I spent last weekend in Maryland at a reenactment of elements of the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. Watching the parts of these battles selected for reenactment, it would have been easy to conclude that the Union Army handily defeated Robert E. Lee on September 17, 1862. However, most historians record this as a drawn battle and the bloodiest day in American history, with combined total losses (killed, wounded, and missing) for the two sides as high as 26,100.
What this weekend experience brought to mind against the background of the ongoing debate over the war in Iraq is just how difficult it can be to judge whether you are winning or losing while deep in the throes of combat. As my colleagues in Vietnam taught me back in the mid-1970s, it is sometimes hard to remember, when you find yourself up to your waist in alligators, that your job is to drain the swamp.
Historians and other students of warfare have long known that skirmishes, combats, battles, campaigns, and wars are very complicated phenomena. As the Greek poet Homer complained in The Iliad, “Victory often changes her side.” The Duke of Wellington had this complexity in mind when he wrote that “The history of the battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost; but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.”
In fact, two of history’s greatest military commanders, Frederick the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte, were fooled on just this point. In 1741, Frederick fled from the field of the Battle of Mollwitz after his cavalry was defeated by the Austrians. However, his infantry, commanded by Marshal Count Kurt C. von Schwerin (who persuaded Frederick to flee) succeeded in defeating repeated Austrian attacks, finally driving them from the field. At the Battle of Marengo in 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte’s opponent concluded at 1:00 in the afternoon that he had won the battle and retired to his tent. Unfortunately for General Melas, Bonaparte persisted, rallied his reinforcements, and counterattacked at 5:00 to win the battle.
The Scottish General James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, actually took advantage of this confusion at the Battle of Auldearn in 1645. Beset by two opposing armies coming against him, his own army was deployed such that each of its two wings could not see what was happening to the other. In command of the left wing, Montrose received a messenger from his right wing commander reporting that he was hard pressed and appealing for urgent assistance. Instead of declaring that they must rush to the rescue, Montrose turned to the commander of his cavalry reserve and announced that the right wing was driving the enemy before it and asked, “Will you let the MacDonalds have all the glory of the day?” The two troops of cavalry rushed into the flank of the attacking enemy force supported by Montrose’s infantry from the left wing and shattered the enemy armies. Auldearn has been described as Montrose’s most brilliant tactical victory in which his losses were reported as a few hundred and those of the enemy as about two thousand.
Warfare is ideally the centrally coordinated application of willpower and resources in a manner calculated to persuade the enemy to stop doing what he wants to do and to start doing what you want him to do. This effort is attempted in midst of conditions that are the dictionary definition of chaos. It is also attempted in the face of your opponent’s efforts to do exactly the same thing to you. As a result, the answer to the question of who is winning can change from moment to moment, hour to hour, and even day to day. Both the question and the answer are different over any longer time frame – and can be even harder to pin down. Today, we look back to the last six months of 1942 and recognize turning points in the course of World War II. To the leaders, commanders, and citizens alive during that period, there was a lot less certainty about the direction of events.
Therefore, if you are confused about whether we are winning or losing the war in Iraq, be assured that you are but the latest to exercise a longstanding military tradition. But I might offer some guidance as to who to believe on the issue of who is winning and who is losing:
o If they are not in a position to hear gunfire or at least cannonfire, then they are too far out of touch.
o If they are in a position to be frequently ducking from and dodging gunfire, they are probably up too close to be able to see the big picture.
o However, if they are close enough to hear the cannonfire and hear the gunfire without having to duck or dodge, they may well be in the best position to figure out who is winning.
Some further food for thought:
“It is no doubt a good thing to conquer on the field of battle, but it needs greater wisdom and greater skill to make use of victory.” Polybius, Histories.
“Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it.” Vegetius, De Re Militari. (378)
“Defeat is a thing of weariness, of incoherence, of boredom. And above all, futility.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras. (1942)
“Victory is a moral, rather than a material effect.”
“Gaining military victory is not in itself equivalent to gaining the object of war.”
Both from Captain Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, Thoughts on War. (1944)
“When things are going badly in battle the best tonic is to take one’s mind off one’s own troubles by considering what a rotten time one’s opponent must be having.” Sir Archibald P Wavell, Other Men’s Flowers. (1944)