The Age of Battles

In THE AGE OF BATTLES, Russell Weigley has written a comprehensive history of Western warfare from 1631 to 1815. These years saw a revolution in the way the West made war. During the Middle Ages, warfare had been a desultory process, characterized chiefly by raiding and sieges. Wars were lengthy and inconclusive. Beginning in the seventeenth century, however, military visionaries such as Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus sought to force decision into warfare by fighting bloody set-piece battles, which tested to the limit the valor and resources of opposing armies. This new reliance on battle required much of soldiers. Officers had to develop the skill of effectively maneuvering large masses of men, while the common soldier had to exhibit an unwonted discipline amidst the horrors of the battlefield. As a result, Western armies became professionalized, and what had once been a combat of gentlemen and their retainers became a duel between experts. The statesmen and generals who pioneered the new style of war hoped that its greater decisiveness would also tend to reduce the barbarities associated with older and more protracted forms of warfare. Efforts were made to develop codes regulating military conduct during war, and to protect civilian lives and property. Western leaders trusted that war, while growing more intense because of the reliance on battle, would also become limited.

The ambitions of the theorists were not to be realized. The increased regularity of major battles ultimately did not make warfare more decisive. Even the spectacular victories of Napoleon Bonaparte could not end resistance to his designs or stave off his eventual defeat. And while conditions did generally improve for civilians caught in the path of war, frustration often caused armies to lapse into older habits of brutality. Weigley concludes his study by noting that this failure to find decision demonstrates the futility of war as an instrument of statesmanship.