For Lyudmila Pavlichenko, killing Nazis wasn’t complicated. “The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey,” she once said of her job.
The war was nearly over on March 6, 1940. The enemy, propagandized as an unstoppable fighting machine, was indeed overwhelming the army of the country they’d invaded. Six days later, the aggressors would finally force an armistice, and soon grab control of much of the land they’d coveted. It had taken longer than the two weeks they’d anticipated, but conditions were harsh, the defenders far more resolute than expected. For more than three months, battlefields roared with motoring tanks, gunfire and artillery explosions, obliterating the natural beauty of the countryside. Through it all, one warrior emerged as perhaps the finest killer in military history, on a mission to serve his besieged nation by picking off foreign attackers — many, many of them — one by one with a sniper rifle.
In May 1918, Henry Johnson found himself alone in the Argonne with a wounded ally, an empty rifle, and dozens of German soldiers closing in. He didn’t run. He fought.
War is the most complex, physically and morally demanding enterprise we undertake. No great art or music, no cathedral or temple or mosque, no intercontinental transport net or particle collider or space programme, no research for a cure for a mass-killing disease receives a fraction of the resources and effort we devote to making war. Or to recovery from war and preparations for future wars invested over years, even decades, of tentative peace. War is thus far more than a strung-together tale of key battles. Yet, traditional military history presented battles as fulcrum moments where empires rose or fell in a day, and most people still think that wars are won that way, in an hour or an afternoon of blood and bone. Or perhaps two or three. We must understand the deeper game, not look only to the scoring. That is hard to do because battles are so seductive.
To borrow and slightly modify a famous quote from Napoleon “The Greeks’showed themselves worthy of victory, but the Romans showed themselves worthy of being invincible.”
The Romans were the most powerful fighting force the world had ever seen. There was simply no stopping their expansion.