On Military History and Criteria for Most Important Battles:  Bigger is not Always Badder


            How do we gauge the relative significance of a given military encounter in the annals of world history?  We naturally tend to focus on the loudest, heaviest clashes that shout their intensity in the most overt tones—the Stalingrads and Verduns, those massive set-piece conflagrations that pit enormous standing armies in each other’s firing lines.  We also tend to zero in on “decisive” battles that were crucial in determining the outcome of a war.  A decisive battle can also be one that permanently and fundamentally alters the state of affairs for the war’s aftermath; the Fall of France to the Germans in 1940 and Britain’s catastrophic defeat against the Japanese in Singapore in 1942 both had momentous impacts over and above the war’s immediate causes themselves, since they undercut the physical and psychological bases for the British and French empires and undercut these countries’ capacities to suppress independence movements, causing their colonial realms to crumble.  Certain nations, naturally, will tend to have certain wars and particular battles lodged especially high up in the collective consciousness.  In the US, of course, Civil War and WWII buffs will go on for hours about the intelligence reports prior to Chancellorsville or the coded communications before the clash at Midway Island.  Yet conversations about military history become especially interesting when the participants take the long view and examine the whole corpus of recorded world history.  When debating the most significant armed conflicts, most people tend to settle on a similar set of candidates:  Stalingrad, Waterloo, Yorktown, Gettysburg, Thermopylae, Gaugamela, Hastings, Actium, the Marne, Quebec, and the like.  I’ll eschew the knee-jerk criticisms about “Eurocentrism” here; for better or worse, it’s a fact that Europe and Western nations have had a tremendously disproportionate influence on the world since the Spanish and Portuguese initiated large-scale oceanic exploration in the late 1400s, and so inevitably—and fairly—European battles are regarded as having particular significance.  However, most debates about important battles succumb to two other flaws:  they tend to pay undue attention to recent battles (of the past few centuries), neglecting less familiar names of the medieval and ancient eras, and as suggested above, they naturally subscribe to the “bigger is badder” hypothesis, with titanic clashes of arms (like Stalingrad) drawing particular fascination.  Though it was the largest and most ferocious battle in history, a different outcome in Stalingrad would likely not have altered the result of World War II. 

            In compiling my own short list of crucial military engagements, the big confrontations don’t necessarily carry any advantage over small-scale raids between rival villages.  And while a battle does have to be decisive as defined above, there are plenty of decisive battles that nonetheless did little to divert the floodwaters of history.  We live in a world of finite resources and competing cultures and interests; inevitably we’ve had many wars, and most of these did little to change the preexisting world (or regional) order.  Thus, in my criteria, what matters most is the effect that a particular decisive battle had on the course of historical events.  Battles are especially important if they are associated with the rise and dissemination of what becomes a cultural meme, some idea or assemblage of ideas (a religion, philosophical belief, or legal scheme for example) that becomes integral to a culture and eventually spreads on a more global scale.  The bearers of these ideas are often challenged by competitors, and when these involve military confrontation, such battles can be extremely consequential in affecting the course of history, since they can define the identity of entire cultures, determining the cultural landscape associated with a given geographical region.  In fact, if we examine such influential battles, these are often rather small affairs, sometimes even resembling neighborhood skirmishes, and they generally take place before the second millennium A.D.  Obviously, a lot of history has occurred since the year 1,000 A.D. especially with respect to technology, art, and forms of government, but the cultural identity—the ethnic and religious composition, languages, basic customs and laws—of the Eurasian landmass in the year 2004 A.D. largely took shape in the centuries prior to the second millennium, often consequent to small but momentously important military encounters. 

            The Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D. was a conflict within a civil war between two rival Roman contenders for the imperial purple.  Yet Constantine’s victory over Maxentius transformed the Christian faith from an outcast, persecuted cult with a limited following and a confined geographical scope into the predominant belief system of the Roman Empire, both linking the religion to the Roman political and hierarchical structure and providing the young creed with a large core of worshippers within the vast expanse of the Roman superstate.  The effects of this battle reverberate profoundly today, since this conflict was intimately associated with the rise and spread of a defining feature of Western culture.  The Battle of Badr was a one-day affair in the parched Arabian desert in the year 624 A.D., waged between two small ad hoc armies of a few hundred soldiers each, with relatively light casualties.  Yet the outcome of Badr—in which the pagan Meccans of southern Arabia arrayed themselves against a small band of newly-converted Muslims under the command of Muhammad—had titanic consequences for world history.  Had Muhammad lost here, his precarious state of leadership and prestige would have been broken, and the Islamic faith itself—both its cultural sphere of influence and its political reach—would have been nipped in the bud.  Islam would be a footnote in history, a tiny cult flourishing perhaps in a few villages in southwest Arabia.  Yet Muhammad’s victory solidified his position and soon enabled him to unify the nomadic Arab tribes into a powerful, culturally unified fighting force that would transmit the Islamic creed across the Eurasian and African landmasses.  Both Milvian Bridge and Badr were relatively small encounters with gargantuan ramifications.  One can make a strong argument for a third, relatively unknown (in the West) battle near a Central Asian river, in modern-day Uzbekistan, in 751 A.D., as topping even these two conflicts—and all others—in its importance for world history.  This is the Battle of Talas, and its outcome impacted not only the cultural map of Central, South, and East Asia, but also the dissemination of a crucial technology from its Chinese inventors to its beneficiaries in the West.


n      Wes Ulm



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