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Winning All the Battles but Losing the War, Just Like Hannibal

In late 218 B.C.E. Hannibal led an army across one of the highest passes in the Alps and invaded Italy.  Staging the assault from his family’s base in Spain, itself an empire-within-an-empire, he had basically dragged the home city and metropolis of Carthage into an entirely problematic war with Rome, one that would have been destined for a quick and disastrous end had it not been for one factor:  Hannibal himself.

Almost immediately he gathered his bedraggled, freeze dried near-wreck of an army, and led them to two sharp victories over the Romans, with the latter one at the River Trebia wiping out most of a major consular army.  He followed that up the next spring by annihilating another consular army in a giant ambush at Lake Trasimene.

By now he had Rome’s full attention.  The hyper-warlike city on the Tiber, destined soon to rule the Mediterranean basin, responded by fielding a crusher of a field force, essentially four consular armies welded together, and invited Hannibal to fight.  With breathtaking guile, Hannibal surrounded the Romans on August 2, 216 B.C.E. on a plain near the abandoned town of Cannae, and then over the course of an afternoon chopped it to bits, killing more men on that day than the United States lost in battle during the entire Vietnam conflict.

Hannibal assumed the authorities on the Tiber would be ready to talk terms and sent a delegation, but Rome was just getting started.  In the words of Fabius Maximus, the city’s shrewdest military leader:  “We are carrying on war in Italy, in our own country…Hannibal, on the other hand, is in a foreign and hostile land….Do you doubt that we shall get the better of a man who is growing weaker by the day?”

So Rome kept fielding armies, drawing on huge manpower reserves, gradually producing better fighters and generals. Yet Hannibal, to an amazing degree, kept beating them, never losing a significant battle during his entire time in Italy.  Still, as the years piled up he found himself steadily further south, until he occupied just the toe of the Italian boot, leaving finally in 203 B.C.E., soon to preside over Carthage’s surrender.

Thus ended history’s most flagrant example of winning all the battles but losing the war – a sort of military oxymoron that often leaves armchair strategists scratching their heads.  But such a phenomenon is more than just a freakish occurrence; it can be the starkest kind of barometer of effectiveness, one those involved ignore at their own risk.

Consider the fate of the Spanish in their efforts to suppress the rebellious Dutch in the late sixteenth century, sending the best and most experienced army in Europe to the Netherlands to deliver a succession of poundings virtually whenever their hapless adversaries ventured beyond fortifications.  Yet the rebellion refused to be stifled.  The Dutch even seemed to prosper, while the Spanish found themselves increasingly short of cash, their unpaid troops mutinous, and they gradually lost hold of the situation.

The lessons should have been obvious.  Spain’s power was over-extended, its armies were operating in a hostile environment, and military leverage was non-existent.  When you win all the battles and nothing good happens, it should be a sure sign that the whole operation is not working.  Instead, Spain hung tough and went into centuries of decline.  It’s also worth remembering that an aroused Rome went on to completely obliterate Carthage, an act of genocide if there ever was one.

All this would be academic if it were not for the fact that winning all the battles but losing the war seems to keep happening to the United States.  We find ourselves repeatedly caught in the same trap, trying to operate in environments where our political purchase is minimal, and then compensating militarily (winning all the battles), which only obscures our basic dilemma.

We have a very capable and well-equipped military.  Consequently, it tends to perform well even under the most adverse conditions, conditions that would destroy many other armies.  Yet the results frequently range from disappointing to non-existent.  Our fate in Vietnam was epitomized during negotiations a week before the fall of Saigon, when an American general told his counterpart:  “You know you never beat us on the battlefield.”  “That may be so,” the Vietnamese replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”

The tale has been much the same during our incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan, two very uninviting military environments:  first a string of stunning victories; then a stubborn and lethal insurgency.  Fortunately, our ground forces had enough adaptability in their fighting DNA to evolve a fairly good approximation of an anti-insurgency campaign.  But it’s also important to remember that these are basically forces designed to fight conventional battles, and those who control them think in these terms.  Their basic orientation is massive (more troops, more stuff) and kinetic.

It’s already pretty clear that this approach can interfere with the basic political tasks of gaining local trust and promoting security. Collateral damage and civilian casualties have a way of doing that.  It’s less apparent, but still significant, that we have been able to compensate by employing our military crunch as a kind of substitute for political adroitness.  Through a combination of high-tech intelligence and remote delivery means, we’ve actually gotten quite good at picking off adversary leadership and inflicting violence in ways that actually hurt groups like al Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban.

Yet this capacity comes with a huge footprint of men and materiel, a price tag that puts an inherent time-limit on this kind of war in a democracy.  We may pay any price and bear any burden, but not forever and everybody knows it.  So the insurgents hang on, knowing that we will eventually pick up and leave.

Meanwhile, another American military community – a much smaller one centered around Special Operations – swims against the tide, arguing that unconventional warfare, using primarily cultural awareness and political manipulation, can be waged even in the heart of Islam and with much smaller numbers.  Such a solution might actually allow us to maintain a sufficiently low profile to stay the course and outlast insurgencies that drag on to an average of twenty-five years.  But this is not guaranteed.  Anti-insurgent thinking remains a work in progress, and the right mix of ingredients is still an open question.  Nevertheless, it seems abundantly clear that winning all the battles won’t do it, and, as hard as it is, we must focus on winning hearts and minds.

This is extraordinarily ambitious and some would say naïve; but we should be reminded that the most successful Special Operators in history arrived in similarly strange and hostile environments carrying not guns but crosses.  These were the Jesuits who penetrated India, China, and Japan during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and, through a combination of flexibility, imagination, and dedication, worked their way up to the highest reaches of all three societies.  They fought not a single battle, but they won many a convert as they climbed.