Americans retreating after the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir (1950)
Defeat can be an integral instrument of victory.
War is a competition between thinking, scheming, determined adversaries. Gaining a decisive advantage over the enemy is the ultimate high-ground. Sometimes this critical competitive edge comes from losing battles—when the loss sparks the actions that lead to winning.
For much of the 19th and 20th century, the Western way of war was battle-centric. Blame Waterloo (1815), the climatic one-shot campaign that ended Napoleon’s run as the military master of Europe. Clausewitz and Jomini, the two-top commentators on Napoleonic warfare, went through a lot of ink describing the role of battle in diminishing the enemy’s capacity to wage war. Meanwhile, Cressy’s book on decisive battles of the Western World propelled combat into the center of Victorian pop culture.
An addictive attention to battle endured well into the next century, even with the advent of “push-button” nuclear warfare and the resurgence of messy, shadowy insurgencies like Vietnam. The rise of Hollywood over the course of the 20th century helped secure battle’s place high on the pedestal of pop culture. Battles have a strong narrative content—focused in time, place, and action. For cinema, they made the best kind of war stories. The Longest Day, an epic retelling of the Normandy invasion, proved a predictable hit with audiences.
Combat was not just for movies. Battle remained serious business for modern warriors. After Vietnam, the Pentagon talked about winning America’s next “First Battle.” That was supplanted by “Airland Battle.” John Keegan’s book The Face of Battle proved extremely influential with the U.S. military as the armed forces worked their way out of the funk of the post-Vietnam era.