Inventions that didn’t change the world

Have you ever learned about an amazing invention–whether it was the Baghdad battery or the ancient Roman steam engine or Chinese firecrackers–and wondered why it didn’t do more to change the world? In this podcast, we examine a selection of curiosities and explore hypotheses for why their inventors didn’t use them to full effect.

We move VERY quickly through a range of fascinating examples and hypotheses, and therefore leave a lot up to discussion. We hope to see your thoughts, feedback, and additions in the comments section!

For any invention that you want to learn more about, see the links below:

Knossos’ toilets

In the 2nd millennium BC, a “palace” (now thought to be a building that served as administrative, trade, and gathering hub) had running-water toilet flushing. Much like the Roman Cloaca Maxima, likely a HUGE public-health benefit, but basically died out. Does this show that military protection/staving off the “Dark Ages” was the only way to maintain amazing inventions?


The Nimrud lens

Whether it was a fire-starter, a magnifying glass, or (for some overeager astronomy enthusaists), the Neo-Assyrian ground-crystal Nimrud lens is an invention thousands of years out of place. While the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used lenses of different sorts, and glass-blowing was certainly popular by the 1st century BC in Roman Egypt, no glass lenses were made until the Middle Ages and the potential scientific and engineering uses of lenses–that can hardly be understated even in their 16th-to-18th-century applications–had to wait another couple millennia. Many devices like the Baghdad battery and Antikythera device are heralded for their possible engineering genius, but this seems like a simple one with readily available applications that disappeared from the historical record.

Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine

In the 1st century AD, Hero was a master of simple machines (that were mostly used for plays) and also invented a force pump, a wind-powered machine, even an early vending machine. However, he is likely most famous for his Aeolipile, a rotating steam engine that used heated water to spin an axle. The best attested use of this is for devotion to the divine and party tricks.

The ancient mechanical reaper

Ancient Gallo-Romans (or just Gauls) invented a novel way of grain harvesting: rather than using sickles or scythes, they used a mechanical reaper, 1700 years before Cyrus McCormick more than tripled the productivity of American farmers. This antiquated device literally but the cart before the oxen and required two men to operate: one man to drive the beasts, and another to knock the ears off the stalk (this reaper was obviously far less sophisticated than McCormick’s). This invention did not survive the Volkswanderung period.

Note: the horse collar (which allowed horses to be used to plow) was invented in 1600-1400 BC in China AND the Levant, but was not applied widely until 1000 AD in Europe.


Madhav, an Indian doctor, compiled hundreds of cures in his Nidana, including an inoculation against smallpox that showed an understanding of disease transmission (he would take year-old smallpox-infected flesh and touch it to a recently made cutaneous wound). However, the next 13 centuries did not see Indian medical understanding of viruses or bacteria, or even copied techniques of this, development.

At least, thank god, their methods of giving nose jobs to those who had had their noses cut off as a punishment survived:

The Chinese:

List of all chinese inventions:


Gunpowder was discovered by Chinese alchemists attempting to discover the elixir of life (irony, no?)

(maybe a good corollary would be Greek fire, which was used effectively in naval warfare by the Byzantines, but which was not improved upon and the recipe of which is still secret:


The Chinese invented the printing press possibly as early as the 6th century. However, unlike the explosion of literacy seen in much of Europe (particularly Protestant Europe–see our last podcast), the Chinese masses never learned to read. In fact, in 1950 fewer than 20% of Chinese citizens were literate. Compare this to Europe, where some societies saw literacy rates of as high as 90% (Sweden, Male population) in some societies within a few centuries of the introduction of the printing press. Why? There may be several reasons–cultural, religious, political–but in our opinion, it would have to be the characters: 100,000 blocks were needed to create a single set.

They also invented pulped paper by the 2nd century BC:

The compass

Invented by 200 BC for divination and used for navigation by the Song dynasty; despite this and the availability of easily colonizable islands within easy sailing distance, the Chinese did not colonize Indonesia, Polynesia, or Oceania, while the Europeans did within the century after they developed the technology and first sailed there.

The rudder

While they did not invent the rudder, they invented the “medial, axial, and vertical” sternpost rudder that would become standard in Europe almost 1,000 years before it was used in Europe (1st century AD vs 11th century).

Natural gas

The Chinese discovered “fire wells” (natural gas near the surface) and erected shrines to worship there.

They even understood their potential for fuel, but never developed beyond primitive burning and bamboo piping despite having advanced mining techniques for it by the 1st century BC.

Chinese miscelleni:

Hydraulic powered fan:

Cuppola furnace for smelting and molding iron:

Coke as a fuel source:

Belt-drive spinning wheel:

The Precolumbian wheel

The pre- and early Mayans had toys that utilized primitive wheels, but did not use them for any labor-saving purpose (even their gods were depicted carrying loads on their backs). This may have been because scaling up met with mechanical difficulties, but the potential utility of wheels in this case with a bit of investment literally sat unrealized for centuries.

The Tucker:

The following book contained some of our hypotheses:


The rest of our hypotheses were amalgamated from our disparate classes in economics and history, but none of them are our own or uncommon in academic circles. Thanks for listening!


The Old Deluder Satan Act: Literacy, Religion, and Prosperity

So, my brother (Keith Kallmes, graduate of the University of Minnesota in economics and history) and I have decided to start podcasting some of our ideas. The topics we hope to discuss range from ancient coinage to modern medical ethics, but with a general background of economic history. I have posted here our first episode, the Old Deluder Satan Act. This early American legislation, passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colonists, displays some of the key values that we posit as causes of New England’s principal role in the Industrial Revolution. The episode: 

We hope you enjoy this 20-minute discussion of the history of literacy, religion, and prosperity, and we are also happy to get feedback, episode suggestions, and further discussion in the comments below. Lastly, we have included links to some of the sources cited in the podcast.


The Legacy of Literacy: Continuity and Contradictions in Western Culture, by Harvey Graff

Roman literacy evidence based on inscriptions discussed by Dennis Kehoe and Benjamin Kelly

Mark Koyama’s argument

European literacy rates

The Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution: England, 1500-1912, by Gregory Clark

Abstract of Becker and Woessman’s “Was Weber Wrong?”

New England literacy rates

(Also worth a quick look: the history of English Protestantism, the Puritans, the Green Revolution, and Weber’s influence, as well as an alternative argument for the cause of increased literacy)

Paradoxical Geniuses: “Let us burn the ships”

In 1519, Hernán Cortés landed 500 men in 11 ships on the coast of the Yucatan, knowing that he was openly disobeying the governor of Cuba and that he was facing unknown numbers of potential enemies in an unknown situation. Regardless of the moral implications, what happened next was strategically extraordinary: he and his men formed a local alliance, and despite having to beat a desperate retreat on La Noche Triste, they conquered the second largest empire in the New World. As the expeditionary force landed, Cortés made a tactically irrational decision: he scuttled all but one of his ships. In doing so, he hamstrung his own maneuverability, scouting, and communication and supply lines, but he gained one incredible advantage: the complete commitment of his men to the mission, for as Cortés himself said, “If we are going home, we are going in our foes’ ships.” This strategic choice highlights the difference between logic and economists’ concept of “rationality,” in that illogical destruction of one’s own powerful and expensive tools creates a credible commitment that can overcome a serious problem in warfare, that of desertion or cowardice. While Cortés certainly increased the risk to his own life and that of his men, the powerful psychology of being trapped by necessity brought out the very best of the fighting spirit in his men, leading to his dramatic victory.

This episode is certainly not unique in the history of warfare, and was not only enacted by leaders as a method of ensuring commitment, but actually underlay the seemingly crazy (or at least overly risky) cultural practices of several ancient groups. The pervasiveness of these psychological strategies shows that, whether each case was because of a genius decision or an accident of history, they conferred a substantial advantage to their practitioners. (If you are interested in how rational choices are revealed in the history of warfare, please also feel free to read about hostage exchanges and ransoming practices from an earlier blog!) I have collected some of the most interesting examples that I know of, but the following is certainly not an exhaustive list and I encourage other episodes to be mentioned in the comments:

  • Julian the Apostate
    • Julian the Apostate is most famous for his attempt to reverse Constantine the Great’s Christianization of the Roman Empire, but he was also an ambitious general whose audacity gained him an incredible victory over Germanic invaders against steep odds. He wanted to reverse the stagnation of Roman interests on the Eastern front, where the Sasanian empire had been challenging the Roman army since the mid-3rd century. Having gathered an overwhelming force, he marched to the Euphrates river, took ships from there to the Sasanian capital, while the Sasanians used slash-and-burn tactics to slow his advance. When Julian found the capital (Ctesiphon) undefended, he worried that his men would want to loot the capital and return homeward, continuing the status quo of raiding and retreating. To prevent this, in a move much like that of Cortés, he set fire to his ships and forced his men to press on. In his case, this did not end with stunning victory; Julian overextended his front, was killed, and lost the campaign. Julian’s death shows the very real risks involved in this bold strategy.
  • Julius Caesar
    • Julian may have taken his cue from a vaunted Roman historical figure. Dramatized perfectly by HBO, the great Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar made huge gamble by taking on the might of the Roman Senate. Despite being heavily outnumbered (over 2 to 1 on foot and as much as 5 to 1 in cavalry), Caesar committed to a decisive battle against his rival Pompey in Greece. While Pompey’s troops had the option of retreating, Caesar relied on the fact that his legionaries had their backs to the Mediterranean, effectively trapping them and giving them no opportunity to rout. While Caesar also tactically out-thought Pompey (he used cunning deployment of reserves to stymie a cavalry charge and break Pompey’s left flank), the key to his victory was that Pompey’s numerically superior force ran first; Pompey met his grisly end shortly thereafter in Egypt, and Caesar went on to gain power over all of Rome.
  • Teutones
    • The impact of the Teutones on the Roman cultural memory proved so enduring that Teutonic is used today to refer to Germanic peoples, despite the fact that the Teutones themselves were of unknown linguistic origin (they could very well have been Celtic). The Teutones and their allies, the Cimbri, smashed Roman armies which were better trained and equipped multiple times in a row; later Roman authors said they were possessed by the Furor Teutonicus, as they seemed to posses an irrational lack of fear, never fleeing before the enemy. Like many Celtic and Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, the Teutones exhibited a peculiar cultural practice to give an incentive to their men in battle: all of the tribe’s women, children, and supplies were drawn up on wagons behind the men before battles, where the women would take up axes to kill any man who attempted to flee. In doing so, they solved the collective action problem which plagued ancient armies in which a few men running could quickly turn into a rout. If you ran, not only would you die, but your wife and children would as well, and this psychological edge allowed a roving tribe to place the powerful Roman empire in jeopardy for a decade.
  • The Persian emperors
    • The earliest recorded example of paradoxical risk as a battle custom is the Persian imperial practice of bringing the women, children, and treasure of the emperor and noble families to the war-camp. This seems like a needless and reckless risk, as it would turn a defeat into a disaster in the loss of family and fortune. However, this case is comparable to that of the Teutones, in that it demonstrated the credible commitment of the emperor and nobles to victory, and used this raising of the stakes to incentivize bravery. While the Persians did conquer much of the known world under the nearly mythical leadership of Cyrus the Great, this strategy backfired for the last Achaemenid Persian emperor: when Darius III confronted Alexander the Great at Issus, Alexander’s crack hypaspist troops routed Darius’ flank as well as Darius himself! The imperial family and a great hoard of silver fell into Alexander’s hands, and he would go on to conquer the entirety of the Persian empire.

These examples show the diversity of cultural and personal illustrations of the rational choice theory and psychological warfare that typified some of the most successful military leaders and societies. As the Roman military writer Vegetius stated, “an adversary is more hurt by desertion than slaughter.” Creating unity of purpose is by no means an easy task, and balancing the threat of death by frontline combat with the threat of death during a rout was a problem that plagued leaders from the earliest recorded histories forward (in ancient Greek battles, there were few casualties on the line of battle and the majority of casualties took place during flight from the battlefield. This made the game theoretical choice for each soldier an interesting balance of possibly dying on the line but living if ONLY he ran away, but having a much higher risk of death if a critical mass of troops ran away–perhaps this will be fodder for a future post?). This was a salient and even vital issue for leaders to overcome, and despite the high risks that led to the fall of both Julian and Darius, forcing credible commitment to battle is a fascinating strategy with good historical support for its success. The modern implications of credible commitment problems range from wedding rings to climate accords, but very few modern practices utilize the “illogical rationality” of intentional destruction of secondary options. I continue to wonder what genius, or what society, will come up with a novel application of this concept, and I look forward to seeing the results.

P.S.–thanks to Keith Kallmes for the idea for this article and for helping to write it. Truly, it is his economic background that leads to many of these historical questions about rational choice and human ingenuity in the face of adversity.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. the Economist endorses the Liberal Democrats in UK election (in Europe, a liberal democrat is roughly the same thing as a libertarian in the US)
  2. One of the most important lessons of Trump’s success is that classically liberal rhetoric and positions were not very important to voters.
  3. It turns out that Westerners are rational, virtuous, and liberty-loving, while Orientals are irrational, vicious, and slavish.
  4. The West is indifferent to Afghanistan and Iraq’s world of terror
  5. Roman slavery, revolution, and magic mushrooms
  6. What the fuck?

Japanese adoption

A recent article in the Economist describes the results from a study of an interesting Japanese custom. Traditionally (and according to the civil code until 1945), company ownership and leadership were passed on through primogeniture. This custom has continued to be practiced, and the study found solid evidence that family-managed companies outperform professionally managed companies. It could be argued that family unofficial training, continuity, and trust are at the root of this, but the authors find a different reason: adoption.

Japan and the US lead the world in adoption rate, but Japanese adoption is not necessarily what you would think. Over 90% of Japanese adoptions are of adults, who are usually men adopted into childless (or more specifically son-less) families for business purposes. This is also quite traditional, and since Japanese birth rates are extremely low, Japanese businessmen are likely to continue adopting talented, ambitious single men. This is often also accompanied by marriage to the daughter of the businessman (while women participate in business in Japan, they are more rarely the executives), which is referred to as mukoyoshi and combines familial with business ties.

This practice has the advantage of allowing for the trust, mutual investment, and long-term planning and teaching based on family relationship while avoiding the risk of having an unfit successor. In fact, in reading this, I am reminded of another culture’s custom of adoption: ancient Rome.

Ancient Rome also had a custom of adoption among its upper classes because of the prestige associated with old patrician family names and the incentives of inheritance laws (for a time it also served as a political means of a patrician gaining the tribuneship, as the Gracchi did). Similarly to the Japanese businessmen, adopted sons tended to excel (the earliest and best example is the Republican general Scipio Aemilianus), and it served as a method of political alliance and developing shared interest. It also became a typical method of succession for Roman emperors in the case that no son was available, a deal needed to be made between factions, or an emperor had a favored successor to whom he was not related. Adopted emperors included Trajan (adopted by Nerva as deal with the army, successful and beloved military leader), Hadrian (great builder and patron of the arts), and Marcus Aurelius (famed general and philosopher), and were generally well-reputed and effective leaders. In contrast, the sons of emperors (such as Domitian and Commodus, who were both infamously insane and harmful, or Maxentius, whose usurpation followed a blood-based claim) or blood-based successors (such as Caligula, who was blood-thirsty and childish, Nero, who was brutal and wasteful, and Elegabalus, who had was more interested in orgies than leadership).

It seems that the same potential reasons underlying Japanese business success through adoption were also at work in antiquity: emperors who were chosen and bred based on their abilities provided the continuity associated with heredity but with the advantage of meritocratic selection. This raises the question of whether this advantage has somehow been passed over by the Western world in those cases where we have avoided family-based succession in business (based on worries about nepotism and/or to gain the advantages of meritocratic selection). Even more interesting, does the adoption practice maintain the freedom of choice and opportunity found in Western careers while also conferring the ability to maintain trust and continuity that family-based succession offers?

Auftragstaktik: Decentralization in military command

Many 20th century theorists who advocated central planning and control (from Gaetano Mosca to Carl Landauer, and hearkening back to Plato’s Republic) drew a direct analogy between economic control and military command, envisioning a perfectly functioning state in which the citizens mimic the hard work and obedience of soldiers. This analogy did not remain theoretical: the regimes of Mussolini, Hitler, and Lenin all attempted to model economies along military principles. [Note: this is related to William James’ persuasion tactic of “The Moral Equivalent of War” that many leaders have since used to garner public support for their use of government intervention in economic crises from Great Depression to the energy crisis to the 2012 State of the Union, though one matches the organizing methods of war to central planning and the other matches the moral commitment of war to intervention, but I digress.] The underlying argument of the “central economic planning along military principles” was that the actions of citizens would be more efficient and harmonious under direction of a scientific, educated hierarchy with highly centralized decision-making than if they were allowed to do whatever they wanted. Wouldn’t an army, if it did not have rigid hierarchies, discipline, and central decision-making, these theorists argued, completely fall apart and be unable to function coherently? Do we want our economy to be the peacetime equivalent of an undisciplined throng (I’m looking at you, Zulus at Rorke’s Drift) while our enemies gain organizational superiority (the Brits had at Rorke’s Drift)? While economists would probably point out the many problems with the analogy (different sets of goals of the two systems, the principled benefits of individual liberty, etc.), I would like to put these valid concerns aside for a moment and take the question at face value. Do military principles support the idea that individual decision-making is inferior to central control? Historical evidence from Alexander the Great to the US Marine Corps suggests a major counter to this assertion, in the form of Auftragstaktik.


Auftragstaktik was developed as a military doctrine by the Prussians following their losses to Napoleon, when they realized they needed a systematic way to overcome brilliant commanders. The idea that developed, the brainchild of Helmuth von Moltke, was that the traditional use of strict military hierarchy and central strategic control may not be as effective as giving only the general mission-based, strategic goals that truly necessitated central involvement to well-trained officers who were operating on the front, who would then have the flexibility and independence to make tactical decisions without consulting central commanders (or paperwork). Auftragstaktik largely lay dormant during World War I, but literally burst onto the scene as the method of command that allowed (along with the integration of infantry with tanks and other military technology) the swift success of the German blitzkrieg in World War II. This showed a stark difference in outcome between German and Allied command strategies, with the French expecting a defensive war and the Brits adhering faithfully and destructively to the centralized model. The Americans, when they saw that most bold tactical maneuvers happened without or even against orders, and that the commanders other than Patton generally met with slow progress, adopted the Auftragstaktik model. [Notably, this also allowed the Germans greater adaptiveness and ability when their generals died–should I make a bad analogy to Schumpeter’s creative destruction?] These methods may not even seem foreign to modern soldiers or veterans, as it is still actively promoted by the US Marine Corps.

All of this is well known to modern military historians and leaders: John Nelson makes an excellent case for its ongoing utility, and the excellent suggestion has also been made that its principles of decentralization, adaptability, independence, and lack of paperwork would probably be useful in reforming non-military bureaucracy. It has already been used and advocated in business, and its allowance for creativity, innovation, and reactiveness to ongoing complications gives new companies an advantage over ossified and bureaucratic ones (I am reminded of the last chapter of Parkinson’s Law, which roughly states that once an organization has purpose-built rather than adapted buildings it has become useless). However, I want to throw in my two cents by examining pre-Prussian applications of Auftragstaktik, in part to show that the advantages of decentralization are not limited to certain contexts, and in part because they give valuable insight into the impact of social structures on military ability and vice versa.

Historical Examples

Alexander the Great: Alexander was not just given exemplary training by his father, he also inherited an impressive military machine. The Macedonians had been honed by the conquest of neighboring Illyria, Thrace, and Paeonia, and the addition of Thessalian cavalry and Greek allies in the Sacred Wars. However, as a UNC ancient historian found, the most notable innovations of the Macedonians were their new siege technologies (which allowed a swifter war–one could say, a blitzkrieg–compared to earlier invasions of Persia) and their officer corps. This officer corps, made up of the king’s “companions,” was well trained in combined-arms hoplite and cavalry maneuvers, and during multiple portions of his campaign (especially in Anatolia and Bactria) operated as leaders of independent units that could cover a great deal more territory than one army. In set battles, the Macedonians showed a high degree of maneuverability, with oblique advances, effective use of reserves, and well-timed cavalry strikes into gaps in enemy formations, all of which depended on the delegation of tactical decision-making. This contrasted with the Persians, who followed standards into battle without organized ranks and files, and the Greek hoplites, whose phalanx depended mostly on cohesion and group action and therefore lacked flexibility. [Also, fun fact, the Macedonians had the only army in recorded history in which bodies of troops were identified systematically by the name of their leader. This promoted camaraderie and likely indicates that, long-term, the soldiers became used to the tactical independence and decision-making of that individual. Imagine dozens of Rogers’ Rangers.]

The Roman legion: As with any great empire, the Macedonians spread through their military innovations, but then ossified in technique over the next 150 years. When the Romans first faced a major Hellenistic general, Pyrrhus, they had already developed the principles of the system that would defeat the Macedonian army: the legion. In the early Roman legion, two centuries were combined into a maniple, and maniples were grouped into cohorts, allowing for detachment and independent command of differing group sizes. Crucially, centurions maintained discipline and the flexible but coordinated Roman formations, and military tribunes were given tactical control of groups both during and between battles. The flexibility of the Roman maniples was shown at the Battle of Cynoscephalae, in which the Macedonian phalanx–which had frontal superiority through its use of the sarissa and cohesion but little maneuverability–became disorganized on rough ground and was cut to pieces on one flank by the more mobile and individually capable Roman legionaries, This (as well as many battles in the Macedonian and Syrian Wars proved) showed the value of flexibility and individual action in a disciplined force, but where was the Auftragstaktik? At Cynoscephalae, after defeating one flank, the Romans on that flank dispersed to loot the Macedonian camp. In antiquity, this generally resulted in those troops becoming ineffective as a fighting force, and many a battle was lost because of pre-emptive looting. However, in this case, an unnamed tribune–to whom the duty of tactical decisions had been delegated–reorganized these looters and brought them to attack the rear of the other Macedonian flank, which had been winning. This resulted in a crushing victory and contributed to he Roman conquest of Greece. Decentralized control was also a hallmark of Julius Caesar himself, who frequently sent several cohorts on independent campaigns in Gaul under subordinates such as Titus Labienus, allowing him to conquer the much more numerous Gauls through local superiority, lack of Gallic unity, and organization. Also, at the climactic Battle of Alesia, Caesar used small, mobile reserve units with a great deal of tactical independence to hold over 20 km of wooden walls against a huge besieging force.

The Vikings: I do not mean to generalize about Vikings (who could be of many nations–the term just means “raider”) when they do not have a united culture, but in their very diversity of method and origin, they demonstrate the effectiveness of individualism and decentralization. Despite being organized mostly based on ship-crews led by jarls, with central leadership only when won by force or chosen by necessity, Scandinavian longboatmen and warriors exerted their power from Svalbard to Constantinople to Sicily to Iceland and North America from the 8th to 12th centuries. The social organization of Scandinavia may have been the most free (in terms of individual will to do whatever one wants–including, unfortunately, slaughter, but also some surprisingly progressive women’s rights to decisions) in recorded history, and this was on display in the famous invasion of the Great Heathen Army. With as few as 3,500 farmer-raiders and 100 longboats to start, the legendary sons of Ragnar Lothbrok and the Danish invaders, with jarls as the major decision-makers of both strategic and tactical matters for their crews, won a series of impressive battles over 20 years (described in fascinating, if historical-fiction, detail in the wonderful book series and now TV series The Last Kingdom), almost never matching the number of combatants of their opponents, and took over half of England. The terror and military might associated with the Vikings in the memories of Western historians is a product of the completely decentralized, nearly anarchic methods of Scandinavian raiders.

The Mongols: You should be sensing a trend here: cultures that fostered lifelong training and discipline (and expertise in siege engineering, which seems to have correlated with the tactics I describe, as the Macedonians, Romans, and Mongols were each the most advanced siege engineers of their respective eras) tended to have more trust in well-trained subordinates. This brought them great military success and also makes them excellent examples of proto-Auftragstaktik. The Mongols not only had similar mission-oriented commands and tactical independence, but they also had two other aspects of their military that made them highly effective over an enormous territory: their favored style of horse-archer skirmishing gave natural flexibility and their clan organization allowed for many independently-operating forces stretching from Poland to Egypt to Manchuria. The Mongols, like the Romans, demonstrate how a force can have training/discipline without sacrificing the advantages based on tactical independence, and the two should never be mixed up!

The Americans in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War: Though this is certainly a more limited example, there were several units that performed far better than others among the Continentals. The aforementioned Rogers’ Rangers operated as a semi-autonomous attachment to regular forces during the French and Indian War, and were known for their mobility, individual experience and ability, and tactical independence in long-range, mission-oriented reconnaissance and ambushes. This use of savvy, experienced woodsman in a semi-autonomous role was so effective that the ranger corps was expanded, and similar tactical independence, decentralized command, and maneuverability were championed by the Green Mountain Boys, the heroes of Ticonderoga. Morgan’s Rifles used similar experience and semi-autonomous flexibility to help win the crucial battles of Saratoga and Cowpens, which allowed the nascent Continental resistance to survive and thrive in the North outside of coastal cities and to capture much of the South, respectively. The forces of Francis Marion also used proto-guerrilla tactics with decentralized command and outperformed the regulars of Horatio Gates. Given the string of unsuccessful set-piece battles fought by General Washington and his more conventional subordinates, the Continentals depended on irregulars and unconventional warfare to survive and gain victories outside of major ports. These victories (especially Saratoga and Cowpens) cut off the British from the interior and forced the British into stationary posts in a few cities–notably Yorktown–where Washington and the French could siege them into submission. This may be comparable to the Spanish and Portuguese in the Peninsular War, but I know less about their organization, so I will leave the connection between Auftragstaktik and early guerrilla warfare to a better informed commenter.

These examples hopefully bolster the empirical support for the idea that military success has often been based, at least in part, on radically decentralizing tactical control, and trusting individual, front-line commanders to make mission-oriented decisions more effectively than a bureaucracy could. There are certainly many more, and feel free to suggest examples in the comments, but these are my favorites and probably the most influential. This evidence should cause a health skepticism toward argument for central control on the basis of the efficiency or effectiveness demonstrated in military central planning. Given the development of new military technologies and methods of campaign (especially guerilla and “lone wolf” attacks, which show a great deal of decentralized decision-making) and the increasing tendency since 2008 to revert toward ideas of central economic planning, we are likely to get a lot of new evidence about both sides of this fascinating analogy.

How to take over Syria, Roman edition

While Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government got the lion’s share of the press attention about American involvement in Syria (probably because of the contrast with Obama’s preference for diplomacy despite his “red line” threat), the more important strategic operations have not been discussed as fully. Building upon the successful establishment of two airfields last year, the US has expanded or established bases at crucial locations and begun to attack key targets in the northern part of Syria that show an excellent understanding of the topography and logistics of the region. These developments may be the linchpin in choking off traffic and crippling supply and movement of ISIL, and should contribute to the long-term goal of securing Hasakah and Raqqah provinces. What is interesting in all of this, perhaps due to the historical expertise of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, is that this logistical focus mimics the attack routes that were vital to invasions of the area from Alexander the Great down to Julian the Apostate.

The Euphrates River as an ancient supply highway

In the era of Alexander the Great, supply and communication were important constraints on military action; the logistics of his march through Syria are extremely well described by Donald Engels. Essentially, because of the lack of water sources in surrounding areas, the rough Taurus Mountains to the north and Arabian Desert to the south, and the provisions and easy transport supplied by it, the Euphrates River was a common “highway” for military movement in antiquity. Controlling and utilizing it was essential to control of the trade and military actions between the Mediterranean coast and Mesopotamia. In his defense against Alexander, Darius III kept his army on the Euphrates, and Alexander surprised him by crossing northern Mesopotamia to follow the Tigris River (near Mosul, which ISIL also recognized as vital) instead. However, almost every major invasion of the area from the west has gone through what is now southeastern Turkey to reach the headwaters of the Euphrates, including those of Trajan, Septimius Severus, and Julian the Apostate. Crassus reaped the gruesome rewards of avoiding the Taurus/Euphrates route.

The Euphrates valley was important not only as a military route, but also as a source of agricultural income and a crucial portion of the early Silk Road. Therefore, the nation that controlled the northern Euphrates valley could finance their military through control of trade and taxation (which Zenobia’s husband used to assert his own quasi-independence from a city that ISIL has ironically destroyed), a fact that has changed only in the economic transition from agricultural production to petroleum extraction. Now, ISIL not only taxes and sells oil to support its endeavors, but it knew from the outset to seize strategic locations on the route and even wanted to use the Euphrates river as its logo!

The mountains north of the Euphrates

The famous historian and general, Xenophon, was part of an army that followed the Euphrates down to a fateful battle at Cunaxa, and his retreat through the Taurus Mountains and ancient Armenia involved encounters with natives who were extremely capable in skirmishing on mountainous terrain. Both Xenophon and Mark Antony learned how difficult this route was, and the successful Kurdish defense of the Sinjar mountains and victories in the mountains of northeastern Syria using small arms and mobile forces while conceding villages is reminiscent of these ancient raiding methods. Though bombing obviously differs in technology and methods from ancient infantry, it also involves avoiding direct battle in order to destroy resources and harass enemy armies in motion, and so the American strategies based on assaults from the Rmeilan and Incirlik airfields over the past year have used the same attrition tactics to wear down ISIL strongholds.

What comes next?

If ancient campaigns can tell us anything, it may be that the US is transitioning from bombing from afar to more direct assaults on the cities, roads, and resources of ISIL along the northern Euphrates. The US still holds bases in northwestern Syria, defending the western flank of Kurdish-controlled territory and providing a buffer to Turkey (which, along with Turkish efforts to stop individual penetration of the border, should mitigate ISIL recruitment and international travel). Now that it has augmented this by creating bases that choke off routes to the headwaters of the Euphrates and allow closer engagement with ISIL since January, the US seems to be poised to contain ISIL attacks with greater alacrity and support Kurdish ground assaults on the ISIL capital of Raqqa. The escalation may be as support in the race to Raqqa and to take advantage of victories in eastern half of the campaign in Mosul, and comparison to the campaigns cited above would indicate that the US and Kurds are moving much slower than ancient campaigns, but using the same routes, attacking targets in similar ways, and with the same respect for topography and logistics.