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Megalomania and war, from Cannae to Iraq

The greatest "mass knife fight in history," as Robert L. O'Connell calls it, took place on Aug. 2, 216 B.C. at Cannae in Italy. There, 120,000 men went at each other in brutal heat and, for the most part, face to face. When it was over, about 50,000 Romans were dead -- the largest one-day total in European history, including the two world wars. The winner was an African named Hannibal Barca, better known just as Hannibal, who had come into Italy the hard way -- through Spain and over the Alps, spearheaded by his terrifying but notoriously unreliable elephants. That day, Rome lost -- yet in 70 years, Hannibal was long dead and his city-state of Carthage had been obliterated.

The lesson of Hannibal is that he won the battle and lost the war. Thus, O'Connell tells us in his book, "The Ghosts of Cannae," Hannibal has been studied for his military genius by other military men down through the ages. Hannibal's encircling tactics at Cannae were brilliantly conceived and executed, although for what purpose is impossible to say. On a certain level, he was a moron. He annihilated a Roman force and then refused to capitalize by marching on Rome itself. It's almost as if he didn't want his war to end.

It didn't. It went on and on, although for what reason was never clear. His invasion was "reckless and futile," O'Connell says, since "Carthage was no match for Rome" and, just to make matters worse for Carthage, the war was conducted on Rome's home court.

It's a pity that Hannibal is studied mostly by military men and not by us all.

The lessons he provides in military tactics are nothing compared to the lessons he provides about what happens when megalomania is harnessed to determination. Hannibal wasted lives with abandon, mostly Roman ones, it's true, but even Romans could suffer and leave behind grieving widows. He crucified his enemies and had his captives sometime fight one another to the death (gladiatorial combat), but in all of this he was a just an ordinary guy of his times. It was his exuberant love of and capacity for war that set him apart.

Hannibal's true genius was in somehow getting Carthage to support his war. It made very little sense, but it was an epic example of a leader getting an entire nation to commit virtual suicide. Napoleon did that to France and Hitler to Germany. George W. Bush made war on a much smaller and not for any of the customary reasons -- territory, booty or the conversion of the infidel (for his own good, of course) -- but, still, the reason for the war in Iraq comes down to his determination to wage it.

The horror of Cannae is almost indescribable -- war at close quarters, a matter of sticking and slashing and bashing and, once down, of suffocating in the slime of it all. But all war is ugly, a fulsome horror that, someday, as with gladiatorial contests, we will look back at in appalled disbelief: we did that? Before then, though, study Cannae, not for what it teaches about war but about men.

By Richard Cohen  | October 7, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cohen  | Tags:  Richard Cohen  
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Comments

This is a very one-sided view of history. The Second Punic War wasn't Hannibal's "crazy affair", as Roman historians portrayed it later for propaganda benefit - it was an attempt of Carthage to defend its commercial livelihood from Roman predations and its clear disregard of previous treaties. The fact that Carthage lost doesn't make its cause less right. Moreover, Hannibal's defeat was not foretold. By taking the war to Italy, he caused many Roman "socii" to change sides, and if he had a bit more experience in siege tactics, things could end badly for the Romans. And we will never denounce war, because, with all its horrors, it provides us with ultimate sensation of danger, bravery and killing another human being without punishment.

Posted by: arik67 | October 7, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

This is a very one-sided view of history. The Second Punic War wasn't Hannibal's "crazy affair", as Roman historians portrayed it later for propaganda benefit - it was an attempt of Carthage to defend its commercial livelihood from Roman predations and its clear disregard of previous treaties. The fact that Carthage lost doesn't make its cause less right. Moreover, Hannibal's defeat was not foretold. By taking the war to Italy, he caused many Roman "socii" to change sides, and if he had a bit more experience in siege tactics, things could end badly for the Romans. And we will never denounce war, because, with all its horrors, it provides us with ultimate sensation of danger, bravery and killing another human being without punishment.

Posted by: arik67 | October 7, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

So the question is, how did we get from teh American Revolution to being the New British Empire???... Iraq is just a piece in the puzzle that seems to include all of the Middle East and we even seem to be reviving the good Vietnam War too with Bush telling them we should have stayed... we are going for the lean and mean and long war strategy with less casualties but more fatalities and with robotics it could get vastly more so, no bloody battlefields at all just destroyed countries to be rebuilt and repopulated! If we don't change our direction the end of war will be with the end of the human race or simply the total collapse to shoot it again this time with more feeling...

Posted by: Wildthing1 | October 7, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

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