Letter From Military History – September 2015 | HistoryNet MENU

Letter From Military History – September 2015

By Stephen Harding
7/3/2015 • MH Editorial

The Realm of Uncertainty

As recent events in the Middle East have reminded us, war is most definitely the realm of uncertainty. No matter how meticulously planned an attack or a defense might be, or how invincible a particular military force or bastion may appear, when battle is joined, the outcome often rests on factors that have little to do with either side’s martial capabilities.

Among these factors are such natural ones as weather, terrain and even time of day. History is populated with great commanders who, in their haste to close with the enemy, ignored falling temperatures or rising winds, only to see their presumed victories evaporate and their once-grand armies transformed into ragged lines of hollow-eyed men bent on retreat. Likewise are leaders whose inattention to the subtleties of the ground over which their forces moved led to their domination by opponents better attuned to the geography of the battlefield. And countless fights have hinged on how closely each side paid attention to the angle of the sun, or on how well versed combatants were in the art of night fighting.

But human factors also influence a battle’s conduct and outcome.

Take, for example, a well-equipped and highly motivated army that rebels against its ill-prepared government. The rebel commanders, having enjoyed early and relatively easy victories, assume they will take their nation’s capital with little effort and yet are held at bay for years by the city’s poorly armed and fractious defenders. Or what of the arrogant ruler of an ancient and cosmopolitan city who, when faced with the imminent arrival of a ravening horde, disdains to negotiate and thus ensures the ruthless destruction of himself, his people and the treasures of their culture? And, sadly, incompetent and foolish generals eager for martial glory have squandered far too many lives by sending their armies against better-armed, better-led and better-sited opponents.

In the end the line between victory and defeat is both thin and inconstant, and it is always written in blood. MH

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