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An insightful and groundbreaking scholarly monograph
on March 8, 2001
You're Alexander the Great, setting out on campaign with your mighty army. Glory and profit await you if you succeed, and as you know from history, the real Alexander did succeed. His army was renowned for its efficiency, speed and lethality; his expedition through Asia was the longest military campaign ever undertaken; he fascinates military historians to this day.
But when you put yourself in his place, ask yourself what was required of Alexander to realize his achievment. Was his fame won through superior force of men and arms alone? Could he take his army anywhere he desired, at any time? Had he merely to set his stern, clear gaze upon a point on the horizon and say: "There we shall go"--or was there more to it?
Start with a mundane consideration: how do you feed your men? It's not as clear-cut as it might seem. Suppose you have an army of 10,000 men. Suppose, further, that each man's consumption rate is 3 pounds of grain per day's march. Now realize that this must mean just what the numbers tell you: each man of your 10,000 needs 3 pounds of grain daily, 3 times 10,000 is 30,000--so you need an incredible 30,000 pounds of food, each and every day. If you don't get this food, your men will weaken and die. There's no way around it.
A quarter million pounds of food over the course of a week's march isn't easy to come by, especially in Alexander's day, is it? After all, you can't have the food airlifted to you. You have no motorized vehicles to speed you along, either, bear in mind. Your own feet must take you, slowly and over rough terrain in hot weather, to your destination. If and when you reach and conquer a town, its food stores become yours; but such settlements are few and far between, and practice subsistence level agriculture, in any case. Do your men carry all their food provisions with them? Food isn't all that your men must carry, and a man's back can only bear so much. Do you use pack animals? They have their own food requirements, which are greater than a man's, and in less time than you'd think they will eat what they haul.
The fact is that waging war is never merely about raising an army and fighting an enemy; it's also about getting to the enemy without dying of dehydration and malnourishment along the way. How Alexander surmounted such problems of logistics--the supplying and transporting of his army--is the subject of Engels's fine book. With rigorous scholarship, utilizing sources both ancient and modern, including the most recent geographical and archaeological data, Engels shows that logistical concerns conditioned Alexander's every choice of strategy and tactics, timing and direction, necessitating the most careful, long-range planning. As Engels states, "a military route is not a mere line drawn on a map but a narrow corridor with sufficient agricultural and water resources in the immediate vicinity with which large numbers of men and animals can be supported." This is a fact of military planning of which Alexander had to be constantly aware. Engels does an excellent job in explaining it, and makes the subject of logistics much more interesting than I would have thought possible. This book is a much-needed corrective to earlier studies of Alexander the Great that oversimplify this aspect of his generalship of the Macedonian army.