One long-standing debate among ancient historians is over the question of who was the greatest general of the ancient world: Alexander the Great, Hannibal, or Julius Caesar? An interesting note in this debate is that Caesar usually comes in last in terms of ability as a general, while most scholars will admit that he had the best army of the three. Which leads us to what Machiavelli believes is the real question we should be debating: “what is more to be feared, a good army badly captained or a good captain accompanied by a bad army?” (III.13.2). Should we be more afraid of Caesar’s army with a buffoon as its general or of an untrained rabble led by an Alexander or a Hannibal?
Machiavelli’s answer is: history doesn’t tell us. There are historical examples of good leaders overcoming the limitations of their men and winning great victories and of good armies winning despite the limitations of their leaders. Likewise there are counterexamples to each of those, where great generals fail due to poor armies, and great armies are undone by poor generalship. (I’m fairly certain that each of those combinations defined the Army of the Potomac at some point or another during the American Civil War.) What’s more, we have to remember that it is possible for a good captain to transform a bad army into a good one; and for a good army to perform serviceably for even a bad captain.
The true danger to the long-term prospects of an army that has become great is lacking a good captain for an extended period of time, for “a good army without a good head usually becomes insolent and dangerous” (III.13.3). Revolution and military coup can result when a good army remains inactive for too long—hence one reason for the Founders’ fear of a standing army. This danger can be avoided by consistent, virtuous leadership focusing the attention and energy of the military where it belongs:
Thus the glory and praise are to be doubled for those captains who have had not only to conquer the enemy but to instruct their army and make it good before they come hand to hand with him [the enemy]. (III.13.3)
According to Machiavelli, at least one part of being a good general is knowing the effect surprises in battle will have on the soldiers. He gives several examples of how a well-timed encouragement can bolster the troops, while an unexpected shock (even if nothing more than a false rumor spreading through the lines) can undo what would otherwise have been a victory. By extension, a good general will prepare his men to receive such shocks with discipline and aplomb, and he will have some kind of network in place to relay his reassurances to the men to offset the seeds of panic. He will “accustom his soldiers not to believe any but them [his words] and his captains not to say anything but what has been commissioned by him” (III.14.2). This will offset the power of rumor and give the general more control over the battlefield. Additionally,
As to seeing new things [on the battlefield], every captain ought to contrive to make one of them appear while the armies are hand to hand, which gives spirit to his men and takes it away from the enemy; for among the accidents that give you victory, this is most efficacious. (III.14.3)
The capable general will do his best not only to offset the effects of the appearance of such “new things” on his own men, he will try to enhance those effects in the enemy at just the right time. A well-played ruse can mean the difference between success and failure, so long as it is truly well played. Machiavelli gives several examples of attempts at deception that fell flat and ended up doing more damage to those who, for example, faked having an army of elephants than to the army that was only momentarily frightened by otherwise harmless camels in costumes.
The short version of this is that generals need to be masters of both defensive and offensive psychological warfare if they want to have the edge in combat.
We might be able to trust committees to write a constitution, but we should not trust them to command an army. Machiavelli does not mention it but ancient Sparta had come to similar a similar conclusion. Their army was commanded by two kings, and as was inevitable the two kings from time to time disagreed on military policy until finally the state passed a law requiring one king to remain at home to command the defensive forces and the other to take command in the field. In the same way, rather than allow a squabble between consuls or tribunes to endanger the state, the Romans would in times of dire emergency invest the full command authority in a dictator. This prevented dissension at the highest levels and turned all authority over to one capable man rather than several capable men—and we should note that at least here Machiavelli is arguing against the use of a committee even of the competent.
And it can be concluded truly that it is better to send one man of common prudence alone on an expedition than two very worthy men together with the same authority. (III.15.2)
Where we might be tempted to think that simply piling up great men will lead to an even greater outcome, at least when it comes to war, Machiavelli argues that it is better to put authority in one place rather than scattering it and consequently allowing in-fighting to divide and weaken the state’s forces.
This fairly military-heavy section of the Discourses is obviously not completely without value for the modern world, but it does raise questions of applicability. I would like to hear from students of modern war, how much of Machiavelli’s advice in these sections transfers over to an age of drones, satellites, and cluster bombs? And how much of it has passed with the age of hand-to-hand combat?
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.