Opportunity in war

Back in the days of mechanical weapons like swords and axes, the approaches to combat differed probably even more than today. This was certainly so when it comes to clashes between small groups of men.

One approach - example mid Republican to early Imperial Roman (heavy) infantry -  featured a huge shield as a most visible equipment. The scutum varied in shape over the centuries (early shape; see my top banner), but it was always a shield which permitted its user to cover himself almost entirely with it. This was actually quite possible with round shields (even the Germanic kind) as well, but the scutum was practically made for it.
This shield in combination with a decent helmet (the Roman legionary helmets became very sophisticated) allowed the infantryman to survive even ferocious attacks quite well.
A legionary with such a shield did not need to emphasise offensive action; he could wait till there was an opportunity for stabbing the enemy with his sword or till another legionary stabbed the same in a flanking attack. Opportunities were used, but it wasn't necessary to actively create opportunities to win.

Warriors using two-handed weapons and still lacking the sophisticated and superb armour of late medieval times were very different. Long axes (once popular especially in Northern Europe) or romphaia two-hand sickle swords (Thracia; ~ ancient Romania/Bulgaria) enabled and forced a different style of combat.  Users of such weapons would hack at their enemy's shield or helmet, split these defensive means and thus create opportunities (if especially the hit on the head wasn't decisive in itself).

OK, so far a nice analogy for other cases of waiting for opportunities / forcing the creating of opportunities, but forget about fitting the phalanx into his framework - it doesn't work. The phalanx was probably about winning without needing much of an opportunity.

The traditional division of combat is between offensive action and defensive (in)action. I suppose another perspective for looking at it is a division between opportunity-creating and opportunity-awaiting.
The result isn't the same separation of actions as in offensive / defensive.

Delaying actions which involve ambushes would fall into the defensive and opportunity-creating categories. Sure, the ambushers wait for the hostiles, but the act of setting up an ambush is creating the opportunity of engaging hostiles in a killing zone. On the other side, some attacks don't fit nicely into the opportunity-creating category, and especially so if the opportunity already existed prior to the attack (reducing the attack to the equivalent of stabbing an temporarily exposed belly with the gladius).

Here's another way of dividing actions; attrition and 'maneuver'. Looked at from the 'opportunities' lens, attritionists don't place much emphasis on exploiting opportunities (event hough they likely produce them), resembling the phalanx exception above. 'Maneuvrists' on the other hand may fall more into the "opportunity-creating" category. There are exceptions, though; the "maneuver school"-associated "recon pull" approach (earlier French version; "manoeuvre à posteriori") is as little opportunity-creating as it gets with scouting: Recon pull is meant to find opportunities, but at the same time not necessarily meant to provoke or produce one. It's the equivalent of the legionary raising his head above the shield in order to see the gap in his opponent's defence. That's quite a different analogy than splitting some shield to hit the man behind it with a follow-up blow.

The opportunities lens may also be helpful to address the troubles around the concept of (gaining/having) "initiative" (related blog post). I suppose most of the time when someone speaks or writes about gaining the initiative, he's probably thinking of creating opportunities.
It is no perfect fit at all, but it may be more instructive and promising to order a subordinate to 'create and exploit opportunities' than to tell him to 'gain the initiative'. The latter appears to be excessively correlated with purposeless activism.
There may be some potential for insights in pushing one's awareness for the opportunity thing. The creation of opportunities comes either at a cost (risk, for example) or it's a no-brainer. The trade-off done by a leader when (s?)he decides to create (provoke, force) opportunities should probably not be done unconsciously, but consciously. Unlike "defensive" and "offensive", the "opportunity" lens offers a way of sorting options in a way that actually provides some usefulness in itself. Defensive and offensive is largely about terrain in a land warfare context, and fighting for terrain has built up a bad reputation since 1915. The opportunity lens is more directly, and at the same time more generally, about overcoming hostiles' resistance in an efficient manner.

The real challenge is of course to exploit opportunities when they arise, and it doesn't matter whether you were creating or awaiting it once there is a worthwhile opportunity.
Some military bureaucracies pride themselves on their abilities, including (though in other words) their ability to create opportunities. Yet at the same time, the very same organisations usually cannot pride themselves on their rate of actually exploiting opportunities.
Again, pushing the opportunity thing more and thus making people more aware of its relevance may be helpful.



  1. Hi Sven:
    Just want to comment about the tactics within Roman formations: The individual soldier wasn´t (as far as I remember) just meant to cover himself and his right side partner, waiting for a chance. They were trained to use the scutum almost as a cestus, jabbing the other, harrasing him as the formation advanced, trying to make the remaining defenses they may have to act against them, and to close in with them in order to make their longer weapons cumbersome. So, combining that aproach with the pila volley that was done before the clash, isn´t that some sort of opportunity creation? I mean, of course every warrior in (pre)history has seek to place himself in the best possible situation (given their tactics, gear, and mindset), but the combination of a very effective defensive gear which was used in such an offensive way wasn´t the best possible solution back in those days? Because, they were able to exploit opportunity, to wait for the moment, but the individual tactics seek to create the opportunity in the one on one fight. They knew (by experience) that sometimes it was needed just for a very small burst of panic to break a foe's will to fight. So, they took care of preventing such thing with their own men (with discipline and careful training and gear) at unit level, but also were looking for creating such scenario on the foe, at individual combat level, (by rendering the enemie's shields useless with their pila, and then jabbing them with the scutum in very close quarters with a shorter weapon).
    Thanks for reading the comment, and keep posting, please!!

  2. I implied - but did not write - a defensive situation, such as a typical 'barbarian' charge against the Romans. The pila would be thrown if the legionaries had the time, but then they would afaik typically focus on withstanding the assault and holding ground.

    The pilum and other javelins were able to make a shield temporarily too cumbersome, and yes - that would be opportunity creation if the shield gets discarded.
    I assume the shield user would rather withdraw a few steps behind some allies and remove the pilum instead of giving up his shield, though. The shield was the most important part of defensive kit up to about 15th century (then plate armour made shields even unnecessary).

    By the way; I'm sceptical about the large Scutum being much used offensively. The lower side wasn't particularly prepared for it and the great weight would tire the left arm soon enough without any special efforts like that. Unlike reenactors, legionaries did not know how long a fight would last and had to conserve as much stamina as possible.

  3. The scutum was "opportunity creating" in a offensive setting and in context of the unbalanced offensive equipment of the roman legionary. It allowed him to cross the +2m space of protruding spear points in front of an infantry formation and engage in close range slaughter. One of the few established facts about roman infantry combat is their aggressivenes. Probably because they didnt understand most of their enemies boasting and cursing, so they were like "f**k it" and like "in your face, m***f**ka" - literally. :)

    Good post btw, initiative is one of the great ideas modern military theory still needs to unfurl. My idea is, that most of it will be psychology related; Stress and fear inhibiting creative thinking, "autofocusing" etc. "Oportunitiy creation" might be a good positivist starting point, but be aware of potentially overboarding information requirements, that pander to pondering inactivity.

  4. It's incredibly common for me to write about some abstract thing, add some analogy or example to make it more accessible ... and then comments pay undue attention to details of the example.

    This time it isn't even relevant if the Scutum was used to entrench oneself even for a split second, ever (which surely it was). I wanted the reader to shortly imagine a soldier to do what I described, in order to create a reference for one half of the abstract idea.

  5. To focus on one small aspect of your post, initiative is very much a state of mind (as is surprise). An example, from film rather than classical history, is in Blackhawk Down. When the second helicopter is shot down (I think - it might have been the first), the US general states "we have lost the initiative." It could be argued that in reality, he lost the initiative when a child watching the airfield telephoned a militia leader to tip him off that helicopters were in the air. But the point isn't really 'who thinks they have the initiative' but rather what they do with it.
    My personal take is that initiative is closely linked to the principle of 'selection and maintenance of the aim.' If one's own actions are either focussed on that aim, or on enemy forces interfering with achieving that aim, then you effectively have the initiative. If you start assigning forces to other secondary tasks then the enemy has forced you to lose the initiative. By extension, it's possible that neither side has the initiative if they're both fiddling around with secondary aims.

    On a different note, I question your description of the defence as "(in)action." The defence can be very active, combining delaying actions, mobile defence, limited counter-attacks etc. As you note elsewhere, all else being equal, the defence is the strongest form of combat.

    Finally, you mention reconnaissance-pull. I've always been leery of that concept, as all too often reconnaissance pull simply draws a main body force into a kill zone or fire sack, which raises new questions about who is creating and exploiting opportunities!

    1. I wrote "(in)action" because it's not always inaction. As you mentioned, there's a list of retrograde (defensive) movements.

      A weird thing about recon pull (which was much pushed by the 3GW/Lind crowd and rarely mentioned by unrelated sources) is that one of the most successful 3GW operations ever (1st Ardennes offensive) was a clear-cut case of command push (Manoeuvre à priori) on the operational level. Still, the 3GW crowd decidedly favoured recon pull.

  6. Ha, ha, sometimes is inevitable Sven. Some of us have a keener interest in historical facts than reliable info about modern military. I translated part of Caesar's book back in the university, so I felt I could said something meaningful.

    However, something that they used to do back in those days and that is still of modern interest is the very agressive manouvering that good Roman generals performed while trying to surprise, out-manouver or just getting the upper hand before engaging. Caesar's troops were able to perform a 100 roman miles dash in six days. Literally, thousands of soldiers, carrying battle gear in the Marian way, to try to get the enemy. Or when he arrived to Geneve after a long and fast march, and inmediatly erected defenses. I don´t imagine a whole US division attempting to do so on a short notice. How much time do we need today to transport troops? The mechanization is both a bless and a curse, because of the logistic and technical support involved in handling and maintenance sometimes reduces the ratio of combat personnel to services to 3:1, sometimes 2:1, and that assuming a unit before engaging (before casualties, destroyed vehicles, depleted units, etc). However, the main problem is the mindset of the commanders. 100 miles in six days and without vehicles? Really? Only in WWII situations we saw operational unit commanders attempting and performing such feats. Maybe the opportunity creation/exploitation issue is closely related to the needlessness of most modern wars. Hannibal took the modern equivalent of two divisions, plus porters and followers between two Roman armies, in their own territory, without vehicles and with almost insuficient supplies because of the major strategical and operational advantage that percieved. Lost hundreds of soldiers in the crossing of the Alps, and through the marshes of the Apenines, mostly because of disease, lack of sufficient food and (in the Alps) frostbite. But the situation he created (and tactical genius) helped him to tailor the scenario for the crushing victory at Cannae. Such risks in the little wars context would be unacceptable in most of today's countries, but Hannibal saw the conflict as a win or die matter.
    Our soldier's gear is also a thing. A Roman soldier was expected to march 40 Roman miles with 40 - 60 kilos of equipment, and to build a fortified encampment at the end of the day. But Caesar himself ordered his troops to drop the impedimenta when he realized that the Gauls were at their feet. They have been marching for days after Gergovia but they do not waited in formations, but charged in their triplex acies. Sheer discipline and training allowed them to resists in ambushes (most of them, but several episodes show us that it wasn't a perfect solution), and to repulse or even turn the tide. Our troops carry 45 kilos of battle gear. With impedimenta the weight doubles. With full battle armour, weapons and communications they can barely duck and roll. A day of combat leave them utterlly exhausted. And most of the blame is a shabby risk assesment. War is a risky and dirty bussiness, injuries and death is the natural consecuence, but we refuse to accept that. Less and better designed body armour is needed. With good deensive gear we can attempt to do the same Romans did: create tactics and then the equipment.

  7. And, sorry, but they allow only 4.096 characters:

    By the way, take out a pilum from a shield is incredibly difficult, and in the heat of the battle, almost impossible. The pila volley was performed at maybe 20 - 30 meters or less of the enemy, and inmediatly after that the first line charged. The tip was a 40 cm long thin and untempered iron stick. It was designed to penetrate the shield, and then, thanks to a weight in the shaft, to bend in a very acute angle, rendering the shield effectively useless. Roman soldiers up until maybe Marcus Aurelius were trained to do the volley with excelent timming. And in close quarters melee, if between you and your enemy were just 40 - 60 cms, there's no space to swing a longsword or a great axe. The Romans did not even swinged their gladius, they only thrusted and stabbed. Their battle formation allowed to very tired first line soldiers to retreat to the rear to rest, and fresh troops to replace them. That was their advantage against Boudica, and the Macedonian phalanx, and they did precisely because they ignored the possible lenght of any given battle. The scutum had iron edges in the upper and lower side, to deflect strikes, and the center was iron made and hollow. They pushed against the othe with their body and not only with the shoulder, and were trained to keep their energy.
    Thanks for reading!

    1. Experimental archaeologists and some reenactors probably know better, but I think the bending after penetrating a shield is a misunderstanding. The spear tip's hooks and the large diameter piece of the shaft made removal a bit more tricky.
      The bending was at least relevant for making return fire unlikely (it bends on impact on the ground), but I recall no mechanical force which would bend the pilum reliably during shield penetrations. Maybe if you by chance hit the edge of the boss, but that's it.

    2. About the scutum; the reinforcements were no "iron edges" afaik - some bronze or brass, and not necessarily directly on the edge.

      I wrote about their stereotypical battlefield formation years ago on this blog.

      Last but not least; keep in mind authors filter about what they write. Vegetius was criticising the status quo and was thus informative. Earlier authors did not write to criticise and ma have filtered much out.
      Similarly, you can read many remarks about how some full plate armour knight fought swiftly and with agility - which was probably rather the exception if not the ideal at the time.