Alexander the Great never tried to be a world conqueror. He fought wars in two areas: the Balkans and the Persian Empire. He never took his army outside the Balkans and the borders of the Persian Empire. Much of his time in the Persian Empire was spent not in fighting wars but in suppressing rebellions against the Macedonian occupation. He became the King of Macedon in 336 BC, after the assassination of his father King Philip II, the military genius responsible for building a powerful 50,000-strong army which relied on an infantry of pikemen. Armed with 15- to 18-foot-long pikes (known as sarissas), these pikemen soldiers used to confront the enemy in a tight block or phalanx formation.
In 335 BC, Alexander began the Balkan campaign in which his pikemen army won decisive victories against the Greek hoplites. He immediately proved that he was capable of being a brutal warrior. When Thebes refused to surrender—he decimated the city, slaughtered most of the citizens, and spared only the temples. The destruction of Thebes was a warning to the Greeks that they could surrender or die. Most of the Balkans, including the two traditional belligerents Athens and Sparta, surrendered to Alexander. In 334 BC, the Macedonian army crossed the Hellespont and entered the territory of the Persian Empire. The Persian King was informed of the arrival of the Macedonian army but he failed to make preparations to repulse them.
The Persian Empire was in a troubled state at that time. In 338 BC, Artaxerxes III was poisoned, and the throne went to his son Artaxerxes IV. But in 336 BC, he too was murdered in a palace coup. A nobleman called Artashata acceded the throne under the royal name Darius III. Though Darius III was remotely related to the wider Achaemenid dynasty, he was not a descendent of Artaxerxes IV. A powerful faction of Persian nobles saw him as a usurper. Soon after he acquired the throne, revolts erupted in Babylon and Egypt. Before he could do anything to suppress these revolts, Alexander arrived with his Macedonian army.
The Persian army was inexperienced since it had not fought a war for twenty years. In contrast, the Macedonian army had been fighting continuously and was battle hardened. The first encounter between the Macedonians and the Persians was in May 334 BC, at the Battle of the Granicus River. The Persians fought bravely but they did not stand a chance against the Macedonian pikemen. After that the battle shifted to Anatolia. Alexander captured the cities of Sardis, Ephesus, Miletus, and Halicarnassus. He had control of most of Asia Minor by the end of 334 BC. In 333 BC, he captured the important cities of Celaenae and Gordion.
The Persians, under their general Memnon, launched a naval counteroffensive in 334 BC. They captured a number of the Aegean Islands. This counteroffensive was short-lived as Memnon suddenly died in 333 BC of illness. In November 333 BC, Darius gathered an army of 50,000 and attacked Alexander at Issus (Southern Anatolia). A large number of Greek mercenaries who were pained by the Macedonian conquest of their homeland had joined the Persian army. Alexander’s army numbered 40,000. This battle resulted in a decisive Macedonian victory.
The next targets for Alexander were the Persian cities of Tyre and Gaza, which had refused to surrender. He conquered both in 332 BC, with the help of the Persian navy, a faction of which had joined him. From Gaza, Alexander marched into the Persian colony of Egypt. The Egyptians hated the Persians. The Persian Satrap himself welcomed Alexander into Egypt and accepted Macedonian suzerainty in exchange of the continuance of his satrapy.
Meanwhile, in Mesopotamia, Darius had organized another army which included soldiers and cavalry from the far-flung areas of the Persian Empire. In 331 BC, Alexander set out from Egypt to confront Darius’s new army. The two armies met near the village of Gaugamela, east of the Tigris. Alexander’s army prevailed and Darius fled to the mountains with a few loyal troops. Now he was powerless to save Persia from the Macedonians. Alexander went to Babylon and proclaimed himself Great King of Persia. After that he captured the city of Susa where he found wealth greater than his imagination. He sent to Greece a sum more than six times the annual income of Athens.
Darius was trying to raise another army but in 330 BC he was captured and stabbed by Persian insurgents who regarded him as a usurper and were disgusted by his inability to stop Alexander. After Darius’s death, Alexander spent the next seven years, till he died in 323 BC, rushing from one end of the Persian Empire to another to curb rebellions. He tried to start a campaign on the Indian border in 327 BC. But this campaign failed. His troops were exhausted by the endless Persian wars and they refused to press into the territory of the Indian kings. Alexander returned to Susa in 324 BC, He lost most of his men in the harsh desert. On 10 or 11 June 323 BC, he died.
Alexander did not have any imperial ideology—except perhaps the notion that “might makes right,” or “the one who wins the war owns the land”. He had no plan to pacify the Persian Empire. He had no model of governance. He had no strategy for uniting Macedonia, Greece, and Persia. He won several wars but he could not gain control of the government and culture of the Persian Empire. Immediately after his death, a war broke out between his generals. Alexander’s three wives and his only son were quickly consumed in the war, which continued till 275 BC, when three Macedonian successor kingdoms emerged: the Antigonids in Macedon, the Ptolemies in Egypt, and the Seleucids.
The American way of war after 1950 closely mirrors Alexander’s way of war in the fourth century BC. Like Alexander’s Macedonian army, the Americans are good at winning the battles of the initial phase but they don’t know what to do with their early victories. They have no plans for pacifying and governing the country that they have won. They have no ideology other than “might makes right."