Advice from Ancient Warfare

In ancient times, when people needed to think strategically, it was less about personal beliefs, and more about defending themselves from scary, foreign armies. Still, some of their techniques can be useful for modern problems. As long as we are not being too literal.

The height of ancient strategy is represented by a deceptively simple formation: row after row of people in a line, with interlocking shields. This formation is called a phalanx, and it was like the tank of the ancient world.

Macedonian Phalanx

“I thought this was the line for the bathroom!”

The front row of soldiers would face the enemy with their interlocking shields, and thrust their spears through the small spaces between. All the rows of soldiers further back would push on their companions in front of them, lending their strength to the front line. This would essentially create an impenetrable wall of people that could push aside anything in its path. But I would hate to be stuck in the middle.


“Commander! Make Hector stop pushing me!”

When executed probably, a phalanx can stand against anything. Except maybe a modern airstrike. The soldiers in a correct phalanx formation could probably push down a mountain, if you gave them enough time. A phalanx presents a formidable barrier to the would-be conqueror.

As strong as the phalanx formations are, they are not invincible. A strategist who knows what they are doing can break a phalanx. If you know how to break a phalanx, then you have a decent chance of breaking through any barrier, both real and imaginary.

The first way to defeat a phalanx is with a simple flanking maneuver using something fast the opponent won’t see coming. Like chariots or cavalry. Regular hoplites can work here too, if that’s all you have. Whatever forces used, the idea is to attack from the side while the enemy formation is focused on the battle at the front.

In a non-battle situation, like a tough argument, you can try moving the attention away from where your opponent expects. Don’t argue about religion with a religious person. Don’t argue with them about science, either. They probably expect that. Instead, consider framing your argument from an economic or historical perspective.

Don’t argue with a science-person about science, and don’t argue with them about faith, either. Instead, argue with supposedly rational people from a psychological or cultural perspective. They might not even realize you are attacking them.

You are looking for areas where your opponent feels overconfident. That way you can surprise them at their weak spots. Flank them. Break their defenses. Of course, all this has a lot to do with positioning. Only a foolish phalanx would allow its sides or its rear to be completely exposed.

Lazy Spartans

These guys are asking for trouble.

Phalanxes would often wedge themselves in valleys or between bodies of water. They would use the landscape to make flaking impossible. In an argument, people will present defenses that are impossible to get around. No weaknesses in their argument. Nothing they didn’t already think of.

In modern times groups of people rarely form up to create physical barriers, but they do form up to create ideological barriers. Every group of people with a shared mission will present a wall of dogma to their opponent. From misguided men’s rights activists to militant world-peace seekers.

If it is your intention to destroy these ideological walls, for whatever reason, keep in mind you are unlikely to find weak spots to exploit. Dogma doesn’t have weak spots. That’s why so many stupid people like it so much. Dogma is like the rocket launcher of rhetoric. You can get a lot of kills with it, but it doesn’t take very much skill.

This Spartan doesn't need a phalanx.

This Spartan doesn’t need a phalanx.

If you can’t defeat your enemies, or go around them, then it is best to try and get your enemies to defeat each other. If you can make them stop thinking about their shared mission, their dogma, and shift their focus to petty differences among themselves, then you might have a fighting chance.

Don’t argue with Democrats about progressiveness. That is part of their dogma. They love being progressive. Instead, get them to argue with each other about what areas need the most progress. Should they focus on race, or gender, class? Who among them is the most victimized victim?

Don’t argue with Republicans about moral values. They practically worship their poorly defined values. Instead, get them to argue with each other about what values are most valuable. Should we follow the Bible, or the Constitution? Is safety a value, and is it worth sacrificing other values for?

When used correctly, this technique can turn a formidable force into a bunch of ineffectual rabble.

Fighting Spartans

“No, my costume is best!”

So we have learned how phalanxes, the powerful formations, can be destroyed from the side, and they can be devastated from within. The same goes for any argument with any person.

What if these methods don’t work? What if you are up against an opponent with no flanks, and a truly unified purpose?

In that case I don’t know what to say, except that we all lose sometimes. The sooner you get over that, the sooner you can move on to your next engagement. It truly stinks to lose, but there is a bright side. Watching your own barriers fall provides a great lesson in making them stronger.

Roman Legion

“Next time we’ll use different shields!”