Why Lists of Greatest Battles Don't Work

Battles rarely turn the tide of history. We're merely beating our chests.

Jim Holmes’ recent “Top Five Naval Battles of All Time” reminds us of what fun we can have handicapping history. But “Pick your Decisive Battles” can also be a mordant game. My Naval War College colleague implicitly reveals the unnoticed, darker fallacies to our strategic thinking—the kind that can lead to lost wars.

The first fallacy is our unconscious enshrining of “decisive battle”—not as in, “I won big”—but “I won history and changed the fate of nations, and the course of civilization, to boot”—in one battle. Jim shows us we actually still think this way.

There are actually a very few battles that meet this test: Hülegü’s sack of Baghdad in 1258 comes to mind. But the proliferation of “decisive”—as Jim suggests—may speak more of our bipolar search for, and simultaneous diminution of, ordinary significance in life than it does the role of decisive battles in history.

But such battles are even harder to find at sea.

Jim points out how Trafalgar’s very decisiveness requires long and elaborate invocations of Mahanian naval theology. It speaks to his own probity that he does not include Trafalgar in his “big five.” But what about his “decisive” picks?

Just consider Lepanto and The Armada, for example. Titian, Tintoretto, Vicentino and Veronese propaganda-paintings aside, Lepanto actually failed to “assure European, not Ottoman, command of the middle sea.” What it did assure was a renewed and vigorous Ottoman sea offensive, including the completed conquest of Cyprus, the wresting of Tunis from Spain, and the capture of Fez. Nor did Ottoman seapower thereafter quickly recede. From 1645-1669 the Porte leveraged Crete, jewel of the Venetian seaborne empire, from the grasp of the greatest Mediterranean navy of all. Even as late as 1715, the Ottomans retook Morea (the Peloponnesus) from Venice, fighting their fleets to a virtual standstill. So the middle sea, from Morocco to Otranto to the Dardanelles, plus the whole of the Black Sea, was still ruled by Ottoman fleets and corsairs for a long, long time after Lepanto.

The Armada seems equally “slam-dunk” decisive to us today. Like Lepanto, a fleet is destroyed, with 20,000 casualties: what could be worse? But unlike the Holy League, the English tried to follow up their victory with an expedition just as big as the Armada, launched against Spanish Lisbon. It was, as my son would say, an “epic fail.” The Spanish Armada (1588) and the English Armada (1589) suffered, at 20,000 each and scores of foundered ships, equal losses. Spain remained one of the big three sea powers, and totally effective defending its world empire—for two more centuries. So there is something decisive here?

Let’s face up to what “Pick Your Decisive Battles” is really all about. It is not simply an amusing “bloodsport.” Far from a Boy’s Club diversion, it is more sinister (or at least more cynical) entertainment altogether.

No joke. Look at how recent bestselling books in history—say, on Lepanto—are marketed. “The Contest for the Center of the World” one 2009 potboiler trumpets, while another in 2008 just puts it out there: Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash. The Armada is only different because here it is the battle royale between Western forces for the future: The dark way of Spanish autocracy, on one hand, and the plucky forces of light, of Anglo-Saxonica, on the other.

Only a wildly entertaining sleight-of-hand lets us believe battles are “decisive”—and the sleight-of-hand is this: The game makes defeat about the world itself being lost. If the “bad guys” had won at Lepanto, we would all be Muslims today; if the Armada had succeeded, we would all be speaking Spanish and crossing ourselves daily.

The deeper game emerges. A battle is decisive if “it decides the fate of civilizations, empires, or great nations.” Churchill’s “hinge of fate” tells us that decisive battles could have gone the other way—and not just on the field, but with superbad historical consequences.

At Lepanto the Ottoman fleet should have crushed the Holy League as badly as it was itself crushed by them. But then, on top of that, the (less-than-magnificent) Sultan Selim II could have rushed full-throttle into Italy and made Rome a protected Islamic fiefdom.

Hence, at Gravelines, the Spanish fleet should have smashed English galleons and then landed Parma and his army on Kentish soil. But then, with a wave of the hand, that army could have overturned England and stayed fully resupplied by sea, while also maintaining its iron grip on the Spanish Netherlands in absentia.

Please tell how this could have been done. No Ottoman army could have survived in Italy, let alone quickly conquered it. Logistics from the Balkans made such an enterprise an instant loser, and the tercios would have wiped out such a forlorn army. Moreover, Ottoman defeat in Italy would have been far more shameful than a temporary and easily requited loss at sea.