Recently I\'ve been working on a book called Vanquished: Crushing Defeats from Cannae to the 21st century, which looks at a number of battles of annihilation through history. The author, Mir Bahmanyar is particularly interested in why there are fewer battles of annihilation in the modern era. His conclusion is that there are several factors that come into play, but really it\'s all down to leadership.

Centuries ago military commanders (often also the political leader of the country) were on the battlefield, watching events develop and making split-second decisions, exploiting any weakness in the enemy. They also knew that if events went against them, they were a prime target for a horrible death, or if they were lucky, a long and humiliating imprisonment. Today, most high-ranking commanders are not on the front line. They may be being briefed throughout the battle, perhaps even watching it on a screen, but they are not in the thick of things, able to judge morale, cohesion and determination of the men on the ground.

Interestingly, Mir also mentions to the number of American generals sacked (\'requested to resign\') for failure to produce results since World War II, suggesting that lack of accountability fuels the number of inconclusive encounters in recent years. He refers to a quite fascinating article written in the Armed Forces Journal in June 2008 comparing the dozens of generals dismissed in the American Civil War, and the two World Wars, with the eight dismissed over the course of the Korean and Vietnam wars and the war on terrorism. Lt Col Robert Bateman suggests that there may be a correlation, if not causation between the number of sackings and the outcome of the wars, as those before 1945 were won (though I\'m not sure I agree with considering a civil war as \'won\'), whereas “We fought the Korean War to a draw, we lost the Vietnam War, and we are in a toss-up right now.” Though careful to point out the difficulties of comparison, particularly the fact that two of the three wars since 1945 have been unconventional counterinsurgencies, he highlights increasing professionalism of the military since before the beginning of World War I, and the changing relationship between civilian and military powers as the background to “two truisms … with regard to the political calculations that go into presidential decisions regarding the relief of generals,” since 1945.

The first is that a succession of presidents believed they did not have sufficient personal expertise to override their military subordinates and demand the removal of an underperforming commander, the second that at least some presidents feared the excessive political cost they might end up paying for the relief of a combatant general. He concludes that the current situation is probably dangerous, and that “the history recounted here does seem to suggest that something is out of kilter.” However, since his article was published, we have seen the first firing of a wartime commander by a civilian since 1951, so perhaps the pendulum is swinging back?

Personally I have always been most interested in the experience of the common soldier on the battlefield, and in the past I have been sometimes sceptical of discussions on \'greatest commanders\' etc because of the impossibility of ever fully considering and comparing the actions and decisions of different generals in completely different situations, reading Mir\'s book and Bateman\'s article have made me reconsider the role of leadership, particularly when comparing historic against modern war.