Wars are not won by military genius or decisive battles

Stephen Satkiewicz's picture

This is very interesting essay by Cathal J. Nolan of Boston University about the glorification of military "genius" and decisive battles are largely false mythologies, and that most wars are won by long drawn-out strategies of attrition to grind the enemy down.


I was surprised there wasn't too much attempt at engaging Clausewitz on the issue. Also my preliminary thought would also see a discreprency between grand strategic vision vs that of tactical vision. It can and has been argued that while some great commanders(or geniuses to use Nolan's terminology) were gifted in certain areas like tactics, they were deficient in other areas. Nolan correctly notes that war is very complex, but does that negate genius in certain aspects? Overall I do understand the argument he is trying to make.

Any thoughts?

Stephen T. Satkiewicz


Categories: Front Page Item
Keywords: war, genius, comment

There is much in this argument, especially if one understands attrition in the broader sense of not simply expending materiel, but also a societal or governmental will to fight. Thus, World War Two can be seen as the grinding down of Germany and Japan through numbers and industrial production, and Vietnam of the Communists wearing down American political support for the South. On the other hand, there are examples of a decisive blow overcoming superior numbers and potential strength: the Israeli victory in the Six Day War is a case in point.

The article under discussion is an article that does require consideration and operates on almost two different theses. Thesis A is that wise leadership is a myth and makes no difference since Thesis B, wars must be attritional to be effective, and that there are no decisive battles. No doubt the first thesis has been debated on this forum or might be as a hand grenade of long duration in the future. The second premise cannot stand in light of military history unless looked at very subjectively and with limited examples. Even in most broader and long term conflicts there are decisive battles that accomplish goals and change the duration of the conflict. Decisive war ending battles are also something that is more retrojective and can only be seen in light of events that follow but there is nothing to suggest that there is a one size fits all approach to this topic.

Addressing the not-so-great man thesis, I would simply say that it is immediately apparent that the core philosophy of the writer is that of history from below and completely rejects the “Great man” of older historiographic tradition. However, I do think that it is rather simplistic in its approach and in its effort to discard the prior thesis over compensates in the other direction, casting aside all military genius and gifting and portrays a rather negative, grinding, de-humanized view of warfare and conflict in general. It is a hallmark of certain philosophies to overturn the glorification of war and to do so requires in their minds a certain amount of need to destroy the concept that military leadership is wise or is intelligently led, rather it becomes de-humanizing and thoughtless, callus to the needs of the men or their suffering.

Beyond the historiography of the writer in general there are particular faults and instances where the data suggests no regular pattern. Campaigns, whether led by wise leadership or not, can fall within any portion of the spectrum in regards to duration, however, more often than not the attrition war is a lack of leadership. In Middle Eastern history military leadership has made all the difference and can provide a clear and effective strategy where goals are met without requiring long campaigns over significant periods of time or involve the excessive death of soldiers.
The best example that can be offered is the Israeli portion of the Suez Crisis. In the conflict Israel moved across the desert and made many of its initial objectives without suffering serve losses or losing a substantial amount of time. In some circumstances the army moved so rapidly that is was ahead of schedule, rather than behind. The only exception to this that I can remember without too thorough a review is Abu Ageila where the Israeli forces became bogged down and fought at the position for an extended period of time. The action took much more time and resources than had been estimated and it became a key point of review since it would become a key objective in the 1967 war. The main point is that the forces moved quickly, seized the initiative, and met most of its objectives within the allotted hours, not days. Israeli leadership saw to it that this happened and made many gutsy, risky decisions that ultimately proved to be accurate and not harmful in the long run.

In 1917 - 1918 there is an example of a longer campaign, the Palestine Campaign fought by both Murray and finished by Sir Edmund Allenby. This campaign proved that wars do not have to be excessive in their use of manpower or years long in duration but they do need wise and intelligent leadership. The Allenby campaign through Palestine was a classic campaign that was not shaped by a desire to win a decisive battle but came about through a well-planned, methodical campaign strategy. The campaign lasted around a year and there were large numbers of casualties but the main idea was not to bleed the army of men but to push the Ottoman forces back. This was accomplished and there were battles that did give the British significant advantages. Gaza and Beersheba were key battles allowing access into Palestine and then the Jerusalem battle opened a pocket where the British forces could secure the area. Certainly it is regrettable that three battles had to take place to overcome Gaza, however, the geography did not enable any type of effective maneuver the go around and isolate Gaza. Also it was an important node point to control and ensure that communications were not threatened. The Battle of Jerusalem allowed it to be used as a base from which to launch assaults on Amman. The final battle resulted with the Ottoman forces being thoroughly broken and forced to move north and allowed Allenby to occupy Damascus shortly afterward. That battle was decisive enough that the Ottomans and the British were racing northward, the Ottomans to escape and the British to capture them and Damascus.

Attritional wars are mostly defined as wars that are fought without a clear grand strategy and a failure to achieve that through decisive, well planned tactics. Most attritional wars are the equivalent of body-slamming an opponent rather than artfully wrestling them into positions where they will fail. Attrition wars are also desperate gambits and can result in a situation where numerous Pyrrhic victories results. The natural drawback is that the side that engages in an attritional strategy often suffers the same amount of devastation as the opponent and might lose enough men and material that they could ultimately lose or come away with a minimum of their objectives achieved and end up almost where they began.

The Iran-Iraq War is an example but one that argues for the dangers inherent in attrition based battles or wars. The Iran- Iraq War lasted for nearly a decade and eventually bogged down into a World War I style war of attrition. This was more of a result of a lack of strategic and tactical leadership and resulted in massive casualties on both sides. Iran had a larger manpower pool from which to draw from and could continually place men on the frontlines but these men were low skilled conscripts or “volunteers” sent out to blow up mines with their own bodies. This was called a strategy of martyrdom but was really a severe lack of equipment to clear mines and devastated the population in the process. The masses served to also overwhelm the Iraqi troops who could not deal with such massive numbers. However, one wonders what impact this had on the future social setting and population of Iran and how it shaped demographics.

Looking at Iraq, it was slightly more technologically advanced and the training level at a higher capacity so the manpower advantage that Iran had was largely negated, but Iraq’s leadership, Saddam Hussein, lacked military training and strategic or tactical vision and missed significant opportunities to achieve war aims and victories that would have ended the war in the first few weeks. Once he realized this he sent men into combat and this is when the highest Iraqi death tolls began because it gave Iran a chance to harden its positions. Attrition did take a toll on Iran especially since it could not replace parts that had either been broken or damaged in combat and could manufacture many of the raw materials and parts on its own. The Tanker War and Operation Staunch prevented the ability of Iran to keep the pace and after eight years of being bloodied eventually sued for peace.

The Iran-Iraq War has never been recognized as a brilliant campaign that, because it lacked leadership and it required the death of hundreds of thousands. No, the death toll and senseless leadership fell under wide condemnation by developed nations and militaries. There was nothing good about it. The other two campaigns listed above have been recognized as either textbook or near textbook quality since they were under intelligent leadership and were given the time and men and material necessary to achieve their goals.

These examples demonstrate that the thesis that there are no decisive battles and that long, attrition is a favorable outcome is certainly belied by even a minor look at military history within a given geographic region. Either extreme brings with it its own set of risky outcomes and results from shallow, often limited strategic and tactical thinking. It also cannot counted on because of the number of variables that reach into the unknown. I will limit further comment to any follow up questions on the string.


Gawrych, Dr. George W. Key to the Sinai: The Battles for Abu Ageila in the 1956 and 1967 Arab –Israeli Wars. Combat Studies Institute Research Survey No. 7, 1990.

Hiro, Dilip. The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2012.

Marshall, S.L.A. Sinai Victory: Command Decisions in History’s Shortest War: Israel’s Hundred Hour Conquest of Egypt East of Suez Autumn, 1956. Nashville: Battery Press, 1985.

Pollack, Kenneth. Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Wise, Harold Lee. Inside the Danger Zone: The U.S. Military in the Persian Gulf, 1987-1988. New York: Naval Institute Press, 2013.

Woodward, David R. Hell in the Holy Land: World War I and the Middle East. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2014.

Of course, I do not and did not argue there are "no decisive battles." That would be silly, given the long and winding course of world military history in which there have been quite a few. But fewer in the modern era of competing empires and grand coalitions than in simpler times or in regional "systems" such as city-states warring with each other, where the forces and simplified politics engaged meant that one could indeed decide the outcome of a war on a single raw, red day. Nor did I write about or comment on the modern sub-system of wars in the ME or other small power wars, so I am being critiqued here for things I never said or wrote. My argument is about the major powers and the biggest wars. I will not repeat it here. It is made at length and with all the requisite sourcing and provisos, and must stand or fall there, in my Allure of Battle (Oxford, 2017). In 2018 the book was awarded the Gilder-Lehrman Prize in Military History for "its combination of an arresting overarching theme, extraordinary breadth of knowledge of warfare over the centuries, first-class scholarly erudition, and ability to speak to the general reader." I confess, that is praise I did not expect and perhaps do not deserve. But there it is. It can and should be set aside so that one then judges the arguments made in the book on their own merits. But that is what should be assessed, the arguments actually made, not things never said or written but merely attributed in error.