Monday, August 8, 2011

Where Change and Influence Converge

Change is a constant, but its speed is variable.  Influence is something we associate with politicians or religious leaders or the rich and powerful.  A person can influence others with a decision, a proclamation or a tweet on Twitter.

Historically, the intersection of change and influence is often battle. 

War is not the best way to effect change and exert influence, but it's a fact that wars and sometimes even a single battle act as pivot points in history.  A battle is a unique situation in which the actions of a few can affect the lives of many.  We may think of the thousands of soldiers involved in a battle, but relative to the population of people waiting on the outcome at home, their numbers are usually small.

Sir Edward Creasy's classic book FIFTEEN DECISIVE BATTLES OF THE WORLD includes an examination of the battle of Marathon.  In 490 BC, King Darius of Persia sent an army under the leadership of satraps Datis and Artaphernes to invade the Greek city states.  Troops from Athens and Plataea responded, and gathered on a hilltop overlooking the plain of Marathon and the shore of the Aegean Sea where the Persians had landed their ships.

It's difficult to get accurate counts of ancient armies, but the Persian forces may have numbered around 100,000, while the Greek army had about 20,000. On that September day, 11 Greek leaders held a conference on the hill.  These men were citizen-soldiers and also elected officials/generals.  Ten represented the ten tribes of Athens, while the eleventh was the Polemarch or War-Ruler elected that year.  

Now the Persians of that era were very successful at war, having spent the previous 50 years conquering much of the known world and establishing a vast empire.  Just days before they'd defeated the Eretrians, and the other Greek states had not sent troops to aid Athens.  Fearful of the Persian numbers and their fierce reputation, five Greek generals voted not to give battle, while five voted to attack.  Callimachus, the War-Ruler, cast the eleventh vote--he voted to descend to the plain of Marathon and fight. 

The Greek army went down and engaged.  The Persians drove the center of the Greek formation back to the hills, but the Greek wings took the opportunity to attack the Persians from both flanks.  The discipline, training and armor of the Greeks drove the lighter-armed Persians back, forcing them to retreat to their ships, and saving Athens.

The influence of one man, Callimachus, drove ten generals and 20,000 soldiers to attack.  Their decision saved hundreds of thousands of Greeks in Athens and the other city states.  This kept Greece free of Persian control and allowed the infant democracies to develop.  Sir Edward Creasy wrote of Marathon, "It secured for mankind the intellectual treasures of Athens, the growth of free institutions, the liberal enlightenment of the western world..."

Creasy also wrote, "But even those who look upon the Appeal of Battle as occasionally unavoidable in international controversies, concur in thinking it a deplorable necessity, only to be resorted to when all peaceful modes of arrangement have been vainly tried..."

We know our future holds change, and there is no avoiding the influence of the powerful, but let's try to avoid battles when possible.  After all, at Marathon the Greek generals fought alongside their troops.  Two of the 11 generals, including Callimachus, died assaulting the Persian ships.  When is the last time a modern politician died in battle?

Some wars are fought out of necessity.  But optional wars, and those leaders that urge us to engage in them, should be given a very critical look.  For it's ordinary citizens who go to kill and die in modern wars, while the people of influence and power watch from the hilltops.

(The painting is by Brian Palmer.  I found it at

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