Context: I intend to listen to an interview with the author of The Allure of Battle, and want to set my own views down first to note where I agree and disagree
What is the contribution a won battle makes towards victory in war? The answer may seem obvious: you kill a load of them, so there's less of them left to fight back. Actually, I don't think it's so clear.
- change over time in what we mean by a battle - in particular, as war has turned into a process rather than a series of events
- most battles, even decisive ones, involve relatively small casualty ratios - and frequently not all that lop-sided. 10% on each side would not be atypical
- armies being wiped out often historically led to surrender, even when the population at large had changed little. Kill 20,000 Austrians - so what? There are millions more! Why should that lead to surrender if war is about destroying enemy strength?
- at very small level, a fight is determined by what we may call "strength". Most obvious at the level of 1v1. Look at lion coalitions, where power is largely about how many male lions can bear to live alongside each other.
- as fights get larger, it becomes less about overall strength and the ability to coordinate and concentrate it in one location
- given an absence of opposition, it doesn't take all that much force to control an area and its people. See the el-Amarna letters, in which 50 men is sufficient to pacify Canaan
- battles, then, are as much about disrupting the enemy ability to coordinate as about killing them. This can happen by scattering them, by capturing/killing their leaders
- This is a primary reason why cavalry were important - not for fighting (horses are easily scared!) but for pursuit (and also scouting, which was key to success in battle - although my topic here is why battles were important, not how to win them)
- total war, and war becoming a process, are fundamentally a result of state capacity - the ability to lose one army and build another, Diplomacy-style.
- Also arguably due to the fact of generals being behind the line - meaning that defeat is less likely to mean disruption to the command structure