And so will tradeoffs between the two always be required? And will soldiers joke forever that they wind up “too light to fight, too heavy to run”?

I think the answers are yes, yes, and yes

I wrote about this, perhaps a bit awkwardly, in my novel A Soldier’s Duty, where I concluded that firepower is the American way—the natural choice of the wealthier power in a war.

I was reminded of this age-old tension over the weekend while reading about an 18th-century sea battle. The British were to windward, and so could bear down on the enemy. Why did the French let this happen? Because heavy seas and high winds caused the British to heel over, making them unable to fire their lower rows of guns. The waiting French, by contrast, were heeled upward toward the British vessels, giving them a significant advantage in firepower. (But exposing more of the vulnerable parts of their hulls—there are always tradeoffs.) The British had traded firepower for maneuver.

In other words, being to leeward may have looked passive, but it could be a powerful stance to take in some circumstances. And if things didn’t work out, a French skipper could always turn and run downwind—without having to pass through the enemy line, which the British would have had to do.

As it happened, the French won this particular fight.   


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