Wars are Not Always Won by Military Genius or Decisive Battle, But Attrition is not the Answer

Cathal Nolan, who teaches military history (among other things) at Boston University, recently wrote an essay entitled “Wars are not Won by Military Genius or Decisive Battles” in the online journal Aeon.

In this piece, Nolan criticizes traditional military history for focusing on battles—something that misleads the public into thinking that wars are won “in an hour or an afternoon of blood and bone.” Such a view of war also entices “generals and statesmen with the idea that a hard red day can be decisive, and allow us to avoid attrition” which many see as “morally vulgar and without redemptive heroism.” If we begin to understand that wars are a matter of “joining weight of material to strength of will,” we come to comprehend that victory is attained less by military genius than by “grinding,” “resolve,” and “strategic depth.” Having recognized that war is about attrition, we must embrace that fact. As Nolan puts it:

With humility and full moral awareness of its terrible costs, if we decide that a war is worth fighting, we should praise attrition more and battle less. There is as much room for courage and character in a war of attrition as in a battle.

Before writing anything else, One Thing after Another must concede that Nolan is correct about a number of things. Clearly, as he argues, there is much more to war than battle. There are the operational, strategic, and political dimensions of war, and these involve areas as diverse as culture and economics. He is also on the mark in arguing that, quite frequently, wars are drawn-out affairs in which the defeated party is vanquished as much by material exhaustion as by anything else. The spirit behind this essay, which requires us to accept that there is no short-cut to military victory, is commendable. In the same way that one cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs, one cannot win a war without a commitment that involves many soldiers getting killed. Finally, every military historian must, as Nolan does, give the Tolstoyan view of warfare its due; fighting is a chaotic enterprise over which generals find it difficult to assert control.

One Thing after Another also understands that Nolan probably seeks to offer a kind of intellectual provocation. Even so, in responding, the blogosphere must do its best to keep him honest. And honesty compels this blog to disagree with Nolan’s argument on a number of grounds. To start with, Nolan’s terms are often ill-defined and his argument overdrawn when he discusses the current state of military history as well as the public’s understanding of war. What literature is he referring to when he mentions “traditional military history” which presents battles “as fulcrum moments where empires rose or fell in a day”? What exactly is the “drums-and-trumpets style,” and with what frequency are “popular histories” written that way? Which historians celebrate “even failed campaigns as glorious”? One Thing after Another does not recognize the current state of military history in these statements. Are academic and professional military historians implicated in Nolan’s charges? If not, he should make that point clear. If so, he is wrong. Nolan’s charges concerning war movies also seem problematic. Are they universally about “raw courage and red days, the thrill of vicarious violence and spectacle”? This blog can think of numerous and substantial exceptions to this claim. And on what basis does Nolan assert that “most people” still think wars are won “in an afternoon”? In light of current events, such a claim appears questionable.

The argument that all wars are more or less won by attrition also seems like something of an overstatement. Every conflict witnesses a degree of attrition, but if one claims that they are all won through this process, the category of attrition ceases to be a particularly useful category of analysis. Moreover, insisting that attrition is central to all wars would iron out the uniqueness of each conflict, and as historians we are bound to recognize this uniqueness. Most important, though, is the fact that many wars clearly are not won by attrition. Off the top of its head, One Thing after Another can think of several conflicts that more or less consisted of a single major battle (e.g. Hastings, Jena-Auerstedt, and Königgrätz). In many more cases, there are wars that were decided by a great battle (e.g. Gaugamela) or wars that were in no way won by attrition (e.g. the Falklands War).

Even if the notion that wars were won by attrition was entirely correct, we would still be justified in studying battles (although not to the exclusion of all else). It is, after all, through battle that attrition often takes place. In this context, one recalls Friedrich Engels’ paraphrasing of Carl von Clausewitz (which appeared in John Keegan’s The Face of Battle—a book, by the way, that completely reconfigured the approach to battle history for the better over forty years ago): “Fighting is to war what cash payment is to trade, for however rarely it may be necessary for it actually to occur, everything is directed towards it, and eventually it must take place all the same and must be decisive.” Even if it is not decisive in an afternoon, battle is decisive nonetheless. One thinks in this context of William Philpott’s Three Armies on the Somme (2010). This battle history argues that the Somme was an attritional fight that played a major role in hollowing out the Germany army and paving the way for Allied victory during World War I. In other words, by attriting the German army, the Somme contributed to decision and is worthy of study.

Of course, if battle is significant, so is generalship. After all, one of the reasons our armed forced study military history—and particularly battle history—is to cultivate leadership to fight future wars as well as we can. Nolan counsels, however, that we should not worship “military genius”; instead, we must value “sound generalship.” The distinction is not entirely clear. One Thing after Another is put in mind of Clausewitz’s famous statement about friction that appears in On War: “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Is Nolan advising, then, that we should give up on brilliance and hope for nothing more than military leaders who can execute simple operations in the name of attrition?

The problem is that deliberately embracing a classic strategy of attrition (that is, where attrition is preeminent—for attrition is always present) leads to significant ethical problems. For one thing, it places us on the path of reducing humanity to an instrument or an object rather than treating human life as an end in itself (think of Immanuel Kant here). For another, as scholars operating in the Just War tradition have pointed out, attrition often leads to violations of the criterion of proportionality in jus in bello. By its very nature, generals employing attrition as a strategy are inclined to unleash violence of great intensity on an enormous scale that can be inordinate when compared to the aims sought. Such an approach to war is wasteful of human life and is therefore condemnable, especially when other strategies are available. Of course, Nolan’s point seems to be that, generally speaking, no other strategies are truly available; despite our best efforts, wars are de facto about attrition, so we may as well call a spade a spade and get on with it. There is perhaps some merit in such honesty, but this kind of truthfulness places us on a terrible and slippery slope.

After Waterloo, which capped almost a quarter century of continuous fighting in Europe, military men became enamored of Napoleon. They studied Napoleon through his leading interpreter, Antoine-Henri Jomini, in an attempt to understand the secret of attaining decision on the battlefield, and they largely reconceived military history as the story of decisive battles. Since 1945, more often than not, the United States has found itself involved in frustrating “protracted” wars (to use Mao Zedong’s phrase) in which the enemy has often targeted this country’s will to sustain the struggle. Indeed, at this moment, America still finds itself mired in wars of long duration in Central Asia and the Middle East. Considering these circumstances, is it any surprise that a contemporary scholar is willing to throw up his hands, claim that the age of decisive battle never was, and tell us to embrace attrition? In his prescriptions, Nolan is very much unlike Napoleon’s successors; the former counsels attrition, the latter sought decision on the battlefield. Where they are similar, though, is in their tendency to recast the past in the image of their own time. Admittedly, to quote Benedetto Croce, “All history is contemporary history.”  Yet if we allow our current preoccupations to color our view of the past too much, we run the risk of producing ahistorical interpretations.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.