The Art of War

Just out of curiosity, when was it that warfare became, well…more civil, then toss all that civility out the window?

Lame reminder, I know, but while watching The Two Towers, it bugged me how the good guys just let the enemy army march up to about 100 yards out, then let them stand there and get all worked up and ready before bombarding them with arrows. They do a similar thing in Gladiator’s opening sequence, and I’ve seen it performed in other movies as well (mostly dealing with medieval type battles). I know some customs called for armies to set up on opposite sides of the battlefield, and then arrangements to be made; we’ll attack you in two days to give you a fighting chance; meeting of champions; “Our army’s bigger than your’s, why don’t you just surrender?”; stuff like that.
In colonial times, I know many armies used the “Line em up, shoot em down” method where both sides would march out on the field, stop about a hundred yards from one another, then open fire. Very formal. Why? I understand muskets weren’t that accurrate, so being close up would be beneficial to hitting your target, but why so formal about the whole ordeal? What prompted this type of “formality in battle”? And when did this all change and guerilla warfare become the standard?


The idea of a ‘gentleman war’, as far as I know, it’s more of a western thing. There is a Chinese saying that goes “Deception is not above the soliders” (my bad translation) meaning which deceit and trickery are all right during wars. I am also curious how does this concept arises.

In the Two Towers, though, if you are talking about the movie, the defenders only have 300 and the attackers number 10,000 - Too little for any tactical manuvering.

Well Elvis, even colonial and Civil War battles weren’t that pretty. The attacking armies would often approach each other, since a soldier could only get off 6 shots a minute with those guns at best. In a charge, things became a brutal hand-to-hand melee, with bayonets, sabers, daggers, and other pointy implements being poked in the other guy.

I thought it rather silly in Two Towers that they waited for the enemies to get so close, but I do have a theory-

The penetration of weapons like bows sharply declines as the range increases (so does the accuracy). THe father away the archer fired, the less likely that arrow would cause a casualty. If you noticed, the front-line Orcs had really heavy armor-it would take a bit of sniping to take one down. Also, the Orc crossbows were far inferior range or accuracy wise, becuase they didn’t even bother to use them until they were right next to the wall. Though what Helm’s Deep seriously lacked (which would have made the battle scene really like a medieval seige) was cauldrons of boiling oil or molten lead (I prefer dumping the lead on them :smiley: ) I think that would have given them a nasty surprise.

Well your colonial fact is almost right. It is true the red coats were very formal, and during the beginning colonial wars i.e. King Philips war - prior to revolution/boston massacre/french indian war - the red coats often fought in the fashion of being quite gentlemanly.
Shouts Prepare your firearms!!! Steady!!! Aim!!! Fire!!!

New group gets on one knee and repates while first group reloads…

however, colonists soon learned the ways of psuedo-guerilla warfare. Ambushing, and by surprise methodology. This worked for a period of time, when there were not too many red coats or dutch or french around. But with the advent of money to be made in the New World, more and more soldiers came, and things got quite dicey…

The shape war takes depends upon the sociological circumstances of the society. “Formality” in battle arises for different reasons.

Take your colonial example. European armies of that period moved in regimented formations because it was the most effective tactic for the time. The muskets had such poor accuracy the only way to do substantial damage to the enemy was to fire a massed volley. Plus, until the advent of modern communications if you wanted to manuever large numbers of soldiers you had to keep them all within shouting distance of each other, another reason for strict formations.

Yes, the colonial guerrilla forces could harrass the Redcoats, but they couldn’t take and hold territory with their hit and run tactics. That’s why George Washington was so hot to put together a real continental army trained by European experts.

In the middle ages the formality comes from a different cause. Wars in the middle ages weren’t country versus country but personal affairs between nobles. The goal (usually) wasn’t to obliterate the enemy, only to force him to knuckle under. Sometimes battles played out like bloody tournaments, with hostages taken and ransoms paid. Other times (like at Agincourt) they were wholesale slaughters.

The hesitation before shooting the arrows in The Twin Towers is for dramatic effect. I haven’t seen Gladiator, but the Roman attitude toward war seems to have been “if it kills 'em good, do it”, so I doubt that any sort of formalities are historically accurate.

“The Art of War(Strategy)” was written by Sun Tzu somtime before 221 BC, perhaps even before 480 BC.

Don’t dismiss out-of-hand the psychological edge a lined up, slowly marching army has.

It’s not a question of formality as it is discipline.

Imagine you are a visigoth (or an american colonial), and those red-shirts just keep coming at you no matter how many you shoot. As soon as you pick off one, another just takes his place, they just keep coming! Oh my God! will nothing stop them!?! You start to worry that maybe there’s more of them than you, maybe they have more men than you have arrows/bullets. Then you get nervous, this is all taking place within a couple of minutes, but it seems like hours and it seems like mere seconds. You glance to your left and right and maybe you see one or two of your compatriots exercising the better part of valour, i.e. running away. Time to put aside your loftier goals and head for the hills and hide under a rock. This tactic is why disciplined armies won and armies made up of feircely independent warriors ussually lost when up against them.

The line-em-up-and-shoot-em-down style of fighting evolved for a few simple reasons. First, the smoothbore musket was comparatively cheap and easy to mass produce compared to a weapon like the rifle or the crossbow. Second, it was easy to use. Third, when equipped with a bayonet, footsoldiers could be employed as both light infantry (missile combat) and heavy infantry (shock weapons).

But there were problems with the smoothbore musket. It had piss-poor range and accuracy, so the the troops had to be deployed in a formation which maximized firepower–the line. The troops also had to be kept close together because it still took a little bit of time to redeploy from the offensive line to the defensive square, which was how troops defended against cavalry.

If the troops spread out and fought independently, they became skirmishers, which were more annoying than effective and which were also highly vulnerable to cavalry. While it is true that the Americans occasionally put these tactics to good use in the Revolution, once confronted on the battlefield they weren’t shy about lining up just as the Brits and Hessians did. They were also a lot less shy about running like hell when the Brit and Hessian lines closed to killing range, because the Americans were often outclassed in drill and rate of fire.

If a line fired too soon at an advancing line of bayoneted muskets, few hits would be scored and the advancing infantry won a few extra seconds to close the distance to a better range and get off a more effective volley–or charge with their bayonets. So often, one line waited for the other to approach within a range which looks ridiculous by todays standards. By the standards of the 17th-19th Centuries, it wasn’t ridiculous, it was efficient and deadly.

As the range and rate of fire of the standard infantry weapon improved (and the quality of the average soldier improved as well), cavalry became more vulnerable on the battlefield and the standard line/square tactics gave way to skirmishers–spread out troops who operated more independently. By the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 the number of skirmishers deployed often outnumbered the number of troops in line formation.

This sort of fighting, by the way, is far from “civil,” if you look at it in the right way. John Keegan in A History of Warfare points out that tribal groups almost universally practice forms of combat which are far more ceremonial and far less dangerous. As societies evolve into more complex organizations, their warfare also evolves into a system designed to more effectively kill and maim than to merely intimidate. Those gaudily dressed troops of the 1700s may look foo-foo, but at the time they were the most effective killing machine yet devised.

Another thing to take into account when considering tight formations was their defensive capability. A regiment that had people running around everywhere was extremely susceptible to being mowed down by cavalry really quickly. A tight formation would help the regiment to fend off cavalry and infantry charges much easier than a loosely formed regiment.

The whole setting up on opposite sides of the battlefield and then waiting it out a few days served a few purposes, and “fair chance” wasn’t really one of them. Sitting there and observing the enemy proved useful since recon wasn’t as highly developed back then. By waiting a few days, you could get a somewhat accurate read on what formations/tactics the enemy was going to use and decide on the course of action best suited to counter it by seeing what they threw out there each morning. It also gave you a chance to call up reserves if you needed it.

Lots of good information, thanks. Any more information about pre-colonial battle tactics?

As others have mentioned the formality of your initial question does seem to be much more a matter of tactics. What really strikes me about it is how well these traditions have managed the march down through the ages. Athenian Phalanx anyone? How bout a Saxon Shield Wall? Massed English Archers at Agincourt? All of these very structured (read ‘formal’) methods of assault are just more effective in their given eras than running about willy nilly. They may seem more civilized to us than squeezing a trigger and blowing someone’s head off but I’d wager that getting my head split open by a Saxon Huscarl’s Axe would seem equally uncivilized.

It’s only nowadays that we’ve got technological enhancements to our warfare that battle fields have become almost completely fluid (and this isn’t entirely accurate as it only reflects the general look of modern combat which still has definite structure just on a scale that isn’t easy to display). Not to mention the prospect of pegging your enemy from hundreds or thousands of feet away (using something like a Dragunov sniper rifle or endless miles using all the other pleasing improvements of modern warcraft).

As to the Two Towers, we have to take a step back and realize that this is a struggle of good vs Evil. There is nothing to be gained by using formal warfare against a horde of slavering orcs. They have one desire…to kill you and destroy everything you hold dear, they will not stop or ask for quarter they will not yield when they are outnumbered, they will keep coming as long as they have the will of their master behind them. In these circumstances the only sane choice is to achieve the most destruction possible against them if you want to see tomorrow.

Another one worth mentioning is the advent of guerilla warfare could be argued to be the French-Indian War, which departed in many ways from the conventional warfare of the contemporary European powers. Conventional battles were fought, but both sides also supplemented their standard forces with Native American allies and utilized non-standard formations, clothing that blended in rather than stood out, hiding behind trees, ambush, etc.

Guerilla war is not new. The Roman’s had to deal with this from the Israelites… It was novel to Europeans at the time.

–Another one worth mentioning is the advent of guerilla warfare
–could be argued to be the French-Indian War, which departed in
–many ways from the conventional warfare of the contemporary
–European powers

Well, I didn’t say invention, I said advent, as in arrival. It was arguably the introduction of guerilla tactics into traditional European warfare.

I’ve heard (in the TV series on western civilization by Prof. Eugen Weber, UCLA) that the concept of total war was first used extensively by the military leaders of the French Revolution. And, Sherman might have been among the first to bring large scale destruction to the enemy logistic support structure in his campaign from Atlanta to Charleston.

Western Europeans have formalized the pracitce of war more than any other society I can think of in history. I see the root of this in a combination of factors rising out of the medieval period, post-Charlemagne and -feudalism (800AD).

  1. An age of perpetual warfare meant that rules naturally tended to develop. If you’re duchy has been fighting the principality over the hill since you’re great-grandfather’s generation, chances are, they’ve signed a few treaties. People get tired of having their sons butchered every few years, so they agree to rules about things like prisoner treatment. War becomes more symbolic. (In many tribal cultures, war is highly symbolic and ritualized, but I don’t think those examples meet the level of formality alluded to in the OP) The same thing also happened during the US Civil War, the whole “brother fighting brother” concept. Knowing you’ll have to live next door to people generally limits your desire to decimate them. Conversely, nomadic hordes have generally had the most chaotic approach to combat.

  2. The second important factor was weaponry. The advances in military technology and thinking, particularly after the crusades, took warfare to new levels of barbarity. War became industrialized, mechanized, professionalized. A combination of constant warfare and arabic technology let european engineers invent all sorts of stuff that changed warfare forever. As lethality increased, and death tolls mounted, the natural reaction was to try an limit the costs of war. This is a trend you can see developing throughout the last 2000 years of history, beginning with the detached Greek and Roman, “rational” views regarding war, and culminating with the bloodbath of WWI.

  3. Developing alongside the rapid military advances that tookplace in the middle ages was a profoundly religious society. The church played a major role in people’s lives, and reconciling the teachings of Jesus with the ongoing slaughter was not easy. Church doctrine, a complex and rigidly structured ethical framework, contrasted sharply with the practices of warfare.

Essentially, what we’re talking about is the development of “modernity,” and our efforts to make warfare continue to fit into modern life.

Somebody mentioned boiling oil, or molten lead. In the book, Helm’s deep was kept in good repair, but not manned by the king’s armies, until that battle forced the king and his minions to occupy it. They simply did not have time to bring it up to full strength for that battle. However, again in the book, the kings archers started firing at the orcs, the moment they were in range of thier bows. The orcs returned fire, and a staggering amount of arrows came back. The tide of battle did not turn until the orcs pressed into the caverns of helm’s deep and started fighting man to orc. Here the defenders had an advantage, kinda like people do in urban war, and the orcs got slaughtered.

One orc, however is no match for any human, as Bormir showed us when he killed several dozen orcs prior to the capture of Merry and Pippin in LOTR

Mr. Rojo, when it comes to war, especially historical war, movie makers are retards. For example, the Riders of Rohan, as portrayed by Peter Jackson, wouldn’t have lasted a day against Ghengis Khan. When they came down on the sea of discliplined pikemen in formation they would have been slaughtered out right.

Your best bet is to delve into history. Go to the library and read these books:
[li]A History of Warfare by John Keegan. A master’s studen in the history of warfare suggested it to me. Very good starter–it’ll answer all your questions in the OP.[/li][li]How Great Generals Win by Bevin Alexander.[/li][li]Primitive Warfare by Harry Turney-High. You’ll probably have to go to inter library loan to get this, but it is worth it. He was an anthropologist who ended up in the last active calvary batallion (IIRC) in the U.S. before going back to his previous career. He discuses in great detail the methods of “war” used by “primitive” people. A must read.[/ul][/li]
Those should get you going in the right direction. Good luck!

I prefer “The Art of War and health care” by Wu Rusong, Wang Hongtu and Ju-Sung Wu.