Monday, June 12, 2017

the delusion of decisive battles



I like books with a well-argued point of view. That makes revisionist and contrarian writers more interesting than the recyclers of the conventional wisdom. Today’s example is Boston University historian Cathal J. Nolan’s The Allure of Battle. I didn’t read all 707 pages of Nolan’s tome – hardly any book deserves that length and weight -- but I welcomed his basic message:


The book does not argue that battle-seeking was always the wrong strategy throughout the period covered, or that all the wars considered were decided solely by attrition. However, it argues that, with few exceptions, the major power wars of the past several centuries were in the end decided by grinding exhaustion more than by the operational art of even the greatest of the modern great captains.

 Nolan’s pedagogical point is that it is highly misleading to focus history on so-called decisive battles, since they rarely determined or can explain broader geopolitical developments. His policy point is even more important: too many political and military leaders have succumbed to the “allure of battle” and counted on short wars which rarely turned out that way. The actual quick success of Prussia’s wars against Austria and France misled later generations of military planners to adopt the cult of the offensive, with tragic results.

I agree with that analysis, and with Nolan’s conclusions:
  

 First, beware the vanity of nations and the hubris of leaders, civilian and military; but perhaps civilians most of all. … Second, always be deeply skeptical of short-war plans and promises of easy victory, for they shall go awry as combat commences and descends into chaos, and an intelligent and determined enemy refuses to accept the initial verdict.

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