THIS month marks the 400th anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. It was beaten in a 12-day series of skirmishes and four full-dress battles that saved England from invasion, marked a victory for Protestantism over Catholicism, and aided the Netherlands' revolt against Spain. Above all, that victory at sea helped create what has since become the central theme of English patriotism: the image of ordinary citizens mobilizing their righteous wrath to turn back a fearsome, dehumanizing foreign invader - be it Philip II in 1588, Napoleon in 1805, or Hitler in 1940. In summoning the nation to battle in June 1940, Winston Churchill proclaimed that ``Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.'' His words harkened back to July 1588, when the Armada pushed up the English Channel, and Englishmen hurriedly put to sea or stood to arms on land.
The splendor of a national mythos is one thing; the inaccuracy of minor myths is quite another. The most fancy of these myths is the posthumous acclaim granted Sir Francis Drake for having behaved as a 19th-century English gentleman should, by finishing his game of bowls before departing for battle. The rapid-fire messages that Drake undoubtedly dispatched while bowling are disregarded.
Then there is the foolish idea that the ``black Irish'' derive from the Spaniards shipwrecked in western Ireland as the Armada retreated homeward, as though a few starving men influenced the gene pool of a nation more than generations of Irish-Spanish commercial contact. (Most Spanish survivors who came ashore in Ireland were executed by English troops.)
Let's not forget the legend of ``the few,'' those 16,000 English Davids who, like the fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain in 1940, turned the tide of war against a numerically superior Goliath. It's easily overlooked that both the Armada and Hitler's Luftwaffe had serious structural and strategic problems that undercut their numbers. And there is the false assumption that victory in 1588 both toppled Spain (which in fact rebuilt its fleet quickly) and made Britain a great naval power almost overnight. In reality, it was the Dutch who pushed Spain aside. English supremacy arrived decades later.
Enough of myths. Consider the Armada expedition in relation to our own day, to the American experience in Vietnam and Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. For ``imperial overstretch'' - Paul Kennedy's phrase - bedeviled the Spanish empire: The Spanish had too many commitments, adversaries, and troops to be paid. It also had too few allies, willing tax-payers, and leaders prepared to make tough decisions. Would cutting back stir more trouble, from those aggressive Francis Drakes, all hungry for Spanish riches? No, better to stand and fight, trusting in the unbeatable Spanish infantry.
But those troops achieved little more against the rebels in the Spanish Netherlands than Gen. William Westmoreland did in Vietnam. The Spanish faced fortified towns, flooded fields, broken bridges, and lack of funds: All led to frustration.
So 16th-century hawks in Madrid marched with their modern American or Soviet counterparts by arguing for escalating the cold war with England, which was a Dutch ally, the center of the Protestant heresy, and the spark behind espionage, covert operations, state-sponsored piracy against Spanish possessions.
Escalation, however, failed to consider two vital factors.
War in the Atlantic and English seas was fundamentally different from the Mediterranean campaigns against the Muslims that had shaped Spanish thinking and tactics. The Mediterranean is a big lake: It's calm, even windless, and ideal for swift, oared galleys. These were designed for battles in which boats rammed and grappled while troops boarded and fought it out man-to-man. At this, Spain's infantry excelled.
But the rough and stormy Atlantic required not only strong sailing ships - of which Spain had many - but a doctrine of long-range gunnery, not boarding. While the Spaniards understood this in theory, they still embarked masses of infantry, who served only as targets for the maneuverable English ships. In effect, Spanish commanders tried to replicate the conditions of land warfare at sea - and failed. The English, understanding the theater of operations as well as the Vietnamese and Afghan guerrillas later did, triumphed.
Philip II was conducting a complex, long-range campaign with the primitive command and communications apparatus of the day: an expedition of some 130 ships and 30,000 men, weak in coherence and shared experience, ill-supplied by a primitive logistical system, with no communications beyond the raised voice and the messenger. Here was a huge gamble.
The question is not why it failed, but why it held together so long. For this we must look to the iron discipline of the Spanish war machine, whose men fought for decades, ill-paid and ill-fed, all across Europe while those English volunteers crowded the boats for several weeks to get at the Armada.