‘The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won or Lost‘ by Cathal J. Nolan is no trite and glib accounting of heroic genius and blundering foolishness like so much of published military history. There is no romance to be found here. Only the stark appraisal of a materialist looking at many of the conventional wars of the modern age and asking those who casually study military history (actual scholars usually-but not always-know better these days) to smash the myths and look at the bloody truth: Its societies and their logistics that tend to win more than leadership. When leadership is important it can only work when harnessed to a communal effort that enables it to thrive.
Nolan implies he understands it was not always so. Medieval and tribal armies were often the sum total of defense their societies could put in the field. Surely, few could argue with the military dominance of the Eurasian nomad to centuries. (One also of course could say Eurasian nomads had the best logistical system of all time, as they took everything with them on campaign at no mobility sacrifice, I suppose). But with the increasing importance of centralized states, fortifications, and gunpowder came larger armies and more territoriality fixed states. After a brief introduction to bring us up to the 30 Years War, Nolan really gets going with his main case studies. He seeks, and largely succeeds, in gradually building a case that in the age of firepower starting in the 17th Century and leading through at least the Second World War if not through today, the age of firepower has been the age of attrition and not grand romantic decisiveness.
One can go back before to find obvious examples of supposedly brilliant generals who lost entire wars only a few years after winning one or more truly ‘decisive’ victories. Hannibal gave us the term ‘Cannae’ after all-named after one of the most successful envelopment in all of military history. But that and other brilliant battlefield tactical level performances did not change that the outcome of the war was a decisive defeat for him and for Carthage. Scipio on the other hand could learn from Hannibal tactically but brought an understanding of the enemy’s weakness behind their armies that led all his campaigns to really count in the long term. But as is so often the case with military history, the glamour of the takes eyes off the drudgery of the staff room and the logistics trains. Now, this is not really a new or mind blowing perspective for those of us who have given the research of military history quite a lot of thought, but it has never seen such a concerted case for its making as this.
Showing consistently how gunpowder actually extended the operational over the tactical in conventional war, Nolan takes us through the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and up until 1945. He has a wide array of history to work with, so he focuses on Europe and modern Japan, where the cult of decisive battle seeking was the strongest. He has some choice words for some famous generals, respectful criticisms of others, and some praise for a few who normally do not get the praise they deserve. Part of the joy of the book is to find out what his take on a ‘great captain’ might end up being. Some common wisdom is overturned.
All throughout Nolan shows us how ‘the captains’ and even sometimes the armies themselves were secondary to the ability of states to wage war until the exhaustion of the other. Combined with these straightforward and mostly objective observations also comes the author’s poetic humanity, which never fails to bring forward the suffering of common people, soldier and civilian, in often pointless and frivolous wars for marginal gains. He never loses sight that he is a historian of tragedy and broken lives, even as he sets forth the seemingly brutal case that mass numbers, grueling campaigning, and institutional and organizational superiority often overcome where flashy battles do not.
One major reason he gives for the popularization of the concept of the one decisive battle or campaign right when warfare was moving exactly in the other direction was a cut of the offensive stemming from victory disease. His two most detailed case studies, Victorian-Early 20th Century Germany and Japan, were resource insecure revisionist powers who sought to use military force to establish regional hegemonies. Their first wars, often against foes in more dire straights than they, were successful enough in their objectives to inspire a bland self confidence not just in military solutions to international problems, but also that such solutions could and must be brought about rapidly before superior coalitions resources could be brought to bear against such aggression. ‘Shock and Awe’, much later generations would call it. These actions are contrasted quite negatively with Allied adaptability after initial massive defeats, and greater ability to re-tool to play the long game to reverse the tables against enemies who were too wedded to very specific victory plans. As Von Kluck and Moltke the Younger melted down over the failure of the Shleiffen Plan (something Nolan refreshingly doesn’t even praise as a potential concept given the dire diplomatic ramifications and lack of enough vehicles to really exploit the speed necessary) Foch was learning to abandon his commitment to previously faddish offensive doctrine and look for a nuanced grand strategy that did not have to win or lose in an opening move. A similar thing would happen throughout World War 2, most egregiously in the Pacific with the Japanese failures to bag the American carriers and prepare for full scale logistical war on their new empire by submarines, making all their many resource rich and defensible consequences become rotting branches on a dying tree. Operation Barbarrossa might be the largest scale example of this type of thinking, itself moved up in expectation in timetable due to a miss-reading of the tea leaves that came with the unexpected ease which France fell-seemingly confirming the cult of the offensive and enabling it to grow yet more over-ambitious. In so doing, by failing to win decisively in Moscow it condemned its soldiers to lose in time.
The author does not forgo the important or morale or leadership but simply undermines their cardinal place in the hierarchy. Though to me group solidarity is a very important part of not just battlefield success but also logistics and mobilization at home. That feeds directly into staying power which in turn feeds into production and sustaining the effort.
While I loved this book stylistically and historically…I do have a couple of quibbles:
-I do understand needed to limit oneself on such a massive topic, but throwing in more countries outside of Europe than just Japan would have been nice. Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance stands out as a great example of the author’s thesis points. So does the Second Boer War and even the century long succession of conflicts known as the Ashante Wars. The Safavids often coming off poorly against the Ottomans would also just barely fit into the time frame but illustrate the point, as would all around more views on the naval aspect of conflict (where battles do tend, proportionally, to be decisive as fleets are more expensive than armies and can be more thoroughly destroyed in defeat).
-The author constantly and rightly alludes to the American Civil War as far more instructive to the future of war than Konnigratz or Sedan, whose proximity to London and Paris made them models for future armies to follow-into disaster. But he never actually talks about it. I feel, considering even his admittance to its importance at looking at how war was evolving technologically, especially towards the end of the conflict, that he could have had a chapter on it to further his points elsewhere. Not only did the western campaign’s slow and stead progress on geographic and logistical targets prove the decisive part of the war, but commanders like Lee are often held up as neo-Hannibals when really their actions, impressive in single field engagements as they were, failed to further actual achievable strategic direction.
-While the author does mention Soviet Deep Battle strategy as a positive development against both purely positional grinding and wild pell-mell and often petering out Blitzkrieg, he never actually goes into it. This is a shame as few people do, but it has a truly impressive historical record as a battle doctrine and also shows that one can wage limited decisive campaigns building on each other to grind down an enemy with maneuver without risking everything on a single throw of the dice and wounding their behind the lines logistics while doing it. Personally, I am I big fan of looking at Soviet Deep Battle as an example of how conventional mechanized wars could operate as a starting point. I felt it getting a shout out without proper analysis was a real missed opportunity.
Definitely a must have for the military historian. Now, let’s just hope we don’t live to see another conventional outbreak.