March 19, 2008

When was the last good battle?

Last year I visited the Gettysburg Battlefield for the first time. The only other famous battlefield I've been to is Waterloo.

This got me to thinking how few classic battles have been fought around the world in recent decades, with two armies engaging bravely and competently at a fairly defined location. Much recent warfare has either been a one-sided fiasco, like the first Gulf War, or something, such as in the Balkans in the 1990s, more similar to gang warfare carried out by bullies who like preying on civilians but make themselves scarce when confronted by disciplined troops.

So, when was the last battle in the Gettysburg / Waterloo mode where both armies fought well and the decision hung in the balance until near the end?

It seems like it has become ever more difficult to get two roughly equal armies to show up on a battlefield with both of them primed to fight.

The Egyptian - Israeli fighting in 1973 of 35 years ago probably qualifies as a battle where both sides could look back with some pride, although the Egyptians didn't really have a plan for winning the war. They just wanted to get across the Suez Canal to prove they could do it. But they did it so well that the Israelis, with the exception of Ariel Sharon, were psychologically traumatized. Sharon improvised furiously and turned the tide.

But what would compare since then? Any suggestions?

Some aspects of the Falklands War might compare, but the Argentinean performance (outside of the Air Force) was mediocre at best.

The War Nerd enthuses over Eritrean-Ethiopian battles in the 1990s. The Chechen defeat of the Russian tanks in 1994 was impressive, but this seems like another example of fiasco on one side.

A commenter once suggested that the Rwandan Tutsi army's adventures in the Congo in the 1990s deserved to go down in legend. They sounded kind of like the great escape pulled off by Greek mercenaries trapped deep inside the Persian Empire, as described in Xenophon's book. But I don't know if they ever ran into a worthy opponent.

John Mueller argues that the human race is becoming less warlike. He may have a point.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Grozny was pretty rough. Those Chechens don't give up easily. The Russians took a beating before they finally seized the city.

Anonymous said...

I'd vote for the Falklands. The war was much nastier than most people think. Before that, I'd go for the quickie Indo-Pakistan War of 1971.

Anonymous said...

Ethiopia/Eritria came to mind as I was reading your post, but then thanks to you I read Brecher too. What about the Iran/Iraq war in the '80s? It had all the classic aspects - pincer movements, bait-and-counterattack, combined arms, blown dams. Even chemical weapons.

Or course, the fact they were so evenly matched was a policy of ours, so it's really not that surprising.

Anonymous said...

blu-ray vs hd dvd is about as exciting as we have had recently. afaik.

Anonymous said...

Don't know about the last good battle, but the last cavalry battle took place in the so-called "soccer war" between two of those interchangeable Spanish-speaking lands in Central America.

(PS- what do you have to do to get a "Preview" to show here? Like Mae West and her ceiling mirror, I like to see how I'm doin'...)

Anonymous said...

Cuito Cuanavale 1984 in Angola. Largest pitched battle in the southern hemisphere ever. The Cuban/Russian/Angolan armies (about 20000) vs. South Africa (3000) and UNITA/Savimbi (ca. 4000). 3 month skirmishes with fairly gross tank exchanges during a protracted advance and retreat by soviet forces, being harassed by South Africa and UNITA. Eventually stalemate at Cuito Cuanavale with South Africa flattening the town with artillery.

The battle was never completed because the collapse of the soviet offensive altered the strategic situation in Angola leading to withdrawal of all foreign forces from Angola. In a strategic sense it was a victory for South Africa, who never really wanted to take the town, fearing high casualties amongst its small number of white soldiers.

In addition South Africa had no territorial designs in Angola; they just wanted to keep southern Angola free of foreign forces. The lopsided casualties in South Africa's favour really speak for themselves.

But please consult other sources, I'm not an expert:

J said...

Greek mercenaries "trapped" in Persia is the wrong example of a battle. The battle they took part in was a mano-a-mano among brothers for the throne, when one killed the other, all the fighting was over. Xenophon and his comrades were never molested when they decided to leave the Empire. Their problems were with local tribes, who refused to feed them along their way to the Black Sea. An expedition at most, not a battle. Verdun was a battle. Stalingrad was a battle. BTW, what about Saddam Hussein's million strong army vs the USA + UK expeditionary force ? Was it a battle? I do think it was, and it was lost by Saddam.

Anonymous said...

The Falklands was a hard fought war that could have gone either way. The Argentine land forces were no Iraqis.

Anonymous said...

Once again, everyone forgets the massive Iran-Iraq war. Which shows the reason why there seem to be no more "great battles": nuclear weapons have prevented wars between major powers. All you have left are major powers decimating 3rd worlders (boring) or 3rd worlders kicking each other around (nobody cares). Although, to the 3rd worlders involved, they can still be days of glory.

Oh, and your characterization of the Balkan civl war is incorrect.

Anonymous said...

I gotta agree on Balkans. While not a battle, the siege of Sarajevo was just that, a classic siege with lines dug around the city (both attacking and defending positions). No, it wasn't Kursk (Balkan's terrain doesn't allow for that) but it was a real military operation. As were the Croatian offensive (Oluja or lightening) against the Serbs in that country.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I got the date wrong. Cuito Cuanavale was in 1987, shortly before the end of the Cold War.

Anonymous said...

j. sed:
"BTW, what about Saddam Hussein's million strong army vs the USA + UK expeditionary force ? Was it a battle? I do think it was, and it was lost by Saddam."

The US army/navy/AF are impressive, certainly technologically. But the US has this tendency to just flatten the place with bombing/missiles and then send in overwhelming firepower to cut down the few poor creatures still staggering around. I don't know if you could call that classical warfare or soldiering. It kinda pre-empts the outcome. In this sense any defeat by the Americans is automatically interpreted as a national crisis.

Anonymous said...

What about the Vietnamese War of 1973-1975? All I know about it is that the North used tanks and when I think of a tank battle I always assume that it's a reenactment of the Battle of Kharkov.

Anonymous said...

Where to start? Plenty of good stuff. I happen to be a fan of the 2nd Battle of Fallujah. Some said that it was the craziest urban combat the US has seen since Hue in Vietnam. I believe it.

Patrick Wahl said...

Like anonymous said, I think the last big battle was during the Iran-Iraq war, where I seem to remember hearing a news report describing one of the battles as the largest since WW2.

Anonymous said...

The 2006 Lebanon War. IDF Armour against entrenched Hezbollah AT Infantry. Not huge but a couple of hundred KIA is still pretty decent.

Anonymous said...

"John Mueller argues that the human race is becoming less warlike. He may have a point."

I used to think this way but now I am re-considering. I think there may be several factors which make it APPEAR this way - in the West anyway:

(1) Exponential technological advance in the last 50 years, along with a booming economy that created middle-class lifestyle for most in the West.

(2) Declining population as a result of (1) makes for less cannon fodder and for less expansionist policies.

(3) The psychological trauma WW2 inflicted all across the West (USA may be exception).

(4) The re-arrangment of European countries into virtually homogeneous ethnic entities after WW2 (Yugoslavia one notable exception).

(5)Advancements in weapon technology, including the whole concept of MAD.

In addition history shows that European nations (as well as others) go through extended periods of peace before resuming large scale warfare.

History has not come to an end. If the economy tanks war may come back on large scale. If current demographic trends continue and the post-WW2 re-arrangment of ethnic groups is ended then we will have wars. If one country (maybe China?) makes breakthroughs in the next generation of weapons and has a high probability of avoiding MAD then war may be back on large scale.

But really there has to be no concrete reason. With all the weapons we have today - anything could happen - humans are mostly rational, but with a large enough dose of the irrational as well.

Anonymous said...

Ummm, how about Fallujah? The insurgents were way outgunned but by all accounts fought bravely.

It's kind of messed up that we romanticize set piece battles. The ultimate such battle was the Western Front in WWI -- years of unrelieved carnage. Basically, both sides had the courage to committ suicide for no good reason.

Anonymous said...

Technology has meant that the gap between two nations (or, forbodingly, between governments and their citizens) grows ever larger. Good, even-sided battles of the classic variety will be hard to come by.

When the US went into Afghanistan people were making comparisons with the British expeditions in the 1800s, unaware that the tech gap has grown immensely, in favor of America.

What I wonder is if an American Revolution style of revolt is even possible today. 200 years ago if you didn't want to pay your taxes then you didn't pay. Most people were paid in cash and large numbers worked for themselves, so withholding didn't happen.

Today if you want a taxpayer revolt all the government has to do is press a few buttons and it's over, government wins.

neil craig said...

The Falklands War was much neareer to Wellington's "damned close run thing" than generally thought. Had a few more of the Argentine bombs that hit British ships actually gone off we Brits would have lost.

It also had the advantage that only a couple of thousand civilians lived on the island so civilian casualties were almost nil.

There was also a campaign shortly before the end of the Bosnian war where the Moslems, newly rearmed by those countries which were enforcing the mandatory UN embargo, launched a massive attack on the Serb positions around Sarajevo. However the Serbs held a strong defensive position &the Moslem attack was incompetently run so they got creamed. Eventually the US trained & German armed Croatian Nazi army won anyway.

The Isreali raid on Entebbe in Uganda, to free Idi Amin's hostages is to small to classify as a battle but as a small unit action it is without parallel. Thses guys can stand tall in Xenophon's company.

Anonymous said...

Reg C├Žsar: Don't know about the last good battle, but the last cavalry battle took place in the so-called "soccer war" between two of those interchangeable Spanish-speaking lands in Central America.

A few days ago, the UK Telegraph ran a book review about the 1920 Russian-Polish war:

When Lenin invaded Poland
Christopher Silvester reviews Warsaw 1920: Lenin's Failed Conquest of Europe by Adam Zamoyski
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 15/03/2008

...The battle of Czesniki, on the other hand, harked back to Napoleon's time. It was, says Zamoyski, "an epic struggle of a kind not witnessed in Europe for over a century, and the last major cavalry-to-cavalry engagement in the continent's history"...

The mark of a great military historian is not only to do the battlefield descriptions and explain the tactics, but to give the political context and bring the characters of the commanders to life. Zamoyski manages it all in this concise and thrilling account of a forgotten war and argues that, far from being irrelevant, the Polish victory bought "two decades of freedom".

Tino said...

The problem with the Iran-Iraq war was that while the Iranians where generally brave, both sides where quite incompetent, so that the battles (say karbala 1, Karbala 2, Karbala 3, Karbala 4 etc.) followed a set scheme, direct unsophisticated assault (first by Iraq, later by Iran), ground to a halt by defensive fire.

Obviously fixed position defense requires much less organizational ability than offence, so both sides tended to get stock when trying to advance. Obviously the Iraqis had better weapons and firepower, but they where not able to for example use their tanks like they are supposed to, rather than just a gun you dig in the sand or drive straight on.

The level of mobility was unbelievably low, in 8 years of war the sides advanced about as much as the first few days of US war against Iraq

There was at least one interesting operation during the war, in 1986 when Iran took the Al-Faw Peninsula in a surprise amphibious assault during a storm.

One obvious reason set-piece battles have become rare is the change in fire-power vs. shock, lining up tightly to stop the French cavalry like Waterloo makes little sense, you want to spread out. Also the advanced countries that have the know-how to fight well tend to be smart enough not to fight each other.

Another often overlooked example of incompetent/disorganized armies slugging it out fiercely is the two Kurdish-Iraqi wars 61-70 and 74-75. The number of soldiers involved was surprisingly high, and there where some “real” battles involved. Similar to the Iranian example the Kurds where incompetent but brave, where as the Arabs where incompetent but heavily armed. Both sides took heavy casualties.

I would suggest someone look into the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979 to find “real” battles between “real” and well matched armies. India-Pakistan 1965 had some medium size real battles with tanks, artillery and air-support.

Anonymous said...

Steve the assertion that we are becoming less warlike is laughable. And stupid. It's more likely that the Cold War kept leashes on everyone out of fear of Global Nuclear War.

Mogadishu (read BlackHawk Down) was a tremendous battle. We had few troops who were insanely brave -- light helicopter gunships made insane passes to keep the stranded guys from being overrun. While on the other side the whole city fought against us with insane bravery. I'd say it qualifies.

Also, second battle of Fallujah. US Marines against dug in AQ. The AQ scum may be nasty, but fought hard and bravely.

America owns now the air. Of course new and cheap anti-Air missiles may change that completely, denying aircraft, cruise missiles, drones to the battlefield. Euros may say they're pacifist but nations like Sweden sell that stuff anywhere (newest systems are three-man portable).

I think looking forward we can't assume restraint on the part of nuclear powers like we could with the USSR-US duopoly.

Already Osama is threatening Europe for Danish cartoons and stuff the Pope said (it's a "crusade" to say or do stuff in your own country according to Osama or whoever is impersonating him). I would not be shocked at some point to see a Euro city go Boom! in a nuclear explosion (or a US city) since the broad trend since 1991 is that war is cheaper and easier than ever.

You don't need a massive army. Air force. Navy. Theoretically just a couple of guys with box cutters on an airplane, or a shipping container with a "borrowed" nuke from your cousin in Pakistan.

I could see humans evolving towards less violence if violence were more costly, but it's the reverse with cheap technology all over the globe.

Anonymous said...

I'll add that we are likely to see more tribe-on-tribe violence than big armies fighting roughly mirroring the decline of the super-big integrated company and the rise of smaller, independent suppliers.

It will far more than HD-vs.-Blu Ray, but instead of the violence concentrated in battles spread out amongst general populations.

Anonymous said...

There must be lots of "good" battles in WWI aand WWII but they are less well known because single battles were less important.

Anonymous said...

This isn't recent, but...

The Battle of Celaya!

Villa vs Obregon.

That battle had it all!!

Break out the popcorn and read this:

Anonymous said...

Seems obvious to me:

Most big engagements since were one-sided.

Anonymous said...

Can someone explain to me how trench warfare made a comeback in the Iraq-Iran war when both sides presumably had decent air forces (by Third World standards)?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Seems obvious to me: Most big engagements since were one-sided.

Well, The Battle of the Bulge wasn't exactly peanuts.

Anonymous said...

Here in the U.S., you can tour the very interesting battlefields of Gettysburg and Bull Run (and others from the Civil War) or Revolutionary War sites such as Brandywine and Valley Forge.

It's a lasting testament to the wisdom of our forbears that they arranged to have so very many of these great battles take place convenientoly within the confines of public parks--mostly Federal--so that such history and its lessons could be prteserved for the entertainment and education of generations yet to come.

Anonymous said...

It was not the largest battle since WWII, but it was the last direct conflict between super-powers, in 1969:

In H.R. "Bob" Halderman's biography, he related that the USSR (quite secretly) informed the Nixon administration that they were planning a pre-emptive nuclear strike against China, and would that be okay with us? Nixon said "No", and the Soviets dropped the idea, unwilling to antagonize both China and the U.S.

Ross said...

There's been a few decent albeit small battles in the Afghanistan war:

2001: The Battle of Tora Bora- USA versus Al Qaeda.

2006: The Battle of Panjwaii Canada versus Taliban.

2007: The Battle of Chora: Dutch and Afghan government forces versus the Taliban

2007: The Battle of Mula Qasa: Britain and Afghan government versus the Taliban.

I'm only listing the principle Western country involved in each battle but some of them were multinational in nature.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I hope you got to see the best monument at Gettysburg. That's the one to the Army of Mississippi that shows a soldier raising the butt of his rifle, ready to brain an Army of New York soldier under his foot. Well, at least its my favorite monument there.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you write:

"The Egyptian - Israeli fighting in 1973 of 35 years ago probably qualifies as a battle where both sides could look back with some pride, although the Egyptians didn't really have a plan for winning the war. They just wanted to get across the Suez Canal to prove they could do it. But they did it so well that the Israelis, with the exception of Ariel Sharon, were psychologically traumatized. Sharon improvised furiously and turned the tide."

This is incorrect. The Egyptian plan was to hold the Israeli bank of the Suez until a cease fire was imposed, which would then give Egypt the necessary political weight to force Israel out of Sinai. When they succeeded so easily at this task, though, Sadat changed his mind and started pushing for more.

Anonymous said...


oh, you mean the statue of the loser about to brain one of the winners?

my favorite is the Confederate vetran on Washington St. in Alexandria VA, sad, eyes downcast, looking south at the homeland he destroyed in a stupid lost cause fight. Perfect loser side statue.

Anonymous said...

We might yet see another great war between Greece and Turkey and their large conscript armies.