Siege Warfare, Then and Now

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Historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a book titled A Distant Mirror, about how we can see ourselves in 14th Century politics. I found the same is true when looking at the 9th Century BCE. For example, we’re still engaged in siege warfare.

From ancient Assyria to modern Iraq, now to Venezuela, and probably next to Iran, the weaponry and some of the tactics have changed, but the basic principles remain the same. Surround your opponents and try to starve them out. Then, when they have exhausted their stores and are in a weakened condition, break through the fortifications, kill anyone who resists (and plenty of those who don’t), take prisoners, loot whatever valuables you can carry off. And if you are building an empire, be really vicious to the defeated. Make an example of them so no one else dares to resist you. I described such an event in the first novel of the Jezebel trilogy, The Throne in the Heart of the Sea.

Below is the Assyrian king’s account of his destruction of the rebellious city of Halupu (warning—it makes for very unpleasant reading):

In the valor of my heart and with the fury of my weapons I stormed the city. All the rebels they seized and delivered them up…I built a pillar…and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar; many within the border of my own land I flayed, and I spread their skins upon the walls. As for the chiefs and royal officers who had rebelled, I cut off their members…

But the besiegers don’t always win. If they did, nobody would have bothered to build fortified cities in the first place. Often the attackers are driven off or give up and go home for one reason or another. Sometimes both sides are able to negotiate an agreement. The agreement may require paying tribute to the besiegers and becoming a vassal state. I described a couple of unsuccessful sieges in the second novel of the Jezebel trilogy, The Stars in Their Courses, with two more in my upcoming novel, A Meteor Shower. (It will be published this year.) The passages are considerably less bloody, but too lengthy to quote here.

Here’s how this works out in the 21st Century. The idea is to expend minimum force to get the maximum result. Let’s say a small nation wants to go its own way rather than allow its resources to be drained as tribute to a more powerful nation (the U.S. in this case, or rather our corporations). When possible, the C.I.A. may sponsor a coup. If that doesn’t work, the empire imposes “sanctions.” That is, instead of deploying our troops to encircle a city, we cut off trade. We deprive an entire nation of food, medical supplies, parts to repair broken equipment, etc. We encourage the inhabitants to blame their suffering on their own government and rebel against it, hoping that they’ll replace it with a puppet administration. Blasting propaganda over the airwaves is much more efficient than having heralds shout demands for surrender. Then, if all else fails, we catapult large rocks over the walls of the city—oops, send in the B-2 bombers—and when these have had the desired effect, follow up with ground troops.

Propaganda is as important as any other weapon in the arsenal. It works best when aimed in both directions, at the people we’re trying to conquer and at our own citizens, to justify the war. We have to convince our people that the “enemy” is so terrible, so much of a threat, that it’s worth spending our treasure and sacrificing a few (thousand) of our own soldiers to defeat them.

And this brings us back to Venezuela: a socialist government under Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998. Venezuela began to assert control over its own oil reserves—remember, it has the largest such reserves in the world. Subsequently there were several failed coup attempts, which may or may not have been sponsored by the U.S.; in any case, certain public figures in this country repeatedly called for Chavez’ assassination.

In more recent years, we imposed sanctions, resulting in widespread hunger. The reason we gave was human rights violations. (Note that we have not imposed sanctions on the nation with the second largest oil reserves, that great champion of human rights—Saudi Arabia.) Now we have an unelected puppet-in-waiting to be named president once the current regime is overthrown.

Week after week, for many months now, the mainstream media has been publishing articles about how terrible the Venezuelan government is. Occasional op-ed pieces try to justify U.S. military intervention. Various anti-war organizations have spoken in opposition, just as they did prior to our invasion of Iraq. Maybe they will succeed this time. I try to remain hopeful, despite what I know about the history of empire.


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