Here's the scenario: Two countries of equal power have access to equal/similar technology and military hardware, that is also what is currently available IRL (In Real Life).

Also time travel exists, and both sides use it to get a military commander to lead all attacks against the Enemy (the other country).

Country A goes back in time, and gets a General that lived exactly 500 years ago. Country B goes forward in time, and gets a General that won't be born for another 500 years.

That is the only major difference between both commanders, they are of equal/similar base Intelligence/IQ, primal skills, etc.

Which commander would have the upper hand? One that sees all these flying dragon-like machines, loud tiny cannons, etc for the first time, or the one that is from the future, who even though SHOULD be well aware of the technology, might be used to tech completely different from ours - hence he might be equally handicapped in this battle.

  • $\begingroup$ How much time do they have to train with the new technology? How large/ what type of battle are they fighting? $\endgroup$ – sdrawkcabdear Dec 10 '15 at 1:30
  • $\begingroup$ The commander from the past is going to have a major learning curve with modern technology--he will have a very hard time seeing how things can be repurposed. (For example, using a heat-seeking missile to engage a train in Vietnam.) $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Dec 10 '15 at 6:14
  • $\begingroup$ Probably not that relevant a question, but what kind of future does the future commander come from? $\endgroup$ – Zoppadoppa Dec 11 '15 at 0:21
  • $\begingroup$ The future commander has the advantage of history books to know how his opponent(... hmm... who was a great commander in the 1500s?) fought. $\endgroup$ – nzaman Jul 21 '16 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ How do we define a commander anyway? Good at inspiring his soldiers, good at deploying them, excellent strategist,cool tactician, cold-blooded sociopath? Each is effective in his own way. Every type is not equally effective against every other. $\endgroup$ – nzaman Jul 21 '16 at 16:30

To take the other side. 500 year old commander will win. The basics of formulating a good strategy are the same. Sun Tzu's the art of war is still applicable today. Both commanders will need a staff to bring them up to speed.

Once up to speed a future commander though would be to dependent upon his technologies. Computers to offer suggestions. Instantaneous communication to make decisions. Transportation technology that eliminates the need for logistics. A future commanders innovations will be to try and force current tech to meet his future needs and expectations. He will be stuck in that mindset. His response is “This is crap how can I make this work”

The ancient commander will have a better grasp of the fundamentals of combat. He will have achieved victories without all the amazing advances. His innovations will not be limited by technology. His reaction to modern tech will be “this is amazing how much more can I accomplish with this”. Example. A WW2 general is used to trains moving troops and supplies. He knows how many soldiers he can field based upon a rail network supplying them. Dump him back 500 years before that. He tries to field an army. But it is to large, he cannot get supplies to it. It takes longer to move than he anticipated. His plans are behind schedule.

Both commanders would have staff to assist them. But the more they have to depend upon staff the less value there is in the commander himself. The future commander when left on his own judgment is more likely to make mistakes. The past commander is more likely to underutilize his forces. In combat mistakes are more deadly.

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The commander of the future. The ancient commander would not be able to deal with the speed and scale of modern warfare. Where a future commander would be able to deal with the slower smaller wars we have today.

As an example Agincourt a large battle in 1415 (I know 600 years ago) had 12,000 men on one side and 9,000 on the other. A commander could see all of this troops and control them easily with drums and runners he would rarely need to delegate command. In Kursk (1943) around 2 million and 800,000 men fought in several fronts over 140 KM away from each other. As technology improves and the human population grows our ability to fight larger and fast wars increases.

The role of a commander changes and the size of the army increases. A commander of a small army must be a charismatic leader who directly motivates his army and does everything himself. The commander of a 2 million person operation must be able to see a big picture. He has to find, choose, and organize subordinates and get them to work together.

In addition a wise commander from the future may have read about the upcoming battle in a history book.

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  • $\begingroup$ This would be the first occurrence of the battle in the space-time, the General that was taken from the future wouldn't know about it. $\endgroup$ – Иво Недев Dec 10 '15 at 12:07

Assuming that both are equally skilled and experienced, the future commander would have the advantage. Military academies teach military history and discuss the limitations and strategies of the past. For obvious reasons they can't really do this with the future.

Would both be equally experienced? If they are typical of their times, you might find that the typical commander from 1500 would be more experienced than the typical commander from 2500. Most men from my parents' generation have some military experience, as there was a draft in the late sixties and early seventies. No one in my generation has been drafted. If that trend continues, our hypothetical future commander may have never fought in a real battle.

If I had a time machine, I wouldn't pick a typical commander of 500 years ago. I'd pick an extraordinary commander: Sun Tzu, Hannibal, Napoleon, etc. Those are famous examples. A military expert could probably come up with a much better list, even if constricted to a time period between 1450 and 1550.

You can't do the same kind of selection bias in the future selection (unless you make two trips, one to pick the commander and the second to fetch that person). So your historical commander may be better skilled and more experienced than your future commander.

That's no guarantee though. The future commander can look up the historical commanders actual battles. The historical commander can't do the same without another time travel trip. And of course, commanders don't win battles, armies do. What happens when communications break down and forces have to use their own discretion? Which side shoots more accurately? Does the weather end up favoring one or the other? Which side has the easier goal? It's unlikely that a modern battle would be decided only based on the talents of their ultimate commanders. Even if one has the advantage, either could win.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hernado Cortez and Francis Drake Are the best two I can think alive around 1500. $\endgroup$ – sdrawkcabdear Dec 10 '15 at 7:06
  • $\begingroup$ Nobunaga and Tokugawa (Japan), Admiral Yi (Korea), Bairam Khan (Mughal India), Babur (Samarkand/Mughal India), Ivan the Terrible (Russia) early period, before he went insane $\endgroup$ – nzaman Jul 22 '16 at 17:18

500 years ago, battles were fought so much differently from nowadays that they are almost incomparable.
Basically, a battle was arranged and negotiated, the leaders of the opposing forces pretty much agreed on where it would take part, marched their troops to the battle field and eventually started engaging the other block.

An army (and a leader of such an army) that never fought differently won't stand a snowballs chance in hell against an opposing force that uses highly variable tactics, ambushes, hidden operations, and whatnot.

In addition to that, the commander from the past will be hard put to even comprehend the capabilities and limitations of his army, while the one from the future might find lack of suitable equipment frustrating, but should not have any problems downsizing his plans and tactics to match the capabilities and equipment available.

The war will be short, most likely gory, and the army with the leader from the past will be eliminated before they even knew the war had started.

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    $\begingroup$ I think your history is rather .... misinformed... pre-arranged battles were the rarity. Ambushes, night attacks, sieges, etc were normal. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Dec 10 '15 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ Actually they weren't that rare, when both sides were Christian. But this is the reason why The Otoman had so many victories, the did NOT care to arrange anything and take out the Christian armies by surprise with ambushes etc. $\endgroup$ – Иво Недев Dec 10 '15 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB feel free to expand on the details. The general principle (which is all that is relevant in this question) still holds true. $\endgroup$ – Burki Dec 10 '15 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki Some of the most famous battles of the 1500's were ambushes and night attacks, the fireships were launched at the Spanish Armada at night. The Massacre at the festival of Tóxcatl and La Noche Triste were both ambushes at night. Idealized classical medieval European warfare was often like what you describe but that is a small not representative sample of the wars the world has fought. $\endgroup$ – sdrawkcabdear Dec 10 '15 at 18:36

There is almost no question that the future commander would win.

Quite simply, the scale and speed of modern warfare would elude a commander from 500 (or even 50) years ago. The capabilities of modern weaponry - precision bombing, drones, night fighting, computerized targeting systems, C&C have advanced so far, so fast that even a legendary commander* would have difficulty even comprehending the capabilities of modern weapons.

A future commander may be hamstrung and frustrated by the lack of capabilities they are used to, but they would have a general grasp of the what they can - and can't do or how to use those weapons. In a technical sense, they aren't going to be operating the weapons themselves - they aren't going to be befuddled trying to use alien and archaic tools. Sure, they might not know the first thing about operating a mechanical fire-control system, but the people who are operating it know what they are doing. The challenges will be abstracted away by things being slower / less accurate than they are used to, but still fit in the framework of their knowledge.

Add to that the fact that modern warfare and tactics developed from the warfare and tactics of the past. Virtually every general is a student of history, and would have at least a general understanding of the tactics the general from the past would know and understand. They would also, since tactics of thousands of years ago are still widely studied, know how to effectively counter them.

They would know not to charge pikemen with cavalry, but they might use their knowledge of how pikemen counter cavalry to force them into an infantry square...then drop a load of napalm on it.

Now, it's possible that warfare / humanity will have changed so much in 500 years that a future commander simply couldn't adapt. It's quite possible that all the future commander knows is to press the 'nanobot kill' button on an iPad and the war is over in seconds. Still, just a general understanding of history will be a huge leg up.

*A famous / legendary leader might be at even more of a disadvantage. A commander like Napoleon or Rommel has / is / will be studied at a level of detail that far surpasses a commander forgotten to history. In most cases, those massive historical victories are as much a product of circumstance as they are genius (and those brilliant and disruptive strategies won't come as a shock to someone who studied them). Bold, risky behavior only works when someone isn't prepared for it, and taking those risks is generally what made the legendary commanders legendary.

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