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Subject: The "decisive battle": a fallacy? rss

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kevin halloran
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Yuval Harari in his article 'The Concept of "Decisive Battles" in World History' considered among other things what it is that makes some battles decisive. Most of us would probably point to a range of outcomes from deciding a war to destroying or creating a polity or civilization. But how truly decisive are many of the battles commonly judged so? I ask this question after considering again Hannibal's campaign against Rome in Italy. I suspect that if at Cannae the Romans had won all historians would argue something along the lines that 'had Hannibal won at Cannae then the course of world history would have been very different. The Roman republic would have collapsed, the Roman Empire would have been an impossibility...etc' But, of course, Hannibal did win, the Roman army was annihilated and...well, we all know the 'and'. Is therefore 'decisiveness' sometimes merely a perception fueled by hindsight and based on an interpretation of what might have been that probably would not?
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BrentS
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I think there's a difference between tactically decisive and strategically decisive.

Ancient battles were often tactically decisive and easily recognised as so on the day. I think nobody would question the tactical outcome of Cannae or who the victor was.

Strategic decisiveness is more complex, dependent on many variables and open to interpretation, and might only be recognised after time has passed and the dust has settled. Again, Cannae is a case in point.

Brent.
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Carl Paradis
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Decisive battles: the one who gets to write history is the victor.
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Hunga Dunga
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WWI was supposed to be the war to end all wars.
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Eddy Sterckx
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licinius wrote:
Decisive battles: the one who gets to write history is the victor.


That's why Norman Davies' "Vanished Kingdoms : the history of half-forgotten Europe" was a must-buy for me

There were definitely battles in history that were turning points, but it all depends on what scale you're looking at them. Both time-scale and geographical.

I will refer the interested reader to Shelley's Ozymandias
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It is what you do with the win and what your enemy does with the loss that matters.
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Mark McG
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The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fifteen_Decisive_Battles_o...

these battles are all significant turning points of their war.

as a example, Cannae isn't listed, Metaurus is!

There is a lot to argue about here, is Marathon the decisive battle of the Persian Wars, or Salamis?
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Hungadunga wrote:
WWI was supposed to be the war to end all wars.


It was, in a lot of ways.

It's glib and easy to toss off a statement like that, but there has not been another war at the scale of WWI since. The mechanization, industrialization, sheer scale were unprecedented. WWII, you say? There is a good argument to be made that WWI and WWII were two sides of the same conflict. Ever since, all wars have been brush fires in comparison to the Great War.

Quote:
Is therefore 'decisiveness' sometimes merely a perception fueled by hindsight and based on an interpretation of what might have been that probably would not?


The question is too open-ended so of course the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no.
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jumbit wrote:
It's glib and easy to toss off a statement like that, but there has not been another war at the scale of WWI since. The mechanization, industrialization, sheer scale were unprecedented. WWII, you say? There is a good argument to be made that WWI and WWII were two sides of the same conflict. Ever since, all wars have been brush fires in comparison to the Great War.


I've always thought there'd be an interesting game covering the diplomatic, military, economic, etc. aspects of the 1910-1945ish time period in Europe/the world. Something like Triumph and Tragedy but at a grander, more comprehensive scale of time.
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Bob Zurunkel
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jumbit wrote:
Hungadunga wrote:
WWI was supposed to be the war to end all wars.


It was, in a lot of ways.

It's glib and easy to toss off a statement like that, but there has not been another war at the scale of WWI since. The mechanization, industrialization, sheer scale were unprecedented. WWII, you say? There is a good argument to be made that WWI and WWII were two sides of the same conflict. Ever since, all wars have been brush fires in comparison to the Great War.

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Is therefore 'decisiveness' sometimes merely a perception fueled by hindsight and based on an interpretation of what might have been that probably would not?


The question is too open-ended so of course the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no.


I have often seen the period 1914 - 1945 referred to as the Second Thirty Years War.
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Christopher Lawrence
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Westie wrote:

I have often seen the period 1914 - 1945 referred to as the Second Thirty Years War.


And I'll go further by saying it's a Second 100 Years War, from 1914 to the fall of the Soviet Union (which had its birth in the First World War) in 1989. Even that latter date might be a fuzzy one, as the Gulf War in 1991 was something of a holdover.
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Bob Zurunkel
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CraftyShafty wrote:
Westie wrote:

I have often seen the period 1914 - 1945 referred to as the Second Thirty Years War.


And I'll go further by saying it's a Second 100 Years War, from 1914 to the fall of the Soviet Union (which had its birth in the First World War) in 1989. Even that latter date might be a fuzzy one, as the Gulf War in 1991 was something of a holdover.


And let's not forget the Balkan wars that were put on hold until the fall of the Soviet Union.
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Minedog3 wrote:
The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fifteen_Decisive_Battles_o...

these battles are all significant turning points of their war.

as a example, Cannae isn't listed, Metaurus is!

There is a lot to argue about here, is Marathon the decisive battle of the Persian Wars, or Salamis?


A very large amount of historians would argue about Waterloo not being a decisive battle, but just a cherry on the top so to speak as far as napoleon goes.

Russian campaign and battle of leipzig were much more significant turning points imo
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Hunga Dunga
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No one has ever called me "glib" before.
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James D
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CraftyShafty wrote:
Westie wrote:

I have often seen the period 1914 - 1945 referred to as the Second Thirty Years War.


And I'll go further by saying it's a Second 100 Years War, from 1914 to the fall of the Soviet Union (which had its birth in the First World War) in 1989. Even that latter date might be a fuzzy one, as the Gulf War in 1991 was something of a holdover.
No, no, clearly WWII was the fourth Punic War because of the Italian invasion of North Africa.
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Rosecrans man
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licinius wrote:
Decisive battles: the one who gets to write history is the victor.


Given the number of ex-Confederates and ex-Nazis who wrote books in the aftermath of the American Civil War and WWII, that could be the victor or the vanquished. I always found that old chestnut amusing - and just plain wrong.
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Daniel Blumentritt
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If the definition of "decisive battle" is "Because of that battle, side X won the war that they otherwise would have lost", then there aren't going to be very many.

After all, if a side was going to lose the war without a win in a particular battle, then their position likely wasn't good enough to be favored to win such a battle. And if their position was good enough that winning such a "decisive battle" was a probable outcome, it'd be odd for them to be otherwise on the verge of losing the war.

This isn't to say it can't happen - someone's wartime position could be very good as it stands but also very brittle and precarious, or two equal sides could both commit so much to a fight that whoever loses will probably lose the war.

I would expand the definition a bit and say that if a battle dramatically changes the nature of the conflict for one or both sides (in a way that it would not have changed had the battle gone the other way), then it's decisive. So, for example, Gettysburg and Kursk were both decisive because the losing side permanently lost their capability for large-scale offensives. I wouldn't call El Alamein decisive because Rommel was going to have to pull back because of Torch anyway. I would call Cannae decisive because it change the nature of the war for Rome for years to come. The fact that they later recovered and Scipio found a way to eventually take the conflict to Carthage isn't the fault of Cannae.
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Vincere scis, Hannibal; victoria uti nescis
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Hungadunga wrote:
No one has ever called me "glib" before.


It's a comment to end all comments.
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charles wohlganger
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More often than not, victory in war comes down to which side was able to utilize more resources. "Decisive Battles" are rare, and when they do happen, it's often more to do with changing the morale of the nations/leaders involved. For example:

Battle of Midway - if the U.S. lost, what would have happened? U.S. might have invested more effort in preventing shipments of oil to Japan. The allies would starve Japan for resources and it would have taken longer for Japan to lose. It's also reasonable to assume that if the U.S. couldn't directly threaten Japan, they would have moved to more greatly assist China or Australia, and Japan would have been lost from the Western side.

If any battle was truly "decisive" in WWII, it was Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. While the U.S. was already providing support to Europe, the attack changed the political landscape and pushed the U.S. into a war economy. A halfhearted U.S. wouldn't likely provide enough to retake Europe from the West, or provide enough of a political incentive for the Soviet Union to do anything more than maintain their sovereignty.
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Mark McG
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Avtomatik wrote:
Minedog3 wrote:
The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fifteen_Decisive_Battles_o...

these battles are all significant turning points of their war.

as a example, Cannae isn't listed, Metaurus is!

There is a lot to argue about here, is Marathon the decisive battle of the Persian Wars, or Salamis?


A very large amount of historians would argue about Waterloo not being a decisive battle, but just a cherry on the top so to speak as far as napoleon goes.

Russian campaign and battle of leipzig were much more significant turning points imo


I'd suggest Trafalgar, since it was the battle that ensured England would not lose, and hence became the thorn in Napoleon's side, and the purse of the coalition
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Mark McG
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charek wrote:

If any battle was truly "decisive" in WWII, it was Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. While the U.S. was already providing support to Europe, the attack changed the political landscape and pushed the U.S. into a war economy. A halfhearted U.S. wouldn't likely provide enough to retake Europe from the West, or provide enough of a political incentive for the Soviet Union to do anything more than maintain their sovereignty.


there are a few battles in WW2 I would suggest are decisive, Pearl Harbour isn't one of them.

Battle of Britain
Stalingrad
Midway (maybe)

Pearl Harbour pushed USA into the war, but how long before a WW2 Lusitania would have done the same.
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Gordon Blizzard
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Minedog3 wrote:
Avtomatik wrote:
Minedog3 wrote:
The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fifteen_Decisive_Battles_o...

these battles are all significant turning points of their war.

as a example, Cannae isn't listed, Metaurus is!

There is a lot to argue about here, is Marathon the decisive battle of the Persian Wars, or Salamis?


A very large amount of historians would argue about Waterloo not being a decisive battle, but just a cherry on the top so to speak as far as napoleon goes.

Russian campaign and battle of leipzig were much more significant turning points imo


I'd suggest Trafalgar, since it was the battle that ensured England would not lose, and hence became the thorn in Napoleon's side, and the purse of the coalition


The French and Spanish were far more of a threat to the British isles in the American Revolutionary war than in the Napoleonic wars. The Franco-Spanish alliance never was able to get anything close to parity after that.
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Pete Belli
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A battle can be decisive for one belligerent while it might be a something of a forgotten historical footnote for the other side..

For example, Omdurman in 1898. Destroyed the threatening Mahdist regime but barely a blip on the radar of world history now.
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goshublue wrote:
I think there's a difference between tactically decisive and strategically decisive.


No doubt about this.

"The Redskins beat the Broncos decisively by a score of 45-7 yet failed to make the playoffs. The Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl that same year."

By the way, that was an ahistoric quote.
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