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Expeditions to Iraq: Xenophon on Leadership, Ancient and Modern

Professor Robert C. Lewis, Rockhurst University (Kansas City, Missouri)

Date & Time

Mar. 6, 2007
9:00am – 10:30am ET


Professor Lewis is a philosopher, specializing in the Greek classics as they relate to moral philosophy and its applicability to leadership. He served twenty-seven years in the United States Marine Corps which included four combat tours, three in Vietnam and one in Columbia. His interest in aesthetics, coupled with personal combat history, allows Professor Lewis to establish key connections between the philosophical leaders of the past and the lessons they can bring to the leaders in crisis situations today.

Following his first tour in Vietnam, Professor Lewis returned, the second time, with one book that had a particular interest for him, Xenophon's March: Into the Lair of the Persian Lion. Using this book as a center point, he has made connections between the choices and actions of Xenophon in Persia then, and how they can be utilized to analyze the U.S. conflict in Iraq today. This analysis of leadership and assessment of adequacy, according to Lewis, is not only a fair, but also an intelligent decision in determining the inevitable success of a military endeavor. Professor Lewis noted that Xenophon, not only provides a general source of knowledge relating to history, philosophy and military science, but also a strong point from which to draw particular parallels to Iraq. The philosopher's writings can be considered akin to a sterile laboratory, immune from outside influences, leaving untainted, straightforward lessons with timeless Hellenic roots.

Xenophon was a young, twenty-eight year old, Athenian philosophy student, studying alongside Plato under the direction of Socrates. When the Greek army, comprised mostly of Spartans, was solicited to go to Persia in 403 B.C.E. to aide Cyrus in war waged against his brother Artaxerxes, Xenophon accompanies them, not as a solider, but as a correspondent to provide a philosophical perspective to the chronicling of wartime events. During the course of a large battle, Cyrus is killed and his army destroyed, save the Greeks holding one flank.

The generals of the Greek army go to Artaxerxes to negotiate the retreat of the Greek soldiers in an evening meeting – the result being their heads displayed around the camps at dawn, a message that the Persian army is coming for the Greeks. Xenophon considers the situation as the soldiers wait seemingly helpless for the noose at dawn; he realizes that "I shall never be a day older if I turn myself over to the King in the morning."

Xenophon was a pragmatic Greek philosopher, who utilized deductive reasoning to aide in his deliberation over his choices: either find a way out of Persia, or sit and wait for death. With this in mind, the young Athenian presented the Greek army with a solution to be voted on: march a different route north out of Persia, into Kurdistan, through Armenia, back to Greece. The army could potentially be successful in this if they conceded to burning the wagons and goods acquired, and leaving behind any non-essentials, namely Persian women.
In addition, the army would also have to concede to changing from a group of followers to a group of 10,000 generals, with strength and discipline. Xenophon presented to the army what they had to do, and who they had to be, offering accountability for the action without demanding the glory of command responsibility. The army voted, and moved forward with Xenophon's plan in a turbulent mix of anarchy and democracy, resembling a mobile Greek city that militarily and culturally moved through the Persian Empire to the sea.

What becomes apparent in Xenophon's March is that knowledge is not relative, but virtue and good choices are the products of good knowledge. The Greek army was aware something needed to be done, but did not posses the knowledge of how to move forward; it is not enough to understand that one has to do something, what is needed is for one to commit to action. That will to commit then becomes, and has remained a template for leadership. Professor Lewis anecdotally likened the choices of interest in action and commitment to action to that of a breakfast of bacon and eggs, between the chicken and the pig: The chicken has an interest in the meal, but the pig is committed.
Xenophon understood the need to commit himself to saving the Greek army -- now a common goal. He explained the goal to the Greeks: Begin the march back to Greece before the Persians arrived to destroy them. With the power of reasoning Xenophon made the choice so compelling that the choice of means tended to follow easily from it without disputations. Very wisely, he then suggested Spartan command and volunteered for the most dangerous assignment, rear guard, showing that one's role -- his or anyone else -- is not as important as the result of achieving the end goal.

As a philosopher Xenophon shows, but does not say, that he disagrees with his mentor, Socrates, on a central tenet, specifically that the rectification of the sort of problem that faced Xenophon and the Greek army after Cunaxa, was knowledge. A clear understanding of the situation would inevitably lead to the best decisions. Xenophon pre-stages Aristotle by half a century in making clear that while knowledge is essential it is not sufficient. There must follow prudent deliberation about the best means to accomplishing the goal; moreover, one must have the will to commit to them and the ability to implement them. What is missing from Socrates -- prudence, resolve, and ability -- Xenophon demonstrates. Aristotle will later make these points explicit in his Ethics.

Both Xenophon and America had clear goals in Iraq. For the Greek army it was to march safely home. For America's army it was, broadly, protect America. Xenophon then carefully deliberated the options before him, reasoning through how those options would logically unfold -- all in the course of one night. The United States had many people making the same sort of deliberations for many months. The results, sadly, differed significantly: Xenophon actually got home. Why the difference following reasonable and acceptable goals? Xenophon had a closed-ended goal, march safely home. The United States has a goal that is open-ended, one of protection. Since that goal is unending, it makes it far more difficult to make well reasoned decisions, as new ones emerge, continually. Professor Lewis expressed a troublesome belief, because we loose focus following a long succession of open-ended goals that it would take another catastrophe, similar to the events of September 11, in order for perspective and a need for a closed ended goal to impact those in leadership.

Xenophon delivered a message, clearly and succinctly, to the Greeks to vote on a message, that focused on what they would have to do and who they would have to be. The American message of what was to be achieved was far more complex: enforce 17 different United Nations Resolutions, eliminate Weapons of Mass Destruction, combat terrorism, and introduce democracy in the region. It never focused on radical, militant Islam, and skirting that issue distorted the message. The result was a lack of clarity and brevity in explaining the road ahead that was so central to Xenophon's success.

That one lesson is not the only one provided by Xenophon. There is the emphasis on attaining the goal, the power of reasoning, the message and method of its presentation, the management of the long march home are all straightforward examples for leaders to follow. In fact these steps are the very essence of leadership, and no one has ever provided a better guide to its understanding than Xenophon has. Professor Lewis stated that if the generals in Iraq and the Department of Defense utilized Xenophon's March as a guide to effective leadership achieving goals in the Middle East would be less of a theoretical ideal and more of a practical reality.

The Persian expedition provides a pivotal example of focusing on one goal, putting aside personal interest or political preferences to work towards common ends. The dire nature of the situation before the Greek troops added harsh reality and forced an expedient decision not focused on who would manage, but how to manage. Professor Lewis noted that, America has a complex bureaucratic strategy snarled within the trappings of institutional politics. Every aspect of Iraq is intertwined with a vein of political interest, and a problematic tyranny of the majority. As such, parallels can be drawn between 403 B.C.E. and 2007 C.E., yet there is a moment when they diverge – seemingly as a result of the different types of goals. The starting point does seem to determine the direction of the journey, then and now.

Xenophon was a remarkable man: historian, philosopher, and soldier. His accomplishment as a historian is well understood through his crisp, clear prose. His lessons as a philosopher and soldier are not as easily seen. Philosophically, his break with his beloved teacher, Socrates, regarding the singular virtue of knowledge precedes Aristotle's own divergence, which was to follow. It is not enough to understand what must be done; one actually must act. Through Xenophon we see beyond the thoughtful recognition of goals, we also see for the first time the addition of deliberating means, having the wisdom and resolve to make hard choices, setting forth a clear and persuasive message, and finally having the skill to manage what has to be done. It is left for Aristotle to attribute most of those latter attributes to character. But we see them all in Xenophon.

Soldiers looking for tactical innovations in the Long March Home will be disappointed. If they look instead for the persistent application of prudence to the responsibilities of leadership they will be well rewarded. Particularly, he makes clear a preference as a soldier for willing obedience of soldiers to forced obedience. The concomitant truth is that then one must actually know what one is doing. Ability matters.

The March of the Ten Thousand from Iraq back to Greece unfolds within a very Hellenic backdrop. Overarching the reorganization of the army and the long march home expedition is a reliance on the natural force of reason to provide thoughtful direction rather supernatural explanations for what ever happens. Then there appears the very Athenian belief that the individual strength of good citizens trumps the power of institutions. That belief leads invariably to some form of democracy. As Xenophon asserts, if you accept my recommendations then gather to elect officers and they will then elect new generals. Of course there are many aspects of Xenophon's success in bringing the Greek army safely home that one could point to as uniquely Hellenic. However, the last two are unique because of their homogenous relationship. By that, one sees it is difficult to arrive at democracy unless it is preceded by and accompanied with reason. And what thought could be more Hellenic than that?



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