02:52:35

The remaining flyoffs involved in the OA-X program, the U.S. Air Force’s search for a new light attack/armed reconnaissance plane, have been cancelled. The announcement comes after the fatal crash of an A-29 Super Tucano plane, which was one of the two finalists that made the cut for the second phase of the program.

The flyoff was being carried out at Holloman Air Force Base after a planned combat demonstration was cancelled. Lt. Christopher Carey Short, a Navy pilot, was killed in the accident.

The OA-X program, which is officially the “Observation/Attack-X” program, originally evaluated four planes: The Embraer A-29, the Beech AT-6B Wolverine, the AT-802 Longsword, and the Textron Scorpion. Both the AT-802 Longsword and Textron Scorpion were eliminated after the first round of the evaluations.

The objective of the OA-X program was to find and field a partial replacement for the A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack plane. Though any partial replacement will find it hard to stack up to the reputation or capabilities of the A-10, it would likely be able to operate in permissive environments, like Afghanistan.

The T-6 Texan serves as the basis for the AT-6B Wolverine.

Now, however, all flying portions involved in the OA-X program have been concluded.

The eventual winner of the OA-X program is likely to see interest from a number of countries the United States works with in the fight against terrorism. Some of those allies, including the Afghan Air Force, already use the A-29 Super Tucano, while others are already using the T-6 Texan II trainer, the basis for the AT-6.

The Afghan Air Force used the AT-29 Tucano.

The planes flying as part of the OA-X program are all able to operate GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions. Both of those precision-guided bombs are 500-pound weapons. Eligible planes are also able to use rocket pods, AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, and gun pods.

The OA-X is intended to replace the A-10 Thunderbolt in providing close-air support in counter-insurgency missions.

The United States Air Force put the A-10 into service in 1977 and bought 716 of the planes. At present, they’re found in 13 squadrons. The Air Force plans to keep these planes in service through 2040, but the search for a replacement (or several partial replacements) is ongoing.

Despite the devastating crash, the program will continue but, until further investigation, all tests will take place on the ground.

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Why the US didn't intervene in the Rwandan genocide

After a disastrous peacekeeping mission in Somalia, the US vowed to stay away from conflicts it didn't understand.

The Clinton administration and Congress watched the unfolding events in Rwanda in April 1994 in a kind of stupefied horror.

The US had just pulled American troops out of a disastrous peacekeeping mission in Somalia – later made famous in the book "Black Hawk Down" – the year before. It had vowed never to return to a conflict it couldn't understand, between clans and tribes it didn't know, in a country where the US had no national interests.

From embassies and hotels in Kigali, diplomats and humanitarian workers gave daily tolls of the dead, mainly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus who had called for tribal peace. The information came in real time, and many experts say that the US and the Western world in general failed to respond.

'We knew before, during, and after'

"During World War II, much of the full horror of the Holocaust was known after the fact. But in Rwanda, we knew before, during, and after," says Ted Dagne, a researcher at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, who has traveled to Rwanda on fact-finding missions. "We knew, but we didn't want to respond."

In an official letter written as late as June 19, 1994, the then-UN-Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali showed exasperation at the numbers of peacekeepers that member nations were willing to provide.

"It is evident that, with the failure of member states to promptly provide the resources necessary for the implementation of its expanded mandate, UNAMIR (the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda) may not be in a position, for about three months, to fully undertake the tasks entrusted to it," Mr. Boutros-Ghali wrote. Within a month of the writing of this letter, the genocide ended, as Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front took full effective control of Rwanda.

US support for a rapid-action force

Mr. Dagne, a Congressional aide at the time, says that if the Clinton administration had called for a rapid-action force to stop the killings in Rwanda, Congress would have supported him. Letters from bipartisan panels of Congress back this up.

"We are writing to express our strong support for an active United States role in helping to resolve the crisis in Rwanda," wrote Rep. Bob Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, in a letter of April 20, 1994, signed by Republicans and Democrats alike. "Given the fact that approximately 20,000 people have died thus far in the tragic conflict, it is important that the United States endeavor to end the bloodshed and to bring the parties to the negotiating table."

But time and again in that spring and summer, President Clinton replied with more pleas for the government and the rebels to stop the violence themselves, and suggested that the underarmed, overstretched UN peacekeeping mission on the ground was the right group to lead the way.

"On April 22 . the White House issued a strong public statement calling for the Rwandan Army and the Rwandan Patriotic Front to do everything in their power to end the violence immediately," President Clinton wrote on May 25, 1994, to Rep. Harry Johnston (D) of Florida. "This followed an earlier statement by me calling for a cease-fire and the cessation of the killings."

With Congress looking toward the president, and the White House looking toward the UN, nothing was done, and the genocide ran its course.

"At the end of an administration, they write a report, and Rwanda was at the top of the failures list for the Clinton administration, so this is something that they acknowledge themselves," says Dagne.

If there is a lesson learned from Rwanda, Dagne says, it is that the international community needs to avoid giving the impression that it is willing or capable of rescuing civilians in a conflict. "It's important to build the capacity of people to do the job themselves [of protecting themselves]," Dagne says. "We must not give the expectation that people will be saved."


Hammurabi’s Law Code

Hammurabi promulgated his Code of Law circa 1772 B.C. Hammurabi’s was not the first such law code, but it was the most famous and important. Previous law codes, such as that of Ur-Nammu, were made to rule over a single ethnic group, people all of the same family, more or less. By Hammurabi’s time, Babylon had become a large, cosmopolitan city with many different people rubbing shoulders on its busy streets. Hammurabi’s Law had to rule over nomads, Assyrian traders, aristocratic Babylonians, Elamite slaves and Sumerian housewives. His law code had to be simple, specific and direct. Hammurabi’s laws sought to avoid the blood feuds that could easily arise among people of different cultures.

To modern minds, Hammurabi’s laws are harsh they established the principle of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, literally. If a man took out another man’s eye in a fight, he then lost his own eye. Punishments for breaking the law included dismemberment, disfigurement and death. The lightest punishments were fines. Hammurabi had his Code inscribed on a stele, an eight-foot tall diorite rock where all could see the law. While harsh, Hammurabi’s law included the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.


Why doesn't the US use the metric system?

Answer: it's been too long since the last revolution.

How people measure stuff might seem pretty bland as topics go, but behind America's insistence to keep drinking coffee in ounces and pumping gas in gallons lies a story with a weighty dose of patriotism, political stability and a historical distrust of the French.

"The paradox is that the way we choose to measure things is banal and boring, but it's also super important because it structures the way we live and interact with each other," said Ken Alder, a professor of history at Northwestern University in Illinois, who wrote "The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World (Free Press, 2003). "You can't make comparisons or have an economy without setting standards, and people have bitterly fought for standards because it's really a fight about how the economy works."

In the 1790s, the French Academy of Sciences was asked by the government in Paris to come up with a new and logical system of measurement. The academy decided that the new system should be based on something they could physically quantify in nature, so it could stand the test of time. Thus, they decided a meter should be one 10 millionth of a quadrant of the Earth's circumference &mdash that is, the line running from the North Pole to the equator &mdash a ruling that led to the beginnings of the metric system.

The metric system is arguably an easier way to go about standardizing measurements than the system the United States uses. Everything in the metric system divides into decimals (there are 10 millimeters in a centimeter, 1,000 grams in a kilogram, and so on) most of the rest of the world uses it and it also just makes sense &mdash for example, water freezes at zero degrees Celsius (as opposed to the random 32 degrees Fahrenheit) and it boils at 100 C (instead of 212 F).

So why hasn't the U.S. budged an inch? Why do Americans continue to use units of yards, miles and pints? The U.S. customary system has morphed and evolved from a hodgepodge of several systems dating back to medieval England. In 1790, George Washington noted the need for some uniformity in currency and measurements. Money was successfully decimalized, but that's as far as it got. In truth, the U.S. did try to make the switch a couple times, but it never quite managed to follow through the British system was too ingrained in American industry as well as the national psyche.

It even took several efforts by various groups in France before the metric system came to be. It wasn't until the chaos following the 1789 French Revolution that it became possible. "Before then, measures didn't just differ from country to country, but from town to town," Alder told Live Science. In fact, it's thought that prior to the metric system, there were over 250,000 different units of measure in France. Standardizing measures was important to people who traveled. "Local systems screw[ed] over the traders and merchants, whereas the metric system allowed them to know what they were getting. But the locals resisted because they liked what they knew," Alder said.

It's worth pointing out that the old measurements worked well for the French locals because these metrics were tied to physical counting systems. For example, a field's size might be measured by the 'journée' (meaning 'day' in French), which denoted the number of days it took to harvest its crop. Other times, land was measured in 'boisseaux' (or 'bushels'), to quantify how much grain-seed was needed to sow the land. "The old systems did make sense, they weren't just totally crazy," Alder said.

But when the revolution came and Louis XVI succumbed to the guillotine, those who replaced him were part of the Enlightenment movement, during a period known as the Age of Reason, and these new leaders reasoned that Louis' head should be weighed in kilos. "It was the time for rationalization," Alder said. "The United States was supposed to be the second country to adopt the new way of measuring things, as the sister republic."

In 1793, the U.S. Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, even sent for a French scientist named Joseph Dombey, who set sail for the New World with a small copper cylinder, which was destined to be America's new standard weight &mdash a kilogram. But Dombey's ship was beset by bad weather an Atlantic wind pushed Dombey's vessel off course and into the custody of ransom-desiring British pirates. Sadly, he died a prisoner and the kilogram never made it to Jefferson.

But pesky tempests are not the only reason the metric system never caught on stateside it's also a question of identity, and not all Americans were as Francophillic as Jefferson, Alder said. "I understand when people resent it as a remote force of globalization that produces uniformity, and it's perfectly rational to want local control," he said. "It can also be about taking a position against something that's hyperrational and French."

Even in France it wasn't particularly welcomed. "It literally took 100 years to implement," Alder noted. The controversy hasn't ended there. Nowadays, scientists quibble about the fluctuations of the original kilogram and meter, Live Science previously reported.

Another factor working against the metric system in the United States is the country's relative political stability ever since it gained its independence, elections happened instead of coups and revolutions. That didn't do the metric system any favors, Alder said, because to completely overhaul a country's system of measurement requires quite a bit of turmoil for disrupters to take advantage of. "We came close with the Civil War," he said. "But the conflict wasn't sufficiently subversive to make that change."

The United Kingdom for example, only started its journey toward the metric system in the 1970s, after the reality of its geopolitics changed radically the U.K. not only lost its empire but also began preferentially trading with its continental neighbors over its former colonies, Alder explained. That said, the British have only half-heartedly adopted the new system &mdash road signs are still in miles and pubs still serve beer in pints. (Of note, dry and liquid measurements for pints in the U.K. are not the same as they are in the U.S., according to Encyclopedia Britannica.) Nevertheless, the Jimmy Carter administration tried to follow the Brits around the same time. "[The government] actually tried to put road signs up in kilometers, but people went crazy and it was abandoned," Alder said.

The U.S. Congress even passed a law in 1975 to make the switch, but unlike the United Kingdom, the transition was deemed to be voluntary instead of mandatory and there was no deadline.

So, for those who long for the U.S. to see sense and ditch ounces for grams &mdash be careful what you wish for, Alder said, because more often than not, the transition is accompanied by more drastic political change.

Originally published on Live Science.

The book "Measure of All Things" is a great read, well-written and extremely interesting. One of its most valuable revelations is that, despite the general belief, the metric system is not based on a natural and eternal truth.

During the measurements to establish the system, the investigators discovered that the Earth is not a perfect sphere. The length of a fraction of one meridian is different from the length of the same fraction of another. The length of a meter therefore depends on which meridian serves as the basis.

The French realized this toward the end of the project. They were too far into it to make any corrections, if that had even been possible. So they fudged things to establish what we now call the meter.

The metric system is no more rational than any other system. A useful system requires only agreement on which standard to use. The French chose the one they liked, and as the book explains, were able after a good many years to persuade many other nations to use it.

The use of the decimal for the system is vastly overrated. It makes sense for money, but in a physical measurement it is much easier and far more accurate to divide by two by the eye, as the US Customary System allows, than it is by ten. This matters in almost every measurement most of us make. Let the scientists keep their decimals. The carpenter and the cook have a better system.

Granted, it is inconvenient to have two measurement systems in the world, sometimes even deadly. A plane crashed because of it, costing lives. The Mars Orbiter was lost because of it, costing hundreds of millions of dollars and the loss of important opportunities in science.

But it would be extremely difficult for the US to change to the metric system. It would cost an enormous amount of money and aggravation, and it is not necessary. The one we are using is superior in many ways.

Sorry, nerds. You might think you sound superior by using kilometers instead of miles, but you are just following the mindless herd. We should not start calling the inch worm the centimeter worm.

Identity, politics and good, old fashioned resistance to change.

Why doesn't the US use the metric system? : Read more

One thing Garthpool and the article alluded to should be emphasized. Much of the Imperial System and none of the Metric System is human centric.

A mile is about a thousand paces (a pace is two steps) and dates to Roman times to measure an army's march and put mile markers on roads.

A yard is about the distance between your nose and your outstretched hand (and I can remember my mother buying fabric measured this way by a fabric shop).

A foot is about a foot (with or without a shoe, depending on your foot size if you want to be more accurate).

An inch was the width of an adult thumb (and children can use an appropriate finger joint).

As far as temperature Daniel Fahrenheit defined zero degrees as the freezing temperature of a brine solution which gave 32 degrees as the freezing point of pure water and 212 degrees as the boiling point. He divided the difference by 180 instead of 100 but it was as scientifically based as Celsius. The benefit that the human body recognizes variations in 1 degree Fahrenheit when setting, say, your heating (just ask my wife) while Celsius requires fractions to get to that point.

I will also point out that the French also created a calendar with a day divided into 10 decimal hours, an hour into 100 decimal minutes, and a minute into 100 decimal seconds. From the metric point of view, this makes far more sense than the current arrangement but it was laughed out of existence after the French Revolution and nobody mentions it anymore.

This article implies we are not metric. We are. We use both.

The question for decades isn't "why aren't we metric," but instead "why do we use both?"

One could even argue that unless you measure heat in kelvins, you are not metric (Celsius is not metric.)

I have a 100 year old house. It isn't metric. We didn't have to build infrastructure from scratch after WWII, so we have countless legacy systems in place. Interestingly, the US military is 100% metric and has been since at least the 80's. All cars have been metric for decades. I teach both to my students in elementary school. Engineers use metric for design, then convert to imperial units afterwards, if at all. There is no 'going metric' because we did, but our homes (plumbing, lumber, etc.) are not convertible. I really don't notice, though I like my newer tape measures with both units, just to mess with the hardware store or my dad.

The question for decades isn't "why aren't we metric," but instead "why do we use both?" It is a history lesson and a marketing lesson, not a political one.

The US is metric. An inch is defined as 2.54cm exactly. The mass unit pound is legally defined as exactly 0.45359237 kilograms.

But then, for some units like pound-force, you must use the definition of slug, which is defined as the mass that is accelerated by 1 ft/s2 when a force of one pound (lbf) is exerted on it. But the slug is defined as 14.59390 kg. Thus pound force is indirectly defined as 143N/14.59390kg, or inexactly as 4.448222 N.

SI is the product of physics and it has been modified as needed to conform to what physicists define as "nature".

The customarily used measures in the US are based on how most people think is the way the world works, ie, implicitly a pound is the force you put in a scale, not a mass, with gravity constant and fixed. Thus most measures are flexible, and imprecise. And thus can be given as absolutes. You can say something is a pound while I disagree with both being correct because pound is ambiguous with multiple definitions in customary use. Like Trump.

The others beat me to it and stole most of my thunder - (also I couldn't get the thumbs up button to work - Sorry garthpool, Hildy, TS60423 and, Mulp).

I've been saying for years that the Imperial System, for everyday use by people, is a Better System than the Metric.
As was stated before, degrees Fahrenheit are more accurate than degrees Celsius. The decade scale use for Metric units is too large a jump for most human, real-world applications. "Give me 0.5 liters of beer" just doesn't have the same ring to it as "Give me a pint!"Centimeters are too small and Decimeters are too big for a lot of human-scale things without a measuring device. "How big was the spider?" - America - "About an inch across" Some metric using country - "About 2.54 cm" . Really? "How long is it from your elbow to your wrist?" "About a foot" or "About 30 cm, 3 dm, 0.3 meters" the scale jumps too far. I have some friends who visit the USA from France, even when I told him the measurements in Centimeters (doing some carpentry), he had to get out his metric tape measure and measure the distance because it was too hard to envision the distance without a measuring device. I've worked in the electronics field for a good number of years and know the SI units better than the average bear, but other than when talking about very large or very small things Nanometers, pico Farads, etc. Imperial units work much better for me, as do fractions a lot of the time. A pizza might be cut in half then quartered, then eights, with four swipes from the cutter. Next time you get a pizza, try and make a slice 0.125. When I was in school in the 60's and early 70's We learned the metric system - "The wave of the future" that was to make math easier, but it really didn't, I'd rather be 6 foot tall than 182.88 cm.

A convention has utility proportional to the person's mind using it. Like a verbal language, I speak old and new.

@garthpool : I told you money es on da way auht. And so will many tawdry 'hobbies' people have, like building stuff from scratch out of wood. And so on.

This article implies we are not metric. We are. We use both.

The question for decades isn't "why aren't we metric," but instead "why do we use both?"

One could even argue that unless you measure heat in kelvins, you are not metric (Celsius is not metric.)

I have a 100 year old house. It isn't metric. We didn't have to build infrastructure from scratch after WWII, so we have countless legacy systems in place. Interestingly, the US military is 100% metric and has been since at least the 80's. All cars have been metric for decades. I teach both to my students in elementary school. Engineers use metric for design, then convert to imperial units afterwards, if at all. There is no 'going metric' because we did, but our homes (plumbing, lumber, etc.) are not convertible. I really don't notice, though I like my newer tape measures with both units, just to mess with the hardware store or my dad.

The question for decades isn't "why aren't we metric," but instead "why do we use both?" It is a history lesson and a marketing lesson, not a political one.

I am an engineer (and millennial) and in the civil/structural world I would say the opposite. The vast majority of my designs and calculations are in U.S. Customary and I hardly, if ever, touch SI metric. twk is on the money. For many things the way the U.S. Customary system is set is better intuitively. I grew up being taught metric mostly in school with some U.S. Customary. Engineering school was funny because the first two years they pushed SI metric, SI metric, SI metric, well then we get into the final two years and grad school and you start seeing more U.S. Customary and then in the actual civil engineering field in the U.S. which is very heavy U.S. Customary. For machining parts and other things yeah SI metric works fine, and in some fields is the more advantaged system. When laying down roads, building dams, buildings, however, I will take U.S. Customary any day of the week.

I am not really a never metric, but I do find attitudes like yours interesting. Does it matter to me what the definition of a yard or meter is? No, not really. You bash those other units of linear measurements but then what is the definition of a meter? The length of the path traveled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second. Look at that fraction of a second, lets be honest it is just as ridiculous and arbitrary as any other measurement. For the record since 1893 the U.S. Survey foot is defined as 1200/3937 of a meter. Thing is once defined, for the vast amount of human activity what exactly that definition is derived from doesn't matter in the big scope of things. Not like Joe Schmo can accurately measure the speed of light in a vacuum in his garage.

I am glad you brought up land area, because acres is a great practical measurement for land. SI metric on the other hand is very unwieldy for land area. An acre is either 4046 square meters or 0.00405 square kilometers. So if you have a 0.25 or a 5, or a 40 acre lot (typical sizes in practical use) you have respectively either(roughly) a 1010, 20,235, or 161,870 square meter lot or a 0.001, 0.02, or 0.161 square kilometer lot.

I would argue the U.S. went the best route which is take the good of both U.S. Customary and SI Metric and allow us to use the better of the two in certain applications were the other is not as good.

Identity, politics and good, old fashioned resistance to change.

Why doesn't the US use the metric system? : Read more

The claim that it's "far more accurate to divide by two by the eye" is not supported and really can't be using imperial measures. Firstly, it's equally as easy to divide by halves using the International System of Units (SI units) as imperial. Half a cup is half a cup whether it's measured in fluid ounces or millilitres.

Using length, 1/4 kilometre is 250 metres whereas 1/4 mile is 1,320 feet or 2.5 chains. I know which of those is easier to work with. How about adding 3/8" and 7/16"? With SI units the division is always of a unit of 10 so the values are consistent, e.g. 1/4 litre is 250 millilitres, 1/4 metre is 250 millimetres, etc. so you just need to learn the decimal equivalents of say 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8 (0.5, 0.25 and 0.125 respectively) and you're got the common halves of SI units of measure.

Secondly, the imperial system is not designed to be easily subdivided by halves anyway. For example, the progression of length units is: 12 inches to a foot, 3 feet to a yard, 22 yards to a chain (which is also 100 links, making a link 0.66 feet or 7.92 inches), 10 chains to a furlong and 8 furlongs to a mile. So 1/2 mile is 2,640 feet, half a chain is 33 feet and half a yard is 1.5 feet or 1' 6". So the "divide by 2" argument just doesn't stack up.

The US uses SI units for electrical measures: volts, watts, ohms, etc. The basic imperial units are all specified in SI units and the US military and scientific communities use SI units. So the precedent is there, it's just that the US is weirdly conservative about certain things to the extent that use of imperial measures is viewed with a kind of religious righteousness and woe betide anyone who tries to change it.


An Army officer sums up what makes Marines different

Asking the question that misses the most fundamental point about the United States Marine Corps. In the Marines, everyone–sergeant, mechanic, cannoneer, supply man, clerk, aviator, cook–is a rifleman first. The entire Corps, all 170,000 or so on the active rolls, plus the reserves, are all infantry. All speak the language of the rifle and bayonet, of muddy boots and long, hot marches. It’s never us and them, only us. That is the secret of the Corps.”

“If Army infantry amounts to a stern monastic order standing apart, on the edge of the wider secular soldier world, Marine infantry more resembles the central totem worshipped by the entire tribe. Marines have specialized, as have all modern military organizations. And despite the all-too-real rigors of boot camp, annual rifle qualification, and high physical standards, a Marine aircraft crew chief or radio repairman wouldn’t make a good 0311 on a squad assault. But those Marine technical types know that they serve the humble grunt, the man who will look the enemy in the eye within close to belly-ripping range. Moreover, all Marines think of themselves as grunts at heart, just a bit out of practice at the moment. That connections creates a great strength throughout the Corps.”

Marines in Hue, Vietnam

“It explains why Marine commanders routinely, even casually, combine widely disparate kinds of capabilities into small units….

Marines send junior officers and NCOs out from their line rifle companies and expect results. They get them, too.”

“Even a single Marine has on call the firepower of the air wing, the Navy, and all of the United States. Or at least he thinks he does. A Marine acts accordingly. He is expected to take charge, to improvise, to adapt, to overcome. A Marine gets by with ancient aircraft (the ratty C-46E Frog, for example), hand-me-down weapons (such as the old M-60 tanks used in the Gulf War), and whatever else he can bum off the Army or cajole out of the Navy. Marines get the job done regardless, because they are Marines. They make a virtue out of necessity. The men, not the gear, make the difference. Now and again, the Marines want to send men, not bullets.”

“This leads to a self-assurance that sometimes comes across as disregard for detailed staff-college quality planning and short shrift for high-level supervision. Senior Army officers in particular sometimes find the Marines amateurish, cavalier, and overly trusting in just wading in and letting the junior leaders sort it out. In the extreme, a few soldiers have looked at the Corps as some weird, inferior, ersatz ground war establishment, a bad knockoff of the real thing. ‘A small, bitched-up army talking Navy lingo,’ opined Army Brigadier General Frank Armstrong in one of the most brutal inter-service assessments. That was going too far. But deep down, many Army professionals tend to wonder about the Marines. Grab a defended beach? Definitely. Seize a hill? Sure, if you don’t mind paying a little. But take charge of a really big land operation? Not if we can help it.”

“Anyone who has watched an amphibious landing unfold would be careful with that kind of thinking. The Marines actually have a lot in common with their elite Army infantry brothers, if not with all the various Army headquarters and service echelons. True, Marine orders do tend to be, well…brief. But so do those of the airborne, the air assault, the light-fighters, and the Rangers, for the same good reason: Hard, realistic training teaches soldiers how to fight by doing, over and over, so they need not keep writing about it, regurgitating basics every time. More enlightened soldiers consider that goodness. A three-inch thick order, a big CP, and lots of meeting do not victory make. The Marines consciously reject all that.”

“A Corps infused with a rifleman ethos has few barriers to intra-service cooperation. The Army talks a great deal about combined arms and does it down to about battalion level, often with great wailing and gnashing of the teeth. Marines do it all the way down to the individual Marine. Soldiers have defined military occupational specialties and guard their prerogatives like a union shop stewards. Finance clerks don’t do machine guns. Mechanics skip foot marches to fix trucks. Intell analysts work in air-conditioned trailers they don’t patrol.

Marines, though, are just Marines. They all consider themselves trigger pullers. They even like it, as might be expected of an elite body.


Here’s Why Women in Combat Units is a Bad Idea

Three problems plague the debate over whether all combat units should finally be opened to women. (Actually, there are four problems: The fourth and most important being the likelihood that there will be no real debate, something that I hope this article will help to mitigate). Most career soldiers and officers I know believe the integration of women into Special Forces teams, and into SEAL, Ranger and Marine infantry platoons, is already a forgone conclusion. From their perspective, politicians in uniform (namely, top brass) don’t have the intestinal fortitude to brook the vocal minority in Congress – and the country, really – who think mainstreaming women into ground combat units is a good idea.

As for the other three problems, the first is that every sentient adult knows what happens when you mix healthy young men and women together in small groups for extended periods of time. Just look at any workplace. Couples form. At some point, how couples interact – sexually, emotionally, happily and/or unhappily – makes life uncomfortable for those around them. Factor in intense, intimate conditions and you can forget about adults being able to stay professional 24/7. Object lesson for anyone who disagrees: General Petraeus.

Problem number two: Those who favor lifting the combat exclusion ban engage in a clever sleight of hand whenever they equate women serving in combat with women serving in combat units. Given women’s performance over the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, who but a misogynist would doubt their capacity for courage, aggressiveness or grace under fire at this point? But battles are like exclamation points. They punctuate long stretches when there are no firefights. Spend time around soldiers when they are coming down from adrenaline highs, or are depressed or upset they are prone to all sorts of temptations. Alternatively, under Groundhog Day-like conditions, troops invariably grow bored and frustrated. How quickly we forget Charles Graner and Lynndie England, and the dynamic between them that helped fuel the sadism at Abu Ghraib.

Problem number three involves a different elision. Proponents of lifting the ban love to invoke desegregation and the demise of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Their intent in doing so is to suggest that all three are of a piece: Blacks now serve in combat units, as do (at least in theory) openly homosexual soldiers, and there have been no untoward effects. It is therefore past time to let women be all that they can be as well. Except that attraction between the sexes is nothing like the denigration of another race or the disinterest (or disgust) heterosexual men feel when it comes to the idea of one man pursuing another.

Indeed, racism and bigotry lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from attraction. Lumping all three together is a canard.

There is no clearer way to put it than this: Heterosexual men like women. They also compete for their attention. This is best captured by the Darwinist aphorism: male-male competition and female choice. Or, try: no female has to leave a bar alone if she doesn’t want to, whereas at ‘last call’ lots of men do.

Cast back through history or just look cross-culturally: Men’s abiding interest in women (and women’s interest in having men be interested) creates limitless potential for friction. Is this really what we want to inflict on combat units?

More than a decade ago, I described the critical ethos on teams, and in squads or platoons, as ‘one for all and all for one.’ Introduce something over which members are bound to compete, that the winner won’t share, and you inject a dangerous dynamic. Worse, introduce the possibility of exclusivity between two individuals and you will have automatically killed cohesion.

Interestingly – tellingly – proponents of lifting the combat exclusion ban routinely dismiss the significance of cohesion. Take the recent story about the Marine Corps’ new experimental mixed gender combat unit that appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. In it, correspondent Michael Phillips writes: “The debate over women in combat – similar to arguments about gays in the military – used to focus on so-called unit cohesion…”

That value-laden qualifier, “so-called,” made me sit bolt upright. Its use signals just how successful military sociologists and others have been at dismissing the idea that social cohesion might (still) matter. Their preferred cohesion is something they call ‘task cohesion,’ which refers to soldiers’ ability to do a job regardless of whatever inter-personal differences might exist among them. This, according to these academics, is the only kind of cohesion military units need. Forget shared interests, past-times or proclivities. Remaining effective over the long-haul in combat no longer requires that individuals have anything more than the mission in common.

Except – dig beneath the political correctness that those in uniform know they better parrot, and it quickly becomes apparent that academics have split an impossible hair. For instance, U.S. Army Special Forces Command has been waging a quiet dissuasion campaign against Special Forces soldiers joining motorcycle ‘clubs.’ And though some wonder why any special operator would feel the need to join a bunch of wannabe outlaws when SF teams already constitute the ‘baddest’ gangs around, operators enamored with biker subculture are clearly seeking something SF does not provide. For many that something is camaraderie.

No question, stateside camaraderie is not what it is OCONUS (outside the continental U.S.). Family life looms large, wives have careers etc. There are a host of reasons why cohesion frays whenever teams return from deployments (to include how strained families are thanks to the sheer number of deployments). However, this fraying has consequences. Individuals go on benders and get into trouble combat veterans commit suicide PTSD festers. Old timers’ assessment is that team members no longer have each other’s backs except in combat. Ironically, their observation fits exactly what focusing only on ‘task cohesion’ prescribes.

Talk to team leaders and they will describe how much effort it takes to get team members and their families to want to socialize once everyone is home. But they will also describe how rewarding it is once they do – all of which should be an indicator that social cohesion still does matter. It matters to those who join Special Forces in order to belong to something other than just a job. It also matters to those responsible for leading them, who recognize what a difference it makes downrange when a team ‘hangs together.’

Consequently, one question that should be posed to those who fixate on ‘task cohesion’ as the only glue the military needs is: Don’t social scientists owe it to those who already serve in special operations (and infantry) units to pay attention to what they say (and do), rather than rely on what members of mixed gender noncombat units self-report regarding ‘task cohesion’?

Of course, the idea that there can be any social ‘science’ answer to whether the U.S. military should integrate women into ground combat forces is silly. Proponents might like to think that objective metrics can be devised. But metrics that measure what? Whether a unit can gel? Whether it will stay solid? Whether it will be able to recover from disaster effectively?

Granted, there are some critical performance criteria – such as the ability to meet physical standards – that can be gauged in advance. But it is essential to remember that just because an individual meets these does not mean he or she will fit well into any group. Nonetheless, physical standards now amount to the Rubicon in the combat exclusion debate.

Opponents of lifting the ban believe that so long as standards remain high – and do not get gender-normed – few women will either want to serve in the combat arms or be able to make it through selection. Thus, certain Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs) – they hope – will remain protected. For their part, proponents question the relevancy of the physical standards that special operations units and the Marine Corps infantry do still use. Their position is that if you look at any unit, tasks are rarely undertaken by individuals alone. Instead, members shift and share burdens, and help each other out. Invariably the group finds creative ways to get the job done regardless of individuals’ weaknesses.

Ergo the Marine Corps’ new experimental unit, the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force (the subject of Phillips’ article). What the Marine Corps tests will find as they train up both male and female volunteers for combat should be interesting, to say the least. Forget just the gender dimension. Each service should ensure that today’s standards reflect real world requirements, and not some arbitrary, holdover notions of what combat pre-9/11 entailed. After all, it could be that numerous physical standards will need to be raised, not lowered – something that is all too imaginable given the sheer weight of today’s combat loads. If so, it will be interesting to then see what tack proponents take, since thus far they have shown zero interest in acknowledging why we even have combat units. Their impetus all along has been equity instead.

Equity is a quintessentially progressive and thus classically American goal. It is also a goal that increasingly attracts uniformed fathers who want to see their uniformed daughters excel. This reflects a remarkable societal shift. Proponency by men who have served in the combat arms is powerful and persuasive. It can also be extraordinarily moving. However, no decision about the future makeup of ground combat units should be influenced by what opening such units will do for anyone’s offspring, or sibling or spouse. Instead, the only thing that should matter is whether the presence of women will contribute positively to the combat effectiveness of combat units.

No question, women are a boon for certain types of missions, especially certain special operations missions. No one I know disagrees with that, and in fact most special operators are anxious for more qualified women to be able to work with them. But there is a world of difference between women participating on certain missions and women serving alongside men as permanent members of ground combat units.

This difference has everything to do with why combat units exist – they exist to be sent into harm’s way. Maybe they won’t take casualties. But the military can never count on that. The prospect of attrition requires that the military treat individuals not as individuals, but as interchangeable pieces of a complex system. Not only does every combat soldier need to be capable of accomplishing the same essential tasks as every other combat soldier (according to rank, MOS etc.), but every potential replacement has to be able to easily fit into an already-stressed group. This introduces the equivalent of a Goldilocks challenge: Groups must be flexible enough to quickly absorb new members, while new members need to be sufficiently similar to both old members and surviving members that they readily fit.

Unfortunately, proponents of lifting the combat exclusion ban don’t seem to get this. So, while it might make academic sense to assume squads, platoons and teams will simply be able to work out their own division of labor (read: task cohesion) under duress, what invariably happens when new members of the opposite sex arrive on the scene? In any setting, group chemistry changes – in predictably unpredictable ways.

Unfortunately, the services aren’t likely to use their sexual assault data to make the case that injecting women into hard-charging, all-male units isn’t a sound idea. But surely other statistics exist. For instance, how much time do command staffs already spend on boy-girl troubles? Anecdotally, fraternization and related issues eat up way too much time. Is this really what Washington should now saddle combat units and commanders with as they fight ISIS or whomever else in the future?

Or what about combat soldiers’ spouses, who already have more than enough worries? Why don’t their concerns count? This is a question that leads to a cascade of others for anyone who truly cares about equity. Whose equity should most matter? And who should get to determine this?

The irony is that combat units are ‘it’ when it comes to protecting all the other equities we Americans value. That is inconvenient truth number one. We have no other front-line/behind-the-lines first responders. Why would we want to do anything that jeopardizes their cohesiveness and integrity?

Inconvenient truth number two is that men and women have been each other’s most consistent distraction since the beginning of time. To pretend that we don’t know what will happen when men and women are thrown together for prolonged periods in emotionally intense situations defies common sense. Being overly academic and insufficiently adult about adult behavior isn’t just irresponsible but imperiling, and belies the deadly seriousness with which we should want combat units to perform.


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