Case Studies In Conflict: Richard Overy’s “War: A History In 100 Battles”

We hear a lot of talk about “new generations” of warfare.  Everything is supposed to be new, different, and immutably changed from previous eras of conflict.  Some people have even taken to numbering what they see as historical phases of warfare.  First generation, second generation, third generation, etc.  While there is some merit to this classification system, I think its disadvantages outweigh its advantages.  Such neat categorizations tempt us into believing that things are somehow different now than they have been in the past.

One can’t get over the feeling that all this talk of “generations” in warfare is nothing but marketing, a way for military writers to sell books.  Oh, look, see how I’ve unlocked the secrets of the new era!  I’ve broken the code, and lay it all out for you!  Some American military theorists have made much of what they call a “Revolution in Military Affairs,” and have even conferred respectability on the theory by giving it a nifty military abbreviation:  RMA.  Because, of course, if we give something its own initials, it must be something of importance.

I suggest that Richard Overy’s wonderful War:  A History In 100 Battles demolishes the “generations” theory of conflict.  How sick I am of military theorists proclaiming that they have discovered the keys to the “next generation” of this, that, or the other thing.  How tired I am of hearing them bray, bray, bray, like aggrieved asses!  The truth is that there is no revolution in anything.  There are no generations.  There is only the same struggle, the same conflict, that has existed since man first learned how to pick up a club, or affix a spear-point to a stick.  Technology has changed, of course:  it is vastly different now than what it was during the Battle of Kadesh in 1285 B.C., the first battle in military history of which we have a clear account.  The same principles that have animated the flow of warfare in all previous ages are still with us now, determining the outcomes of armed contests.  Theorists like to construct their little abstruse spider-webs to give themselves something to do, and to market their products; but the truth is that nothing has changed except the technology and the pace of events.

There is a scene in the movie The Exorcist, towards the end of the film, when the young Father Karras is speaking to the old Father Mirren, and tries to tell him about the various personae that the demon has manifested in the possessed girl.  He tries to begin his explanation, but old Father Mirren cuts him short, wise in the ways of evil.  “No,” he says.  “There is only one.”  Meaning that there is only one demon, only one essence, despite its outward appearance of taking various forms.  This is a good analogy, I think.  There are no “generations.”  There is only one Conflict.  And that is Conflict, with a capital C.

These were the thoughts that came to mind as I worked my way through War:  A History In 100 Battles.  What a brilliant and well-executed collection of case-studies this is.  I have long searched for this kind of volume, a book that breaks down in simple language many of the important battles in history, and discusses why the outcomes were determined one way or another.  Overy divides his battles just as he should:  he groups them by moral factors, or what key moral ingredient most affected the final result.  So we have sections on leadership, innovation, deception, courage under fire, and speed.

Some have criticized Overy for not including maps in his book.  I disagree; the lack of maps actually helps his narrative, rather than hurts it.  How often have you tried to make sense of some convoluted battlefield map, with arrows pointing in various directions, and squares and circles interposed prominently on the fuzzy terrain?  The truth is that sometimes we just need things explained to us in clear, unadorned language; our minds will supply the graphics.  If you really want to learn what conflict is like, there is no better way than to review case-study after case-study, and take as your sample-size all of recorded history.  If you do this, you will know what factors are important in armed conflicts.  This is what Overy understands, and this is what makes his book so helpful in understanding what has mattered over the centuries.

Reading his book encouraged me to jot down my own thoughts about what I thought were important factors in conflict.  The list below is not meant to be exhaustive.  It is just a few relevant thoughts.

Speed matters.  I think it was Nathan Bedford Forrest who said something to the effect that you need to “get there first with the most.”  I agree.  If you can beat the opponent to the punch, you will have a built-in advantage.

Hit him, and keep hitting him until it’s done.  When the time for the decision has arrived, you need to hit hard and decisively.

Wear him down psychologically.  Morale matters so much, as we all know.  If you can cripple the enemy’s mind before he has even entered the ring, you have a decisive advantage.

You can’t dance your way around a fight.  Fighting is a brutal business.  You can’t maneuver your way to victory.  You can’t make a lot of fancy footwork and expect to dazzle the other side into submission.  This was the mistake that the Union generals made in the early stages of the American Civil War.  At some point, you have to locate, close with, and grind the other side down using brute force.  In some ways, all conflicts are conflicts of attrition.  At the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the two opponents hammered, hacked, and slashed away at each other relentlessly until the ground was slippery with blood and gore.  The outcome of the Battle of Aleppo in the Syrian War was also decided by brute attrition.  You can’t mince around the reality of the contest.

Leadership is crucial.  If a fool or an incompetent is running the show, you are basically done.

Guts is what matters.  At some point, the man on the scene has to hold the line.  He has to face down the battle-axe, the arrows, the bullets, the bombs, or the drones.  Or he has to advance in the face of likely death.  There is no way to sugar-coat this.  The modern man thinks he can find ways around this, but there is no way around it.  At some point, you’ve got to get up off your ass and move into the action.  And then do something.  At the end of the day, this has not changed since the Egyptians clashed with the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1285 B.C.

The foregoing were just a few of my thoughts.  I encourage you to read Overy’s book, and make up your own list of determining factors of conflict.  It will be far more instructive than you might expect.


Read more on the nature of conflict in Sallust: