Victor Davis Hanson: Enormous, massively destructive engagements may again be on the horizon
March 2, 2010
Have we not seen, then, in our lifetime the end of the Western way of war?” Two decades ago, I concluded The Western Way of War with that question. Since Western warfare had become so lethal and included the specter of nuclear escalation, I thought it doubtful that two Western states could any longer wage large head-to-head conventional battles. A decade earlier, John Keegan, in his classic The Face of Battle, had similarly suggested that it would be hard for modern European states to engage in infantry slugfests like the Battle of the Somme. “The suspicion grows,” Keegan argued of a new cohort of affluent and leisured European youth—rebellious in spirit and reluctant to give over the good life to mass conscription—“that battle has already abolished itself.”
Events of the last half-century seem to have confirmed the notion that decisive battles between two large, highly trained, sophisticated Westernized armies, whether on land or on sea, have become increasingly rare. Pentagon war planners now talk more about counterinsurgency training, winning the hearts and minds of civilian populations, and “smart” interrogation techniques—and less about old-fashioned, “blow-’em-up” hardware (like, say, the F-22 Raptor) that proves so advantageous in fighting conventional set battles. But does this mean that the big battle is indeed on its way to extinction?
Big battles sometimes changed entire conflicts in a matter of hours, altering politics and the fate of millions. It is with history’s big battles, not the more common “dirty war” or insurgency, that we associate radical changes of fortune as well as war poetry, commemoration, and, for good or ill, the martial notions of glory and honor. Had the Greeks lost their fleet at “Holy” Salamis in 480 bc, instead of beating back the Persian invaders, the history of the polis might well have come to an end, and with it a vulnerable Western civilization in its infancy. Had the Confederates broken the Union lines at Gettysburg and swept behind Washington, Abraham Lincoln would have faced enormous pressure to settle the Civil War according to the status quo ante bellum. If the “band of brothers” had been repulsed at Normandy Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944, it is difficult to imagine that they would have reattempted an enormous amphibious invasion soon after—but easy instead to envision a victorious Red Army eventually camped on the Atlantic Coast and occupying Western Europe.
Yet set engagements, it’s important to note, have never been the norm in warfare. The 27-year-long Peloponnesian War saw only two major ground engagements, at Delium (424 bc) and Mantinea (418 bc), and a few smaller infantry clashes, at Solygeia and outside Syracuse. In the asymmetrical struggle between Athenian naval power and premier Spartan infantry, the most common kinds of fighting were hit-and-run attacks, terrorism, sieges, constant ravaging of agriculture, and sea and amphibious assaults. True, during the murderous Roman Civil War (49–31 bc), frequent and savage battles at Actium and elsewhere claimed more than a quarter-million Roman lives. Yet after the creation of the Principate by the new emperor, Augustus, much of the Mediterranean world was relatively united and free of frequent major battles for nearly half a millennium. And after the fall of the Roman Empire, for most of the Middle Ages, sieges and low-intensity conflict were more common than major engagements such as Poitiers (732), Hattin (1187), and Crécy (1346).
In fact, the course of military history has been strikingly cyclical. The eminent military historian Russell Weigley once described an “Age of Battles”—a uniquely destructive two centuries of pitched warfare between Gustavus Adolphus’s victory at Breitenfeld (1631) and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (1815)—in which European armies of multifarious rivals, often in vain, sought to decide entire wars in a few hours of head-to-head fighting. That age ended with the agreements following the Congress of Vienna, which (along with military deterrence) kept a general peace in Europe for nearly a century. Set battles were common only in colonial theaters (Tel el Kebir, Omdurman), in Asia (Tsushima), and in the Americas (the decisive battles of the Mexican, Spanish-American, and American civil wars).
Then, during the first half of the twentieth century, came another Age of Battles, with the First and Second World Wars witnessing the most destructive fighting in the history of arms. The details of Iwo Jima, Kursk, Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Okinawa, Passchendaele, the Somme, Stalingrad, and Verdun still chill the reader. Asia saw horrors of its own: most Westerners know little about the Huaihai campaign (late 1948–49), in which the Nationalist Chinese lost an entire army of 600,000 to the Communists in mostly conventional fighting.
Today, the world is clearly enjoying another respite from huge set battles. Except for the daring American landing at Inchon (September 1950) and the subsequent first liberation of Seoul, few battles of the last seven decades resembled the Battle of the Bulge. Far more common in the past half-century have been the asymmetrical wars between large Westernized militaries and poorer, less organized terrorists, insurgents, and pirates. The list of theaters where conventional forces have battled guerrillas is long: Afghanistan, Grozny, Iraq, Kashmir, Mogadishu, the Somali coast. Seldom does an indigenous force dare to come out in the open, marshal its resources, and test head-on the firepower and discipline of a Westernized force. History’s record on that score—from Tenochtitlán to Omdurman—is not encouraging for those who try…