This article was originally published at Stratfor.com.
By Ian Morris
Historians love anniversaries, and this year we’re having a lot of them. In an earlier column I looked back exactly 100 years to April 1917, when Lenin made his famous journey from Zurich to Petrograd. This laid the foundation for a distinctive kind of illiberal modern state that now seems to be making a comeback. But in this column, I want to consider a second set of events in 1917 that arguably played an even bigger role in creating today’s world: the invention of a new way of fighting wars. Military leaders began exploiting the fact that modern states had effectively created a new kind of human being — the educated, independent-minded citizen who could do much more than just follow orders — without whom modernity would look very different indeed.
Harnessing the Masses
The archaeological record shows that humans have been fighting since we evolved, but for the first 95 percent or so of our time on Earth, our war-making was a ragged business. Putting together what we can excavate with what anthropologists observed among the surviving Stone Age societies of the 20th century, it seems that there were few real battles. After all, battles are dangerous: It takes fierce discipline — or even fiercer belief in some cause — to make men get close to other men who are trying to kill them, and Stone Age societies lacked the institutions able to instill such discipline or inspire such fanaticism. Consequently, pitched battles tended to take the form of long-range skirmishes — with bows, slings or javelins — that often broke off if anyone was seriously hurt (or even if it started raining).
This did not, however, mean that prehistoric warfare was some kind of harmless ritual. Rather, the real killing went on in ambushes, where half a dozen men might jump out and attack a single enemy, beating him to death, or the young braves from one clan might storm a sleeping enemy village in the hours before dawn, spearing and scalping defenseless men, women and children. Archaeologists have dug up the remains of such massacre sites dating back to 11,000 B.C.
This kind of dirty little war has never gone away, but for the past 5,000 years it has been subordinated to a very different way of doing things. When farmers created the first proper states, with governments led by godlike kings who had the power to coerce others to do as they were told, one of the first things rulers did was to use this force to turn warriors into soldiers. The distinction between the two is that a warrior is a wild young man who will kill when his mad blood stirs but will run away when the odds look bad, while a proper soldier is a disciplined professional who will stand his ground and would rather die than disgrace his regiment. Depictions of spearmen advancing in formation and descriptions of standing armies suggest that this revolution in military affairs was underway in the Middle East (particularly in what we now call southern Iraq) by 2500 B.C., and over the next 2,000 years it spread or began independently from China to the Mediterranean.
By the first millennium B.C., this vast area was dominated by mass armies of iron-armed infantrymen, fighting in serried ranks. There were differences among geographic regions, of course: Indians used elephants, while Iranians and other peoples living near the steppes made greater use of horses than did Europeans and societies farther away. But every civilization developed two surprisingly similar dimensions in how it fought.
The first concerned command and control on the battlefield, provided by officers who bullied their men to stay in formation, maneuvering in formations tens of thousands strong, protecting one another’s flanks while seeking out the enemy’s weak points. This took a lot of doing, because fighting face-to-face with iron weapons and without much in the way of medicine meant that battles could be very bloody indeed. It was normal for two men to be wounded for every one who was killed; and when troops were properly trained, confident in their leaders and expected to win, they would typically maintain order until about 10 percent of their number had been killed and 20 percent had been wounded. Though there were exceptions, such as the 300 Spartans who fought to the last man against Persia at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. (this is no legend; you can still find the occasional bronze or iron arrowhead on the battlefield today), panic would overwhelm even the toughest soldiers by the time a third of their comrades had fallen.
This was the point at which the second dimension of fighting came to the forefront. If terrified troops ran away fast enough, they might well escape, regroup and live to fight another day, forcing the victors in the first battle to risk everything yet again. The real measure of victory, then, was the ability to pursue enemies once they broke, chasing them down so they never had a chance to regain order. From Alexander the Great to Napoleon — from the Battle of Gaugamela (331 B.C.) to the Battle of Austerlitz (1805) — it was cavalry that turned a tactical success into a decisive victory, riding down foot soldiers as they ran for their lives.
For a New Society, a New Strategy
Carl von Clausewitz, the greatest of military theorists, argued that in war every kind of action has a “culminating point,” beyond which “the scale turns and a reaction follows with a force that is usually much stronger than that of the original act.” For the 5,000-year-old method of fighting wars by massing together as many men as possible, bludgeoning the enemy and then hunting down survivors, that culminating point came 100 years ago. In the First World War, Europe’s governments put tens of millions of men into uniform, mobilized their entire economies for violence and hammered their enemies on a scale never seen before. But by the time they had done so, mass warfare had passed its culminating point, and its old rules had ceased to work.
The slaughter that ensued between 1914 and 1917, generating millions of dead and wounded but failing to produce a decisive victory, is often blamed on barbed wire, trenches and machine guns. These were of course major tactical innovations, but the real issue, as the generals understood well, was that mass warfare had passed its culminating point. Contrary to the legends, armies in the First World War could (and several times did) beat their way through the enemy’s front line. The real problem was that with millions of men fighting on battlefields dozens of kilometers wide and deep, their systems of command and control — which were not so very different from those Napoleon had used a century earlier — could not identify where the breakthroughs were happening in time to rush in reinforcements to exploit them. All they could do was keep bludgeoning on a broad front, pushing forward more and more men in the hope of grinding their way through line after line of defenses.
By the summer of 1917, it was clear that things could not go on as they had. Between April and November, huge French and British offensives left hundreds of thousands dead on each side without coming close to breaking through the German position; in July, a Russian offensive fared even worse. Despite the millions of men called up, casualties were so high that some French divisions mutinied and the Russian army began falling apart.
The Germans hit back in September. But rather than responding with more of the same, pushing even more infantry into confined spaces, they unleashed an entirely new approach to fighting. The strategist Stephen Biddle, in his outstanding his book Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, calls this the “Modern System” of war. The Ancient System was all about top-down control, with troops massed closely together so that officers could get them to obey orders; but what if battles could be run from the bottom up, with soldiers deciding for themselves what to do? Instead of driving forward entire divisions and corps to bludgeon the enemy, the idea was, battles would now dissolve into countless small actions, with clusters of men moving forward wherever the opposition was weak and skirting places where it was strong. Rather than trying to kill everyone in their path, squads just half a dozen strong could work their way deep into the gaps and cracks in the enemy position, paralyzing it by overrunning its vulnerable command posts and supply dumps. For most enemies, the first sign of trouble would be shooting coming from behind them. Cut off, with no orders and no sure idea of where the real battle was happening, defenders with any sense would simply surrender.
In a way, the Modern System dismantled the Ancient System by looking back to the Prehistoric System. The Modern System dissolved the huge, rigid formations that had dominated battlefields for over 4,000 years and freed up individuals to act as they thought best. It could afford to do this because instead of prehistoric warriors, who tended to think about self-preservation first and winning battles only a very distant second, it made use of an entirely new kind of man. This individual was a unique product of 20th-century nation-states, with their systems of mass education and nationalist ideals.
Modern states needed citizens who could think for themselves, doing jobs of vastly greater complexity and autonomy than the great mass of peasants in preindustrial farming societies. Industrialized societies also needed their citizens to identify their own well-being with that of the state, handing over far more of their incomes in taxes and allowing themselves to be conscripted on unprecedented scales. These modern men were rarely keen to go into battle, but once there, they could — with training — be persuaded not only to put their lives on the line without being reduced to cogs in a machine but also to take the initiative in the process.
Hints of this kind of citizen-soldier can be seen in the American Civil War of 1861-65, and the British learned the hard way during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) how vulnerable old-style armies were becoming to modern men. However, in 1914 all of Europe’s armies went to war with plans that took little notice of these developments. By 1916 several were experimenting with some kind of Modern System, but the Germans were the first to make it work. They called it Auftragstaktik, or “mission tactics,” with senior officers formulating plans but trusting junior officers and enlisted men to be smart enough to figure out for themselves the best ways to make them work. German staff officers began encouraging this way of thinking by forming special assault groups (Sturmabteilungen) in 1915, but it seems that much of the initiative in fact came from the ordinary “storm troopers” (Stosstruppen).
The first time assault groups were given the lead, in September 1917, the Russians opposing them simply ran away after three days of fighting. The next attack, at Caporetto six weeks later, was even more dramatic. Almost the moment the Stosstruppen struck, the Italian army that had fought bravely and doggedly for two years descended into blind panic, powerfully described by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms. German and Austrian forces surged forward about 97 kilometers (60 miles), taking a quarter of a million prisoners. At one point a young Lt. Erwin Rommel, backed by just five men, bluffed 1,500 Italians into surrendering.
At both Riga and Caporetto, handfuls of Stosstruppen achieved results vastly disproportionate to their numbers, but when the Germans applied the Modern System on the primary front in France in 1918, the small numbers of elite storm troops available proved to be its undoing. The entire British Fifth Army collapsed in the face of German infiltration, but over several weeks of fighting, attrition gradually blunted the German attacks. And much more conventional French, British and American counterattacks in the late summer broke the German army with the time-honored tools of bludgeoning and pursuit.
The Revolution Isn’t Over
Since the revolutionary days of 1917, the trends have all run in one direction — toward greater reliance on well-trained, highly motivated Auftragstaktiker. In the Second World War, numbers and resources proved decisive only when used properly, spearheaded by armored and air forces trained in the new ways; and in the past 40 years, most major armed forces have moved toward smaller, nimbler and more elite militaries. Even Russia, long the last holdout of the top-down mass army, has moved since 2007 toward smaller, better-paid and more intelligent forces. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, officers in the Israel Defense Forces regularly joke that their men are constitutionally incapable of obeying orders without trying to find their own way of putting them into practice.
Stratfor founder George Friedman has often suggested that the next great war will be global but not total, meaning that it will touch every part of the planet but will not be fought by mobilizing entire populations. Very small, highly trained elites with astonishingly expensive and destructive weapons are likely to decide the issue long before old-fashioned mass armies can be conscripted, trained and put into battle. Thus, the revolution in warfare that began 100 years ago is likely to keep shaping geopolitics well into the 21st century.