Do Generals Matter?
Editor’s Note: War on the Rocks is proud to announce its first Distinguished Book Award. Three times a year, we will recognize a book that we view as essential for the professional development of national security professionals. The first awardee is Cathal Nolan’s The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost (Oxford University Press). The below article by Nolan is drawn from his research for this book.
Do generals matter? Well, of course they do, on some level. But do they matter as much as military history suggests they do, or as much as most people believe? In thinking about generalship and outcomes while writing Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost, I was surprised to come to the conclusion that generals matter far less in the history of war than is usually represented in traditional military history. This is especially true of those generals praised by military historians as geniuses of maneuver warfare. Superior generals may win a tactical or operational victory by overmatching an opponent in a day of battle or a campaign, but in the protracted fighting that marks major wars among modern nations and coalitions, they do not deliver strategic victory.
I didn’t always think that. I was impressed by histories of spectacular battles and brilliant campaigns said to be obvious fulcrum moments in war — the ones where a genius on horseback found a way to maneuver past stone borders, to isolate a plodding enemy army and defeat it in battle on a red day or in a summer campaign. Those rare, and rarified, “Great Captains” of history whose military genius stand as exemplars for all times and wars, and whose close study and emulation Napoleon recommended as “the only means of becoming a great captain, and of acquiring the secret of the art of war.” The timeless generals who changed the face of war for our time with a unique coup d’oeil and highly aggressive tactics that historians and theorists celebrated ever after.
We have all read the too-common histories wherein even the failed heroic on offense beats stoic defense every time, at least in military history’s assignment of command “genius” to dead generals. Histories in which ladled praise tells us how wars should be fought in imitation of the “Great Captains,” ancient or modern, even if wars are lost, instead of telling us how they are fought by those who win.
We are all familiar with nationalist military histories in which armies are led to mass slaughter, yet scholars declare Marlborough the finest of English generals. Or in which Prussia is wrecked and Frederick contemplates suicide, saved only by a stroke of fortuna, yet he is the greatest of Germans. We have all perused bookshelves stacked with adulation wherein France fights for a generation only to lose and be left in ruins, twice, yet an age is named by historians for Louis XIV and another for Napoleon.
What I found more interesting, more telling about real-world outcomes, is the far greater number of generals and armies that never tried for, or outright avoided, the modern ideal of Clausewitzian climactic battle. These generals knew they could not achieve it, or were not allowed to try — either by nations and empires afraid of losing their capability to a superior enemy, or just to vanity in the saddle of the man in command of their own army. More often, the winning side in modern wars understood that the operational doctrine of the modern aggressor, offensive maneuver warfare heading to the decisive battle, was not suited to the policy or interests of a status quo power. Nor was battle-seeking actually decisive in prolonged strategic contests between great powers or empires, or opposing coalitions provoked into existence by the opening rounds of fighting. Tactical and operational dexterity almost never brought the promised strategic victory as quickly as proponents promised, or at all. Instead, it descended into coalition war destined to be decided by attrition, or to be fought over and again under different names, resuming after generational pauses to recover and rearm. Clausewitz recognized this more limited and endless character of real war late in life, but he never resolved the clash between history and his younger self’s theory and idolatry of battle and of purported “military genius.”
Wiser leaders, less aggressive ones, the ones more likely to win, told their armies to sit behind stone walls or a riverine defense, behind 18th-century fortified frontiers, inside 19th- or 20th-century trenches, accepting acceleration of attrition that intermittent battles delivered instead of decision. They said to their generals, “avoid rather than seek decisive battles. Let the aggressor recklessly smash his legions and expend his national treasure against my strong, defensive positions.” Winning nations endured defeat after defeat but kept fighting, while activating latent military resources and assembling a grand coalition to wage a long war that blunted the short war delusions of the aggressive power that started it all. They did not always win: War is too contingent and complex to predict or perfect. But they won far more often than highly offensive-minded aggressors, deluded that in decisive opening campaigns and battles of annihilation, in their own operational or national genius, lay a short-war solution to decades of unresolved geostrategic issues and ambitions.
Attrition is not the only reason modern wars are won and lost. There is no one thing that guarantees victory or defeat in the most complex of all human activities. But one deep pattern in history is that victory goes more often to those who resist the allure of battle, which blinds us to the deeper reality of great power strategic balance, and hence to the far greater likelihood of bogging down in long wars of attrition. More wars are won by digging in and enduring, by grinding rather than by genius, by hanging on after initial defeat to recover and fight the slow war that defeats the short-war delusion of aggressors. Defensive strategy, and with it acceptance of the necessary role of attrition in the final outcome, has won far more often than reliance on operational brilliance. Endurance of defeat, recovering to fight on, tapping into long war acceptance of attritional outcomes, has more often won than lost. Attrition stymied aggressors (and would- be liberators) who rolled the iron dice hoping for a short war, who crossed a border looking to win fast in a great and decisive battle or campaign, only to tumble their nation into long and losing wars of moiling resistance.
Military history and theory are still burdened by an offensive bias. We need to better understand those who made war within the real limits of their time rather than seeking to overcome and redefine war for all times. Accepting the limits of one’s era, fighting within its technological and cultural constraints, matters a great deal. Humility about the possibilities for offense and the strengths of defense matters very much, whether what one must overcome is stone and cannon, slow fortification by long sieges, or complex trench systems supported by modern artillery, but far more importantly by the activated resources and committed will of whole nations and empires. This is what ensures attrition, rather than doctrine, decides most wars. We should look past the handful of generals who sought to impose their will or the aggressive will of their nation with clever projects for short offensive war. If we are to understand the major factors that actually decide victory and defeat in most modern wars, we should study spectacular plans and offensive doctrine less, and the capacity for endurance and acceptance of attrition more.
Ignored and indeed belittled in traditional military histories are the many successful generals who fought their opponents to a stalemate because defense and not aggression was their mandate. Military history, or at least military historians, have tended to favor the bold, aggressive few over the more plodding, but often more successful, many. Historians too often pointed to strings of battles as the decider of wars instead of exploring the deeper complexities and contingencies of war, which are its greater truths. Why is there this deep bias toward offense over defense in military history? One reason is the aesthetics of war, the “lust of the eye” and raw excitement that accompanies any battle. The sheer spectacle of a grand battle seduces many military historians and military theorists, governments and generals, aroused nations, and people who buy books and watch war movies. Attrition does not pivot war on the fulcrum of genius the way battles too often wrongly are said to have done. We despise it as morally vulgar, without redemptive heroism. We fear we will find only indecision and tragedy without uplift or morality in the trenches and roll calls of dead accumulating over years of brutal effort and endurance. So we elevate battles to summits of heroism and generals (and admirals) to levels of genius that real history cannot support.
Bluntly stated, we should accept the grim reality that victory in modern major wars was most often achieved by mass slaughter, not by heroics or the genius of generals. Winning at war is much harder than winning in battle. Cannae, Austerlitz, Tannenberg, and Kharkov were all hugely lopsided battles that did not ensure victory in war. Hannibal won at Cannae, Napoleon won at Austerlitz, and Hitler won at Kiev and in many other battles from 1939 to 1941. Then all proceeded to lose the wars they started — and catastrophically.
While there is much heroism in battle, usually on all sides, there are no geniuses in modern war. And even if there are, war is too complex even for a genius to control. All the rest, the parlor game of comparing generals’ reputations, or elevation of one tactic (say, redcoat musketry over French heavy column), descends into armchair idolatry divorced from real explanation of victory and defeat. This explanation comes from long-term preparation for war, from strategic capacity to absorb defeats and endure suffering, from waging war with national resources marshaled by modern bureaucracy, from effective domestic propaganda and management of morale.
Major wars are won by strategic depth and aroused long-war resolve, whether natural to self-defense or whipped up by the modern state. Those factors are far more important than any general or admiral, even clearly superior ones. Strategic depth and resilience are what made Rome militarily dominant for centuries, saved Tsarist Russia in 1709 and again in 1812, sustained France in 1914, Britain after 1940, the Soviet Union in 1941, and let the United States win in the Pacific rapidly and certainly. Massive, early defeat of an enemy’s army in a great, “decisive battle” did not avail Carthage in the Punic Wars or England in the Hundred Year’s War. Early victories did not bring final victory to overmatched France by 1815. Success in the east in 1914 did not rescue hubristic Imperial Germany from defeat in the west in 1918. Two years of uninterrupted triumph by overstretched Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1941 only delayed the foreseeable catastrophe of 1945, while making the war both then and now look more strategically even than it ever was. The spectacular success of overreaching Imperial Japan in the opening months of the Pacific War did not prevent total war defeat across the entire military spectrum in 1945.
All these losers of major wars lost because they overestimated their own operational dexterity (and often, also laid a claim to superior moral or even spiritual virtue), and underestimated the strength of their enemy’s defensive capabilities and resolve. Then they failed to overcome their opponents’ strategic depth, capacity for recovery, and willingness to accept attrition until the tide of war reversed. Winners absorbed defeat after defeat yet kept fighting until they overcame initial setbacks in battle to win by more effectively mobilizing their societies, by forming defensive coalitions, by committing to drawn-out wars of material and moral forbearance.
I suspect the deepest problem in the way of our understanding modern war is very old-fashioned: vanity. The vanity of civilian elites who make short-term policy and call it long-term strategy. The vanity of generals (and admirals) who implement flawed or inept war plans knowing the means they have cannot achieve the goals for which they reach. The vanity of nationalists and historians (too often one and the same) who misrepresent how wars actually are won and lost, so that the old pattern repeats. But above all, the vanity of nations and empires. All that pride in our short-war capability, our superior moral virtue, our sublime doctrine and the fighting quality of our army (or navy, or air force), cometh before a fall into unplanned wars of attrition. Civilian leaders promise too-eager publics a “short and lively” (kurtz und vives) war, hand off the problem to their military, then are surprised by and lament a rough parity among the great powers that conduces to protracted war. This is one of the major patterns of history that ensured long wars of attrition followed from short war delusions, including, after 1945, proxy guerilla wars of attrition.
A national policy accepting protracted war as inescapable is not pretty or exciting, or flattering to military chauvinists of any country. They would rather assume their side’s operational or cultural or historical or racial superiority to the enemy, cleaving to the short-war delusion, rather than reconsider whether the goals at stake are worth the attritional war that is surely coming. And so the allure of battle persists, and we all walk along the knife’s edge in the latest crisis of cultural vanity in the Middle East, or Kashmir, or the Koreas, or the Strait of Hormuz, or some as-yet undeveloped and undiscovered locale of future crisis and war.
As I have come to admire defensive warfare more and offensive warfare less, I discovered a secondary theme laced throughout military history that irks. At least since Clausewitz, the idea of “military genius” is comparably prevalent in too much military theory. Too many historians point to asserted rather than defined genius (usually in a not-so-hidden nationalist form) as decisive in war instead of explaining how a given war actually was won or lost by logistics and finance, or by advanced bureaucracy and mobilization of national resolve. Among military professionals we have seen nearly two centuries of effort to capture the sunbeam of command genius and bottle it, from eternal “principles of war” to general staff planning and officer training, to doctrine based on reams of “lessons learned.” Let us leave aside talk about military genius as it pertains to generals and decision in and by war. It is wrongheaded, superficial, and ultimately distracting from what is far more important. We need to reassess military history and operational doctrine that can flow from it. We need to better understand those who made war within accepted limits, rather than always praise those who sought to overcome the limitations of war with the lives of young men, and now young women, too, spent like pennies to service the vanity of their leaders and their nations.
Will we do it? Two summers ago, a variety of senior, active duty, and highly thoughtful American officers and civilian planners gave me a formal briefing. I asked one group if they would accept that, after the initial crushing of the Taliban and “thunder run” into downtown Baghdad, we are now engaged in a new Thirty Years’ War of protracted attrition in the Greater Middle East. Many heads nodded affirmatively. So I asked if they would accept that it could become a Hundred Years’ War. The question did not shock them, and again many in the room agreed it was possible. In a smaller briefing the next day, a supremely competent, sharp-as-a-knife colonel delivered “lessons learned” by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, I rather too cheekily asked: “Have you learned any lessons?” He replied, without missing a microsecond, “We have. The politicians have not.”
Cathal J. Nolan teaches military history at Boston University. His most recent book is the Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost (Oxford University Press). It was awarded the Gilder Lehrman Prize in Military History in 2018, which “recognizes the best book on military history in the English-speaking world distinguished by its scholarship, its contribution to the literature, and its appeal to both a general and an academic audience.” He is currently working on his next book, Decency: Mercy and Honor in War.
Image: DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Hinton.