Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Alexander the Great's Art of Strategy - Partha Bose

Rajesh recommended this book by Partha Bose highly (Penguin India, 264 pages, Rs. 295) and I read through it with great interest. One one hand Partha Bose takes us through Alexander's life and on the other, he intersperses the story with modern day examples in the world of business to show how these strategies hold good even today. Strategies of war, especially used by someone who conquered a large part of the globe, from the Ionean Sea to the Himalayas, one who was undefeated in battle, would certainly have timeless elements.that will hold good forever - after all war is about life and death and every single cell would be employed for the sake of survival.

In the beginning much is told about the influence of Alexander's father Phillip on his life (and on Macedonia itself). Philip was the pioneer of the building of well-prepared, coordinated fighting units (as opposed to the rather undisciplined and unfocussed armies  of those days). He trained his forces into the famous and almost impregnable phalanx formation of the Macedonians, modified weapons for maximising damage to opponents and minimising damage to self. Philip developed a professional army cadre. In fact Macedonian armies came with Alexander so far across the globe because they joined the force by choice and not by force.(as was common then). Horses were trained for 5 years, superior horsemanship was taught, soldiers were trained to withstand intense hardship and made better than other fighters. Stories of past victories were told to the soldiers to improve their morale and pride. What I found interesting was that a code of conduct was shared with the soldiers and every soldier knew it. Violators were made examples of!

Philip was an exponent of expanding his kingdom without fighting (which he used only as a last resort). Most kings were bought over by bribes, alliances and even marriage. Meanwhile Philip gave his son Alexander one of the best education anyone could have got - under the tutelage of the philosopher Aristotle - at Mieza, where a bunch of noblemen's children studied with Alexander for 3 years. In those days Alexander (356-323 BC) learned the basics of strategy, of acquiring and using information well, of using diverse sources to triangulate and get the information to plan his strategy. Much importance was given to building character through multiple rounds of self-enquiry (which showed later  in Alexander's magnanimity and his concern for his soldiers). Under Aristotle, Alexander learned to train his mind to look for patterns and facts and synthesise them to form his famous strategies, developed a risk taking culture and understood the importance of asking good questions to get correct information.

Alexander became King of Macedonia after his father was assassinated. He was the proponent of  using small armies effectively and ended the rather crude full frontal battle as was common then - a mode that had no strategy and was fought on mere strength. He rose beyond mere tactics and used strategy - choosing not to do things when the opponent expected him to, choosing where to engage in battle, planning when to enter and when to exit, and even how to do battle so it inflicts maximum damage on opponents and a minimum on his own.

Alexander was known to be magnanimous in victory as is shown in his battle against the Indian king Porus whom he made King of an even bigger empire after defeating him in battle. Other traits of the man who defeated Persias's mighty army led by Darius over a period of ten years, with a much smaller force, were to minimise ambiguity and uncertainty (good business sense), appointing visible leaders, specifying clarity in roles, sowing a transparent succession process. Alexander would use overwhelming force to destroy to send signals - thus creating the illusion he wanted to deceive his opponents. He was most known for acting swiftly and decisively and for taking his opponents by surprise.  The Macedonians were known for their lightning speed and surprise tactics.

Alexander always chose to engage in land and not at sea - his strength was not the sea. Alexander would not hesitate to burn his ships so as to tell his soldiers that there was no retreat (just as he burnt his baggage and loot to help his movement). When fighting the daunting Persian army, he evoked the mythical Trojan war to spread a sense of elation among his troops. Alexander used good public relations and communications to built an air of invincibility, an illusion and created a myth of his role as divinely ordained, giving his troops even greater sense of belief that they were invincible. As a leader Alexander had many faces - trusting, inspirational, connective, aggressive, got down to the thick of the war and a humanistic style. He was always known to be in the thick of the battle, always at the forefront of his army, gave decent burials to opponent soldiers, treated their families respectfully. He would ride up and down the army before the fight and motivated his forces, calling soldiers by name and recalling past victories and acts of valour.

Alexander always believed that when possible, always attack.

On a bigger level he had a purpose and plan to globalise the world. He encouraged the mingling of communities and nationalities, hired local talent. One of the key factors to his great victories were establishing forward bases and building of logistic support. The cities of Kandahar, Herat, Begram and Samarkand were built by him as were some sixteen others, including Alexandria in Egypt. He kept his army logistics simple. They carried their own supplies themselves, set up forward bases wherever possible, planned meticulously in advance, broke his armies into small units in the deserts and hills for more flexibility and established a single point of contact.

Alexander was a master in the art of deceptive strategy. (I loved the quote - "all warfare is based on deception"). After conquering lands as far as India, going through the mighty armies of Persia, beating the dreaded Afghan tribesmen, passing the searing heat of the desert, scaling the treacherous Hindukush mountains, crossing mighty rivers and conquering lands in India, Alexander was struck down by fever suspected to be malaria and died on his return journey in Babylon.

It is an interesting book and certainly one that gets the mind thinking. Many strategies make sense even now of course, in any battlefield, sports or business. Attack, plan, implement, be ahead of the mental game, believe in yourself and the army, show integrity and generosity, prepare thoroughly. Enjoyable read though I skipped parts of the business examples which spoiled the flow for me a bit. But Partha Bose is an erudite man and it shows in his writing. Alexander's story is fascinating just as the detailed accounts of the famous wars are, complete with maps, tactics and speeches.

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