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Learning From History 2

Brian Wolfe



The Middle East and Propaganda


I’ve often heard the statement that man (mankind) is unable to learn from history.  As a general statement this is, of course, ridiculous. As an example we tend to no longer defecate in our drinking water; with the exception of the City of Victoria, British Columbia that still dumps their raw sewage into the ocean. To be fair it is not actually drinking water and it does serve to give people like me something to be smug about while committing some other violation against the environment; so thumbs up Victoria.  What the statement regarding learning from history usually refers to is the history of human conflict.  On an individual human level it would seem to be true as far as abusive marriages as can be attested by any police officer.  People in abusive relationships, when and if they “escape”, will often find another abusive partner.  On a national level involving military engagements we may not actually be able to learn from history due to several reasons.

The fact that the histories of wars are usually written by the victors and often by those who shape their books to favor themselves and or their careers flooding the shelves of libraries and book stores.  Another nemesis of accurate histories is propaganda; in order to learn from history we must know what the truth is and identify the perversions of the truth.  I suppose this should not be a total surprise as US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson said in 1918, “The first casualty of war is truth”, so why would there be an incentive to set the record straight post war, especially for the victors? Propaganda certainly has its uses and after all we need to know that we are ethical while the enemy are evil agents of Satan; “Gott mit uns” leaps to mind.  Propaganda can be a most useful tool especially in time of war and actually amounts to misinformation and out and out lies, usually directed at the very people the government is meant to be protecting.  It’s a little like being caught by your wife with your mistress and having the presence of mind to introduce her as your long lost niece; it might work, as long as you actually have a brother or sister.  If not….plan “B”.  Plan “B” works every time and I would share it with you but I know you want me to get back to the subject at hand.  Propaganda can take different forms and intensities.  For example in an effort by the British to conceal the reason for an increase in RAF night mission successes against Luftwaffe bombers the rumor was started that the pilots had been consuming vast quantities of carrots which accounted for their superior night vision.  The success of this propaganda had lasting effects well after the war, and managed to keep the use of radar a secret for a lot longer than a policy of silence would have accomplished. An example “from the other side” involves the 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division Das Reich after the D-Day invasion when they were taking a pounding by the allies.  The movie going public in Germany were informed through the news reels that Das Reich was making significant advances and the allies were reeling from the might of the Division as well as other German troops.  The truth was that while the division and the German military in general was a force to be reckoned with Germany fought mainly a war of defense and  tactical withdraw until the allied victory.

This brings me to an example, perhaps the first example, of an incident in the Middle East involving a world super power, weapons of mass destruction and the cover-up propaganda that many still hold as the truth today.

Cover-up in the Middle East

Near the border of modern Syria and Lebanon was situated the city of Kadesh, on the Orontes River. Kadesh itself controlled the trading routs between to great areas and the control of Kadesh was paramount. Over the centuries the Egyptian and Hittite Empires had been at odds.  Egypt had been in one war after another in an attempt to reclaim their empire and in 1274 BCE the Hittites under Muwatalli II threatened to conquer the city of Kadesh.  The Hittites greatly out-numbered the Egyptians by over two to one especially in infantry; the interesting fact about the battle is that the Hittites never had the chance to employ their infantry and while they out-numbered the Egyptian in chariots the Egyptians were far superior. Think of comparing a modern fighter jet (Egyptian chariot) to a propeller driven transport plane (Hittites). 

Kadesh was in relative close proximity to the Hittite Empire while the Egyptians faced a two month march to the city.  The Egyptian Army was led by Pharaoh Ramesses II at the head of the Amun Division. Three other divisions joined this force, the Re, Ptah and Seth divisions named for the areas from which they were raised.  Each area or the prominent city of the area had a particular God and these divisions were named in honour of those Gods.  While crossing this huge expanse of desert area each division took its own course rather than as a single army.  This would lead to a tactical error by Ramesses as we will see later on.  While to the modern Armchair General this splitting of the divisions may seem an obvious error, however, there are other factors at play.  For the most part wars were won or lost in one decisive battle and usually by only one Egyptian division which was the division of that particular area.  This makes the Kadesh campaign a rather unprecedented undertaking.  The second factor and perhaps the most important one is that living off the land during a two month trek is a lot easier for one division rather than an army of four times that size.  Therefore each division taking its own path to Kadesh made perfect sense.

Upon arriving just south of Kadesh Ramesses formed up his divisions but rather than combining the divisions into one large force he left a great deal of space between them.  A tactical error that almost cost him the war.  This seems to be an error that has plagued the military for centuries and I’d like to explore this in more detail at another time.  Acting on intelligence that the Hittites were almost 200 miles away and were afraid of the Egyptian army Ramesses decided to cover the 11 miles between his army and the city of Kadesh as quickly as possible.  The advance was made with the vast distances between the divisions remaining in place.  The intelligence proved to be a trap and the Hittites were upon the Re Division with their chariots catching the Egyptians unprepared.  The Re Division broke and some headed for the nearby Amun Division commanded by Ramesses while others turned their route around to the rear of the Hittites who were now closing on the Amun Division.  One might say that the day was the Hittites to lose as the future looked bleak for the Amun Division and the whole of the Egyptian army. 

At this point several factors came into play, which is often the case in warfare, which saved the day for Ramesses.  Along with the defenders of the Amun Division the Hittite chariots encountered the materials that often surround an encampment along with tents and abandoned Egyptian chariots.  This slowed the leading Hittite chariots and the next waves started to “jam up” as progress slowed to a stop.  This made the Hittite chariots easy targets for the Egyptian archers.  Remember those Re Division chariots that had turned their route and headed towards the Hittite rear and flanks?  One of the advantages of being a God-King when your solders see that you are in peril they come to your aid with an unmatched fanaticism.  Added to this the Path and Seth Divisions closed on the Hittite flanks.  The Hittite Emperor, Muwatalli II had also made a tactical error in allowing his chariots to advance too quickly and without the support of his archers and infantry; both of which played no part in the battle. It would seem that front line troops out pacing support and supply has been a problem for a long time. 

The aftermath saw both sides claiming victory over the other and I suppose in an odd way they were correct as neither side actually lost so it could be said that a draw is when both sides, in a manner, win.  Ramesses II had his “claimed” victory commemorated on the walls of the temple at Karnak, showing how he, almost alone, crushed the Hittite foe.  Ah, propaganda at its best!  Propaganda that may be still seen today, over 3,000 years after it was carved. 

The positive aspect of this conflict, regardless of the victor, was that not only was this the first documented military action it resulted in the first known peace treaty in history.  Who knows, perhaps in another 3,000 years we’ll see peace in the Middle East; I’ll keep you posted.






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  Great article!!  It has been years since I thought about this battle.  We studied Kadesh in detail when I was in school.  It is a great example of a documented ancient battle, and you bring the propaganda angle out beautifully.  My instructor always said this battle was great because both sides thought they won.  They therefor wrote about it in detail and you could compare the sides with some accuracy.  If one side had been thumped heartily, like you said, only the victor would have written the story.  Here we have two victors, and a treaty to study. Excellent article.

    It always reminds me of Napoleon's campaign in Egypt.  When he decisively beat  the Malmukes it became, "the Battle of the Pyramids!!"  Even though the Pyramids were miles away from the battlefield.  It just sounded so good, why not use that to enthrall Europe!

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Thanks Chris,

Sorry for the late response; my old computer or my old mind missed your comment back in April.  I'm going to blame the computer at least for a few more years.:rolleyes:




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Hello readers.

I am reminded of the battle of Jutland after which both sides claimed victory. This battle just passed its 100 year anniversary .One can lean either side depending which criteria one wants to apply:

ships' displacement tons  total sunk,

personnel lost, type of ships lost etc.

BTW: a popular German writer, pen name Gorch Fock for Johann Kinau lost his life during this battle after volunteering for service. His body was recovered on a Swedish coast later and he is buried in Sweden.The current navy officer candidates are trained aboard the sailing ship named after him.

I always read Brian's contributions and with a considerable envy regarding his writing skills.

Bernhard H. Holst

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Thanks Bernhard,

Good point and a (more or less) modern example of what I was talking about.  I must admit that the battle of Jutland had slipped my mind and would have made a great addition to the blog. Thanks for mentioning this battle it really brings the topic up to date.




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