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The canon and four generations of warfare

The canon and four generations of warfare

The word canon originated from Greek as kanōn (rule). Today, one definition of canon is ‘the list of works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality’.[1]

In June 2004, the writer William S. Lind published an article titled Two Marine Corps [one the manoeuvre warfare Marine Corps, the second the programs, budgets and policy Marine Corps], which introduced the idea of the canon to military professionals:

the seven books [that]…take the reader from the first generation of modern war through the second and third generations and into the fourth.[2]

According to Lind, first generation war commenced from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 until approximately the American Civil War (1861-1865). This generation was characterised, on the whole, by a battlefield of order. In turn, this battlefield created an ordered military culture which endures to this day.

Around the middle of the 19th century the size, scale and complexity of combat began to disrupt the battlefield of order. Ever since, state militaries have grappled with a growing contradiction between their internal culture of order and the external reality of an increasingly disordered battlefield. The second and third generations of warfare represent two different approaches to that contradiction.

Lind argues that second generation war was developed by the French Army during and after World War I, and is best summarised as firepower-attrition warfare. Second generation war maintained the first generation culture of order. Decision-making was centralised and hierarchical. Orders were detailed and controlling.

Third generation war, also known as manoeuvre warfare, was developed by the German Army before and during World War I. Speed replaced firepower as the enabling element of this warfare. The Prussian-German roots of third generation war originate with Scharnhorst’s reforms following Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806. Decision-making was decentralised and focussed on the enemy. Direction was based on a senior commander’s intent giving junior leaders the responsibility to achieve the result each situation required, regardless of orders.

In 2004, Lind proclaimed fourth generation war as warfare’s greatest change since the Peace of Westphalia, because it marks the end of the state's monopoly on war. In the twenty-first century, as before 1648, many entities, not just states, are fighting wars.

State militaries, including the Australian Defence Force (ADF), are designed to fight other state militaries. Lind argues that, in the twenty-first century, state militaries are increasingly fighting non-state opponents, and almost always, the state is either not decisively winning or is losing. This twenty-first century challenge, along with all challenges relating to fighting and winning wars, requires state militaries to continuously adapt, develop and refine their education, training, tactics, and materiel capabilities.

Contextualising the generational challenge faced by the ADF, this review examines the first two books of the canon.The first book examines the Prussian Army’s transition as a first generation Army. The second book examines the French Army’s transition as a second generation Army.  

The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805

Charles White’s The Enlightened Soldier is the canon’s first volume. White aims to ‘discover the essence of German military professionalism as exemplified by the nineteenth century Prussian General Staff’.

Following Prussia’s 1806 defeat by Napoleon at Jena and Auerstedt, Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst gradually emerged to lead Prussian military reform. Scharnhorst sought to ‘replace the aristocracy of birth with the aristocracy of education’ and interest his colleagues in ‘those aspects of the art of war which turn an armed force into an effective fighting machine’.

Samuel Huntington describes Scharnhorst’s reforms as the ‘true beginning of the military profession in the west’ providing Prussia the ‘distinction of originating the professional officer’.[3] Of interest are two ideas articulated by White, Bildung and the Militarische Gesellschaft (Military Society), which explain how enhanced education enabled Prussia to reform and professionalise.

Emphasising Bildung, Scharnhorst ‘proposed a comprehensive educational program for officers and non-commissioned officers, together with…more realistic training for the troops’. Scharnhorst recognised that ‘disciplined intellect was essential to the profession of arms’, and that the ‘profession of arms was a continuous process of development that could not be mastered by simply learning existing techniques’.

Drawing officers from almost every Prussian garrison, Scharnhorst led the Militarische Gesellschaft (Military Society) where colleagues met ‘to examine and discuss the art of war systematically in an atmosphere similar to that of other academic societies’. The Militarische Gesellschaft was designed to end ‘the squandering of leisure time by officers already educated; and additionally, to awaken the desire of younger officers to be educated’.

Scharnhorst was concerned that ‘at best, military schools provided only a foundation upon which to build… [and] without further education, the officer would be of little use in war’. The Militarische Gesellschaft became ‘the focal point of Bildung in the Prussian Army’.

The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-39

Robert Doughty’s The Seeds of Disaster is the canon’s second volume. Doughty examines how in 1940 French doctrine emphasised mobilisation, firepower, defensive systems, strict obedience and the ‘unifying power of the commander’. France intended to ‘fight a war similar to the final phases of the western front in 1918’ as ‘carefully controlled and methodical battles [or bataille conduit] that were precisely the type of battles Germany intended to avoid’.

To provide contrast, this book also examines German doctrine 1919-1939. For example, the German army applied mission command emphasising ‘independence of action of the lower commanders … [is] of decisive importance at all times’ while the French army required subordinates to ‘obey the orders of a commander uniformly without “deforming” [commander’s intent]’ which ‘paralysed the [French] spirit of mobility and initiative’.

In terms of battlefield mobility and manoeuvre, the ‘Germans anticipated the possibility of the tanks setting the pace of the attack’. In contrast, the French ‘remained focused upon the rate of advance of the infantry and artillery’. In 1933 the inspector general of French artillery objected that some tanks ‘were too fast for the infantry’ preferring to employ tanks in a ‘step-by-step carefully controlled battle’.

Doctrine binds militaries together and makes them effective. As a warning for all militaries, including the ADF, this book ‘illustrates the complexity and difficulty of formulating an effective doctrine … [as a] basis for military education’ instead of doctrine as ‘an inflexible prescription’. Catastrophically, by the late 1930s, the French army, prizing preparation over improvisation, had ‘formulated a doctrine, organised and equipped its units, and trained its soldiers for the wrong type of war’.

The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 

Charles Edward White

Praeger: Westport, Connecticut, 1989, 211 pp

ISBN-10: 0275929361

ISBN-13: 978-0275929367

US $118.00

The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-39 

Robert A. Doughty

Stackpole Military History Series: Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 1985, 198 pp

ISBN-10: 0811714608

ISBN-13: 978-0811714600

US $18.95 

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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