Decisive Action In An Emergency Can Always Be Justified

There are some who take a relaxed view of human intervention in the events of Fate.  They believe that nascent crises can be placed on the “back burner,” so to speak, and left to stew in their own juices until a reasonable solution presents itself.  They say that one should monitor developments, stay informed of the shifting winds, and act when one can be reasonably certain of a favorable outcome.

There is some merit to this view.  Every situation must be judged according to its own particular facts and circumstances; no universal rule of conduct has yet been crafted to deal with all settings and eventualities.  Yet it seems to me that the need for action is directly correlated with the magnitude of the emergency:  the greater the crisis, the greater the need to move quickly.  I also suspect that many of us will deliberately downplay the seriousness of a situation in order to justify a decision to do nothing.  The apostles of the “wait and see” approach also forget–or consciously ignore–the psychological effect that firm action can have in an emergency.  Action creates its own momentum, and shapes the course of events by virtue of its own inherent power.  Action activates the senses, fires the blood, suggests solutions, and imparts a sense of confidence.  And this can make all the difference in conflict.

Lucius Furius Purpureo was a Roman politician and military commander.  Serving in the office of praetor in 200 B.C., he was assigned responsibility for the province of Cisalpine Gaul in northern Italy.  It is estimated that he had under him about 5,000 soldiers (allies of the Latin confederacy from all over Italy), a number that was inadequate for the task of defending the province.  An emergency situation soon presented itself.  An army of Gauls led by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar had laid waste to the province; their number was between seven or eight times the size of Lucius Furius’s small force.  Hearing that this Gallic army led by a hated Carthaginian was besieging the city of Cremona in Lombardy, Furius marched his men to the city and encamped about a mile and a half from its walls.

The two armies soon lined themselves up for battle.  The superior discipline and organization of the Romans carried the day, as in so many other battles.  The Gauls tried to envelop his lines, but Furius took effective and speedy countermeasures, using his cavalry and reserves at just the right moment.  When he saw that the Gallic center had been weakened through overextension, he ordered his men to concentrate and smash through it.  This was the decisive point in the battle.  The historian Livy tells us:

And suddenly, after enduring tremendous slaughter in every part of their army, the Gauls turned their backs and fled back to their camp in total chaos.  [Ac repente, cum in omni parte caede ingenti sternerentur, Galli terga verterunt, fugaque effusa, repetunt castra.]  The cavalry chased them down as they fled; soon the legions followed them and assaulted the Gallic camp.  Less than six thousand men were able to flee.  Killed or captured were more than thirty-five thousand; around seventy military standards were also captured, along with more than 200 Gallic wagons filled with a large amount of looted goods.  Hamilcar, the Carthaginian commander, was killed during the battle, along with three Gallic leaders of noble rank.  [Ab Urbe Condita XXXI.21]

Roman losses came to about two thousand.  The Gauls had suffered a calamitous defeat.  Furius’s small army had annihilated a force about eight times its size, a shocking outcome that few commanders in history have equaled.  When the news of the battle reached Rome, a three-day festival was proclaimed.  But political problems later developed, as often happens in the wake of great military victories.

Furius understandably wanted to have a triumph celebrated in Rome in his honor.  For those unfamiliar with the term, a triumph (triumphus) was more than just a military parade held for a victorious general.  While there is no precise modern equivalent of a triumph, we can broadly say that it was a formal event that had both civil and religious significance.  Furius thought he deserved one, and he was entirely justified in this.  But the problem was that his achievement had attracted the anger and jealousy of the Roman consul, who tried to claim that Furius had “exceeded his authority” in attacking the Gaulish army!

How many times in history have we seen situations like this, where a brilliantly successful commander is suddenly assailed on all sides by opportunistic political figures or jealous rivals!  It is an old story.  Furius summoned the Roman senate to the Temple of Bellona, explained his actions to the concerned senators, and asked to be allowed to enter the city in triumph.  Livy says (XXXI.47) that Furius’s sincerity made a good impression on the assembly (Apud magnam partem senatus et magnitudine rerum gestarum valebat et gratia).

But the older senators were sceptical.  As praetor (they noted) he was legally fighting under the consul’s command, and he should have gotten approval from the consul before marching to Cremona and engaging the enemy.  Some of these senators had been consuls themselves, and took a dim view of a subordinate who had acted with the scope and decisiveness that Furius had displayed.  Livy clearly comes down on the side of Furius.  He notes that some senators defended Furius by posing the following questions.  If indeed Furius had exceeded his authority in attacking the Gauls, why had an army been entrusted to him in the first place?  Should he have just sat where he was, as the flames of war were spreading from one place to the next, and waited for the consul to arrive?

Finally Livy cuts to the core of the issue:

The crises of war do not wait for the delays and stoppages of military commanders.  Sometimes you must fight not because you want to, but because the enemy forces you to do so.  The battle itself and the outcome of the fight ought to be evaluated.  [XXXI.48]

In other words, sometimes one must react to the exigencies of the situation, and take decisive action to deal with the problem.  And results matter, too:  when the outcome is so overwhelmingly favorable, it practically justifies the action in itself.  Because Furius made his case effectively, the senate as a whole was convinced; a full session voted to allow Furius his triumph.  Livy notes that, either concurrently with this decision or after it, Furius also deposited a substantial sum in the treasury of 320,000 bronze asses and 100,500 silver pieces.  (We may also note, with a cynical smile, that no assembly has ever been displeased by contributions to the governmental treasury).

Action, action, action, as Theodore Roosevelt used to say.  If faced with a serious crisis, one should not look for reasons to prevaricate, delay, or pass the problem on to someone else.  Inaction can easily slip into a fatalistic paralysis.  Had the Aztec emperor Moctezuma summoned his resources to deal with Cortes’s expedition in 1519, he might have retained his throne; instead, he allowed himself to slip into a fatal lethargy.  The fact that Mexico would have eventually come under Spanish rule anyway does not change the fact that Moctezuma’s leadership was weak and indecisive.

For my own part, I have adopted a simple rule to guide me in these sorts of situations:  in a serious crisis, always take action.  As Livy says, sometimes you must fight not because you want to, but because the enemy forces you to (Et pugnandum esse interdum non quia velis, sed quia hostis cogat).

And it is generally better to explain later why you did act, rather than why you did not act.


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