The Use of Force Needn’t Imply a Failure of Deterrence

Thomas Rid has been doing some very interesting work (of which this is only a soupçon) about deterrence and its role in dealing with an enemy which can never be definitively defeated.  In this context, he has argued that the use of force doesn’t always imply a failure of deterrence but may, in fact, be a necessary condition for its maintenance. 

To me this has always been somewhat reminiscent of the “tit-for-tat” strategy that Robert Axelrod found so robust in tournaments of the “iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma” game and which he discussed in his remarkable book The Evolution of Cooperation.

However, I’ve run across an interesting historical example of a strategy that even more precisely fits what Thomas talks about.  While at this weeks Society for Military History conference, I picked up a copy of Three Byzantine Military Treatises edited by George T. Dennis.  One of the treatises in this volume is the 10th Century “Skirmishing,” which is traditionally, though incorrectly, attributed to the Emperor Nikephoros.

The text was written at a time when one of Byantium’s foremost military problems was dealing with the Muslim raiders often entered Byzantine border lands.  The text advises a remarkable method of dealing with this problem.  “Instead of confronting the enemy as their on their way to invade Romania, it is in many respects more advantageous and convenient to get them as they are returning from our country to their own.”

There are several reasons for this, according to the author.  The raiders will be “worn out” and disorganized after their raiding and plundering.  Furthermore, “they are likely to be burdened with a lot of baggage, captives and animals.”  In addition, attacking them on their way out, would allow the “Romans” extra time to mobilize a larger force to confront and destroy them.

Most to the point, however, “attacking them as they return has this advantage…It will instill in them the fear that each time they want to invade, we will occupy the passes, and after a while they may cut out their constant incursions.”  [Emphasis added.]  Note that implicit in this strategy is that in order to deter future raids, at least one must take place.  In other words, violence must be applied in order to deter future violence.

Two caveats are in order.  First, “Skirmishing” is a prescriptive book, a military manual, not a history and it is not clear (to me) that the Byzantines actually applied this strategy, though I rather suspect that experts in the period could tell us.  Secondly, the editor of this book does note that whatever the military merit of such a strategy, the local civilians can’t have appreciated it much!

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