The Age of Battles, by Russell F. Weigley

The Age of Battles
by Russell F. Weigley

One of the most oft-heard comments about history is that those who fail to learn from it are bound to repeat it.  I would say that is true only if people actually learned anything from history.

Therein lies the hardest part.  How do you learn from it and what do we individually take as relevant to our present context in which we make leadership decisions, both personal and corporate?

One of the more important books on my reading list is from one of the greatest, if not the greatest, historians the US has produced, Russell Weigley, perhaps most famous for his The American Way of War.  But Weigley had some second thoughts about that work in his last years, which, while they do not detract from his work, show that he had some second thoughts on the lessons to be drawn from the work. Those lessons may have led military leaders and civilian policy-makers to funnel towards strategies for war in the last 20 years that they might not have otherwise made had he driven home a slightly different lesson in his work.  But there is no evidence that Weigley or anyone else ever had second thoughts about what I consider to be his most important work, The Age of Battles.

Age of Battles is a detailed history of Europe from 1631 to 1815 as seen through the lens of the quest for decisive victory in war.  The lessons of this book are prescient to a degree undiscovered in most works of history.  If methodology instructors discovered this work, I contend they would use it in all graduate level courses in the social sciences as a core reading in methodology.  Weigley, in 1991, draws lessons from human sociological interactions, the propensity of humans to think we are above lessons of the past, and our seemingly innate desire for decisiveness and finality.  He fairly clearly predicts our present morass and laments a geostrategic situation that he did not live to see.

Age of Battles chronicles successive leaders in countries throughout Europe (and in the introduction extends the study to global powers in World War II) seeking the decisive battle to end a current war, and establish some peace.  It never happened.  Alluding to Clausewitz’s dictum that decisiveness can only be achieved when one side completely submits to the other, Weigley details how kings, rulers and emperors from Swede Gustav Adolphus to Napoleon sought the decisive battle, yet no matter how decisive a battle, wars rarely ended and if so, on terms quite different from those originally desired.

Weigley says in the end “the recalcitrant indecisiveness of war throughout the age of battles made war consistently dubious as a means through the employment of which to secure the political ends of the state…war’s chronic inability to attain the ends desired when nation-states chose to invoke it except at inordinately high costs if at all, made warfare not a worthy instrument of policy but an expression of the bankruptcy of policy.” Those words seem prophetic today, after years of war, soaring national debt and a continuing promise by the state that its people are not safe.  What alternative to war is a worthy subject of civil discourse and debate. But it is difficult to come away from this masterful work without asking the question – “what other path can we take than the quest for decisive war”?