This week marked the anniversary of a great battle—and Americans too love to remember it. Last year at the Naval War College, the war-gaming department reenacted the entire battle, minute-by-minute, with splendid and colorful ship-counters, on the hallowed tile floor of Pringle Hall, which has been the site of many an ancient war game.
My colleague Jim Holmes’ recent “Top Five Naval Battles of All Time” reminds us what fun we can have handicapping history. Playing “pick your decisive battle” is a favorite game of ours. Jim calls it a “bloodsport,” but the very idea of “decisive” battle is a construct, an artifact, a literary invention. Its inventors were eminent Victorians like Edward Creasy (Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World) and our own Alfred Thayer Mahan (The Influence of Seapower Upon History).
These Victorian men were selling their nations a confection called “destiny.” They declared there were forces outside of us, like Darwin’s theory of evolution, or Marx’s vision of history, that determined our fate. Moreover these forces were real and thus could not be shirked. History was all about winning, and for our country and cause to win, we needed to seize the force and ride our destiny. Theirs was a world of conflict and struggle, and only the fittest would reach the top. Hence it made perfect sense that those destined to win would both show their mettle and also shape the path of destiny in highly dramatic moments of contest. “Decisive battle” became the proof of a nation’s future place in history. Deep down we still believe this. To Jim Holmes, a naval battle that “decides the fate of civilizations, empires, or great nations” is decisive — and so it would be, if such a battle actually existed.
Just consider Lepanto and The Armada, for example, two perennial favorites among decisive naval battles. Did they “decide the fate …”? Lepanto actually failed to “assure European, not Ottoman, command of the middle sea.” What it did assure was a renewed and vigorous Ottoman sea offensive, including the completed conquest of Cyprus, the wresting of Tunis from Spain, and the capture of Fez. Nor did Ottoman Seapower thereafter quickly recede. From 1645-1669 the Porte leveraged Crete, jewel of the Venetian seaborne empire, from the grasp of the greatest Mediterranean navy of all. Even as late as 1715, the Ottomans retook Morea (the Peloponnesus) from Venice, fighting their fleets to a virtual standstill. So the middle sea, from Morocco to Otranto to the Dardanelles, plus the whole of the Black Sea, was still ruled by Ottoman fleets and corsairs for a long, long time after Lepanto.
The Armada seems equally “slam-dunk” decisive to us today. Like Lepanto a fleet is destroyed, with 20,000 casualties: What could be worse? Unlike the Holy League, however, the English tried to follow up their victory with an expedition just as big as the Armada, launched against Spanish Lisbon. It was, as my son would say, an “epic fail.” The Spanish Armada (1588) and the English Armada (1589) suffered, at 20,000 each and scores of foundered ships, equal losses. Spain remained one of the big three sea powers, and totally effective defending its world empire for two more centuries. So was there is something decisive here?
Only a wildly entertaining sleight-of-hand lets us believe battles are “decisive.” That sleight-of-hand is this: Picking your decisive battle must be a game with the highest stakes. Hence, if the “bad guys” won at Lepanto we would all be Muslims today; if the “Dagoes” (as enlightened Brits called them for centuries) succeeded with their Armada, we would all be speaking Spanish and crossing ourselves daily.
At Lepanto, according to this sleight-of-hand, the Ottoman fleet could have crushed the Holy League as badly as it was itself crushed by them. But then, on top of that, the (less-than-magnificent) Sultan Selim II could have rushed full-throttle into Italy and made Rome a protected Islamic fiefdom. In that scenario, only the Alps would obscure the view of a Muslim Europe. By extension, at Gravelines, the Spanish fleet could have smashed English galleons and then landed Parma and his army on Kentish soil. Then, with a wave of the hand, that army could have overturned England and stayed fully resupplied by sea, while also maintaining its iron grip on the Spanish Netherlands in absentia. Amazing.
How could this have been done? No Ottoman army could have survived in Italy, let alone quickly conquered it. Logistics from the Balkans made such an enterprise an instant loser, and the tercios would have wiped out such a forlorn army. Moreover Ottoman defeat in Italy would have been far more shameful than any temporary and easily requited loss at sea. Equally, the Protestant cause would actually have benefitted from a Spanish military lodgment in Kent, because the wily Duke of Parma would have at last been cornered. Thus the Dutch-Calvinist cause could have split Spanish forces and cemented their doom. Instead of merely gaining independence (in 1640), they might even have expelled Spain entirely from the Netherlands by 1600. Spain dodged a strategic bullet by losing their Armada.
What we have codified in literary canon as “fate of civilization” moments are instead merely tokens — if useful tokens — that a big military enterprise has reached its limit, and maybe should just stop. Like the old saw: “Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down;” what we cherish as “decisive battles” are really just flags and signposts not to go any farther. The Ottomans had some natural imperial limits, and Lepanto was the message. Likewise for the Spanish Hapsburgs, bogged down in the Netherlands, the Armada was a “slow down” message.
So how does reaching a simple threshold make someone else’s shining destiny? We might conclude that the decisive battles we instantly recognize as the Armada and Lepanto are in reality highly refined and very expensive ad campaigns that have lasted centuries, into our own era. Spinning the “fate of civilization” is really all about spinning a narrative about just how great you are, and how a sea battle proves it for all time. You can call the efforts of generations of English novelists and filmmakers propaganda, or you can call it transcendent national marketing, or maybe just one of the greatest campaigns in cultural strategic communications.
But you cannot call what they created in song and story (or movie) a decisive battle. Likewise, Lepanto was even more of Hapsburg-Papal ad campaign: Titian, Tintoretto, Vicentino and Veronese (superstar artists of their day) were each commissioned to create bodacious propaganda paintings on behalf of Mitre and Crown. The very titles of recent best-selling books like, “The Contest for the Center of the World” (2009) or, “Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash” (2008) show that their 16th century ad campaign is somehow still ongoing.
Decisive naval battles are really about celebrating national identity by highlighting the core significance of that identity in a narrative shaped by the great ships of its navy at a moment when the perceived stakes of history are the highest and it could have gone either way. This is especially true of Trafalgar and all modern “decisive” naval battles.
Great ships, whether they are sailing battleships or dreadnoughts or aircraft carriers, have come to personify the nation itself. They often have names with existential significance in a nation’s person and history: Victory, Bismarck, Enterprise, Yorktown, Yamato, Droits de l’Homme, and so many more. These are ships whose great size and power and carefully calculated majesty have already entered the consciousness of their nation’s citizens.
Battles between ships carrying such names are high drama of a sort rarely achieved in war. It is drama; moreover, that lends itself to passionate presentation in all the dimensions of a nation’s collective consciousness. There is as well no doubt that navies, as special sub-cultures of national society, benefit tremendously from the continuing narrative power of “decisive battles.”
But there is a problem, half-hidden perhaps but potentially corrosive.
Wars at sea are not won by decisive battles. Over the centuries in fact there are precious few battles that can be argued were truly “decisive,” which is perhaps why “pick your decisive naval battle” is such a fun game.
A lesson: Too much Navy-focus on your own decisive battles also skews your understanding of what makes navies important. Trafalgar is a reminder in point.
With Trafalgar, it was not the battle that mattered: It was the years of blockading Brest and Toulon and Ferrol that preceded it. Franco-Spanish forces had lost their sailing skills and combat edge. Forced at last to give battle, they knew they were not serving the cause of Alliance victory but rather the cause of British glory and its national morale. The blockade had beaten them, and they were a sacrificial fleet. Not only did Villeneuve’s fleet not stand a chance, the victory itself was built by a much larger naval enterprise. It was a much bigger victory at sea.
Likewise, our wars at sea last century were won in long at-sea campaigns of ocean-grit and day-to-day tribulation, and it was built by fleet submarines and transports and ASW escorts. It is wonderful to enshrine in song and story the grand fleet that wins the literary construct. It is essential, however, to enshrine as well the fleet that wins the actual war. We need to maintain a “balanced fleet” in our own minds.