You’ve Got to Cross the River Before You Burn the Boats

Why it should maybe be about crossing the river rather than burning the boats.

When Texas Tech played Kansas at home on February 24th, with a potential Big 12 title on the line, the basketball folks dropped this terrific video, “Burn the Boats”:

I thought the video and the phrase, which I had not really considered before (blame my history teachers) was absolutely fantastic. The video describes Hernan Cortes in his conquest of Mexico, to burn the boats because the only way that Cortes was going back was either in a casket or to set out what they intended to accomplish.

It got me thinking, because it’s never fun to just accept something at face value (actually, this isn’t true at all, it’s the opposite of fun to question everything, but I gotta be me). The concept is actually related to the phrase “point of no return” (Wikipedia) and maybe the earliest incident was in 204 BCE, in the Battle of Jingxing, Han Xin crossed the Tao River, dug ditches, but not fortified, and took on Chen Yu, with Han Xin “fighting a battle with one’s back facing a river”. Because Han Xin’s men had no place to go they fought more furiously than they would have had they not had their backs to the river and eventually defeated Chen Yu, Han Xin explaining afterwards, “You achieve survival by fighting from a position of certain death.”

The second earliest example of this was also in China, in 207 BCE in the Battle of Julu. Xiang Yu crossed the Yellow River, ordered his men of 20,000 to only carry three days of supplies, destroy their cooking utensils (i.e. cauldrons and kettles) and sink the boats that they used to cross the river. Xiang Yu attacked a much larger army, an army of 300,000, and was winning while his rebel friends watched in fear of facing such a large army. Upon Xiang Yu’s defeat of army of 300,000 strong, the rebels joined his army and the opponent simply gave up without a fight. From this battle was born the phrase, “Break the kettles and sink the boats.”

There were other incidents similar to this, Tariz ibn Ziyad, a Muslim commander, burned the boats in order to avoid any cowardice, which is seemingly a different motivation than the two stories from China.

Cortes’ incident happened in 1519 and it is quite the different picture than what was painted in the video (PBS):

CortĂ©s, meanwhile, weighed his options. He had not yet seen the magical city of Tenochtitlán, but he knew it was there, 200 miles away. He faced imprisonment or death for defying the governor if he returned to Cuba. His only alternative was to conquer and settle part of the land. To do this, he prompted his supporters to install a municipal and resigned from the post conferred on him by Velásquez. The legally-constituted “town council of Villa Rica” then offered him the post of captain-general. He accepted the post and severed his connection with Velásquez. Those of his men still loyal to the Governor of Cuba conspired to seize a ship and escape to Cuba, but CortĂ©s moved swiftly to quash their plans. To make sure such a mutiny did not happen again, he decided to sink his ships, on the pretext that they were not seaworthy.

His ships sunk, CortĂ©s marched into the interior, to the territory of the Tlaxcalans. They were resolute enemies of Mexico and CortĂ©s thought they might join him in a military alliance against the Aztecs. After a long debate, the Tlaxcalans decided to fight CortĂ©s instead, and they suffered terrible losses. Eventually they sued for peace and agreed to go with CortĂ©s to Mexico. CortĂ©s marched on with the Tlaxcalan warriors to Cholula, 20 miles from Tlaxcala. A story spread from the Tlaxcalans to Malinche that the Cholulans were planning to trap CortĂ©s inside the city and massacre his army. When the Cholulan leadership and many of their warriors gathered, unarmed, in a great enclosure by the pyramid temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Spanish and the Tlaxcalans killed them. The massacre had a chilling effect, provoking other kingdoms and cities in Montezuma’s empire to submit to CortĂ©s’ demands.

Similar to Tariz ibn Ziyad, Cortes may have burned the boats for fear of what his men may do, while Han Xin and Xiang Yu may have wanted to motivate more out of inspiration to their men than anything else. Still though, no matter the situation, the man in charge has removed the option of retreat, regardless of motivation.

This should also remind you of one of the more famous “point of no return” historical notes, which was Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon River, where Caesar intentionally broke the law by crossing the Rubicon, ensuring that him and his men were to be ready for a fight upon arrival.

The phrase “burn the boats” really then is about commitment to the cause, whether you like it or not. Sometimes you are completely accepting of the cause and then there are times where the decision is made for you.

Maybe the better phrase, although significantly less catchy, is, “you have to cross the river before you can burn the boats.” The physical act of crossing the river to fight may be slightly different than one man (or maybe a few) burning the boats where retreat isn’t an option (to clarify, I understand deserting and treason and all of that stuff, we’re talking metaphors here). Crossing the river (again, presuming you don’t have a gun at your back) is the actual voluntary step that each one of those men for Han Xin and Xiang Yu had to make. They certainly could have stayed on the banks and never fought. It was only after their men were over that they plunged into battle and in Xiang Yu’s case, defeated an army much larger than the one he was in charge of.

Maybe that’s the better catch-phrase (but less catchy), is simply, “I cross the river.” An affirmation that you’re all in for the fight, no matter the result.


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