EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a four-part series of articles on how national security professionals should (and should not) approach the fraught task of learning lessons from something as complex as war. We have assembled a team of sharp minds and pens in the business to apply their varying perspectives to the question opened by the Army War College’s Chase Metcalf, how do we think about learning lessons from war? It is a fitting end to 2023 and, unfortunately, will likely be essential in 2024 as well.
When we search for the processes by which societal changes take place, we are blinded by the excitement and propaganda surrounding the new which leads us to accord invention and innovation a special prominence in explanations for change.
Clichés lie at the heart of our consideration of change, argues the historian David Edgerton. Assessments of the future, however fresh we believe them to be, are trapped in recurrent patterns of bounded thinking that emphasize novelty and revolutions. These clichés have a pernicious impact on how military organizations think about the future, creating an obsession with the transformative impact of the new at the expense of other essential factors, especially evolution and continuity.
Edgerton’s argument is that debates on the process of technological change place insufficient emphasis on the impact of continuity. This is because our thinking about the future is clichéd: it is, and has been, blinded by two particular examples of bounded thinking. The first is a focus on novelty: on the role of new technology as the primary factor shaping the character of change. When we search for the processes by which societal changes take place, we are blinded by the excitement and propaganda surrounding the new which leads us to accord invention and innovation a special prominence in explanations for change.
This leads to a second issue: categorization. In our attempts to impose order on the processes of historical change and to understand it, we see change as something driven by moments of revolution, usually with origins in new technology. Intellectually, argues Edgerton, we are primed to see “a world of grand narratives, of great ruptures, and transitions.” This encourages a perspective in which development moves inexorably forward, indeed is speeding up, and can be categorized into “paradigms,” or models, created by the introduction of new technology.
Military organizations have not escaped the impact of these clichés. It shapes, how the military commonly see the past: one paradigm of warfare gives way to another because of a technology-induced military revolution; each revolution creates, it is believed, a new and more effective way of waging warfare. Michael S. Neiberg notes that “much of military history is written with the intent of explaining why the winners won and losers lost.” Debates about relative military performance often become debates about relative military innovation: the losers lose because they are fighting according to an older model of war; the winner’s win because they have grasped the new spirit of the age. Linked to this Jeremy Black identifies the predilection in Western intellectual traditions for the creation of “meta-narratives”: expansive conceptual labels used to try and bound and simplify change as a way of more effectively being able to understand and respond to it. Taken together, these create an interpretive lens that encourages militaries to think about the development of warfare in terms of discontinuous change and snappy labels: revolutions; waves; generations of war. This view shaped assessments of the 1940 campaign in France that helped create the myth of blitzkrieg; the Gulf War and its role in supporting the belief in a new Revolution in Military Affairs; and the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict and the belief in the emergence of the new paradigm of hybrid warfare. The tendency has been to explain unexpected military outcomes in terms of comparisons between more conservative and more innovative military organizations, the former cleaving to an outdated model of warfare, the latter embracing the new and more modern way of fighting.
Edgerton’s clichés have had a pernicious effect on how military organizations conceptualize change. They make history easier to interpret and the future easier to predict, but ease does not necessarily translate into accuracy. It is no surprise to find that current military thinking assesses the contemporary changing character of warfare as one marked by a new historical watershed: an information-based “fourth industrial revolution”; “an historical inflection point” in which new technologies are revolutionizing the battlefield. Innovation is seen as the critical method through which an army can respond to this change. But thinking in this manner carries a number of potential challenges.
One difficulty is the extent to which this clichéd thinking associates military effectiveness with innovation: the more innovation that seems to be taking place, the more effective a military must be. However, Dietrich Dorner in his study of the sources of failure in fact sees the reverse: better outcomes are associated with more stability; largely because making fewer changes seems to be associated with better and more considered decision-making, including complex systems thinking, the asking of more “why” questions; and more rigorous testing of hypotheses. Thus, the quality of changes is more important than the quantity.
This is also a feature acknowledged in the more specific literature on military innovation. Barry Posen identifies the risk of having an insufficiently innovative doctrine if wider political and technological circumstances are changing. But he also acknowledges that “Neither innovation nor stagnation (stability might be a better choice of terms as it is less loaded) should be valued a priori.” Stability may be justified in many circumstances because innovation can be disruptive to an organization.
[A] focus on novelty and revolutions naturally encourages a preoccupation with the new at the expense of the old.
In fact, as Kendrick Kuo argues, innovation can actively damage military effectiveness. Kuo uses the example of British military innovation in the interwar period and the performance of British forces in North Africa from 1941 to 1942. In the interwar period, British army doctrine was radical in outlook. It embraced new technology in the form of the internal combustion engine and armored forces; it created a new organization, in the form of the Experimental Mechanized Force; it conducted innovative training exercises; it developed a forward-looking, maneuver-oriented doctrine. The British army’s concept of war was highly innovative but also, as it turned out in practice, largely unsuited to the reality of warfare as it had to be fought. In particular, it placed too much emphasis on tanks and not enough on the traditional principles of combined arms warfare. Innovation necessarily involves choices, and the more innovative change is, the narrower those choices can become.
Second, a focus on novelty and revolutions naturally encourages a preoccupation with the new at the expense of the old. But new military developments often do not replace older ways of doing things, or even older technologies. This is a point demonstrated convincingly by writers such as Stephen Biddle. Military development isn’t neatly linear and compartmentalised—as Edgerton notes, we exist in a “tangle of time” in which old and new exist together. Despite our desire to delineate between blitzkrieg, for example, and what went on before it, the German army in the Second World War used more horses than the British army of World War One. “Nobody uses tanks anymore, the next wars are going to be all to do with cyber, hybrid warfare, space,” asserted the then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021. Yet the war in Ukraine has been has been aptly described by some analysts as “A war of old truths and new developments” in which the old and the new can be found operating alongside one another. Even weapons from the Second World War have proved useful. Ukrainian troops using an old Maxim machine gun with iron wheels commented that “It only works when there is a massive attack going on…[but] then it really works. So we use it every week.”
Third, privileging novelty and revolutions dangerously homogenizes our thinking about the future. It encourages a search for the changing character of warfare, as if the future consists of only one possible scenario. In reality, given the interplay between change, continuity, and context, there may be as many futures for warfare as there are conflicts. The danger then is that in our attachment to too specific a concept of future warfare we surprise ourselves because the future that we planned to meet isn’t the one that we get. In that sense, rate of change or detail in prediction aren’t what matters to future military effectiveness: what matters is the flexibility of an organization. Since most wars are a race between the belligerents to correct the mistaken assumptions that they began with, what matters is how quickly an organization can adapt to the reality of conflict relative to their actual adversary.
Last, the clichés identified by Edgerton encourage military self-delusion. They encourage the belief that innovation and the leveraging of the next great military revolution can ensure quick, decisive, low-cost victory. As Jon Lindsay argues, modern militaries keep returning to what he terms an “information-based theory of victory”: the presumption that new information technologies are driving forwards an information-based military revolution, and that the side that can exploit this development most effectively will win decisively on the battlefield. In its latest net-centric incarnation, this view is embodied in concepts such as multi-domain operations, reconnaissance-strike complexes, and “intelligentized warfare.” This is an idea of future warfare compatible with military conceptions of skillful generalship and the reality of organizations increasingly unable to absorb attrition. But it may also be more an expression of the sorts of war that we would like to fight in the future rather than the war that we will have to fight. Lindsay’s argument is that new information technology has over time changed aspects of our experience of war, but it hasn’t made us any more effective at prosecuting it. In conclusion, Edgerton’s clichés describe problematic predispositions that inform military thinking about the future of war. The consequences of these factors are processes of learning that often fetishize innovation, marginalize the important continuities in warfare, unhelpfully narrow the range of futures considered, and feed processes by which militaries choose futures most compatible with their predilections. Technology, change, and innovation are vital parts of any consideration of future warfare: but it is dangerous to presume that they are the whole of it.
Christopher Tuck is a Reader in Strategic Studies in the Department of Defence Studies , King’s College London, at the United Kingdom Defence Academy. Previously, he has been a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Chris has published extensively on issues relating to strategy and land warfare. His latest publications include Understanding Land Warfare (Routledge, 2022) and ‘The future of manoeuvre warfare‘ in Mikael Weissman and Niklas Nilsson’s, Advanced Land Warfare: Tactics and Operations (Oxford University Press, 2023)
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Tiger 131 at the Bovington Tank Museum, is the world’s only running German Tiger I tank. It was captured on 24th April 1943 on Point 174 on the way between Medjez el Bab and Montarnaud in Tunisia, by 142nd Battalion RAC and 2nd Sherwood Foresters. The impenetrable armor, powerful gun and huge size of the Tiger made it a legend in its time. The tank did have its problems. It was unreliable and caught fire easily.
Photo Credit: Michael Garlick, Public Domain