Why wars are won not in a single decisive battle but over the long haul.
At the outset of this sweeping history of Western warfare, Nolan (History/Boston Univ.; Wars of the Age of Louis XIV, 1650-1715, 2008, etc.) notes that the outcomes of great battles by no means guarantee victory in the war as a whole. Hannibal’s win over the Roman legion at Cannae—a battle that became a model for generations of subsequent commanders—did little to avert Rome’s final conquest and destruction of Carthage. Significantly, Rome won the war by a policy of attrition, a strategy that Nolan finds has been far more effective over the millennia than the more glamorous set piece battles that historians so admire. The idea of a quick knockout has a special appeal to states looking to take on a stronger adversary, and there are enough historical examples of the strategy succeeding to raise the hopes of those tempted to try it. Beginning with the Thirty Years’ War, readers get full-scale analyses of the great commanders’ careers, with due attention to the geopolitical context of their wars. Particularly after the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, war began to involve significant parts of the populations of the nations involved. Napoleon, who became the model to whom generals looked for inspiration for at least a century, also illustrates Nolan’s central theme: whatever his genius for battle, Napoleon was finally ground down by a coalition of major powers that refused to fold after a defeat. The theme takes on new meaning with the two great 20th-century wars, in which initial successes were not enough to ensure victory to the aggressors. Nolan also looks to more recent asymmetric wars, where small nations wear out great power aggressors by a strategy of attrition. His focus on Europe may disappoint readers who would like more on American wars, and there is some repetition. Nonetheless, this is one of the most valuable military histories in years.
A must-read for students of military history.