No one quite knows where the great captains come from

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

Jerry Pournelle included Poul Anderson’s “Marius” in There Will Be War and wrote this preface to it:

In every generation there are those who can lead men to Hell. There are never many, for the secrets of that kind of leadership have not been written in books. No one quite knows where the great captains come from. They appear when needed — or they do not, and homelands die.

The great captains are not immune to the temptations of power; indeed, for those who can lead men to Hell, there is always the suspicion that they might be able to lead them to Heaven. If the generals do not think this way, we can be certain they will have followers to suggest the possibility.

Great soldiers are not often great governors. Sometimes they are: Julius Caesar was certainly preferable to most of his immediate successors and predecessors, Washington was certainly an able president, Mustapha Kemal was the best governor Turkey ever had. England has had able soldier kings. Napoleon reformed French society and developed a code of laws that has spread throughout the world, making one wonder what might have happened had the Allies left him in peace after his return from Elba.

Far too often, though, the habits of military power have been ingrained, so that the great captain becomes tyrant or incompetent — or both — as head of state.

The story involves a coup, in post-World War III Europe, to replace a benevolent dictator, before strongman politics become too ingrained. The academics behind the coup understand symbolic sociology — something like Asimov’s psychohistory.

Pournelle felt that the usual understanding of the story, that the scientific faction’s win was a win for humanity, was a misunderstanding:

Pareto, whose theory of the circulation of elites makes more sense than most contemporary sociology (and is worth a great deal more study than it receives), died in 1923. He was more interested in the description of society than in prescriptions for its change; to the extent that he was on record as favoring any social scheme it was classical liberalism of the sort espoused by Dr. Milton Friedman in this era.


Pareto wrote: “Had Aristotle held to the course he in part so admirably followed, we would have had a scientific sociology in his early day. Why did he not do so? There may have been many reasons; but chief among them, probably, was that eagerness for premature practical applications which is ever obstructing the progress of science, along with a mania for preaching to people as to what they ought to do — an exceedingly bootless occupation — instead of finding out what they actually do.”


Fourre and Valti are more concerned with theory — such as how many representatives shall be sent to the United Nations — than with such practical matters as rats and plague. And thus Fourre slays his oldest friend. Which of them is Marius?


  1. Graham says:

    I can’t pin down any titles from memory, but there is a fair amount of counternarrative on most of these figures.

    If anything, in the post-British world Napoleon is only now coming in for more respect. It was never fair to consider him a proto-Hitler, but my people, so to speak, always regarded him as a villain. The conqueror, usurper [if that's a negative for you], upsetter of balance of power and, above all, the emperor who wanted to snuff out “our” nation and it’s budding empire. That last is what it usually comes down to in history.

    In the Anglo world, it was usually Americans who provided the positive take on him, sometimes even in 1960s pop culture. CAn’t be sure- something like a sitcom like I Dream or Jeannie or a drama series of the same era had a character expressing veneration for Napoleon as cementer of the revolution and bringer of modern laws and administration and freedom and equality, of sorts, to much of Europe. This was also the trad French narrative, and there’s not all lies in it. Perspective, value dissonance, interests and identity shape our reactions.

    The French had their own, equally valid counternarrative in which Bonaparte squandered a couple of generations of their demographic potential and set them up for decline in the long 19th century. That was a secondary story in France, and it had truth in it too. Although why the surviving men couldn’t just overproduce required additional causal factors.

    Alexander too. Was he the great commander, conqueror of Asia, or just a tyrant and killer of Asians and his Macedonian and Greek followers, seeking personal glory? For my part, I would say yes.

    There are books along the way that cast him as a proto Hitlerian figure in his own right. Which strikes me as a little harsh. I don’t recall him singling out whole peoples for extermination, which was always the main bill on Hitler for me. By iron age standards, he wasn’t even a prolific massacrer of rebelling peoples. which historically was an acceptable, or at least normative practice.

    There’s also the question of his proposed end state. Was it a universal empire just to glorify his own name and secondarily his dynasty? Sure. Was it to just make him the King of Asia with no benefit for the Greeks or Macs? Less clear. Did he aim to recreate under him, and with the addition of fresh Hellenic material, the already quite universal, multicultural, diverse empire of the Persians? Yes. Would it have been a despotism? Possibly, for some or all. Though Greek cities tended to have quite a lot of Greek type self government rights when he established them. As they did under his successors.

    So when, at last, his Mac and Greek troops got restive about his taking Persian titles and trappings, building a joint bureaucracy, making them all take Persian wives as he had, and got uppity about their prerogatives as Macs and Greeks and as the conquering army- were they defending their liberty to stay Greeks and live Greek lives and govern themselves as Greeks, and take the prize they had hard earned, and was he imposing a new Persian tyranny on them after all that fighting? Or were they a bunch of racist nationalist Greeks wanting to stay the conquerors of downtrodden Asia while Alexander wanted to create a new, universal empire for all, even if under him?

    The moment sometimes strikes me as emblematic of the last 2.5 millennia. They’re both true accounts.

    The one last thing I could say on it, though, is that he gave the Greeks what they long said they wanted. He took them into Asia and led them to destroying Persia.They got something they asked for. Iranians today may not remember him fondly [I can't say- Afghans seem to remember him positively], but when you build an empire as they had, it’s churlish to resent it being overthrown by like means.

  2. Kirk says:

    One of the things that annoys me about much of science fiction is that the authors keep projecting what are really very primitive and unsophisticated political systems into the future–The whole question of there even being a “Galactic Senate” and “Empire” has always struck me as being as ridiculous as the idea of there being a Count of Ganymede, or some such construct.

    For one thing, the scale of the things they ideate militates them ever coming into existence, right along with the idea that people will be willing to put up with the attendant bullshit that goes with that crap.

    You tell me that you’re the King of England, and I’m more than likely to just point at you and laugh than go down on bended knee, because I simply don’t believe in the entire idea of inherited “right to rule” in any way, shape, or form. I wager that most of England will feel the same way after Charles III, but I digress…

    The whole idea that we’re going to be playing at the game of empire a few thousand years from now strikes me as ludicrous. The current set of governmental systems we have probably won’t be around, either, regardless of whether they’re communist or capitalist. Human organization is going to warp out of recognition due to technological change here in the near future, and I don’t think anyone has really thought through the consequences of the trends we have going, right now.

    I don’t think that the tendency towards centralization is going to survive, at least as far as governance goes. There is too much to try to control, and the more control you strive for, the more that a system goes out of balance, leading to collapse.

    I fear for the Chinese, trying to go down the path that they are with these “social credit” schemes. They are likely to provide the rest of the human race with an inadvertent cautionary lesson about all this, and within the next couple of generations. You can’t dictate to the universe how things will go, and that’s essentially what they’re trying to do. You apply pressure to human beings the way they are with the Uighur, and something is going to come squeezing out in very unexpected ways, in unexpected places. And, the likelihood that it’s going to be benign…? LOL. I truly pity the average Chinese “just plain folks”, because they’re going to pay a tremendous price for the hubris of their leadership–Just as they did when the Emperors tried blocking out the modern world back in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

  3. Graham says:


    I tend to think you are right on that. We are limited, or at least many authors and readers are, by our need for familiar terms and settings, and perhaps our false hopes of the future.

    Of course, some have speculated more deeply and are probably right.

    THe truth will likely lie somewhere in the general zone encompassed by cyber-modified humans, flexible decision networks, Borg hive minds, AI governance, and biological alteration of the species. To pick a few at random. Something from the Stephenson/Vinge universes.

  4. Kirk says:

    I think the answer to a more complex environment is less organization, counter-intuitively. The more control you try to exert over a complex process or environment, the more likely it is to lose control of it all.

    If you stop and think about it, the human body is a perfect micro-cosm of what I’m talking about: Our life “process” is so complex that it defies a lot of central management–We are, instead, a colony organism of many separate and discrete components, most of which defy central control. Imagine having to wake up every morning and change every cell’s settings or balance your hormones by conscious effort–By the time you got done screwing with everything that your independent autonomous nervous system and other control elements routinely handle, you’d be at bedtime, probably.

    Civilization is the same; you want robust, lasting civilization? Quit building and relying on these massive edifices of hierarchy that are headed by and run for the benefit of control freaks. There is some need for central direction and decision-making, but overall…? We try to do way, way too much centrally and via mass hierarchy that over the long haul just becomes too attractive to the corrupt and the corruptible. You build a church hierarchy that grants powers to the priesthood, which has enormous influence over the vulnerable and tremendous power? Hey, guess what: You’ve just created what amounts to an “attractive nuisance” for the exact sort of person who is likely to abuse that very power. Not smart. You want to lower the amount of abuse of power, then the thing to do is diffuse the power instead of doing what we’re hell-bent on doing, which is centralizing it all.

    That’s actually the real reason we’ve got most of the troubles we have in the United States: Centralization of power, and putting so much power into the hands of the authorities. Huge error in judgment, and instead of making things better, we’re actually making them far more fragile and likely to break.

  5. Graham says:

    I actually would like more central control of my body, but only on a mission tactics basis.

  6. Kirk says:

    Yeah, me too… But, could you make it work as well as the current decentralized system?

    I think you’d probably wind up spending so much time screwing with the settings that you’d never get anything done, seeking the “perfect optimum”.

    Evolution has given us bodily control akin to the Apple iOs paradigm, where the programmer/designer obfuscates the controls to keep you out of trouble. I’m not so sure that the opposite approach would be better, because like my friends who are Android users demonstrate, after a bit, you spend more time screwing around with settings, icon sets, and appearance-centric skins than anything else. Yeah, you get more control, but… Does that control really do you much good, unless you’re sole focus in life is that sort of thing…?

    I’d be good with a happy medium, TBH. Somewhere in between Linux, and the hand-holding “mommy knows best” of Apple’s OS offerings.

  7. Graham says:

    It would be more like drill sergeant nasty stuff, like

    “Look alive down there you lazy, useless pukes. I need better metabolic performance and I need it yesterday. You losers expect to go up against infectious disease and survive? I wouldn’t take you into battle against a bunch of attenuated cold viruses.”

    That sort of thing. I have a peculiar inner life.

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