No place for he­roes on the bat­tle­field

From Bon­a­parte to Viet­nam, a new his­tory of war­fare makes it clear that bat­tle is far from heroic.

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Steve Donoghue re­ports Steve Donoghue is man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of Open Let­ters Monthly.

For a cen­tury af­ter the in­cred­i­bly in­flu­en­tial writ­ings of Carl von Clause­witz in the early years of the 19th-cen­tury, the study of war, specif­i­cally the study of bat­tles, oc­cu­pied a regal promi­nence in the field of his­tory-writ­ing.

It was taken as a given that the study of bat­tles was il­lus­tra­tive, even vaguely en­nobling, and mon­u­men­tal, multi-vol­ume bat­tle-his­to­ries ap­peared at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, of­ten run­ning to many re­prints and achiev­ing a clas­sic sta­tus in the sub-genre.

Only a cou­ple of decades af­ter Clause­witz’s death, for in­stance, in 1851 Sir Ed­ward Creasey pub­lished his Fif­teen De­ci­sive Bat­tles of the World and had a best­selling hit on his hands. In 1920 Hans Del­brück wrote his His­tory of the Art of War in four vol­umes, which was very quickly trans­lated into dozens of lan­guages and firmly lodged on the ex­tended read­ing lists of dozens of mil­i­tary acad­e­mies. Even as late as 1940, JFC Fuller could pub­lish his De­ci­sive Bat­tles of the Western World and Their In­flu­ence upon His­tory, fully con­fi­dent that such in­flu­ence wasn’t de­bat­able. But as Bos­ton Univer­sity his­tory pro­fes­sor Cathal Nolan notes at the be­gin­ning of his bril­liant new book The Al­lure of Bat­tle: A His­tory of How Wars

Have Been Won and Lost, that kind of think­ing un­der­went a de­cline in its pres­tige in the mod­ern era.

He doesn’t spec­u­late as to rea­sons, but he notes the widened con­tem­po­rary dis­con­nect be­tween sub­ject and re­cep­tion that’s taken hold at the aca­demic lev­els of his­tory-writ­ing in the decades since, for in­stance, the Viet­nam War.

Nowa­days, the fas­ci­na­tion of the sub­ject is al­most ner­vously dis­owned; “re­cent aca­demic hos­til­ity to tra­di­tional mil­i­tary his­tory has gone too far,” he in­sists. “We ad­mire oiled im­ages of oafish, mounted gen­er­als in silk and lace who led armies to slaugh­ter in end­less wars over where to mark off a king’s stone bor­der,” he sharply ob­serves. “Per­haps most of all, we watch films with re­as­sur­ing char­ac­ters and out­comes which glo­rify war even while sup­pos­edly de­nounc­ing it.”

Nolan’s big book is, among other things, a pow­er­ful re­cen­sion of those old de­ci­sive-bat­tles tomes from ear­lier, more morally cer­tain times. The al­lure of bat­tle, he main­tains, would mat­ter lit­tle if it weren’t for the fact that bat­tles have al­tered the course of world events in “con­flicts of pro­longed de­struc­tion and suf­fer­ing”, and in Nolan’s telling, bat­tle can mir­ror and dis­tort the so­cial forces that bring them about in the first place.

Be­gin­ning with the cam­paigns of the li­onised Duke of Marl­bor­ough (the book con­cen­trates ex­clu­sively on the age of gun­pow­der) and mov­ing for­ward through the cam­paigns of Fred­er­ick the Great, Bis­marck, and Napoleon Bon­a­parte, Nolan con­sis­tently con­cen­trates on the broader mean­ing of war, the multi-faceted na­ture of this weird and dis­as­trous ac­tiv­ity, the most ex­pen­sive, com­plex, phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally and morally de­mand­ing en­ter­prise that hu­mans col­lec­tively un­der­take.

“No great art or music, no cathedral or tem­ple or mosque,” Nolan writes, “no in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal trans­port net or particle col­lider or space pro­gramme, no re­search for a cure for a mass killing dis­ease re­ceives even a frac­tion of the re­sources and ef­fort hu­man­ity de­votes to mak­ing war.”

The book’s nar­ra­tive struc­ture is sur­pris­ingly tra­di­tional in its main out­lines. Nolan fol­lows the cur­rents of post-clas­si­cal war­fare from the wars of re­li­gion to “the wars of kings and em­pires”, paus­ing at all the pre­dictable spots and spend­ing time with all the usual sus­pects. Napoleon Bon­a­parte, de­scribed sev­eral times as the great­est of the “horse-and-mus­ket gen­er­als” (“he was also the last, which is more im­por­tant”), is the sub­ject of some of the book’s most in­ci­sive writ­ing, as is per­haps only nat­u­ral, con­sid­er­ing how thor­oughly Bon­a­parte has been iden­ti­fied with bat­tle from his own time down to the present.

More re­cent favourable as­sess­ments of the man, like Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon the Great, hold no brief in Nolan’s ver­sion: “His pol­icy was al­ways and for­ever war, bro­ken by tem­po­rary truces which he tore up when­ever he chose or needed to, with­out re­gard for dam­age to his and France’s abil­ity to make peace, to ap­pease or sub­mit or even ally with him.” (“Al­ways, he bul­lied,” we’re told. “Of­ten, he in­vaded.”)

One of Nolan’s themes through­out is that the mis­match be­tween the ro­man­tic ide­al­i­sa­tion of bat­tle and the in­creased mech­a­ni­sa­tion of war­fare has worked to heighten the de­hu­man­is­ing na­ture of war it­self.

Gen­eral Dwight D Eisen­hower’s fa­mous caus­tic al­lu­sion to the bru­tal­ity and the stu­pid­ity of war comes to mind as Nolan de­scribes the var­i­ous ty­polo­gies: Bat­tle De­ci­sive, Bat­tle De­feated, Bat­tle Ex­alted, Bat­tle of An­ni­hi­la­tion. We read of sol­diers cut­ting off their own thumbs to make it im­pos­si­ble to fire a mus­ket, thereby hop­ing to guar­an­tee their dis­missal.

Nolan re­lates the hor­rors of the doomed Ja­panese in­va­sion of south­ern China in 1944: “Rage and frus­tra­tion swelled into a scorched-earth fe­roc­ity and the re­newal of what Chi­nese called San­guang Zhenge and Ja­panese later dubbed the Sanko Sakusa, or Three Alls or­der, first is­sued in 1940: ‘Burn All. Loot All. Kill All.’” (Rage was not vic­tory, Nolan re­minds us). And on the sub­ject of the Sec­ond World War, when Nolan comes to the Amer­i­can strat­egy of fire-bomb­ing Ja­panese cities dur­ing the Pa­cific cam­paign, he’s open about the mer­ci­less tac­tics of the Al­lies.

“They learned how to make firestorms to con­sume Im­perial Ja­pan’s cities, hous­ing stock, hospi­tals and rail­way tracks, fac­to­ries and work­ers, above all its will to re­sist. Bombers would roast Ja­panese morale un­til it crack­led and broke,” he writes. “The Al­lies were en­tirely clear-eyed about this.”

Bat­tle may re­shape world events, but it’s a bru­tal, brain­less re­shap­ing, rife with id­iocy and im­bal­ance (this be­comes bit­terly vis­i­ble in the ac­count given here of the “gam­bler’s luck” ad­dic­tion of Hitler’s Wehrma­cht even when the phe­nom­e­non of bat­tle it­self was clearly work­ing against them), and Nolan’s im­pa­tience with its strange abil­ity to com­pel ad­mi­ra­tion de­spite be­ing in no way ad­mirable oc­ca­sion­ally seeps through the im­perial ca­dences of his prose.

“Stand and ad­mire the pass­ing comet of war called Napoleon,” he jeers, “who steered the surg­ing levée en masse and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary armies out from France to con­quer all of Europe, re­veal­ing that he was so in love with war he could not stop and lost it all again. Twice. Yes, but it was glo­ri­ous.”

And the crux of the fas­ci­na­tion can be traced, he be­lieves, to the cult of the hero that was in­ten­si­fied by the very En­light­en­ment that so out­spo­kenly scorned the the­atre of war. Time and again through­out The Al­lure of Bat­tle, we see the ter­ri­ble cost of that con­nec­tion, with pow­er­fully charis­matic mil­i­tary lead­ers us­ing it to draw whole gen­er­a­tions into sac­ri­fice.

“Per­versely, it was shared En­light­en­ment and Ro­man­tic ide­al­i­sa­tion of ge­nius, in this case of mil­i­tary ge­nius, that por­tended the newly ag­gres­sive spirit,” Nolan writes. “About few other ar­eas of hu­man en­deav­our be­sides the ran­dom walk of war is the word ‘ge­nius’ used so cheaply and com­monly.”

Such fig­ures – the “comets of war” like Bon­a­parte – put the hu­man face on the al­lure of bat­tle, rack­ing up the body counts in ways faceless bu­reau­crats could never do. “It is well that war is so ter­ri­ble,” fa­mously quoted Amer­i­can Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral Robert E Lee along the same lines, “oth­er­wise we should grow too fond of it.”

Nolan sets his book’s nar­ra­tive force firmly against such ro­man­tic non­sense. He re­peat­edly re­minds his read­ers of the “grind­ing at­tri­tion and mass slaugh­ter” that are the in­evitable com­po­nents of all war­fare. He keeps be­fore his read­ers at all times the cen­tral fact that those ear­lier, grander mil­i­tary his­to­ries – for which Nolan’s book is a wor­thy but dis­tinctly mod­ern coun­ter­part – were so of­ten at pains to ob­scure: that the al­lure of bat­tle is night­mare.

Getty Im­ages

Napoleon Bon­a­parte, de­picted here in Egypt in an 1867 paint­ing by French artist Jean-Leon Gerome, is de­scribed by Nolan as the great­est of the ‘horse-and-mus­ket gen­er­als’.

The Al­lure of Bat­tle: A His­tory of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost Cathal J Nolan Ox­ford Univer­sity Press; Dh130

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