The Canon

The last column laid out the basic framework of the Four Generations of modern war. Here, we pick up with a discussion of "the canon," the seven books which, read in the order given, will take the reader from the First Generation through the Second, the Third and on into the Fourth.

The first book in the canon is C.E. White, The Enlightened Soldier. This book explains why you are reading all the other books. It is the story of Scharnhorst, the leader of the Prussian military reform movement of the early 1800s, as a military educator. With other young officers, Scharnhorst realized that if the Prussian army, which had changed little since the time of Frederick the Great, fought Napoleon, it would lose and lose badly. Instead of just waiting for it to happen, he put together a group of officers who thought as he did, the Militaerische Gesellschaft, and they worked out a program of reforms for the Prussian army (and state). Prussia’s defeat at the battle of Jena opened the door to these reforms, which in turn laid the basis for the German army’s development of Third Generation war in the 19th and early 20th century. When I taught a course on the Four Generations at Quantico a few years ago, my students, Marine captains, said that of all the books in the canon, they liked this one best.

The next book is Robert Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster. This is the definitive history of the development of Second Generation warfare in the French army during and after World War I. This book is in the canon because we learned modern war from the French, absorbing Second Generation war wholesale from them (as late as 1930, when the U.S. Army wanted a manual on operational art, it just took the French manual on Grand Tactics, translated it and issued it as its own). Every American officer to whom I have lent my copy has told me when he returned it, "This is us." The Seeds of Disaster is the only book in the canon that is something of a dull read, but it is essential to understand why the American armed forces act as they do.

The third book, Bruce Gudmundsson’s Stormtroop Tactics, is the story of the development of Third Generation war in the German army in World War I. It is also a book on how to change an army. Twice during World War I, the Germans pulled their army out of the Western Front unit-by-unit and retrained it in radically new tactics. Those new tactics, which are still largely new to American units today (how many American platoon leaders or company commanders have ever done a three-element assault?), broke the deadlock of the trenches, even if Germany had to wait for the development of the Panzer divisions to turn tactical success into operational victory.

Book four, Martin Samuels’s Command or Control?, compares British and German tactical development from the late 19th century through World War I. Its value is the clear distinctions it draws between the Second and Third Generations, distinctions the reader will find useful when looking at the U.S. armed forces today. The British were so firmly attached to the Second Generation — at times, even the First — that German officers who had served on both fronts in World War I often said British troop handling was even worse than Russian. Bruce Gudmundsson argues that in each generation, one Brit is allowed really to understand the Germans. In our generation, Martin Samuels is that Brit.

I will conclude this discussion of the canon in my next column.

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