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The "Battle Mentality" of Hollywood

Of the many ideas created by the Greeks, the concept of the “decisive battle” still influences modern military theory. In the decisive battle, all that matters is defeating the enemy in one battle--campaigning simply leads to this battle.

In modern war, a single battle cannot win the war. Yet, our military focuses on the fight, and only lightly covers the idea of outmaneuvering opposing forces. Why? Perhaps, because we were taught as kids, and re-taught as adults, that one final battle will win the war--that one person alone can win the war. Our culture believes in the decisive battle.

Don’t believe me?   

In the first Star Wars, victory means a single missile fired by one pilot. Even though the campaign continues for two more films, the rebels destroy the Empire in Return of the Jedi with the exact same strategy.   

In the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, two small hobbits win the war by throwing one ring into a lava pit.

Think the Chronicles of Narnia. One final battle versus the White Witch won the entire campaign.

Think of war movies and their focus on single battles: Tora! Tora! Tora!, Saving Private Ryan or Gettysburg.

Think Robin Hood and his final battle against the Sheriff of Nottingham in The Prince of Thieves or any other iteration of the film. Or think of DragonHeart, Transformers, or X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

Virtually any action movie or even Disney film ends in a decisive battle.

This isn’t an accident. Movies are only two hours long. With the occasional exception, a film can only depict a single battle, or a handful of battles, never the war. Also, the three act structure of Hollywood scripts--ingrained in the minds of Hollywood executives--does not have much flexibility. Executives, screenwriters and directors must deliver a climax, and the decisive battle is a tremendous climax.

Real wars begin slowly and few have easy entry points. Real wars end slowly, usually as one side slowly caves in on itself. Real wars never turn on the actions of one man. Counter-insurgency is very rarely even fought in battles.

Does this matter? In our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, our society wants narratives, and the media delivers. The surge was presented as our decisive battle. Replacing Lt. Gen. McChrystal, and Gen. Petraeus before him, was presented as the decisive move. Unfortunately, counter-insurgencies are not won by a single person or a single battle; only Hollywood films are.

seven comments

I of course agree that Hollywood over dramatizes the single concluding battle. However, single battles and I go so far as to say single soldiers, change the course of wars. We call the Battle of the Bulge a tactical mistake by Hitler, but only because an Airbourne division was able to hold the freezing forest of Bastone. The Tet Offensive made America believe the cost of war in Vietnam was too high. Rommel leaves Africa due to illness and the Nazi’s lose it. The battle of Saratoga. Gettysberg was a major victory. While they may not win wars directly, certain battles have major effects how the war proceeds.

Our culture and society, not just the entertainment sector therein, have unrealistic views about warfare. We think getting shot at gives you a mental illness. We imagine violence won’t settle matters. What difference if we add yet another fairy tale, the decisive battle with the single hero, to the list?

By the by, I followed the link to this blog from Small Wars Council (which I don’t belong to but read quite regularly). I applaud both Michael and Eric for the choices of topics and the discussion thereof.

The decisive battle mentality made sense for ancient greece (before Alexander) because of the fact that most Hoplites were citizen-soldiers and couldn’t leave home for a long campaign without having people back home starve (with the exception of Sparta which had a very militarized society which depended on slave labor).

You have to step back from the whole idea of Iraq and Afghanistan being wars in the classical sense and study the history of military occupations. The war was the invasion, and nowadays that is the easy part for the US military, especially when taking on militaries as far behind ours as Iraq and Afghanistan’s were. Right now I wouldn’t hesitate to say that in both Iraq and Afghanistan it is currently an occupation that is resented by the indigenous populations, and once it becomes an occupation how do you measure “success”, what is your “goal”? Is it to occupy the land indefinitely for natural resources, to shape the local culture and population in a way that suits the occupier better, to guarantee stability for an interim time period until a new government can take the reigns, to cross our fingers and hope that stability emerges, to rebuild infrastructure?

It would take a miracle for the occupations to be positively received positively by either nation. Even in a country that had a government as oppressive as the Taliban, there is little evidence that Karzai’s government is much better, and even people who want real change and democracy in Afghanistan such as Malalai Joya (who should be a natural ally) have condemned the occupation and the northern alliance/Afghani government (who they see merely as rival warlords to the Taliban). How do you turn the occupation into a positively received one, especially in a country like Iraq that does have a strong national identity and perceives the occupation as an infringement on their right to self determination and sovereignty, or Afghanistan which has an extremely long fierce history of resistance to foreigners dating back to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan (perhaps some of the most brilliant strategists ever)? Its no coincidence Iraqi’s are marking the day the US is stopping its patrols in Iraqi cities as a national holiday.

Obviously, several of your examples are movies as part of movie series. The battles were won (or rather pyrrhic victories, as in X-Men3), but didn’t end the war.

The decisive battle has been re-invented by Napoleon and codified by von Clausewitz. The art of maneuvering armies around each other to expel the enemy army from a territory by making its position logistically perilous was exercised during the 17th and 18th centuries.
That kind of maneuvering had effect and is related tot eh line-dissolving effects of Blitzkrieg offensives, but those generals who focused on it were quite vulnerable to battle-seeking opponents.

Von Moltke the Elder re-discovered the ‘Cannae’ (encirclement) tactic and this added indeed a very decisive element. The 1940 campaign against France was the strategically most important success of this mindset.

The entertainment industry wants to entertain for profit and will never supply realistic war movies consistently.
Yet, decisive battles are a valid concept – it’s just not a cure for all military problems.

Our inability to win the war in Afghanistan with a single decisive victory is probably more a display of our limitations and inability than related tot he nature of that conflict.

I think the idea of a decisive battle is a valid point but that they can really only be a reality in a more conventional war.

The problem with the tactic of double envelopment is that it is highly ineffective against guerrilla warfare. Similar tactics were used in Vietnam to isolate populations in attempts to force out Viet Cong, but resulted in US forces surrounding a population in which they could not conclusively locate the enemy. Isolating an area only confined soldiers with guerrilla fighters resulting in the taking of an American embassy. As far as Afghanistan, there are fewer battles and more engagements. Battles are sustained confrontation which we’re just not seeing. What we are seeing is sporadic attacks by small forces. There can’t be a decisive battle if one side isn’t willing to commit forces to prolonged battle.

I think that the morale lifting effect for troops in war upon hearing of some or other battle having been decisively won cannot be understated , and although i admit that one battle cannot win a war , it can at least indicate in whose favour the odds are for winning the war.