Top Ten Decisive Battles in Western Civilization

Today’s Friday History List examines the ten most decisive battles in the history of Western Civilization. These are battles that, by their outcomes, changed the course of events in a very dramatic way. They are listed chronologically:

202 B.C. – Zama. The Romans, commanded by Scipio, routed Hannibal and drove him from the field. Carthage was removed as a rival to Rome in the Western Mediterranean, and Rome became the dominate power in Europe. This in turn ensured that western Europe would become subject to heavy Latin and Greek influences.

312 A.D. – Milvian Bridge. Constantine, having seen a vision of victory (“in hoc signo vinces“), defeats Maxentius‘ armies to become the master of first the Western Roman Empire, and eventually all of it. Fulfilling a pre-battle vow, he converts to Christianity, taking all of the Empire with him.  At the Council of Nicea, Constantine assigns blame for Christ’s death to the Jews, and he makes Christianity the predominate religion of his empire. Much of Europe’s future has just been written.

451 – Châlons. Attila the Hun is defeated by a combined Roman/Visigoth force, preventing him from dominating Western Europe. Into the vacuum steps Germanic culture and the Catholic Church, expressed by papal power in Rome.

732 – Tours. Muslim invaders, intent on spreading the religion of Mohammed, enjoyed unchecked success as they expanded their influence from India to Spain. At Tours, Frankish leader Charles Martel defeated a Muslim force commanded by Abd er-Rahman, ending the Muslim threat to Western Europe, establishing the Franks as dominate in Gaul and preparing the scene for Charlemagne.

1588 – Spanish Armada. The Spanish, fueled by precious metals stripped from the Americas, achieved military and political hegemony in the 16th century. When England left the Catholic Church under Henry VIII, the Spanish became their sworn enemies; when English pirates began raiding Spanish galleons, threatening Spain’s financial windfall, the situation took on a new sense of urgency. In 1588, the Spanish, aided by the French, intended to invade England and forcibly reconvert the population. Stormy seas and a plucky English navy caused the destruction of almost half of the Spanish vessels and England not only survived, but rose to become the preeminent naval power in the world. With the Spanish badly weakened, the English decided to move rapidly into the colony business. England’s time had arrived.

1776 – Trenton. In the fall of 1776, it looked like the American Revolution had failed. George Washington’s dwindling army seemed on the verge of disintegration, and the British relaxed for the winter, intending on finishing off whatever remained of the rebellion in the spring. Rather than watch his army die, Washington led a surprise attack on his enemy’s forward position in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas night, 1776. What resulted was a stunning victory over Hessian mercenaries that changed the direction of the war and set the stage for the eventual ejection of the English from their American colonies.

1813 – Leipzig. Napoleon, his army greatly weakened by losses the previous year during the Russian campaign, faced for the first time a combined allied army. At Leipzig Napoleon is defeated and forced to retreat to France; he will abdicate the next year, effectively ending his influence and dramatically shifting the balance of power in Europe.

1864 – Atlanta. The summer of 1864 was the North’s darkest hour, as the bright hopes of springtime campaigns had been ground away to dark disappointment. U.S. Grant’s battles against Robert E. Lee in Virginia had been enormously bloody (over 50,000 new Union casualties) with no end yet in sight. In the South, William Tecumseh Sherman’s army sat outside of Atlanta with little hope of breaking its own deadlock. To the public, and more particularly to prospective voters that year, it looked as if Mr. Lincoln’s war might never end. Confederate President Jefferson Davis did the Union a favor that summer as he replaced the defensive-minded Joseph Johnston with the reckless John Bell Hood. Within weeks Hood had taken massive casualties and was eventually compelled to give up Atlanta. The Union victory there gave the electorate in the North the optimism they needed to reelect Abraham Lincoln, which doomed any Southern hopes for victory. At Atlanta, both the Confederacy and American slavery died forever.

1914 – 1st Marne. One of the reasons Germany welcomed the start of the First World War was their absolute faith in the Von Schlieffen Plan, which they expected to result in the fall of France in no more than six weeks. (Don’t forget that the last time Germany and France fought, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the Germans had won a resounding victory.) In August of 1914, in spite of tough resistance from the Belgians and a combined British-French defense, all was on schedule. What the Von Schlieffen Plan didn’t take into account though, was the logistical nightmare of trying to keep rapidly moving troops adequately supplied in a day when most ammunition and provisions were still carried in horse-pulled wagons. Losing confidence, German Chief of Staff Moltke changed the plan in mid-stream and exposed his army to attack. This the French did at the 1st Battle of the Marne. By the first week of September, the German Army had been halted, and both armies began to dig trenches in a line that would eventually extend to the North Sea. A war of rapid movement had suddenly become a nightmare in the trenches.

1940 – Dunkirk. At the end of May 1940, it was clear that the Nazis would conquer France; all that was left to be decided was whether the 400,000 British and French survivors could be evacuated to England, where the fight might go on. If the Germans could have entrapped and destroyed those troops, the Second World War might have ended that spring, as Britain would have had little but the Home Guard with which to defend their island. The evacuation, called Operation Dynamo, was aided by German hesitation and the heroic efforts of those on the thousands of boats that helped in the rescue. In addition, the RAF inflicted serious losses on the Luftwaffe as it harassed the troops on the beach. By the time the effort was called off on June 4, 338,000 men had been taken out of France and the Germans had lost 240 aircraft. Hitler would eventually realize that he could never have England, instead, he turned his attention to the Soviet Union – with disastrous consequences.

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The Fort Hood Massacre as the Price of Free Speech

At what point, and to what degree, will Americans be willing to impinge upon their freedom of speech if they believe that lives are at stake? That question bubbles to the surface again today as more becomes known about Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged shooter in the Fort Hood massacre, who apparently was angry about the United States’ prosecution of the War on Terror.

According to wire reports, Hasan’s family was connected with a Virginia mosque that at one time hosted the preaching of radical imam Anwar al Awlaki, and where two of the September 11th hijackers worshiped.  Writing from Yemen, the imam, author of the controversial “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” praised Hasan’s actions and condemned Muslims critical of the attack as “hypocrites.” Awlaki has been often accused of intentionally inciting English-speaking Muslims to violence against the Western World.

This is where the whole “freedom of speech” thing gets somewhat sticky. If it can be demonstrated that Awlaki’s words led to Hasan’s actions, do we still consider those words protected speech? Remember, the element of religious freedom exists to even further complicate the matter. If preaching hatred from the pulpit causes others to deem it God’s will, or perhaps just acceptable, to harm others, should that speech be banned?

Be careful. Before you reflexively answer “yes,” consider the implications. If this ban were enacted, could radical anti-abortion groups be targeted for “hate speech?” How about Rush Limbaugh? Still on board? What about a President who openly condemns insurance interests for their opposition to health care reform? What would seem like an overreaction is only so until there’s an incident involving a desperate man whose child has been denied coverage for what he considers a life-saving treatment. If that were to occur, the culpability of public figures under the new law would immediately come into question, and no doubt countless lawsuits would be filed by the aggrieved.

This is the problem we run into as Americans who profess to defend freedom above all else. If we choose to allow speech that amounts to public attacks upon individuals and organizations, attacks that are intended to arouse individuals to action (as all political attacks are), attacks that we now consider as a normal part of the political process, we must also allow the speech of hate-spewing imams in Virginia.

Of course, there are limits which have been consistently applied over the years, such as removing from that protection speech which can be construed to have the deliberate, intentional purpose to cause harm to another individual or to deprive that individual of their rights under the law. However, in this case, that doesn’t seem to be what was going on in Virginia.

In the coming days, there will be plenty of calls for a rethinking of what’s being preached in America. There may also be condemnations of the patriotism of certain Muslims in America. While it may be easy to point out that inciting people to hate is wrong, it is a far more difficult task to regulate it. I suspect that after the dead of Fort Hood are buried, and the final notes of taps drift away in the autumn breeze, we will discover the price of that regulation to be too steep, and in the end, a poor tribute to those who were, in the end, martyrs of a society based upon free speech.