“This book focuses on a selection of battles where the commander of one side got it right and won an overwhelming victory, or where the other side got it terribly wrong,” writes Mir Bahmanyer in the introduction to “Vanquished.” From Cannae (216 BC) and Zama (202 BC) to Grozny (1994-95) and Qala-i-Jangi (2001), Bahmanyar (a U.S. Army Ranger turned film producer/screenwriter) revisits 17 battles that ended in annihilation — that is, where one side destroy[ed] the other completely, at least in terms of combat ability.
One might think that military history would be punctuated with countless one-sided defeats, but few battles of annihilation have been fought since the middle of the 20th century, observes Bahmanyer, and annihilation now comes mostly in the form of actions against unarmed civilians. Ironically, several of the glorious victories addressed in this book — like Little Big Horn (1876), where Sioux and Cheyenne Indians wiped out the 7th Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer — only seemed to hasten the ultimate defeat of the victors. And in some cases, an army’s defeat —the Prussian Army’s failure at Jena-Auerstädt (1806), for example — led to reforms that helped it become one of the most feared military machines of the later 19th and early 20th centuries.
At the end of the book, Bahmanyer attempts to explain why modern warfare creates few opportunities for decisive encounters, placing the blame in part on the removal of leadership from the battlefield and the trend in modern times to direct and wage war from a distance. “Yet even after thousands of years of fighting, one thing hasn’t changed: there is still no formula that ensures military success. Systems, simulations, science, and studies are of course all very valuable, but not defining in and by themselves,” begins Bahmanyer. “War is uncontrollable once unleashed.”