Book Review by Michael Mates
Note: This book has only a tangential relationship with UNRV's interest in Romanity. It does describe why Islamic armies were a lethal threat to the Byzantine Empire - or to any other foe - but does not deal with the conquest of the Empire. Still, it's an excellent, well-written read, under the rubric of the Wider Ancient World.
In God's Generals, retired U.S. Army officer and current professor Richard A. Gabriel analyzes Moses, Buddha and Muhammad as military leaders. Gabriel's outlook is philosophically materialist, and it is from that limited empirical stance (i.e., that the spiritual and supernatural do not exist) that he filters the evidence through the "dark and clouded glass of time" to reach what he hopes are "reasonable conclusions" (p 126). He places Moses as a contemporary of Seti I (r 1315-1300 BC), and describes him as a born killer, skilled warrior and strategist, adaptor of Egyptian military practices and a practitioner of tactical deception, and pioneer in military ethics, morale-boosting, and psychiatric screening of troops. According to Gabriel, the Hebrews were not slaves in Egypt, but corvée labor, reduced in status (from pastoral and military allies) because of their association with the monotheist Pharaoh Akhenaton. Moses was educated in the Egyptian court and led the Israelites out of Egypt not with God's pillar of fire and smoke, but with a brazier that signaled his followers to break camp. Moses also transformed a disparate collection of "brigands and mercenaries" into a "citizen army, in which all eligible males of the community must serve" (p 50).
Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, 563-483 BC) was born in a period of "impending breakdown of the old order" (p 102) as larger states absorbed squabbling principalities. Gabriel sees him as a product of, and rebel against the first- and second-millennium BC Vedic warrior culture of India, with its Aryan warrior gods and the ascetic Kshatriya warrior caste. Buddha, he believes, at the age of 29 repudiated his years of ascetical training, his status, and the promise of salvation, very possibly as a result of combat stress, whose nature and effects Gabriel graphically and skillfully describes. Gabriel thus dismisses the traditional story of Buddha as a young prince who was kept isolated from the world, until one day he left the palace, saw an old man, learned about suffering and began his spiritual quest.
Buddha's repudiation of his caste responsibilities included not only the well-known preaching of pacifism, but also the "identification with the damned" (p 122), in which Buddhist monks donned the saffron robes worn by the condemned on their way to execution. The author mentions possible attempts on his life, but does not speculate on how and why he escaped the death penalty which was the usual punishment for repudiation of a warrior's vows.
Muhammad (576-632) is praised as a brilliant tactician, and later strategist, as his armies grew, despite the fact that he did not receive the military training from father or uncle that was customary in Arab society. He was a "God-intoxicated man" (p 144), with an "acute sensitivity to personal ridicule" (p 145), and successful in insurgent warfare; he was also a religious motivator, initiator of intel operations (agents in place, debriefing of prisoners, etc., p 155), transformer of ritualized clan warfare into strategic warfare, and creator of the ummah (the community of believers) which was the matrix of that style of war.
In his final chapter, Gabriel assesses the legacies of his three subjects. Buddha's influence culminated in the subcontinent-wide reign of Ashoka (268-232 BC), who made Buddhism the established religion, and renounced warfare for the doctrine of "conquest by righteousness" (p 178). That policy did not survive Ashoka, and, according to Gabriel, India endured millennia of regional warfare and disunity until independence in 1947. (It could be argued that India is still disunited and subject to war, as the breaking off of Pakistan from India, and later of Bangladesh from Pakistan, the Indo-Pakistan wars, and the continuing conflict in Kashmir all attest.
Muhammad's lasting contribution, despite the later fragmentation of Muslim empires and their take-over by non-Arabs, was warrior jihad. Similarly, he sees in Moses the progenitor of exclusivist theology which led to the "application of monotheistic intolerance to total warfare" (p 192) against enemies. Forgetting the Incarnation, Gabriel notes the separation of man from God that motivated the often genocidal savagery of monotheistic warfare: "The covenant with the one true God opened an immense gulf between man and God that has never been closed" (p 182).
Those seeking an alternate view are advised to consult the works of classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson, particularly Carnage and Culture, which places the (polytheistic) ancient Greeks and Romans firmly in the tradition of the "lethal effectiveness" of Western militaries.
Despite a few typos, and several inconsistencies (quoting from the archaic King James Version of the Bible and from modern versions; using the traditional BC and the modern CE for dates), God's Generals is an informative, well-written read.
Michael Mates earned his PhD in 1982 at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena CA, writing his dissertation on St. Patrick and the British Church. After seminary, he taught in Pakistan, and then worked as a U.S. diplomat with the Department of State, serving in Islamabad, Canberra, Karachi, Cluj (Romania), Columbia (District of) and Chisinau (Moldova), before retiring in 2011 to Monroe, Washington State, and starting a new career as co-landscaper at his hectare of gardens, lawns and forest, and brewer of black-fudge garden compost.