Today’s conversation is about battles, but much more than that. It is a conversation about how we interpret history, often not interpreting it so much as imposing our will upon it. And it’s a conversation about the modern world, and our fascination with genius, and with finding quick and sure answers to difficult problems.
My guest today is Cathal Nolan, Professor of History at Boston University, and we discuss his book The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost. Nolan believes that few battles are actually decisive, meaning that victory in battle does not necessarily determine who wins a war. It follows from that, he argues, that wars are rarely short. But, by focusing on model of decisive battles won by military genius, modern people (politicians, generals, and citizens alike) have deluded themselves time and time again that “the boys will be home by Christmas.” But stalemate and attrition are as much a feature of modern warfare as it was in ancient or medieval warfare. Victory always requires suffering and immense sacrifice on the part of those who would be victorious. And no general, however brilliant, can change that.