Thursday, September 17, 2009

Advice for the Advisors: A Roman General Chides Would-Be Pundits (Very Applicable to Contemporary Middle East and Other Issues)

By Barry Rubin

Though remembered today by only a few specialists, Aemilius Paullus was a brilliant general and seems like an impressive fellow all around. In 168 BCE he was appointed to run the Romans' failing campaign in Macedonia. Three previous generals, who owed more to political connections than to strategic genius, had failed miserably.

On his way to the front, he addressed the assembled citizens of Rome in front of the Senate, his words preserved by the historian Livy:

“In every circle and, truly, at every table [in Rome], there are people who lead armies into Macedonia, who know where the camp ought to be placed; what posts ought to be occupied by troops; when and through what [mountain] pass Macedonia should be entered…and when it is proper to engage the enemy, when to lie quiet. And they not only determine what is best to be done, but if anything is done in any other manner than what they have pointed out, they [criticize] the [commander] as if he were on trial….”

I am not, he continued, “one of those who think commanders ought never to receive advice” as long as it is given by those “skilled in the art of war, or [who] are present in the field.”

And so, he concluded:

“If, therefore, anyone thinks himself qualified to give advice respecting the war which I am to conduct, which may prove advantageous to the public…let him come with me to Macedonia. He shall be furnished by me with a ship, a horse, a tent; and even with his [travel expenses]. But if he thinks this is too much trouble, and prefers the repose of city life to the toils of war, let him not, on land, assume the office of a [harbor] pilot. The city furnished enough other topics for conversation; let [him] confine [his] passion for talking, and rest assured that we shall be content with such councils as shall be found within our camp.”

It is not recorded whether anyone took him up on the offer but he won a brilliant, total victory which produced the Roman conquest of Greece and of West Asia generally.

Every academic, researcher, journalist, and pundit of any description—especially those with a preformed ideological catechism--should always bear in mind this story, take it seriously, and preserve within himself a strong element of humility. And this is especially true for those who are all too numerous in this sorry era where we dwell at present yet are all too free with their uninformed opinions.

Needless to say, there is no subject more than the contemporary Middle East--here's a good example--about which this advice holds true.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports, .

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