The Edge of Glory: The Western Way of Combat and the Search for the Elusive Decisive Battle in an Age of Terror

Gerry Long

The Edge of Glory: The Western Way of Combat and the Search for the  Elusive Decisive Battle in an Age of Terror
To cite this article: Long, Gerry, “The Edge of Glory: The Western Way of Combat and the Search for the Elusive Decisive Battle in an Age of Terror”, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 1, Winter 2014, pages 13-16.

‘Strategy’ has always lacked something in precision of meaning. Clausewitz defined tactics as ‘the theory of the use of military forces in combat,’ strategy as ‘the theory of the use of combats for the object of war.’ This definition of strategy is too exclusively military.[i]

‘Were Socrates and Charles XII of Sweden both present in any company and Socrates were to say ‘Follow me and hear a lecture on philosophy’; and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, were to say, ‘Follow me and dethrone the Czar’; a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates. The impression is universal; yet it is strange. But the profession of soldiers…has the dignity of danger. Mankind reverences those who have got over fear…’[ii]

Our strategy for combat in the first two decades of the twenty first century has been fuelled as much by the momentum of events as by any strategic view of the West’s place in the world. As we now extract ourselves from the quagmire of Afghanistan, is it not time to revaluate why we have struggled to impose our style of war on the battlefields since the Fall of Berlin? During World War Two and, to a certain extent the Cold War, the rapid rise from the poverty in military resources before World War Two and the plenty that followed has stifled strategic evolution. The unconventional wars that followed the titanic battles of 1939-45 have left us unfulfilled, less a few exceptions,[iii] and left us searching for that elusive decisive battle.

Whether we like it or not, our view of battle and how it should be fought is still viewed through the prism of classical civilisation. We are all prisoners of a collective thought process that envisages us in the role of either Achilles or Hector; even if your only direct experience of Homer is through ‘the Simpsons’! The idea that true battle is fought by real warriors who are only to be found within the confines of a large battlefield is deeply engrained in the Western-educated soldier’s mind-set. One side is defeated and the other goes home with the trophies; followed by a victory parade and commemoration of those who died in the campaign.

Firepower and heavy defensive armament have always been the trademark of Western armies. It was through ‘hammer blows’, thought Clausewitz, that the real purpose of any conflict could be achieved; the absolute destruction of the enemy’s armed forces in the field. Here, too, can be found the legacy of Alexander and later Napoleon; who saw, as Jomini conceded, ‘that the first means of effecting results was to concentrate above all on cutting up and destroying the enemy army, being certain that states or provinces fall of themselves when they no longer have organised forces to defend them.’[iv] It is this Western desire for a single, magnificent collision on the battlefield which has been the basis of Western War for over 2,500 years.[v] In short, the Greek city state invented not only the central idea of Western politics (that power in a state should reside in the vote of the majority) but also the central act of Western warfare; the decisive battle.[vi] And like our classical forebears, we have developed an inbuilt distaste for those who pursue war in a different manner. The insurgent, terrorist, guerrilla, or irregular who is unwilling to fight and die on the battlefield face to face with his adversary dressed in a distinctive uniform of the nation state is thought of as a lesser combatant; and often a lesser human being.

The reason for our failure since the great battles of 1945 to find just such a decisive victory is that the enemies we are now engaged with do not have the same cultural history, or baggage. Therefore they view war and the root to a successful outcome of war very differently. Our basis of warfare is that bequeathed to us by classical Greece; a brief, direct encounter between bodies politic; the point of which was to spare families and property from destructive involvement.[vii] The draining uncertainties of guerrilla war were to be avoided at all cost. That inner craving for a clear decisive decision, regardless of the carnage involved, has not faded. It cannot; since, as the Greeks discovered, it resides in the dark hearts of us all.[viii]

From Saigon to Kabul via Baghdad – a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)

Despite many claims before and since, the real RMA in the Western Way of War was Vietnam. First it defeated one of the premier military nations of the Old World; then it promptly dealt a similar blow to the premier military nation of the New World. It was predominantly fought by men at the strategic level who had cut their teeth in World War Two; men who had run with Patton, Bradley and Clark; who saw war as one of ‘the big battalions’, and fought in decisive battles.

It is not that General Westmorland did not adapt his command in the style of his WW2 predecessors; but that, by the end of his tenure (not unlike General’s McKiernan and Sanchez in later American excursions to hell), he had little control over the war itself. It had run beyond him intellectually. Westmorland had gone to Vietnam believing the answer waiting to be found in the jungle was a conventional one. What he found was only more questions. He, like all his kind, became largely irrelevant; as did his successors in later wars. It was not just that Westmorland’s, and the US Army’s, idea of war was wrong. Linked as it was to the US Army’s ‘can do’ attitude, it was obsolete. Westmorland and those around him probably privately remembered their Clausewitz, teaching them that the whole enterprise was doomed. But as US troops and helicopters flowed into the country, they forgot about ‘politics by other means’ and set out to defeat the Wehrmacht all over again. But the NVA were not the Das Reich Division. The big ‘search-and destroy’ operations[ix] did not result in the much hoped-for tens of thousands of enemy dead and the subsequent cracks in the enemy fighting spirit.

In fact the military situation was abysmal, U.S. military efforts rested on the mistaken assumption that fighting in Vietnam would be similar to a straightforward military offensive.[x] The battle was not so much lost as misunderstood. ‘[T]his was not a military war but a political war’[xi], in which the U.S. was employing unprecedented amounts of firepower but little unifying tactical doctrine to pull it together for a strategic victory.

Vietnam was not a war of classical engagement between equals intent on battle by conventional means. The relationship was a complex game of ‘cat and mouse’. If the enemy was fixed, then he could be encircled by firepower provided by the numerous platforms available to the U.S. Army. Then attrition could take place. If the right tactics were also employed (‘guerrilla tactics augmented by U.S. firepower’[xii]) tactical victory was assured. However, away from those well versed in ‘out foxing the fox’, the majority of U.S. infantry units lacked the ability to get to grips with the guerrilla. More often than not the enemy simply slipped away to fight another day. This failure to lure the North Vietnamese army into a Western-style shootout is what paralysed the huge land army of the United States and forced it to abandon the entire theatre.[xiii] It has haunted the US Army and all other Western armies, political classes, and media outlets ever since.

Although we did not know it at the time or failed to address the change, for the first time an enemy which was defeated nearly every time it stepped into the field of battle achieved its aim. Since Vietnam, most successful enemies of Western-educated armies have aped the tactics of North Vietnamese. In their ‘Back to the Future’ moment, Western armies fell foul of some very unsophisticated guerrillas in Somalia in the 1990’s, and their not too distant cousins in Baghdad and Helmand in the twenty first century.

The West’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are down to a deep-rooted inertia in military thinking. Firstly there seemed to be no strategy for the war, beyond general agreement that there should be an attack. Secondly, once battle was joined, instead of doing a better estimate the default mind-set kicked in: ‘we are already there – let’s just fortify the camp a little more; or send more troops; or do both!’ That may be fine way to go about establishing, say, a new Starbucks in a dodgy neighbourhood; but it is beyond glib in the context of an overarching strategic plan. Armies are always more interested in moving men forward to the enemy; less interested in pulling them back. Most military textbooks invariably endorse what the twentieth century called the ‘principle of the offensive’, the notion that to achieve decisive results in war it is necessary to seize the initiative and to strike the enemy aggressively.[xiv] Such thinking is burned deep into the educated military’s DNA, not just that of the US and Britain; it is always better to advance than retreat. But, by definition, naming outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan after soldiers whose death exemplified why the outposts should not have been there in the first place does not seem to have registered. That irony is often lost on Western armies’ collective thinking. The soldiers of the ‘coalition of the willing’ have been sacrificed at the altar of a flawed doctrinal mind-set.

There is an argument that all grand strategy of the 20th & early 21st Centuries failed to deliver real decisive battles. What was seen as decisive in the desert of Kuwait in 1991 was in fact a mirage, and the decisive victories of 1918 & 1945 were in fact, in Philip Bobbit’s prose, all part of the same war, ‘The Long War’[xv] that did not end until the Berlin Wall came down. And as Geoffrey Parker observed when describing early modern warfare, ‘Success is Never Final’.[xvi] Our template for decisive battle is built upon a classical education which itself saw the Greek City States go to war on numerous occasions over the same ground; none of which brought about lasting victory. Our template therefore is as derisory as those who seek to emulate it.

Training (& re-training the mind-set)

How do we train the soldier of the future in an era without Cannae and Austerlitz? All armies are prisoners of their past experience. We have failed to recognise the classical heritage in the baggage that we carry, and the stark simplicity of its direct form of combat. Warriors eyeing each other across the battlefield and coming together face to face is a burden all Western armies carry. So how should we educate and train the future soldiers and officers in practical terms? This of course will be contentious. Change in such a conservative intuition as an army, and the many layers of bureaucracy involved in training the modern soldier, means that progress is often at a snail’s pace.

Training of soldiers, and we are talking about the future ‘strategic corporal’ here (and notably the infantry for future contingency operations), should start with the individual at the tactical level focusing on the use of ground and employment of weapon systems. The parade ground ‘square bashing’ can wait, so as not to undermine the building up of the soldier’s fieldcraft skills. The value is in the soldier’s skill as an individual fighter rather than his employment in close order.[xvii] It is as much a fallacy today as it was when Liddell Hart wrote that the infantry is not the easiest arm to train:

‘None needs more thought or more skill, if it is adequately to play its part. The reason why it is difficult to train is because it is less concerned with material elements than other arms. The infantry soldier’s use of his weapon is but complementary to the use he makes of tactics and ground in the approach to his objective and his opponent. To train infantry, which is essentially the tactical arm, is to exercise an art, whereas to train the technical arms is to apply a science. The infantry soldier is less of a technician, but he is a field-craftsman – this is the title of honour to which he may aspire in the profession of arms.’[xviii]

It was identified as far back as 1916 that soldiers needed to be trained intelligently. The post-conscript training doctrines prevalent today are not suited to train the modern soldier. The drill, boot and bayonet approach is already at the limits of what it can usefully contribute. Training for complex situations demand a thinking soldier. The soldier may well have to prosecute a three-block war which has none of the clear distinction that General Krulak’s legendary analogy suggested.

So how do we train the leader of the future? As observed many years ago, ‘nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught…but the irrational tenth…can only be ensured by instinct, sharpened by…practicing…so often it is as natural as a reflex’.[xix] Training the leaders for the future fight should be reinforced by group dynamics, through what is commonly known as the ‘Band of Brothers’ effect; training officer candidates and soldiers together throughout basic training. At best they will come together to reflect the highest core values of soldering: professionalism, teamwork, physical stamina, self-discipline, duty, loyalty and respect. Leaders should be trained to deliver decisive tactical advantage in a vacuum with regards strategic direction. This follows the Israeli commander Yigael Allon’s views; ‘All levels of command must therefore be trained to think and act independently whenever circumstances demand that they should, and [there] are no exceptions to this rule.’[xx] This is not unlike the situation in the German Army between the World Wars, where the innovation of Hans Von Seeckt led to the creation of the ‘Fuhrerheer’; an army of leaders.[xxi] The payoff is that those who are fit in mind and body, and have pride in their unit, historically have also been the most successful in battle.

Afghanistan has been a great leveller for the British. All British battalions have had pretty well the same experience for the last eight years and have delivered the same capability on the ground, regardless of cap-badge, so raising the bar should be no problem. If anything it should aid as a retention tool. Both Slim and Wavell were sceptical about Special Forces; believing that most soldiers, given the right training and the right resources, could accomplish most missions and tasks.[xxii] Perhaps the Chindits of the Second World War are the best example; basically conventional infantry battalions which were trained and adapted to perform a very special task. Some, of course, fell during training; but most men accepted the challenge and performed accordingly. As for the training of officers, this is perhaps the most radical change. After the first term at a military academy, subsequent terms should perhaps include how to train indigenous forces as much as how to kill them. Officer training could also include a term in the Middle East or Asia Minor, engraining cultural as well as military education.

In the war of the FOB (Forward Operating Base), which replaced ‘Manoeuvre Warfare’ as the doctrinal term of Western Armies faster than you could say ‘Staff Officers Handbook,’ the advantage the West holds in firepower and technology was rendered all but obsolete by the need to hold everything; therefore holding very little. Our influence in any given area was not unlike that of a Greek city state; it lasted as long as the fighting season in that area, and within the range of the weaponry available to the soldiers occupying the FOB. It had little lasting effect. With the absence of all-out decisive battle, casualty aversion set in. The professional armies of the West have hastened to a position of husbanding the lives of their forces; substituting the image of manoeuvre for combat, with all the frugality of a general of the ancien regime.


For the insurgent of Afghanistan to have emerged from over twelve years of combat against the premier military forces of the world with the status quo ante bellum preserved is not a bad result; they fought a war without a General Staff or a military academic tradition. The fact that it has brought the Western World to the negotiating table shows the power of their strategic vision and weakness of ours. The modern infantryman with his extensive body armour and desire to meet the enemy on equal terms is the direct descendant of the Greek hoplite and Swiss pikeman. Like his phalanx predecessor, the modern infantry craves less cumbersome armament and thinking, based on his desire for manoeuvre to bring his vast array of technology and firepower to the point of advantage. That advantage must be channelled into a re-evaluation of how we instruct soldiers to fight and how we educate officers at all levels to think of combat and war.

As we ‘Stand in the Trench, [with] Achilles’[xxiii] and view the future battlefield, the possibility of war between the states of Western Europe has all but been abolished. We must look to where we are likely to be deployed on operations, and educate ourselves in the cultural understanding of war and how it is conducted by our likely enemies. We have inherited the idea of classical heroic battle, and we have detached it from the reality of the contemporary operational environment. War today is not so much about winning as maintaining the political and public high moral ground along with the media focus. All our recent conflicts have been viewed as relative failures with the corresponding ‘push back’ from the general public, since no-one articulated the idea that there will not be a decisive battle. There will not be a surrender; neither at a designated plain in Germany, nor onboard the USS Missouri. We must manage the expectation of those who supposedly serve and educate them in the realities of limited ‘no-win’ wars. This will not be easy, but it is just as important as getting your tactics, techniques and procedures sorted out at platoon level. We have ignored the deeper lessons of recent conflicts beyond the tactical level, transferring our conventional view of war onto a whole different and more dangerous set of circumstances. We need to break the shackles of the Homeric view of war to enable our soldiers to be able to meet our future enemies on a level battlefield unlike Epaminondas’ ‘dancing floor of war’. The modern battlefield will be very unlike the plains of Plataia or Leuktra; or, for that matter, the beaches of Normandy.


[i] Weigley, R (1973) ‘The American Way of War’, Macmillan, New York, p xvii
[ii] Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ 1778
[iii] Those few exceptions include the Falklands War for Britain and Gulf War 1 for the US.
[iv] Earle, M (1971) ‘Makers of Modern Strategy’, Princeton’ p 88
[v] Davis Hanson, V (1989), ‘The Western Way of War’, Hodder & Stoughton, London p 9
[vi] Keegan, J (1989), Introduction to the Western Way of War by Hanson, p xii
[vii] Ibid, p xiii
[viii] Davis Hanson op cit, p 139
[ix] The ‘search and destroy’ concept violated the basic tenet of protecting terrain and preserving combat resources, based on the faulty perceptions, from WWII, considered body count superior to tactical skill.
[x] Jones (2003) p 33
[xi] Ibid. p 359
[xii] Hackworth, (1971), p 258
[xiii] Davis Hanson op cit, London p 11
[xiv] Weigley, R (1973) ‘The American Way of War’, Macmillan, New York, p 36
[xv] Bobbit, P (2002) ‘The Shield of Achilles’, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, p xxi-xxii
[xvi] Parker, G (2002) ‘Success is Never Final’, Perseus, New York,
[xvii] Liddell Hart, B H (1933) ‘The Future of Infantry’, Faber & Faber, London p 63
[xviii] Ibid op cit, p 64
[xix] Lawrence, T E (1926) ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. Oxford University Press, 1926, p193.
[xx] English, J. and Gudmundsson, B (1994) ‘On Infantry’, Praeger Publishers, Connecticut, p168.
[xxii] There are some exceptions such as homeland anti-terrorist capability, but even these are not insurmountable.
[xxiii] Shaw-Stewart, Patrick (1915) ‘A Shropshire Lad’. First published the London Mercury, January 1920.