Why Lists of Greatest Battles Don't Work

November 4, 2013 Topic: HistoryIdeologyFailed StatesSecurity

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.

Equally, the Protestant cause would actually have benefitted from a Spanish military lodgment in Kent, because the wily Duke of Parma would have at last been cornered. Thus the Dutch-Calvinist cause could have split Spanish forces and cemented their doom. Instead of merely gaining independence (in 1640), they might even have expelled Spain entirely from the Netherlands by 1600. Spain dodged a strategic bullet by losing their Armada.

What we have codified in literary canon as “fate of civilization” moments are instead merely tokens—if useful tokens—that a big military enterprise has reached its limit, and maybe should just stop. Like the old saw: “Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down;” what we cherish as “decisive battles” are really just flags and signposts not to go any farther.

The Ottomans had some natural strategic limits. There is a reason they besieged Vienna twice: It was the end of the road. On spring-summer campaign, their armies could never get further than Hungary-Podolia, or Azerbaijan-Tabriz. Italy was never seriously in the cards. Never—and Lepanto was its message.

Likewise the Spanish Habsburgs had their hands full for eighty years doing “whack-a-mole” in the Netherlands. England, whose former queen had actually been married to Philip II, may have seemed to him like a solution waiting for a Spanish tercio or two. But this was way over his limit. The Armada was his stand-down message.

Battles at sea that send this message seem a far cry from Jim’s definition of “decisive.” Yet there have been decisive naval battles: Battles that not only have the whole literary thing going—but the whole real thing going too. I can think of two.

The Arab (Umayyad) assault on Constantinople in 717-718 was in large part turned back by Byzantine naval power. Here it just might have gone the other way, and here a Muslim victory would surely have had incalculable consequences for our civilization.

Why? Because Constantinople was unique: It was the last place, the Helm’s Deep of antiquity, and thus the final repository, not only of Greco-Roman civilization’s artifacts, but also of its institutions, way of life, and way of thinking. Had it fallen, at a time when there were no other places to pick up the pieces and provide us continuity: Things, big things in history, might have well been different.

The second decisive battle was a naval battle the U.S. lost decisively. It is called Pearl Harbor. I am still amazed that students deny that Pearl Harbor was a naval battle. It is perhaps in the religious nature of American exceptionalism that such shameful events have eternal dispensation from sin—as long as you call it a “sneak attack.”

This, and all of this, I fully understand. But Pearl Harbor was a decisive naval battle. It was the fatal juncture that forever altered the course of America, but more significantly, of Japanese civilization. By taking this path, Japan led itself into a vale of tears that has persisted all the decades since the war, and from which the Japanese people and nation have not emerged. By any objective measure, this was the decisive naval engagement of modernity.

Thus, the biggest missing piece in any discussion of “decisive battle” is the struggle over significance in identity. Great dramatic moments of triumph and transcendence, retold as heroic stories, fill that need.

But “decisive battle” is also a sell-job for the war-enterprise itself. The whole linkage of decisive battle with “destined for greatness” also insists that our national identity must be fulfilled in battle. Everything that actually happened is relevant only if it sustains this grand and slightly sacred narrative. Everything depends on how the narrative is spun. Hence Trafalgar is still central to the narrative of British identity, just as Midway and D-Day are to Americans, or even as Lepanto books were during The Great Muslim-American war of the first decade of this century—spinning their message of Christian victory over Muslim “bad guys.”

My difficulty with the game of “Pick Your Decisive Battle” is less about telling history than it is about twisting history into a series of moralizing tales: About which nations are “destined for greatness” (or as Japan above, eternal infamy), just like they were stories from the Bible. Endlessly repeating every glorious moment becomes a ritual of reaffirmation.