Eve Browning recommends reading Xenophon’s Anabasis, an all-time great military memoir coincidentally set in much the same territory that US troops also recently traversed.
The band of mercenary soldiers had been on the move through hostile territory for several months when they were told they had enlisted under a lie. They werenâ€™t marching to put down a rebellion; they were instead marching in rebellion. Offers of special duty pay from their leader, Cyrus the Younger, however, calmed their anger and doubt, and on they advanced, dusty boots through the desert, as the heat of late-summer Persia rose around them in shimmering waves. The villages they passed by were hostile and strange: alien languages, customs, religions. There was little fresh water.
They has assembled under Cyrus in order to overthrow his brother and rival, Artaxerxes II, king of Persia. Before they reached his defensive line, they were harried on their flanks and from behind, depleting morale and using up their supplies. At a small village named Canaxa 50 miles north of Baghdad, they finally met the Persian kingâ€™s forces, on a day when the noon temperature could have fried a pork chop. As the battle began, Cyrus rashly charged Artaxerxes himself. He was pierced through by a javelin thrown by one of Artaxerxesâ€™ guards, and died on the spot.
With heavy casualties and no reason to continue fighting, the mercenaries fell back. They were bleeding deserters. Those who had been recruited near Sardis and Smyrna, and who spoke some of the local languages, melted away. The remainders built camp and waited, parlayed, moved camp, skirmished, and waited some more. In the pitiless heat, now without communication or direction, they discussed their next moves with no particular conviction. After nearly a month of this, an envoy came: would their unit leaders please come to Artaxerxesâ€™ tent and converse about their plans? The leaders agreed. The encamped troops waited for word on the parley. It was not until they saw Artaxerxesâ€™ riders carrying the heads of their former leaders that the truth dawned on them. The campaign was lost. In order to survive, they must disperse.
So began this band of about 10,000 mercenariesâ€™ two-year journey out of hostile country, from the heart of Persia to the shores of the Black Sea. Among the most important of the new leaders was a youngish Greek named Xenophon. By journeyâ€™s end, when he finally returned to Athens, Xenophon would have served the equivalent of six consecutive modern deployments and, like any modern soldier sent repeatedly into combat zones, he would be marked for life by what he experienced on that doomed expedition and the subsequent long march through winter mountains to the sea.
I read it recently myself (in the Greek, using a translation open on my knee for a trot) with considerable pleasure.
Xenophon, who also wrote treatises on Hunting and Horsemanship and Cavalry Tactics, was a gentleman who would have been right at home in a British Imperial regimental mess.
Just before the battle at Canaxa, Cyrus notices the Greek mercenaries whispering among themselves. The would-be-king becomes suspicious and asks Xenophon the Athenian: “What were they whispering about?”
“They were only exchanging the watchwords.” explains Xenophon.
“What were those?” inquires Cyrus.
“Zeus Soter kai Nike.” [Zeus the Savior and Victory!], Xenophon repies.