The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed Historyby Erik Durschmied
From the wooden horse at Troy to a harrowing photograph snapped in Vietnam, from Robert E. Lee’s lost battle plans to the evacuation of Dunkirk, world history has been shaped as much by chance and error as by courage and heroism. Time and again, invincible armies fall to weaker opponents in the face of impossible odds, when the outcome had seemed a foregone
From the wooden horse at Troy to a harrowing photograph snapped in Vietnam, from Robert E. Lee’s lost battle plans to the evacuation of Dunkirk, world history has been shaped as much by chance and error as by courage and heroism. Time and again, invincible armies fall to weaker opponents in the face of impossible odds, when the outcome had seemed a foregone conclusion. How and why does this happen? What is it that decides the fate of battle?
Writing with the style and flair that has made him an award-winning war correspondent, Durschmied takes us through the major battles of history, from the battlefields of ancient Greece to the Gulf War. In a series of gripping narratives, he vividly recreates the crucial events in all their mayhem and confusion while pointing out the decisive moments that changed the course of history. We see Agincourt, where rain combined with French arrogance to give Henry V the day; the Crimea, where a badly worded order led to the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade; and colonial Africa, where an attack by African killer bees, described by the London Times as Germany’s secret weapon, repulsed an Allied invasion. And in a chilling epilogue, we are given a disturbing glimpse of the secret attempt by Libya to buy atomic weapons from China for use against Israel.
Drawing from a variety of sources, including personal accounts such as soldiers’ diaries and letters home, The Hinge Factor is an instructive, fascinating look at how the unpredictable, the absurd, and the bizarre have shaped the face of history in war.
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Read an Excerpt
A Wooden Horse
Troy, 1184 BC
`Do not believe this horse. Whatever it may be, I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts.' Virgil's Aeneid, 20 BC
The year is 1184 BC.
A god descends from heaven; disguised as a swan he lies with Leda. Their love results in a daughter, Helen, a maiden so fair that every prince desires her for his wife. She chooses Menelaus, King of Sparta. One day a handsome young prince comes to visit them. He is Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, a fortified city on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Paris is royally received but does not reveal the purpose of his visit.
Before Paris left his native Troy, King Priam had been warned that his son would bring ruin to his country. And so it came to be. The high drama began the day Paris was visited by three goddesses, Aphrodite, Hera and Athena. They handed him a golden apple and asked him to choose the fairest among them. Hera promised to make him Lord over Asia and Europe, Athena said that she would lead him to great victory over the Greeks, and Aphrodite offered him the loveliest maiden on Earth. The Judgement of Paris went to Aphrodite, goddess of love. She told him about Helen of Sparta.
While Menelaus leaves for Crete to do war, Paris takes Helen to Troy. It is not certain if she follows for love or by force. On his return from Crete, King Menelaus calls upon all the Greek heroes to help him punish the wicked deed and lay Troy in ashes. Under the leadership of Agamemnon,the Greek Army is strong. But so is Troy. King Priam has brave sons, the bravest is Hector, who has only one equal, the champion of the Greeks, Achilles. For years on end they fight it out, and for many years victory wavers. Once again, a fierce battle rages, when Helen appears on the ramparts. Her face is so lovely that all fighting stops, only Achilles and Hector continue in single combat. Athena hands her spear to Achilles who drives it into Hector's throat. `Return my body to my father,' begs the dying Trojan hero.
`I would that I could make myself devour your raw flesh for the evil you have brought upon me,' replies Achilles. The Greek warrior then drags the slain Hector behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. Aphrodite gives Paris a poisoned arrow. Paris takes aim and shoots it into the Greek's only vulnerable spot, his heel. Achilles dies. Then another arrow strikes Paris, and he dies.
But Troy holds out. After a siege which has lasted ten years the war has reached a stalemate. Unless the Greeks can break down the walls they will never conquer the city fortress and must accept defeat. Odysseus, the cleverest of the Greeks, devises a cunning plan: to build a wooden horse, slightly taller than the Scaean Gate. Then hide Greek warriors inside the horse, and leave it standing outside the walls of Troy. That done, the Greeks set sail, but hide their fleet behind the nearest island. To make sure the Trojans fall for his ruse, Odysseus leaves Sinon the Greek behind who convinces the Trojans that they must pull the horse into the city as a votive offering to Athena.
King Priam falls for the Greek trickery and orders the horse to be brought in. For this, the Trojans will have to break a hole into their walls. Troy's chief priest Laoco"n warns his king: `I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts.'
Priam, a ruthless potentate, is infuriated that a mere priest dares to question the will of his king. Yet Laoco"n is not the only one who fears deceit. The king's beautiful daughter, Cassandra, stands up to her father and echoes the priest's warning. `Oh miserable people, poor fools, you do not understand at all your evil fate.'
The judicious counsel by the philosopher-priest nearly convinces the Trojans, when destiny takes a hand. Two serpents rush from the sea to crush Laoco"n and his two sons. Fate comes to pass, a doom destined for so many prudent sages over the next three millenniums. People never listen to their prophets, rather they watch them being silenced and stride blindly forth to disaster. The Trojans remove the lintel stone from the Scaean Gate, which brings their walls tumbling down. They drag the horse to Athena's temple and celebrate a great feast. `With song and great rejoicing, they brought death in, treachery and destruction.'
In the middle of the night Sinon unlocks a secret door beneath the Wooden Horse. Odysseus and his warriors steal out while the rest of the Greek host rushes in through the breach and sets the city on fire. By the time the Trojans rise from their drunken stupor, blood flows in rivulets. This is not fighting, it is butchery. Desperate men bear down on each other, killing before they are killed. Trojans take off their own armour and put on that of the dead Greeks. Greeks, believing they are being joined by their own units, pay for that error with their lives. From the rooftops, Trojan women hurl burning beams on their attackers, a palace tower crushes a great number of Greeks. But the contest is unequal, too many Trojans have already died and the Greeks smash their way into the palace. King Priam is brutally struck down in front of his wives and children. With his death the Trojans lose heart and the Greeks rape, pillage and plunder. They kill the men, hurl the children from the battlements, and carry the women into slavery. Troy dies.
Only Aeneas, Aphrodite's son, escapes the bloodshed. He crosses the sea and the winds push his vessel onto a distant shore, at the mouth of the River Tiber. There he founds a town which is to become Rome, the city state that will eventually defeat the conquerors of Troy.
Ultimate justice shrouded in the veil of mythology.
What really took place that night, three thousand years ago, we can only guess. `To the gods I owe this woeful war', proclaimed a downcast Priam.
We may forget about an active participation by the gods, and turn towards more strategic, military and economic aspects. In the late nineteenth century, a German amateur archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, discovered ruins of what may have been Priam's Troy, a fortified city founded by the warrior tribe of Phrygians on the Mound of Hissarlik. From its geographic location, we can assume that Greek and Trojan maritime ambitions clashed. Vital control over the Hellespont (today's Dardanelles), the Aegean Sea, and with it, the trade routes along the Mediterranean, was at stake.
As for the ten-year siege, no siege could have possibly lasted ten continuous years; without harvesting seasonal grain, armies on both sides would have starved. Therefore, the war must have been a series of raids, and possibly actions fought by sea.
A vital factor which should not to be overlooked is the warning by the philosopher Laoco"n, which, assuming that Troy was run by a despot, shows opposition to tyrannical rule, a trend carried to new summits by the greatest of Greek philosophers, Socrates, and his disciples.
Ten years passed and nothing happened. Suddenly, everything was resolved in a single instant. The Wooden Horse is certainly not a figment of fiction; ruse has always been employed during the siege of fortified places, the simplest way to put the vigilance of the defenders to sleep and breech the walls. Thus, the story of Odysseus' Horse is something tangible, a conquest by stratagem.
Strange are the circular paths of history. The Greeks learned from the Trojans, Trojan refugees founded Rome, and the Romans conquered Greece, only to adopt its culture.
The Hinge Factor at Troy was victory by stratagem.
Meet the Author
Erik Durschmied is a military historian and award-winning journalist who has been a correspondent for Newsweek as well as the BBC and CBS. He has personally covered wars and revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He lives in France.
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