Have we not seen, then, in our lifetime the end of the Western way of war?” Two decades ago, I concluded The Western Way of War with that question. Since Western warfare had become so lethal and included the specter of nuclear escalation, I thought it doubtful that two Western states could any longer wage large head-to-head conventional battles. A decade earlier, John Keegan, in his classic The Face of Battle, had similarly suggested that it would be hard for modern European states to engage in infantry slugfests like the Battle of the Somme. “The suspicion grows,” Keegan argued of a new cohort of affluent and leisured European youth—rebellious in spirit and reluctant to give over the good life to mass conscription—“that battle has already abolished itself.”

Events of the last half-century seem to have confirmed the notion that decisive battles between two large, highly trained, sophisticated Westernized armies, whether on land or on sea, have become increasingly rare. Pentagon war planners now talk more about counterinsurgency training, winning the hearts and minds of civilian populations, and “smart” interrogation techniques—and less about old-fashioned, “blow-’em-up” hardware (like, say, the F-22 Raptor) that proves so advantageous in fighting conventional set battles. But does this mean that the big battle is indeed on its way to extinction?

Big battles sometimes changed entire conflicts in a matter of hours, altering politics and the fate of millions. It is with history’s big battles, not the more common “dirty war” or insurgency, that we associate radical changes of fortune as well as war poetry, commemoration, and, for good or ill, the martial notions of glory and honor. Had the Greeks lost their fleet at “Holy” Salamis in 480 bc, instead of beating back the Persian invaders, the history of the polis might well have come to an end, and with it a vulnerable Western civilization in its infancy. Had the Confederates broken the Union lines at Gettysburg and swept behind Washington, Abraham Lincoln would have faced enormous pressure to settle the Civil War according to the status quo ante bellum. If the “band of brothers” had been repulsed at Normandy Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944, it is difficult to imagine that they would have reattempted an enormous amphibious invasion soon after—but easy instead to envision a victorious Red Army eventually camped on the Atlantic Coast and occupying Western Europe.

Yet set engagements, it’s important to note, have never been the norm in warfare. The 27-year-long Peloponnesian War saw only two major ground engagements, at Delium (424 bc) and Mantinea (418 bc), and a few smaller infantry clashes, at Solygeia and outside Syracuse. In the asymmetrical struggle between Athenian naval power and premier Spartan infantry, the most common kinds of fighting were hit-and-run attacks, terrorism, sieges, constant ravaging of agriculture, and sea and amphibious assaults. True, during the murderous Roman Civil War (49–31 bc), frequent and savage battles at Actium and elsewhere claimed more than a quarter-million Roman lives. Yet after the creation of the Principate by the new emperor, Augustus, much of the Mediterranean world was relatively united and free of frequent major battles for nearly half a millennium. And after the fall of the Roman Empire, for most of the Middle Ages, sieges and low-intensity conflict were more common than major engagements such as Poitiers (732), Hattin (1187), and Crécy (1346).

In fact, the course of military history has been strikingly cyclical. The eminent military historian Russell Weigley once described an “Age of Battles”—a uniquely destructive two centuries of pitched warfare between Gustavus Adolphus’s victory at Breitenfeld (1631) and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (1815)—in which European armies of multifarious rivals, often in vain, sought to decide entire wars in a few hours of head-to-head fighting. That age ended with the agreements following the Congress of Vienna, which (along with military deterrence) kept a general peace in Europe for nearly a century. Set battles were common only in colonial theaters (Tel el Kebir, Omdurman), in Asia (Tsushima), and in the Americas (the decisive battles of the Mexican, Spanish-American, and American civil wars).

Then, during the first half of the twentieth century, came another Age of Battles, with the First and Second World Wars witnessing the most destructive fighting in the history of arms. The details of Iwo Jima, Kursk, Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Okinawa, Passchendaele, the Somme, Stalingrad, and Verdun still chill the reader. Asia saw horrors of its own: most Westerners know little about the Huaihai campaign (late 1948–49), in which the Nationalist Chinese lost an entire army of 600,000 to the Communists in mostly conventional fighting.

Today, the world is clearly enjoying another respite from huge set battles. Except for the daring American landing at Inchon (September 1950) and the subsequent first liberation of Seoul, few battles of the last seven decades resembled the Battle of the Bulge. Far more common in the past half-century have been the asymmetrical wars between large Westernized militaries and poorer, less organized terrorists, insurgents, and pirates. The list of theaters where conventional forces have battled guerrillas is long: Afghanistan, Grozny, Iraq, Kashmir, Mogadishu, the Somali coast. Seldom does an indigenous force dare to come out in the open, marshal its resources, and test head-on the firepower and discipline of a Westernized force. History’s record on that score—from Tenochtitlán to Omdurman—is not encouraging for those who try.

Those who have successfully attacked the United States—in Lebanon (1983), at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia (1996), at America’s East African embassies (1999), on the USS Cole (2000), and in New York and Washington in 2001—did so as terrorists. If nation-states sponsored such radical Islamist groups, they nearly always denied culpability, avoiding an all-out conventional war with the United States that they would inevitably lose—as the brief rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan demonstrated in 2001.

Amid the murderous fighting between well-organized armies during the Vietnam War, North Vietnam as a matter of practice did not attempt to engage Western forces in formal set engagements. (The sieges at Khe Sanh and, earlier, against the French at Dien Bien Phu proved the exceptions rather than the rule and were themselves not traditional collisions of infantry.) In its failed attempt in the 1980s to take over Afghanistan, the Soviet army may have killed more than 1 million Afghans without once engaging in a set collision with tens of thousands of jihadists. We still do not know all the gory details of the Iran-Iraq war (1980–89), in which more than 1 million combatants and civilians perished. But despite the carnage that characterized that war, set engagements, out in the open, between two massed armies were not a major part of the conflict, so far as we know.

Even the “Mother of All Battles” in the 1991 Gulf War was largely a rout. The tank battle at Medina Ridge involved hundreds of armored vehicles but lasted little more than an hour—the Americans suffering neither casualties from enemy fire nor a single Abrams tank destroyed, while obliterating 186 Iraqi tanks. Today, few Americans even know what Medina Ridge was. In other engagements, most of Saddam’s army disintegrated rather than fight advancing American armor—as was commonly the case again during the three-week war of 2003.

Some decisive fighting took place between British and Argentinean units during the Falklands War of 1982, but on a minuscule scale compared with the twentieth century’s bloody engagements. Tank battles raged in the Golan Heights during both the Six-Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973). For a few days, also in 1973, the Israelis and the Egyptian Third Army fought each other openly in the desert expanses of the Sinai Peninsula. But the far more usual pattern of the inconclusive Israeli-Arab conflict has been terrorism, intifadas, bombings, and missile strikes.

The Battle of Issus in 333 BC pitted Persian king Darius III against Alexander the Great.
Bridgeman Art LibraryThe Battle of Issus in 333 BC pitted Persian king Darius III against Alexander the Great.

Why does decisive battle wax and wane in frequency, and why has it become rarer again? The political landscape certainly explains much. Empire of any sort can lessen the incidence of warfare. Unified, central political control transforms the usual ethnic, tribal, racial, and religious strife into more internal and less violent rivalries for state representation and influence. Once Philip unified Greece under a Macedonian hegemony after Chaeronea (338 bc), set battles between city-states, so common earlier in the fourth century bc, became a rarity. For now, anyway, the European Union lacks the interstate rivalry that plunged Europe into murderous battles for much of the first half of the twentieth century.

When the world is divided into larger blocs that have sizable, competent conventional forces—such as the Soviet and American spheres during the Cold War—confrontation can potentially turn catastrophic, given the vast resources available to each side. Yet it’s also possible that in such a bipolar world, battling along nationalist lines, among a variety of state players, will be less frequent. No nation of the Warsaw Pact fought the Soviet Republic; American allies like Iran did not threaten American allies like Israel; Tito and Yugoslavian Communism for a time kept Bosnians, Croats, Kosovars, Macedonians, and Serbs from killing one another.

In the present age, many of the most powerful economies in the world are united under the loose rubric “the West,” which includes some former nations of the British Empire (Australia, Canada, New Zealand), the transatlantic NATO alliance (most of the European Union and the United States), and democratic nations of the Pacific (Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan), along with miscellaneous allies, capitalist and democratic, such as India and Israel. At present, there is virtually no likelihood that we will see decisive battles between any of these similarly minded democratic states, even though a mere 70 years ago, when consensual government was less widespread among them, most of them squared off in various temporary alliances against one another in terrible engagements.

Technology also helps explain the current decline in conventional battles. The battlefield can now be seen and mapped to the smallest pebble through aerial photography, often by unmanned drones that update pictures second by second. Surprise is rare. Potential combatants know the odds in advance. They can use the Internet to download the most minute information about their adversaries. Generals can see streaming video of prebattle preparations and calculate, to some degree, the subsequent cost.

Uncertainty and the unknown were often essential to the outbreak of decisive battles, since each opposing force usually felt it had some chance of operational success. Had the British enjoyed satellite reconnaissance of the German lines in the days before and during the Somme, they might have curtailed their suicidal assaults. Had the Americans possessed live streaming video of Japanese forces fortifying bunkers on Okinawa, they might not have chosen to assault the Shuri Line frontally. Pickett’s Charge up Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg was predicated on an erroneous assumption that there was an especially weak spot in the Union’s line—a conjecture that General Robert E. Lee would have easily corrected if he’d had a Predator drone at his disposal.

Weaponry is not static. It resides within a constant challenge-and-response cycle between offense and defense, armor and arms, surveillance and secrecy. Body armor may soon advance to the point of offering, if only for a brief period, protection against the bullet, which centuries ago rendered chain and plate mail useless. The satellite killer may render the satellite nonoperational. Sophisticated electronic jamming may force down the aerial drone. Yet for now, the arts of information-gathering about an enemy trump his ability to maintain secrecy, thus lessening the chance that thousands of soldiers will be willing to march off to massive battle.

The cost of today’s military technology, too, renders big battles more unlikely. To wage a single decisive battle between tens of thousands of combatants along the lines of a Gaugamela or a Verdun would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, a figure far beyond the resources of most belligerents. A single B-1 bomber on patrol overhead represents a $1 billion investment. Abrams tanks go for over $4 million. A single cruise missile can cost over $1 million. One GPS-guided artillery shell may cost $150,000; one artillery platform could expend over $10 million in ordnance in a few hours. Even a solder’s M-4 assault rifle runs well over $1,000. The result is that very few states can afford to outfit an army of, say, 100,000 infantry, supported by high-tech air, naval, and artillery fire—much less keep it well supplied for the duration of battle. Even in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when weapons were cheap compared with today’s models, both Egypt and Israel needed massive amounts of new weaponry from the Soviet Union and the United States shortly after the commencement of fighting.

Globalization—accelerated by technology—is another reason that decisive battles are uncommon today. Instant cell-phoning and text-messaging, the Internet, access to DVDs, and satellite television have created a world culture that depends on uninterrupted communications. It frowns on massive disruptions in airline flights, banking, and the easy importation of consumer goods. Electronic togetherness hinges on our shared appetites—and a growing communal comfort factor. When Russia invaded Georgia, its oil buyers became upset. So did its own aristocratic grandees, who saw international capital flee Moscow. European states worry about oil shortages, should the U.S. bomb Iran; China frets about its vital American export market, should it invade Taiwan.

Finally, changing mores have changed military tactics. The current ascendant belief in the West that war is unnatural, preventable, and the result of rational grievances—that it can, with proper training and education, be eliminated—has probably made battle less tenable among the general public. The bombing of fleeing Iraqi bandit brigades from Kuwait on the so-called Highway of Death in the first Gulf War was halted by popular outrage because of the televised carnage. The abhorrent images of death on millions of television screens easily trumped the argument that the enemy, who had just committed rapine in Kuwait, should be punished—or preempted, since he was likely to regroup in Iraq to slaughter Kurdish and Shiite innocents again. Russia’s shelling and destruction of Grozny escaped world condemnation only because a news blackout ensured that Westerners saw little of mass death.

We shouldn’t assume, though, that these various forces will always prevent set battles. Similar predictions have proved wrong before. In 1909, Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion argued that Europe had achieved too great an interdependence of financial credit, economic integration, and prosperity to throw it all away on nihilistic warmaking. The Somme, Passchendaele, and Verdun shortly followed.

Human beings remain emotional, irrational, and guided by intangible calculations, such as honor and fear, that collectively can induce them into self-destructive behavior. Armed struggles that at times result in horrific collisions are as old as civilization itself and are a collective reflection of deep-seated elements within the human psyche—tribalism, affinity for like kind, reckless exuberance—that are constant and unchanging. We are not at the “end of history.”

Can big battles, then, haunt us once more? If the European Union were to dissolve and return to a twentieth-century landscape of proud rivals, or if the former Soviet republics were to form a collective resistance to an aggrandizing Russia (as they did for much of the nineteenth century), or if the North Koreans, Pakistanis, or Chinese were to gamble on an agenda of sudden aggression (as they have on previous occasions when they were confident of achieving political objectives), then we might well see a return of decisive battles. The U.S. military still prepares for all sorts of conventional challenges. We keep thousands of tanks and artillery pieces in constant readiness, along with close-ground support missiles and planes, in fear that the People’s Army of Korea might try to swarm across the Demilitarized Zone into Seoul, or that the Chinese Red Army might storm the beaches of Taiwan.

Waterloos or Verduns may revisit us, especially in the half-century ahead, in which constant military innovation may reduce the cost of war, or relegate battle to the domain of massed waves of robots and drones, or see a sudden technological shift back to the defensive that would nullify the tyranny of today’s incredibly destructive munitions. New technology may make all sorts of deadly arms as cheap as iPods, and more lethal than M-16s, while creating shirts and coats impervious to small-arms fire—and therefore making battle cheap again, uncertain, and once more to be tried. Should a few reckless states feel that nuclear war in an age of antiballistic missiles might be winnable, or that the consequences of mass death might be offset by perpetuity spent in a glorious collective paradise, then even the seemingly unimaginable—nuclear showdown—becomes imaginable.

In short, if the conducive political, economic, and cultural requisites for set battles realign, as they have periodically over the centuries, we will see our own modern version of a Cannae or Shiloh. And these collisions will be frightening as never before.

Top Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images


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