Victor Davis Hanson has argued that the western way of war — based on engaging the enemy in a decisive battle, rather than a series of skirmishes — led to western world dominance.
Peter Turchin could not disagree more:
Winning a battle is a very small part of winning a war. In fact, many wars were won despite losing all the battles. The Romans prevailed over Hannibal in the Second Punic War even though Hannibal smashed them in battle after battle. After the disaster of Cannae perhaps a third of Romans of military age were wiped out, and even a greater proportion of the ruling senatorial class was destroyed (yes, at that time the Roman senators fought and died in the first ranks). Nevertheless, the Romans ultimately prevailed. Similarly, in 1812 Napoleon won all the battles against the Russians, but it was his Grand Army that was ultimately destroyed and two years later Napoleon himself was deposed by the Allied Powers.
There is a great story about an exchange between two colonels, one American and the other Vietnamese in Hanoi, after the end of the US-Vietnam war (I am indebted to Ian Morris for bringing this quote to my attention). During their encounter, Colonel Summers told Colonel Tu, “You know, you never beat us on the battlefield.” Colonel Tu thought about it for a few moments, and then said, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
Now I don’t want to push this idea to the logical extreme. Winning battles is useful, but it is only one component, and not the most important, of winning wars. As career military officers like to repeat, “amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics.”