Some Battles Are Worth Fighting, And Others Are Not

Historical opinion is often divided on the subject of famous military commanders.  The good favor of historians may be divided with regard to their abilities, their judgments, and their battlefield results; and this favor can shift with time as readily as sand drifts aggregate and dissipate in the desert.  Douglas MacArthur is one example.  Some see him as a brilliant strategist and tactician, using sophisticated combinations to outflank and out-maneuver his opponents; others see only a vain egoist whose achievements were obscured by his personal flaws.

What cannot be doubted is that MacArthur accomplished a great deal with little resources in the southwest Pacific theater during the Second World War.  He was able to bypass the Japanese Empire’s fortified island bases (like Rabaul), leaving them to wither on the vine, and strike at the enemy’s more vulnerable points.  This strategy stood in stark contrast to what the US Navy and Marine Corps were doing at the time, which was to make costly frontal assaults on islands that in some cases were of dubious value.  When Okinawa was invaded, MacArthur privately told a confidant that he would have only taken half the island, and let the fortified southern half waste away from starvation and disease.

Perhaps the most famous lesson in economy of management is found in the career of Roman dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus, who was chosen by the senate to deal with the Hannibalic invasion during the Second Punic War.  Hotheads in Rome were constantly agitating for a good general to take to the field and confront the wily Carthaginian.  But Fabius knew better; he could see that Hannibal was a foe unlike any that his country had encountered before, and that any attempt to meet him on equal terms would end in disaster for Rome.  The simple fact was that Hannibal was just too good of a general.  So Fabius counseled for a prudent strategy of delay:  shadow Hannibal all over the peninsula, harass him when possible, and let time, the lack of supplies, and normal attrition wear him down.  The hotheads thought this policy was unbecoming of Rome’s martial spirit, and pressed for direct confrontations with the invader.  And the results at Cannae were catastrophic.

One of the hardest lessons for us to learn is that there are battles that are worth fighting, and there are those that are not.  Learning how to distinguish the two is one of the primary goals of maturity.  We do not have unlimited energy, and we do not have unlimited resources.  How, then, can we know when to engage, and when not to?  We must first make a realistic appraisal of our goals and resources.  You may think this is an easy thing to do.  But this is not the case.

In my law practice, I have found that one of the most effective questions for prospective clients is this one: what is your goal?  That is, what are you trying to accomplish here?  This question has the virtue of cutting through all the excuses, daydreams, rationalizations, and wishful thinking.  It clarifies things.  And you would be surprised at how often this simple question is greeted with a blank stare, or how long it takes some people to answer the question.  Why is this so?  It is so because many people do not know what their goals and resources are.

And if we dig deeper, we find that the inability to articulate one’s goal is based on an even deeper reality:  the person does not know what his priorities are.  He or she may have a mental laundry list of things they see as priorities; but they have not done the hard work of sifting out the “priorities” that matter, from the priorities that do not matter.  And this is the heart of the problem.  What is in your interest, and what is not in your interest?  People and nations should be able to articulate a clear answer to this question.  And yet we all know that many cannot do this.  I suspect even high-ranking government officials in Washington could not give you a clear response to this question.

So the first problem is the lack of a clear understanding of goals and resources.  But there is a second problem that degrades our ability to distinguish what battles should and should not be fought.  This second problem is the problem of human emotion.  It is emotion that often blind us from seeing where our priorities are.  In the heat of the moment, our judgment may be affected by fear, pride, delusion, anger, or greed.  We do not need to define these terms; their meaning is known to all.  Their importance lies in the fact that they prevent us from seeing what is in our best interests.  Under their influence, we make decisions that run counter to what is best for us.  And this is why the man who can control his passions is more successful than the man who cannot; one is like a trained horse on a parade-ground, while the other is a wild mare, skittishly running here and there on the whim of the moment.

So before you enter into some dispute, spend a good amount of time asking these questions:

What is my goal?

What are my primary interests, are what are not?

What are my present and future resources, and are they sufficient for the proposed challenge?

Are my decisions in alignment with my proposed goals and resources?

These are the questions that a rational, reasonable man must ask himself.  If your proposed decision or solution is not in alignment with your goals and resources, then the battle is probably not one that is worth fighting.

A tragic duel witnessed in Germany by Jonas Hanway on his travels in the 1750s.

I have previously written about the travels and career of the British traveler and philanthropist Jonas Hanway (1712–1786).  In one of his books, he discusses the tragic absurdity of men fighting duels to the death for trivial reasons.  He had personally witnessed a mortal duel between two young men in Germany, and thereafter never missed a chance to condemn the practice.  His physical bravery was beyond question, as his life experiences demonstrate; it was just that he saw no point in risking his life without good reason.  He considered the practice deeply immoral:

To be reconciled to death is essential to a philosopher and a Christian, that is, in fact to be really no coward; but it is equally essential to these characters to refuse this criminal way of dying. It follows then, that these renounce the appearance of virtue for the reality of it. If the duellist acts contrary to this principle, he renounces the reality for the appearance. From hence we may observe how extravagantly absurd the conduct of those is, who offer incense to this capricious, cruel, lawless, stupid idol, opinion, dressed in the garb of honour, and under the disguise of a gallant spirit…

The youth who has fought his duel, where no murder is committed, is some times more distinguished than the officer who has been in ten campaigns, has fought gallantly as many battles under a just command, and has truly served, nay perhaps has been one of a few who saved, their country. Thus the false courage which carries men to destroy the laws, and bring on anarchy and confusion, finds more respect than that which is employed according to the laws for the defense and preservation of the society, which can exist no longer than the laws.

Hanway tells us an amusing story of the one time he received a challenge to a duel.  He thus describes the event:

I once received a challenge. A certain manuscript of no consequence, clandestinely taken, and misrepresented, gave an alarm to a gentleman of the fighting sort; upon which I received a letter from him, conceived in these terms:


I understand you are the author of a paper subscribed ****, in which are initial letters that I presume mean me. As I always make it a point to resent affronts, I desire you will meet me at **** and bring your sword with you. 

I am, &c.” 

To which I answered to this effect:


In reply to your letter, the meaning of which I suppose is a challenge to fight with you: as I do not understand by what authority you call me to account, I will not tell you whether I am the author of any such paper as you mention, or not: but this I think my honour is concerned to tell you, that I never intend to do any man an injury; and if an offence does come, that honour also obliges me to make atonement, without putting my friends to the trouble of fighting: and for my part I ALWAYS MAKE IT A POINT NOT TO RESENT AFFRONTS, beyond the measure which reason and religion warrant. 

As to meeting you at *****, I have no inclination to walk in such weather as this, much less am I disposed to fight for nothing; but a sword I always wear, intending to use it upon every just occasion.

I am, &c.

My antagonist was satisfied, and no doubt was glad to be excused fighting, as all men are except those who are intoxicated with wine, or what is much the fame, with anger; or quite deprived of understanding.

With this firm and measured reply, Hanway demonstrated that he understood the difference between battles that are worth fighting, and battles that are best ignored.  Any fool can pick up a weapon; but the wise warrior will know when to draw his sword, and when to keep it sheathed.


Read more in Pantheon.