Battles that Changed History

Professors James Lacey and Williamson Murray explains how 20 historical battles determined the political, cultural and geographic circumstances of today.

By + More

The world might be drastically different if a single battle from 490 B.C. had gone the other way. While many history books focus on entire wars, James Lacey, a professor at the Marine Corps War College, and Williamson Murray, a defense analyst at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and a professor at the Naval War College, say it is actually individual battles that have more greatly affected the fate of great ideas, such as democracy. In "Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World," Lacey and Murray examine the lasting impacts of these conflicts. Lacey recently spoke with U.S. News about how these 20 battles determined the political, cultural and geographic circumstances of today. Excerpts:

Why are these 20 battles the most decisive?

There are numerous battles that military historians may think are more crucial in terms of the outcome or how decisive the fighting was. The Battle of Cannae gets mentioned by military historians all the time because it was a double envelopment, where Hannibal and his Carthaginians surrounded two Roman armies that merged together and annihilated them. But in the end, Hannibal lost; Carthage was defeated, and a generation later, the entire city was wrecked. The Battle of Zama, where the Carthaginians and Hannibal were finally defeated, created Rome as the most powerful city in the Mediterranean. How Rome established its world and its empire still [impacts] much of the world. So what we did was try and figure out what battles, whether well-known or not, the world is still feeling the effects of even today.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

What’s one long-term consequence of an ancient battle still apparent now?

Well, just take the first one in our book, the Battle of Marathon. The East-West divide that we think of today between the Middle East and the Western world was created in 490 B.C., when 10,000 Athenian Hoplites defeated the massed formations of the Persian tyrant. If Athens had lost at Marathon, the only democratic city-state – the only democratic entity in the world with free markets, a constitution and people voting – would have been either wiped out or subjected to a tyrant. Everything we know about Greek culture, our entire concept of democracy, of free markets, would have been snuffed out 2,500 years ago.

You include Operation Peach, a battle from the invasion of Iraq. Is it too soon to judge long-term consequences of that war?

Yes, it is. I even start that chapter with a quote from a Chinese communist ruler, Zhou Enlai. When someone said, "What do you think were the results of the French Revolution?" – it had been 200 years – he goes, "It’s still too early to tell." There is no doubt that the consequences of our invasion of Iraq are yet to be seen. What is not in doubt is that there are going to be consequences. [Operation Peach] has the hallmarks of a battle that’s going to change the world. How it’s going to play out we don’t know. That it’s going to have a gigantic effect as time goes on, I think we could pretty much say with certainty now.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Has the concept of war changed over time?

The nature of war is brutal, violent, destructive. You’re going to get new weapons, new technology, communications, stuff that allow you to fight wars differently. But the 19-year-old in Iraq that gets shot at for the first time is just as scared as a Roman legionary fighting his first war against some Gothic tribesman. You have tremendous similarities in the nature of war which are eternal. The character of war changes, so it’s much harder to fight a decisive battle now. Napoleon and Hannibal and the Battle of Teutoburger Wald – all of these battles could be fought and won in a day. Towards World War II, you see some of these battles go on for weeks. It’s a matter of destructive power and the resiliency of nations in a modern technological world. You can produce new armies at rapid speeds when you have heavy technology and industry behind you.