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.