Caesar had a plan and a goal that coincided with his own quest for personal glory: he would conquer Gaul (present-day France along with parts of neighboring countries) for the expansion and security of Rome in 50 BC. That he accomplished in nine years of well executed battles and deft negotiations among warring tribes. It was a conflict on many fronts which required his constant attention. “Caesar had to see everything at once,” he wrote in his famed memoirs. That was not a boast, just a statement of fact, which places him among the most highly regarded military leaders in history.
His description of the Gallic wars is also among the most esteemed of military writings. In crisp, clear, unadorned prose, his story unfolds without pretension or moralizing. This is the way it was in battle after battle with loyal troops and a respected enemy. Always moving with astonishing speed while often outnumbered, Caesar could be brutal but also conciliatory. No wars for hatred or revenge. He had a strategic purpose that he followed consistently.
What would he make of current U.S. wars, one piled on top of another with no obvious plan, each fought for a different reason? Or was it reason? Caesar warned of letting emotion sway decisions. On those rare occasions when his troops were carried away by emotion, there was failure in battle. Discipline is as important in planning as in combat, he insisted. Always a clear head.
His goal was to win as quickly as possible with a minimum of casualties. A loss of any kind was not to be tolerated. It’s hard to imagine how he would respond to U.S. generals who say they’re fighting just to keep fighting with no victory in mind. That explains eighteen years in Afghanistan, about the size of Gaul where Caesar’s war changed history.
He would find current wars overloaded with explanations – like fighting to spread democracy, peace and justice worldwide. These simply expand wars beyond basic need with greater destruction. Caesar offered no rationale for his war nor apology. It was unstated. He was fighting for Rome, and that was it. As a reason for war it will serve as well as any. Whatever its flaws, Rome provided the longest period of general peace and contentment that part of the world has ever known.
While organizing war, Caesar did not stay out of it. His personal courage was renowned. At the culminating siege of Alesia with outcome in the balance, his red cloak suddenly appeared in the midst of the fighting, and his troops, thus encouraged, went on to win.
Military victory was not unalloyed. Caesar offended Republican Rome by seeming to aspire to one-man rule and was assassinated by a group that included former followers. But that’s a story beyond strategy.