The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History

The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History

by Erik Durschmied

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An award-winning war correspondent delves into history’s major conflicts and reveals how—in war—the improbable and inconceivable can determine events.
From the Trojan Horse to a photograph snapped in Vietnam, world history has been shaped as much by chance and error as by courage and heroism. Despite impossible odds, invincible armies fall in bitter defeat to weaker opponents. How and why does this happen? What decides the fate of battle?
Writing with the style and flair that made him an award-winning war correspondent, Erik Durschmied explores the fistful of nails that could have won Waterloo for Napoleon; the barrel of schnapps that proved disastrous for an Austrian emperor; and the three cigars that changed the course of Antietam; and many other instances when chance decided history’s path. Conflicts are decided by the caprice of weather, erroneous intelligence, unlikely heroism, strange coincidence, or individual incompetence—in short, by the unpredictable “hinge factor.”
“[Durschmied] is a supremely gifted reporter who has transformed the media he works in.” —Newsweek

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628721775
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 10/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 189,814
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Erik Durschmied is a military historian and award-winning journalist who has been a correspondent for Newsweek as well as the BBC and CBS. He has personally covered wars and revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He lives in France.

Read an Excerpt


A Wooden Horse

Troy, 1184 BC

'Do not believe this horse. Whatever it may be, I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts'

Virgil's Aeneid, 20 BC

The year is 1184 BC.

A god descends from heaven; disguised as a swan he lies with Leda. Their love results in a daughter, Helen, a maiden so fair that every prince desires her for his wife. She chooses Menelaus, King of Sparta. One day a handsome young prince comes to visit them. He is Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, a fortified city on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Paris is royally received but does not reveal the purpose of his visit.

Before Paris left his native Troy, King Priam had been warned that his son would bring ruin to his country. And so it came to be. The high drama began the day Paris was visited by three goddesses, Aphrodite, Hera and Athena. They handed him a golden apple and asked him to choose the fairest among them. Hera promised to make him Lord over Asia and Europe, Athena said that she would lead him to great victory over the Greeks, and Aphrodite offered him the loveliest maiden on Earth. The Judgement of Paris went to Aphrodite, goddess of love. She told him about Helen of Sparta.

While Menelaus leaves for Crete to do war, Paris takes Helen to Troy. It is not certain if she follows for love or by force. On his return from Crete, King Menelaus calls upon all the Greek heroes to help him punish the wicked deed and lay Troy in ashes. Under the leadership of Agamemnon, the Greek Army is strong. But so is Troy. King Priam has brave sons, the bravest is Hector, who has only one equal, the champion of the Greeks, Achilles. For years on end they fight it out, and for many years victory wavers. Once again, a fierce battle rages, when Helen appears on the ramparts. Her face is so lovely that all fighting stops, only Achilles and Hector continue in single combat. Athena hands her spear to Achilles who drives it into Hector's throat. 'Return my body to my father,' begs the dying Trojan hero.

'I would that I could make myself devour your raw flesh for the evil you have brought upon me,' replies Achilles. The Greek warrior then drags the slain Hector behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. Aphrodite gives Paris a poisoned arrow. Paris takes aim and shoots it into the Greek's only vulnerable spot, his heel. Achilles dies. Then another arrow strikes Paris, and he dies.

But Troy holds out. After a siege which has lasted ten years the war has reached a stalemate. Unless the Greeks can break down the walls they will never conquer the city fortress and must accept defeat. Odysseus, the cleverest of the Greeks, devises a cunning plan: to build a wooden horse, slightly taller than the Scaean Gate. Then hide Greek warriors inside the horse, and leave it standing outside the walls of Troy. That done, the Greeks set sail, but hide their fleet behind the nearest island. To make sure the Trojans fall for his ruse, Odysseus leaves Sinon the Greek behind who convinces the Trojans that they must pull the horse into the city as a votive offering to Athena.

King Priam falls for the Greek trickery and orders the horse to be brought in. For this, the Trojans will have to break a hole into their walls. Troy's chief priest Laocoòn warns his king: 'I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts' Priam, a ruthless potentate, is infuriated that a mere priest dares to question the will of his king. Yet Laocoòn is not the only one who fears deceit. The king's beautiful daughter, Cassandra, stands up to her father and echoes the priest's warning. 'Oh miserable people, poor fools, you do not understand at all your evil fate'

The judicious counsel by the philosopher-priest nearly convinces the Trojans, when destiny takes a hand. Two serpents rush from the sea to crush Laocoòn and his two sons. Fate comes to pass, a doom destined for so many prudent sages over the next three millenniums. People never listen to their prophets, rather they watch them being silenced and stride blindly forth to disaster. The Trojans remove the lintel stone from the Scaean Gate, which brings their walls tumbling down. They drag the horse to Athena's temple and celebrate a great feast. 'With song and great rejoicing, they brought death in, treachery and destruction'

In the middle of the night Sinon unlocks a secret door beneath the Wooden Horse. Odysseus and his warriors steal out while the rest of the Greek host rushes in through the breach and sets the city on fire. By the time the Trojans rise from their drunken stupor, blood flows in rivulets. This is not fighting, it is butchery. Desperate men bear down on each other, killing before they are killed. Trojans take off their own armour and put on that of the dead Greeks. Greeks, believing they are being joined by their own units, pay for that error with their lives. From the rooftops, Trojan women hurl burning beams on their attackers, a palace tower crushes a great number of Greeks. But the contest is unequal, too many Trojans have already died and the Greeks smash their way into the palace. King Priam is brutally struck down in front of his wives and children. With his death the Trojans lose heart and the Greeks rape, pillage and plunder. They kill the men, hurl the children from the battlements, and carry the women into slavery. Troy dies.

Only Aeneas, Aphrodite's son, escapes the bloodshed. He crosses the sea and the winds push his vessel onto a distant shore, at the mouth of the River Tiber. There he founds a town which is to become Rome, the city state that will eventually defeat the conquerors of Troy.

Ultimate justice shrouded in the veil of mythology.

What really took place that night, three thousand years ago, we can only guess. 'To the gods I owe this woeful war\ proclaimed a downcast Priam.

We may forget about an active participation by the gods, and turn towards more strategic, military and economic aspects. In the late nineteenth century, a German amateur archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, discovered ruins of what may have been Priam's Troy, a fortified city founded by the warrior tribe of Phrygians on the Mound of Hissarlik. From its geographic location, we can assume that Greek and Trojan maritime ambitions clashed. Vital control over the Hellespont (today's Dardanelles), the Aegean Sea, and with it, the trade routes along the Mediterranean, was at stake.

As for the ten-year siege, no siege could have possibly lasted ten continuous years; without harvesting seasonal grain, armies on both sides would have starved. Therefore, the war must have been a series of raids, and possibly actions fought by sea.

A vital factor which should not to be overlooked is the warning by the philosopher Laocoòn, which, assuming that Troy was run by a despot, shows opposition to tyrannical rule, a trend carried to new summits by the greatest of Greek philosophers, Socrates, and his disciples.

Ten years passed and nothing happened. Suddenly, everything was resolved in a single instant. The Wooden Horse is certainly not a figment of fiction; ruse has always been employed during the siege of fortified places, the simplest way to put the vigilance of the defenders to sleep and breech the walls. Thus, the story of Odysseus' Horse is something tangible, a conquest by stratagem.

Strange are the circular paths of history. The Greeks learned from the Trojans, Trojan refugees founded Rome, and the Romans conquered Greece, only to adopt its culture.


The Loss of the True Cross

The Horns of Hattin, 4 July 1187

'1 shall not lay down my armsuntil there is no more infidel on earth.' 3 Sultan Saladin, recorded by Beha ed-Din

IbnShedad, 1187

Spread out before the Frankish host lay a desert, hot and dry, the Plain of Baruf. To venture into it during the heat of the day would mean courting certain death for a great army of iron-clad and chain-mailed knights. Yet Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, ordered them to do just that. A tall man approached the king. He was dressed in chain mail covered by a white cloak with the embroidered crimson Cross of the Holy Quest. Around his waist, dangling from a leather belt, was his long, straight sword. The baron's head was protected by the type of bullet shaped helmet with nasal guard worn by Crusader knights. He was a heroic figure of medieval history: Raymond III, Count of Tripoli. 'My liege, why are you ordering your host to move into these barren lands?'

To succour your lady in distress.' The king referred to a message received from the Lady Eschiva, Countess of Tripoli, besieged by the Saracens inside the walls of Raymond's fortress of Tiberias, situated on the Lake of Galilee.

Raymond, who knew that the leader of the Turks, the Sultan Saladin, would always conform to Saracen honour and never hurt a woman of rank, also understood that the same Saladin was as smart as a desert fox. He wished for nothing more than to lure the Frankish army onto a hasty rescue mission that could only then lead to disaster. That's why Saladin had allowed the messenger, dispatched by Lady Eschiva, to pass without hindrance. 'Sire,' replied Raymond, 'if you wish to do combat with Saladin so, let this be near our fortress of Acre. If matters go ill we can count on the town to march to our rescue. On the other hand, if God is with us, we can blunt the Saracens.'

'Blunt them?' shouted one of the noble barons, Reynald de Chatillon, the Lord of Kerak. 'Blunt them? What perfidy do I hear?'

'Aye, blunt them,' replied the Count of Tripoli, 'and blood them as well, and Saladin will be so crushed that he must flee the Holy Land, never to return. My liege,' he turned towards the king, 'out in the desert, Saladin has the advantage of mobility, his strength will ride over us. Then who is there to defend Jerusalem?'

The king tended to agree with Raymond's wise counsel.

That night, after a repast which King Guy had shared with his barons, the loom of intrigue, vanity and ambition began to weave. The cunning Gérard de Ridefort, Master of the Templars, came into the king's tent. 'Sire, the Count of Tripoli wishes us to cringe like cowards.'

The king, fearful of the Templar, a man of great power who had been instrumental in helping him usurp the crown from the rightful heir, wavered. He pulled back the flaps of his tent to look at the night sky, at the same stars his adversary would be looking at on the other side of the desert. His mind was engaged with the problem to seek certainty which might justify his act. As it has happened so many times to other men of ultimate power, having staked their whole future on one decision, he too became uncertain, he feared that his travel order might lead to tragic consequences. But Ridefort was not about to let pass an opportunity to prove himself invaluable to his king. 'My King, you know the Count of Tripoli doesn't like you. He speaks treason and only cares to uphold his truce with the Turk. We are of superior mettle to the pagan. I counsel you to go from hence and march on to glorious victory.'

That same night, it is said that a servant of the king spotted an eagle with seven darts in its claws pass overhead. He heard it scream: 'Beware, Jerusalem!'

Yes, there was treachery in the air, and foolishness, but it did not come from the Count of Tripoli, a knight who had studied Saladin's generalship. He knew that the Sultan would lay wait for them in ambush. One last time, before sunrise, the count tried to change the king's mind. 'Roi Guy, I warn you, do not stir from this place or Saladin will assuredly set upon us in the desert.'

Confronted by the only baron who had failed to support his claim for the throne of Jerusalem, the king now turned on the knight, and spoke furiously: 'It is not for you to tell your king what to do. I want my knights to mount up and prepare to move for Tiberias.'

And so, the Frankish King of Jerusalem headed for a disaster of his own making.

The beginning of the Crusades can be set with the defeat of the armies of the Eastern Empire, at Manzikert in 1071, by the Seldjuk Turks' rider hordes which spilled from the steppes of Asia and adopted Islam. Constantinople, despite its ongoing quarrel with the Church of Rome, asked the Pope for his help to recover Asia Minor. In 1095, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade, an adventure which, even by today's standards, can be considered unique. Godfrey de Bouillon led a host of French nobility, knights from the military orders on their 'Way to the Cross. His followers were promised forgiveness for their sins and salvation for eternity. By 1099, the Crusaders had captured the City of God - a victory stained by the massacre of Jerusalem's entire Muslim population. This led directly to a holy Jihad which lasted the next two centuries, and, in retrospect, has never ended. The first Frankish Crusaders founded the Kingdom of Jerusalem. For nearly a hundred years, all went well, the Christians held the walled towns and strong places, such as the Acre, Jaffa, Tyre or the Kerak des Chevaliers, while the countryside was beset by roving bands of Saracens. It was not until the disastrous defeat of the Eastern Emperor Manuel at Myriocephalum in 1176, that events began to move towards their final climax. Without Byzantine support the Frankish knights had no longer sufficient men to hold out against the forces of Islam brought against them in Palestine. Christians and Muslims moved rapidly towards a confrontation.

To make matters worse, the age of chivalry in a quest for the Holy Cross had passed to a ragamuffin band of barons, eager to fill their pockets. Reynald de Chatillon was one of the adventurers who had come to the Holy Land to seek fortune. Instead of proving his valour as a defender of the True Faith, he seduced the widow of the Prince of Antioch, who became so besotted by his charms that she gave him the key to her provinces. Quickly tired of her ageing charms he rejected her to marry another noble maiden, the Lady of Kerak, and then continued with his business, which was to rob caravans. Another knave was Gérard de Ridefort, who had applied a ruse to get himself elected Master of the Templars. He then used his noble warriors to terrorise and plunder helpless citizens. The most vicious of all was the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Heraclius, a 'chaste monk' whose mistress was a notorious prostitute, known to all in the Holy City as 'The Patriarchess'. This unholy threesome was to lead the Kingdom of the Franks to its downfall.

Confronting this villainy was the noble Raymond III, Count of Tripoli, the appointed Regent of Jerusalem and one who upheld his oath to his child-king, Baldwin V. But the feeble infant died, and Guy de Lusignan, another adventurer who had married the king's aunt, usurped the crown. Raymond fell out with the new ruler over this. It was a grave blow to the cause of Christianity, since Raymond was the only baron who enjoyed the trust of Saladin. In 1185, the Frankish prince and the Saracen sultan had established a truce, based on mutual trust and the word chivalry. It was only after the incident at the Springs of Cresson, when the Saracens were about to invade Galilee, that his fidelity to the Christian cause forced Raymond to rejoin his liege.

At the end of the twelveth century, the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem was faced by the greatest of all warrior sultans, the fabled Salah ed-Din, or Saladin. He was a Turk whose ancestors had migrated from the foot of the Altai Mountains of Central Asia. In the tenth century, that warrior tribe came into contact with Islam. It can be said that the conversion of the Turks to Islam had a similar impact on the Orient as Teutonic Christianism had for the Occident. Saladin, born as the son of a lieutenant to Sultan Nur ed-Din, Emir of Aleppo and Damascus, had proven his valour in a series of battles against the Franks as well as dissident Moslem rulers. By 1169 he became Vizier to the Caliph, and in 1171 he deposed the last of the decadent Fatimids. As new Caliph of Egypt and Vizier of Syria he now held the Crusader Kingdom in a vice, leaving open only the sea lanes to Cyprus and Europe. For thirteen years the Christians could hold Saladin at bay, until two events upset this delicate balance. The first was set in motion by Reynald de Chatillon.

One night a spy arrived at Lord Reynald's castle to inform him about the passage of a pilgrim caravan on its way to Mecca, bearing great riches. The Lord of Kerak and his followers went on a raid and seized the camel train. This caravan not only carried gold and spices, but an even greater treasure: the sister of Saladin, a maiden so fair that the nightingale praised her beauty'. The Sultan dispatched a messenger to King Guy's court to demand that his noble sister be set free immediately. Reynald de Chatillon, who expected a sizeable ransom for the royal lady, refused to obey the order by his king, claiming that, contrary to Raymond de Tripoli, he had never concluded a truce with the Saracens.


Excerpted from "The Hinge Factor"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Erik Durschmied.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsxi
1.A Wooden Horse: Troy, 1184 BC1
2.The Loss of the True Cross: The Horns of Hattin, 4 July 11877
3.A Rabble with Bare Feet: Agincourt, 25 October 141527
4.A Barrel of Schnapps: Karansebes, 20 September 178849
5.A Fistful of Nails: Waterloo, 18 June 181561
6.The Fourth Order: Balaclava, 25 October 1854101
7.Three Cigars: Antietam, 17 September 1862123
8.Two Counts and One Prince: Koniggratz, 3 July 1866143
9.A Fair Fight: Spioen Kop, 24 January 1900163
10.A Slap on the Face: Tannenberg, 28 August 1914189
11.The Sting of a Bee: Tanga, 5 November 1914211
12.Der Halte Befehl: France, 21 May 1940225
13.A Shark on the Loose: North Atlantic, 27 May 1941255
14.The Sorge Enigma: Moscow, 6 December 1941289
15.One Man's Death: Vietnam, 31 January 1968313
16.And the Wall Came Tumbling Down: Berlin, 9 November 1989331
17.The Zero Factor: The Gulf, 17 January 1991345

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The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
figre on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really got sucked in by the intro. The author explains The Hinge Factor by telling the story of how Hiroshima became the first sight for the dropping of the Atomic bomb. It was number three on the list. The first two cities were obscured by clouds. The fate of a city was decided by the vagaries of weather.What a great way to describe what the Hinge Factor is. What a let down to read the rest of the book. What follows is a list of battles (from Troy to Iraq) which does not feel in-depth enough to be of any use to the historian, but too detailed for others. In general, the hinge effect that is described feels forced, as if they were found to make an excuse for including each battle. And, after a while, all the battles blur into one. The book is at its best during WWII. But it starts poorly with myth as history (the fall of Troy) and falls apart again with more recent history. In particular, it feels like a hinge factor was made up for the Tet offensive, just so the author could tell his personal story as a reporter in Vietnam. (Quick aside ¿ his story is very compelling. He tells it well and his journalistic skills are put on best display. I do not blame him for wanting to share the story. I just don¿t think this is the way to do it.) The book gets way to preachy in the Epilogue where we get to visit Hiroshima again and he warns us of the perils of nuclear war.There is a good subject in here somewhere ¿ maybe better if written by a true historian rather than a correspondent. But the numbing rehashing of facts, the redundantly parallel construction of each chapter (tell a vivid detailed story about the conflict, then describe the entire conflict, then try to show a hinge factor, then try to talk about how the world would have been different), and the final preachiness just take too much away from the subject.
librisissimo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Substance: Interesting, brief accounts of major battles (or wars) in world history concentrating on the "hinges" - the events and decisions that directly or obliquely determined the outcomes. Despite the author's preface, a knowledge of human psychology makes most of the decisions taken in reaction to the "unlikely" events sadly predictable. Take-away lesson: dysfunctional people get other people killed.Most of the analyses are not new, but the compact collection is useful. Useful bibliography.Style: English is not Durschmied's native tongue and it occasionally shows in his choice of words and phrases (although the lexical and grammatical mistakes are generally no worse than are frequently found these days in almost every medium). He has the same annoying habit as do most writers who include maps, namely, failing to include all of the places referenced in the text, or using different names for some of them.Battles include: Troy, 1184 BC, defeat due to incautious pride, hinge factor = stratagem ; Horns of Hattin (Crusades), 1187, defeat due to arrogance and bad counsel, hinge factor + the desert; Agincourt, 1415, defeat due to bad weather and arrogant stupidity); Karansebes (Austria v. Prussia), 1788, defeat by organizational defects resulting in panic, hinge factor = a barrel of schnapps; Waterloo, 1815, defeat due to incompetence, victory due to luck and determination, hinge factor = lack of nails to spike cannon; Balaclava (Charge of the Light Brigade), 1854, defeat due to stubborn pride, impetuous arrogance, and stupidity, hinge factor = badly worded order; Antietam (US), 1862, defeat due to revelation of plans to the enemy (who passed up chance for decisive victory), hinge factor = loss of cigars wrapped with the plans; Königgrätz (Austro-Prussian War), 1866, defeat due to incompetence of officer corps and misplaced priorities (drill over training), hinge factor = disobedience of orders by Austrian counts (oddly, victory of the Prussians turned on an accidental disobedience to the timing plan); Spioen Kop (Boer War), 1900, defeat due to failure of British commanders to adjust to "rat pack" opponents, hinge factor = smokeless gunpowder; Tannenberg, 1914, defeat due to personal hatred between Russian generals (and stupidity in forcing them to work together), hinge factor = witness by German officer of the original face-slapping incident; Tanga, 1914; France (Dunkirk), 1940, defeat due to Hitler's fear of losing an elite force, hinge factor = sacrifice attack by British tanks that caused Hitler's panic; sinking the Bismarck, 1940, defeat due to failure to refuel Bismarck, victory due to US pilot's luck in not getting hit, hinge factor = lucky hit by British torpedo; Moscow (double-agent Sorge in Japan), 1941, German defeat due to delays in attack, Russian victory due to moving troops from East to West , hinge factor = Stalin's trust in his spy; Vietnam (Tet offensive and murdered VC photo), 1968, US defeat was political not military, due to open reporting of events (and Cronkite's defeatist agenda), hinge factor = photo of one stupid action, among many; Berlin Wall, 1989, defeat of East due to guards confusion about visas, hinge factor = unguarded statement by Party boss; Gulf War I, 1991, defeat of Iraq due to miscalculation of American will and capability plus arrogance, hinge factor = overwhelming technical and technological superiority.NOTES:P. xv: "History bears witness. Great armed hosts have been defeated through the stupidity and the incompetence of their leaders. War is not about trumpets and military glory, war is about death. Or, to paraphrase Georges Clemenceau, ...:'War is muh too important to be left to generals.' ...many battles have been decided by the caprice of weather, bad (or good) intelligence, unexpected heroism or individual incompetence -- in other words, the unpredictable. ... In many cases , the scenario leading up to disaster has been assembled well before the play was ever written. The anna
Guest More than 1 year ago
A good book for those interested in the not so apparent factors that have impacted historical events. I'm glad the author included events that are outside the normal realm of those covered in many history classes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This self engrandizing book is not worth the time it takes to read. The author pumps himself up by writing the original text (read that foreign language) and then looks smarter than the reader by translating. This adds nothing the the point of the articles. Then toward the end (recent history) the author further displays his self love by telling a story about his own experience in Vietnam which was nearly unrelated to the article and had the author not told the story, it would never be known.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Erik Durschmied has written an enjoyable book about small things that have greatly altered history by determining the outcome of battles. From the Trojan horse to the Gulf War, he writes about the weather, insects, stupidity, and luck that often determine events. While a few of the examples are probably familiar to amateur historians, some were totally new to me (the bees in WWI German East Africa, etc.). A very entertaining look at battles through the centuries and how they often turn on the smallest details.