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How historians have shaped military history [excerpt]

Military history can easily be distorted through its emphasis on war heroes and the battles they fought in. Though these battles may shape the narrative of military history, the outcomes of war are decided by many other factors.

In The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost, historian Cathal Nolan draws on conflicts throughout history, and examines the significance of major battles. In the excerpt below, Nolan takes a look at how historians have perpetuated “decisive-battle thinking,” influencing the study of war.

A widespread belief persisted, not for centuries but for at least two millennia, that when world history turned, it did so on a few days or hours of intense violence, in major battles waged and won by great captains of special courage and genius. The ascent or toppling of dynasties and empires could be explained by a singular clash of arms so complete that the winner dictated the political and cultural direction taken by the loser. War’s quick release of pent-up tectonic force, rather than slow processes of social erosion or cultural deposit, reshaped history in a red moment. Inside decisive wars, decisive battles shifted, shook, and split apart deeply layered cultural and political foundations of civilizations. Causality of complex change was reduced to a day of blood-soaked drama that decided whether ancient empires and cultures prospered or failed and how past eras would be framed or forgotten. A calamitous fight would stretch over just a morning or afternoon of intense drama. A crucial campaign might last only a spring or summer. Yet decades or even centuries of built-up pressure for change were released in sudden shudders of history-making carnage.

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“Head of Herodotos” by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Great wars and the battles that decided them were deep faults violently slipping to open critical fissures, breaking the bedrock of an ancient order, and resetting the borders of whole ages, shaking empires to ruins, ending one era, and uplifting a new one. Morally grotesque as brute contests of blood and bone might be, these spectacular battlefield clashes of muscle and machine were touchstones of political and cultural extinction or survival. Battles and wars lost or won fixed the fate of kings, countries, peo­ples, and cultures. Battle was history. War was destiny. Defeat was forever.

This approach is less often encountered in modern military history, though it’s still not entirely absent. It retains some hold on an influential corner of the field and dominates popular accounts written for general readers. Yet to view field battles as the soul of war and war as the soul of culture was always a gross misrepresentation and oversimplification of military and cultural history alike. For it’s also true that strategic victory even in many ancient wars was not always decided by the intervention of great captains of special genius who won spectacular battlefield victories, even before the limiting modern era of major-power balance and long wars of physical and material erosion. Ancient warfare also gave rise to protracted campaigns of endurance and to extended sieges; to exhaustion of men and matériel supply; to brutal treks and weary campaigns across hard, sun-beaten geography; to wearing out armies from bad weather and worse water and food. Playing a supporting role to physical attrition was moral exhaustion, until a war paused in stalemate or a limited victory was reached where one side’s will or ability to resist eroded and flagged.

The persistence of decisive-battle thinking is less surprising when it’s recalled that the notion germinated along with what is often described as the first writing of history (historiē), a rudimentary empirical inquiry into causes of major events that was invented in Greece in the 5th century BCE by Herodotus. He made the first known, serious endeavor to compose a fact-based account of events, or at least supplemented with facts the usual repetition of cultural myths and attribution of causation to the gods. Herodotus proposed that at Plataea in 479 BCE an army of 100,000 ordinary men did an extraordinary thing: they saved Greece from conquest by the Persian Emperor Xerxes, preserving the uniquely dynamic culture of the Peloponnese by force of arms and their wondrous moral and physical courage.

He praised as well the Greek victories in the Persian Wars at Marathon, Salamis, and Mycale, the latter fought in Asia Minor on the same day as Plataea. Thus was born along with writing history the idea of battle as the great hinge turning the story of much larger things, and endless argument over causation and contingency. Is some great personage worthy of our praise or to blame for losing a cause or a kingdom in an afternoon? Was defeat foreseeable to reason or the Fates before a battle was even fought? Did an empire fall not through any hubris or moral fault but instead, as the rhyming medieval proverb put it, for some small and chance contingency, for simple “want of a nail”?

Dispute was immediate, as other Greeks emphasized the fight at Marathon as the truly decisive day in the long Persian Wars. They even pointed to a precise moment, the climax of a desperate charge by a hoplite phalanx that stopped, then broke, the advancing Persian line. The long-disputed hoplite charge is probably true in fact, if not detail. Most scholars believe it began not, as once said, from eight stadia (9/10ths of a mile) but at about 200–300 yards, or once the Greeks came within bowshot of Persian archers.

The view of Greek courage being decisive at Marathon is not controversial, but the view of Marathon as uniquely decisive in the long war with Persia is. The claim likely originated among city propagandists pushing Athenian leadership in the contemporary affairs of Greece. With the ascendance of Athens, this version of the Greek-Persian wars became the epic legend, more powerful than the facts of a much wider war with the Persian Empire, at least as Herodotus presented it.

Marathon is still regularly described as the watershed moment in the rise of Athens, and so it was: had the Athenians failed on its field that day, their city-state must have succumbed to the Persian invaders, likely never would have built its famous and immense fleet, and might never have risen to become a first-tier power among the Greeks. Some battles in the Persian War were truly decisive. Marathon likely was one of several, as the defensive victory there proved key to the history of Athens in the larger Greek world after 490 BCE. It pushes things much too far to say, however, as some do, that on the fulcrum base of Marathon teetered all Western civilization over the next two millennia.

The main point to be made here is that a powerful precedent of competing claims to decisive battle was set at the very beginning of historiē, of the art and practice of the historian. That led to disputes ever after about which battles were decisive and which were not, which era ended or began in some great war, and what civilization rose or fell on and because of a raw day of courage and gore.

Featured image credit: “Persian (and Median) warriors” by Ginolerhino. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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