Fighting the Last War? | HistoryNet

Fighting the Last War?

By Robert M. Citino
1/6/2010 • Fire for Effect

A few weeks ago I was pretty hard on U.S. air power advocates in the interwar era.  Inventing a new form of war out of whole cloth, they came up with some pretty specious concepts like “precision daylight bombing” that failed to survive the test of real-world operations.  “As always,” I wrote then, “it was the men at the point of the spear–the bomber crews–who paid the price when doctrine clashed with reality” (Wild Blue Yonder II, Sunday, November 1st, 2009).

But the more I thought about that post, the more I came to see that it was a bit unfair.  Indeed, the disconnect between doctrine for how wars are supposed to be fought and they are actually fought was present in spades within the U.S. Army as well.  Not only that, it was present to an astonishing degree in ALL the military establishments that found themselves at war after 1939.

The U.S. Army, for example, came up with a unique armored doctrine that envisioned tanks actually avoiding tank-to-tank combat on the battlefield.  Beating enemy armor was the job of another vehicle altogether, the “tank destroyer”–big gun, lightly armored, sometimes open-topped.  The U.S. would abandon this concept after the war, and no one else copied it–for good reason.  The British army came into the war enamored of light armor, “tankettes”, and independent “jock columns,” all of which were unable to stand up to the pounding inherent in modern combat.  The French intended to fight a rigidly controlled “methodical battle,” and instead found themselves in a maneuver contest with the Wehrmacht in 1940.  It went badly.  The Soviet Army had a well formulated and ambitious interwar doctrine called “deep battle”–and indeed it did spend the better part of the first two campaigning seasons moving deeply.  Unfortunately all the movement was in reverse.  The Imperial Japanese Army devised perhaps the most mistaken idea of all:  that the “warrior spirit” of their officers and men would make up for a clear inferiority in material and technology.  Their casualty statistics–even in places like Guadalcanal, where the numerical odds were fairly even–were staggering.

Even the Germans, usually pegged as the ones who “got it right” in the interwar era, came up empty.  They trained and equipped their army to fight short, sharp campaigns of maneuver and destruction that would–eventually, at some future point, who knew when?–force their enemies to sue for peace.  They had some success, up to a point.  And then, of course, they wound up fighting a war of attrition on a global scale.

We often excoriate armies for getting ready to “fight the last war.”  In some sense, they all do that.  It’s unavoidable.  The real problem, however, is that they train based on mistaken notions of what the next war will be like.  And they always will, until someone devises a way to peer into the future.

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11 Responses to Fighting the Last War?

  1. Luke Truxal says:

    What I find interesting is that everyone prior to World War II developed their own method to fighting the next war as Dr. Citino shows in his blog. The air war is an example where their was no air phase that played a crucial role on the operational and strategic level during the previous wars. After World War I it became clear to many officers that an air force would play a much bigger role on the battlefield. The question was what was that role going to be and how to carry it out successfully. The Germans developed a tactical air force that matched their style of short lightning campaigns that relied on speed an manuevering. The Americans wanted to avoid World War I like casualties and therefore developed strategic bombing in order to avoid fighting on land and win the war from the air. It seems that all armies prior to World War I were sort of grasping at new theories in the dark because their was very little experience in the employment of the new technologies such as tanks and aircraft. Maybe it’s just me but it seems that preparing for the next war is sort of guess work. For instance, who would have thought airborne drops could play an important role in military operations prior to 1939?

    Also, did those who came up with these doctrines think of any of the small issues that develop into large problems with these doctrines? During the early development of the B-17 no one seemed to think that a heavy nose turret was neccessary until German fighters started attacking B-17s in frontal assaults instead of trying to attack from the tail of the formation which was better defended. In the nose of the B-17 was the two pilots, the bomardier, and the navigator. All of those people are essential to getting the bombs dropped on target and not having a nose turrett to protect those valuable members of the crew could affect bombing accuracy. That does seem like a small issue until war planners learned that it played a role in the accuracy of bombing during missions.

    Sorry for the length I got carried away.

  2. Mike Hegarty says:

    I think your article was dead on. Any time you have a high intensity conflict you will have preconceived notions that go by the wayside. To support a proposition like daylight bombing the evidence, if any, is usually lost in the hot air and grandiose advertising in support of the endeavor. In my opinion, the ability of the party who adapts quickest to battlefield solutions will ultimately win. These solution are inexorably linked to resources, both material and financial. Germany and Japan were ill-prepared to fight a war of attrition once their initial successes were stemmed.

  3. Luke Truxal says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Too bad the French didn’t have an ocean and a navy to protect them like the British and US did. I think that allowed the British to begin to adapt their doctrines to their battlefield experiences against the Germans.

  4. Bill Nance says:

    The true problem is not that armies plan to fight the last war. In fact, planning to fight the last war sometimes makes sense. What doesn’t work is when armies allow prejudices and paracholiasm dictate results.

    For example, the US armor community prior to WW II was divided between those who argued that tanks should ONLY be used as infantry support, and those that demanded full autonomy for tanks. They were both wrong. Combined arms advocates had existed, but the politics of the Army of the 1920s and 30s had smothered them.

    The tank destroyer concept was based upon the VERY biased opinions of one COL Fuqua, the US attache to the Spanish Civil War. Fuqua was an infantryman, and let his prejudices show through in his reports which helped turn US thinking to tank destroyers. The only way TDs were ‘proved’ during manuevers was when the AGF changed the rules to overstate the effectiveness of AT weapons to the point that a soldier with a bag of flour (grenade) could knock out a tank.

    More recently, the US in Iraq had the historical experience to fight an insurgency, but the biases of the higher echelons refused to admit what was going on, thereby creating a larger issue. In 2003 we weren’t even supposed to use the word ‘insurgent’.

    Bottom line – preparing to fight the last war is really looking at history, and making preparations. This is good solid sense and really is the reason to study military history (those who don’t study history are bound to repeat it, etc.). However, nations and militaries that do the worst job of dispassionately viewing “WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED” and WHY are those that end up doing the worst.

  5. Flyer says:

    After the Korean War, the received wisdom in the U.S. Air Force was “we’ll never fight another conventional war.” So everything was geared to nuclear and conventional capabilities, theory and training went by the wayside. Then came Vietnam. I made it back, but a lot of my friends didn’t. And we weren’t anywhere near as effective as we should have been.

    Also a lot of the planning is politically driven – what can I sell to the politicains (who are the ones supplying the money)?

  6. Peter Perla says:

    There is, of course, no panacea to the problem, no crystal ball to “peer into the future.” There are, however, techniques to explore the potential futures and help militaries try to shape those futures in ways they would prefer. Chief among these is the much misunderstood process of wargaming.

    Much of the above discussion focused on mistakes made during the interwar period but little has been said about the successes. Many of these successes stemmed from the thinking, studying, and wargaming of the U.S. Navy, particularly at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. By drawing on the power of wargaming to elicit thoughtful competition and to expose ideas and theories to ruthless attack on the game board, the U.S. Navy devised much of the ultimate operational approach that helped win the war in the Pacific.

    Admiral Nimitz wrote a famous post-war letter praising the wargmaing done there as helping the Navy foresee and at least think about everything that they faced during the war, except the kamikaze. That might be a tad overstated, but his comments are certainly valid. Like any tool, of course, wargaming can be mis-used and itw surely was by many of the participants in WWII. Just as the wargaming done in preparation for the 2003 Iraq war raised important issues that decision makers chose not to address, the key is not simply to game things out, but to incorporate insights and ideas derived from gaming with those from analysis, military exrecises, and real-world experience. That’s the closest thing to a military crystal ball we are likely to find outside the world of Harry Potter. But it still requires thoughtful and resolute professionals to take the right lessons and make the right decisions.

  7. Dave says:

    In addition to the problems posted here, another challenge planners face is the application of new technologies to the current conflict. In most cases, planners and theorists are successful when they recognize that technologies don’t change the fundamental principles of war. Security, Mass, Surprise, Combined Arms, Economy of Force, and such do not change from era to era. Every so often it seems that some genius comes up with an idea “that will change the face of war forever.” Early and current Strategic Bombing advocates who preached that air-power obviates the need for infantry are an obvious example.
    It seems that the best way to prepare for the future is to train and prepare according to sound fundamental principles, but politics, parochialism, and pure human stubbornness and a desire to find a ‘short cut’ often lead armies astray.

  8. Rob Citino says:

    Good points, everyone. And for those who might not know, Peter Perla is an authority on the professional use of wargames as planning tools, and the author of a very fine book entitled “The Art of Wargaming: A Guide for Professionals and Hobbyists.” Check it out at:

  9. paul penrod says:

    This is related to the first comment pertaining to the B-17 Perhaps one reason it didn’t have a nose turret was that the Flying Fortress was originally designed to attack targets at sea notice that it originally had large glazed observation areas where the waist gun positions were later placed) It was designed to be one of the three legs of the original US defensive “Triad”-the other two being the Battle fleet and the US Army Coastal Artillery. As it would be attacking shipping, there would be no land-based fighter opposition.

  10. […] the next war in much the same way as they prosecuted the last battle of the most recent war is so well known as to be discussed derisively—like a torpedo to be used against our own strategic planners regardless of any recognition as to […]

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