The British historian JFC Fuller brought a metal outlook to both his military career and his career as an historian. As clear-sighted observer of reality he was able to understand the physical and moral implications of the forms of human conflict. He was one of the leading minds in the early development of the theory of mechanized warfare. As a military officer he saw active service in both primitive and modern conditions – this gave his writings as an historian and military theoretician a solid grounding in real-world experience. His experiences with strange foreign cultures and his knowledge of the occult gave him a keen moral insight that shines through in his books. Fuller looks at history with a clear eye for effective outcomes; however, the men who had the courage and genius to effect these outcomes he romanticizes and lionizes as the heroes they are.
While his overview of WW2 strategy, his review of the generalship of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, and his analysis of armaments in history are probably his most controversial and ground-breaking books, it is his study of Alexander the Great in which we find Fuller in top form. In “The Generalship of Alexander the Great” Mr. Fuller presents Alexander as more than a simple warlord. Rather, we see Alexander the hero: a military, religious, diplomatic, and political genius.
The military genius of Alexander is most clearly illustrated by Fuller’s description of the battle of Issus. The Persian King Darius had interposed his army between Alexander and his communications with Greece. Alexander was faced with the either victory or death. The Persian army was posted behind the Pinarus River with its flanks refused by the sea on their right and the mountains on their left. Darius expected to use his overwhelming cavalry numbers on the flat terrain along the beach to break Alexander’s lines and then crush the Macedonian phalanx as it became disordered by the river and the rough terrain at the base of the mountains. Seeing Darius’ plans, Alexander acted instantly and formed his Royal Companion Cavalry bodyguard with units of light infantry to attack the Persian left along the foothills. The light infantry; slingers, bowmen, and javelin throwers, had long been despised by the Greeks. Alexander understood their usefulness in rough terrain where the phalanx could not go, and at Issus the Macedonian light infantry proved their worth as the combined assault by the Companion cavalry and the light infantry, using the phalanx to their left as a ‘base’ and with Alexander in the lead, immediately routed the Persian light infantry and Alexander headed straight the moral center of the Persian line: Darius. Darius fled the battle. Rather than give chase and allow his army to lose the battle, with perfect discipline Alexander then wheeled his Companions into the rear of the Persian army and between the fury of the Companion cavalry and the steadfast phalanx the Persian hordes were slaughtered. With lightning quick decisions, innate understanding of combined-arms tactics, and immense personal courage, Alexander was able to win a rapid victory with his qualitatively superior army before they succumbed to Persian numbers.
A devout religious genius, Alexander took the time to worship and sacrifice at every temple on his route of campaign. Not only did Alexander thirst for knowledge of the divine, he actively engaged the gods in a battle of wits to bring them onside with his cause. Before he began his campaign to conquer Asia, Alexander visited the oracle at Delphi. The priestess refused to prophesy for Alexander on that day. Nonetheless, Alexander boldly strode into the chamber at which point the priestess said, “you are unstoppable, my son.” Alexander had Zeus on his side.
As a diplomat, Alexander was without rival. The commercial cities of Asia flocked to his banner because unlike the Persian kings, he did not extract a crushing tribute and did not impose rulers upon them: the cities were allowed to return to their democratic or oligarchic rule as was their wont.
Only allegiance was asked in return. The few cities that resisted, like Tyre, were made into brutal examples as their populations were slaughtered and sold into slavery.
The final and most difficult aspect of Alexander was his political genius. Only though personal genius was the Hellenic league, Macedonia, and Persia held together: immediately after Alexander’s death the whole was reduced to various constituent pieces. The most troubling aspect of Alexander was the birth of the idea of the Universal Empire. Heretofore cities and localities had governed themselves and empires, such as they were, had been heterogeneous, patchwork affairs. At Siwa Alexander received the divine oracle of the brotherhood of man and he sought to rule his empire with that idea at the core. The Romans followed in Alexander’s footsteps and created an empire through the sword which was later made universal through cultural-commercial exchange within the empire. The Roman Church followed in Alexander’s footsteps and created a universal empire through the idea of the brotherhood of mankind before Jesus which was later made corporeal through the conquests of Charlemagne. Islam has since pursued the universal empire through the idea and the sword for over 1200 years. The Soviet Union attempted a universal empire that was motivated by the idea but only precariously maintained through the sword. While the Universal Empire has been a seductive dream for 2500 years, the pursuit of such through the course of history has met with diminishing returns with each new embodiment. Perhaps that is the ultimate end to all heroic geniuses: to achieve mastery of the possible and to achieve tragedy attempting the impossible.