Fighting a Losing Battle: Strategy Without Victory

Fighting a Losing Battle



Michael Porter or the Harvard Business Review do not generally have lavish case studies about strategies that fail.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are very few case business research papers entitled ‘How My Business Ran Into the Ground Despite My Best Strategic Efforts’…or ‘How My Strategies Failed to Stop the Collapse of the Company’.

The finality of defeat is as unfashionable now as it ever was.

Deferring Defeat

But real life is not like that.

Often, there is no winning strategy. In practice, there are many occasions in which all one can do is put a plan into place that delays defeat for as long as possible. We soldier on bravely and hope, in the meantime, in a Micawberish way, that something will turn up.

In hindsight, it is obvious that the crusader states were fighting on the wrong side of history. The underlying demographic, anthropological, and geopolitical forces that confronted them were profound. Although they knew things were tough and fought doggedly against the enemies they faced, they were generally unaware of just how bad things were.

The Finality of Google Earth

Any modern observer with a basic understanding of the resources available to the Franks and access to Google Earth can see within five minutes that this is not going to be a story with a happy ending for the Franks.

The Crusaders occupied an isolated and narrow strip of land, at the furthest end of what barely passed for a supply line from Europe, surrounded by a mass of Muslim-dominated states. On a macro level, though they would not have recognised it at the time, crusader strategies are striking in that the most they could realistically hope for was to delay the inevitable.

On a micro level, strategy without victory was a consistent feature of their warfare. Although we often characterise the Franks as being blunt and rough individuals, they understood that successful strategy is never purely about fighting successfully, though that always helps. As Clausewitz wrote, it is more strictly and usefully seen as ‘the use of engagements for the [objectives] of the war’.

In other words, you might theoretically win a war—or at least fulfil your objectives—without fighting a single battle. And so it was with the crusader states. Some of the crusader states’ most effective military actions were those based around manoeuvre rather than bloodshed. Entire campaigns could take place without close contact with the enemy.

Less could be more.

Dancing With the Enemy

In 1111, for instance, a major invasion by the armies of the lord of Mosul was seen off without much bloodshed. Castle garrisons just hunkered down. The field army refused to make close contact but doggedly masked the movements of their Muslim opponents. The invaders, many of whom were unruly nomadic mercenaries, soon got bored and dispersed, having achieved nothing.

In crusading warfare, a passive-aggressive approach to the enemy was a good way of maximising positive results while minimising risk.

This distinction was understood but not necessarily appreciated by all participants at the time. Evasion and subtlety did not sit well with chivalric ideals of how best to conduct oneself in the face of the enemy. In the midst of an invasion, it took nerves of steel to manoeuvre slowly or just sit tight and wait for reinforcements, however sensible that might be.

Holocaust at Hattin
Guy of Lusignan

Guy of Lusignan

Guy of Lusignan fell victim to this tension between logic and emotion. The seeds of the cataclysmic Frankish defeat at Hattin in 1187 were firmly planted four years earlier.

In 1183, Saladin invaded the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem with overwhelming force. Once again, fortresses provided refuge for civilians and a safe haven for garrisons and the local militia. The crusader field army, meanwhile, mustered at their traditional watering holes close to the eastern frontiers. Rather than risk a full-scale battle, they shadowed the main Muslim army but were forced to watch Turkic cavalry detachments ravage the local villages and undefended small towns.

Eventually, Saladin gave up. He withdrew his forces back across the River Jordan.
This style of campaigning, conducting a defence without destroying or even directly confronting the enemy, was unheroic and nerve-wracking. It also meant persuading large numbers of proud and testosterone-fueled knights to sit back, immobile behind makeshift field fortifications, while watching their estates go up in flames all around them.

Guy of Lusignan may have been successful in thwarting the invasion of 1183, but the whole process was so painful that he was dismissed from his post as soon as the danger had passed. The lesson he learned was the wrong one: he needed, or so he thought, to be bolder in confronting invaders. And four years later, when he was both king and field commander, he did just that. The catastrophic defeat of Hattin was the result.

Strategy, even successful strategy, comes at a price.

Tactics Driving Strategy

In theory, as we have seen, policy creates the direction of strategy. But in practice, that is not always the dominant dynamic. The implementation of a strategy often generates its own momentum, and, ironically, the tactics that arise can create a feedback loop that helps reshape that strategy.

The tactical failure of the old generation of crusader castles in the 1160s, for instance, inevitably helped shape the frontier strategy that followed. The new generation of castles was so expensive, but simultaneously so essential, that their development dictated a large part of the strategy that had initially demanded their existence.

Similarly, if the Franks had not captured Ascalon in 1153, it is unlikely that the Egyptian strategy of the 1160s would have developed in the way it eventually did. The capture of Ascalon was sparked only by a raid and a series of minor skirmishes around the city, the usual to and fro of intimidation and one-upmanship. This rapidly turned into something more serious, almost by coincidence.

Events were driven by the vagaries of Fatimid internal politics and the actions of a few overly aggressive Turcopoles rather than by any master plan on the part of the Franks. The exact timing of the key crusader strategy of the central twelfth century was thus ultimately driven by tactics and accidents on the ground, little more than random chance, rather than by anything more coordinated or predictable.

The Franks recognised that tactics sometimes had to drive the direction of strategy. This was not always helpful, and it was never ideal. But they knew that they often had little choice in the matter. Ignoring the realities of warfare on the ground while continuing to focus on a chosen strategy was a luxury they never had the resources to contemplate.

‘Overstretch’ and the Tipping Point

Another area over which the Franks had relatively little control was strategic ‘overstretch’: this was a continuing and fundamental problem, particularly in the second half of the twelfth century.

Overstretch can be described as ‘the enfeeblement that comes with confusing ends and means—[it] allows enemies to apply leverage: small manoeuvres that have big consequences’. Critically, for the Crusaders, it comes to the fore when strategic objectives run ahead of the resources needed to implement them.

As we have seen, the Franks were often unavoidably overstretched and hence disproportionately exposed to enemy intervention at vulnerable points, with all the increased leverage this gave them.

Once an army is overstretched, it loses all flexibility of response and becomes a hostage to events unfolding around it. Even relatively small enemy forces can be used to dramatic effect; the incremental impact of their deployment is enough to swamp the over-committed forces.

In the 1160s, for example, Nur al-Din had the ability to distract and interfere, almost at will, because the Franks were so overstretched—the Egyptian strategy was correct in terms of focus but was also a classic case of ends running far ahead of means.

Similarly, in the 1180s, Saladin used his vast numerical and geographical advantages to continually run his Frankish adversaries ragged. He could pin the crusader forces with just one of his armies and still send others to create havoc in the areas left undefended. The overstretched Crusaders could do little other than watch their country being burned around them, and it was the frustration borne out of overstretching that led to the disastrous decision-making that culminated in Hattin.

A Question With No Right Answer

The political elite of the Kingdom of Jerusalem tore itself apart trying to find the right way forward—precisely because they were so overstretched that there was, in reality, no ‘right way forward’ to find.

Resources were so constrained and the geopolitical environment so challenging that the Franks had to develop a strategy based on ‘needs must’. It would have been preferable to have more Western knights in the army. But numbers were severely limited, so local Christians were recruited as turcopoles.

There were usually only enough men, at most, for one field army, and even that had to be created by hollowing out castle garrisons. Deploying a field army for offensive actions inevitably left large swathes of Frankish territory wide open to enemy incursions. Everywhere you looked, the strategy could only be implemented by making hard choices and unsatisfactory compromises.

The Crusaders had an intuitive grasp of strategic principles, but theory had to take second place to reality. Emergencies were always just around the corner, and grand plans had to be subordinated to the needs of the moment. In the modern world, just as much as in the medieval one, the implementation of strategy is a pragmatic process and always an art rather than a science.

As Lord Kitchener said of the British army in the First World War, ‘We wage war not as we would like, but as we must’—and that could stand as the strategic motto of the crusader states.

The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble



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  • Tibble, S. (2020). The Crusader Strategy. Yale University Press.


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