Letter from Military History – May 2012

Location

It is the most familiar refrain of real estate agents and developers—“Location, location, location!”—when touting properties that are highly valued and much sought after, if not fought over. That same idea evidently has long resonated among military thinkers. Wars have broken out in many locations and under many conditions around the world, but a close reading of military history suggests there are a few favorite places for fights, locations where wars have been fought over and over again through the ages. The obvious question is, Why? Why has so much blood been spilled on the same grounds?

First, it is worth remembering that there are many places where few battles have occurred. Historian John Keegan once noted that most of the earth’s landmass is “either too high, too cold or too waterless for the conduct of military activities.” So geography and climate already narrow the range of optimum battle locations.

Second, a listing of places that have seen the largest number of repeated wars—call them “bloodlands”—amounts to a list of some of the most civilized and developed locations in history: Baghdad, Constantinople, Rome, Damascus, Alexandria, Aleppo, Milan—and that is only in the Western world. That list also suggests a common strategic motive for military actions: the acquisition of wealth and power. These places have several other geographic and cultural conditions in common: They are readily accessible to many forms of transportation; armies (and in some instances, navies) can easily get to them. Accordingly, they are all located athwart long-important commercial trade routes. And, in perhaps an early manifestation of globalism, such trade routes have also been avenues of communication for important ideas.

This characteristic of military history underscores the importance of archaeology as a valuable discipline toward understanding the conduct and evidence of battles and wars over time. Many currently occupied ancient sites still show evidence of long-past military actions. If one could start at modern ground level in any of these places—in Baghdad, for instance, where combatants still exchange shots—and dig carefully down through the layers of earth, bones and structural ruins, one is likely to uncover surviving evidence of many ancient life-and-death struggles that history has all but forgotten.

We have neither the expertise, time nor resources to conduct such field excavations, but we can—starting with Baghdad in this issue—take a schematic “archaeological” look at the known history of the world’s most prominent bloodlands.

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