In 1806, the Kingdom of Prussia went to war against France and Napoleon Bonaparte. Prussia suffered a crushing and humiliating defeat. In a pair of battles, Jena and Auerstädt, both fought on 14 October 1806, the Prussian Army was defeated, and the existence of the Prussian state was placed in jeopardy. Prussia survived and reformed its army—an army that later played a pivotal role in Napoleon’s final defeat. The United States military in general—and the U.S. Marine Corps in particular—is at a similar crossroads today. Marines are faced with twin defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. These failures are clear indications that the character of war has changed. The Marine Corps must adapt to meet the challenge of this new face of war. A closer look at Jena-Auerstädt may suggest some ways to do so. In 1806, Napoleon was at the height of his power. Napoleon, and France, posed a threat to the long-established monarchies and order of Europe. In July 1806, Prussia allied with Russia against Napoleon.
In early October 1806, Prussian troops marched against Napoleon’s forces. They marched slowly in order to allow their Russian allies an opportunity to come to their support. Napoleon, wishing to defeat the Prussians before Russian troops could join them, moved rapidly. On 14 October, Napoleon’s army engaged the Prussians in two battles fought a dozen miles apart. At Jena, Napoleon routed a portion of the Prussian army while one of his marshals defeated a much larger Prussian force at Auerstädt. The defeats were decisive, and the Prussian army disintegrated in the pursuit that followed. By the spring of 1807, the only unconquered territory left to Prussia was around the city of Memel on the Baltic coast. The Prussian King, Frederick William III, sought terms from Napoleon.
The settlement dictated by the Treaty of Tilsit was humiliating to Prussia. Napoleon and Tsar Alexander of Russia met on a raft in the middle of the Niemen River to settle peace terms. Frederick William III was not invited and could only sit on the riverbank and wait to see if he still had a kingdom when the discussion concluded. In the end, Prussia was shorn of half its territory and was forced to become a French satellite.
As Prussia “was not a state with an army, but an army with a state,” military failure shook Prussia to its very foundation. War had changed, and the Prussian Army had failed to adapt to these changes. Many Prussian officers had called for needed reforms in the years before 1806, but they did not possess sufficient influence. The army of Frederick the Great—which prided itself on its martial prowess—was revealed as old, infirm, ineffective, and poorly equipped for the challenges of modern war.
The result of this crushing defeat was the total reform for the Prussian Army. The failure of the Army’s high command was evident to all. Equally clear was the fact that these same leaders, stained by defeat, were inadequate to the task of reform. The leader of the Prussian military reform movement, David Johann Gerhard von Scharnhorst, had been an advocate of reform for many years before 1806. He had been largely unable to make any progress. The only reason that von Scharnhorst was given the opportunity to enact many of his changes was that defeat forced change upon the Prussian court.
The case of Prussia 200 years ago is instructive for the United States military today. The U.S. military’s leaders have failed their Nation in a similar fashion. In the last decade, the U.S. military has fought two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only has victory eluded the U.S. military in both conflicts, but the United States is also immeasurably less secure today than it was on 12 September 2001. Complacency and smug self-satisfaction formed a lethal witch’s brew that led to twin failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trillions of dollars have been wasted, and thousands of lives have been lost or irreparably altered with little to show for the sacrifice. Iraq is unstable and crumbling (an outcome that maintaining troops there would only have put off, not prevented). The dissolution of Iraq is likely a foreshadowing of what is still to come in Afghanistan. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces did well those things that comported with their preconceived notions about war and the role of military force. But those notions proved wrong. U.S. warfighting doctrine is centered around using troops as “sensors” to find the enemy in order to apply overwhelming firepower to destroy him. For wars in which the enemy hides among the civilian population, firepower-focused war—even when somewhat restrained due to attempts to limit civilian casualties—is bound to create disaffection and enemies among the civilian population it was meant to protect.
Perhaps most disturbing is the failure of senior military leadership that has been demonstrated in the last 15 years. The generals who have advised both President George W. Bush and President Barack H. Obama have demonstrated either shocking hubris, gross incompetence, or both. What made them believe that the U.S. military could build a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan? While attempting to accomplish this task, why embark upon a war to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq? Once Saddam was in custody, what made these leaders think that Iraq could also be remade in the West’s image? In 2008, when it was clear that Afghanistan was not proceeding according to expectations, why “double down” by sending more troops to Afghanistan? In each case, U.S. military leadership has been either compliant or utterly wrong, yet no one has been held accountable. U.S. forces are trained, organized, and equipped primarily to destroy other forces that look and act very much as U.S. forces do. They are, ideally, suited for a war of attrition. Unfortunately, these skills were not much in demand after the initial actions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In the case of Iraq, at least, the decision to smash a functioning state (no matter how disagreeable Saddam Hussein may have been) led to infinitely greater problems. U.S. troops destroyed a state and, unable to replace it with a functioning state (a task beyond the capability of any army), gave Iraq chaos instead. U.S. troops unleashed fourth generation warfare forces in Iraq.
War has changed and to deny this when confronted with inconvenient facts is to court disaster. To compound this difficulty, while the state is losing its monopoly on war, the U.S. military remains focused on state versus state conflicts. As military theorist William S. Lind has warned, state-on-state conflicts are likely to lead to the destruction of the losing state and possibly to the fatal weakening of the winning side. The result is likely to be anarchy that can act as a petri dish and sanctuary for fourth generation warfare actors. Future decisions for war or peace should be guided less by the political system a given state possesses and more by the potential for chaos should the state fall. The future may well see an alliance of all states versus fourth generation warfare actors in what will come down to a choice between order and disorder. One may ask how a fourth generation warfare actor can be a greater threat than a powerful nation state. Most nation states are responsible actors or their actions are rational (even if only by their own lights). Even if a state has nuclear weapons, it cannot use them without potentially causing retribution from other nuclear-capable states. The state’s land and people can be made accountable for the actions of the government. Essentially, a nation-state’s options are effectively bounded by a requirement to prevent unacceptable damage to the state’s people and infrastructure. Fourth generation warfare actors have few restraints on their activities. A fourth generation warfare group’s leadership is very difficult to target (they have no capital or government buildings), and their supporters may be spread across a great area or even a great many states that may or may not support the goals of the fourth generation warfare group. In many ways, fourth generation warfare is a retrogression to the ways in which wars were fought before the rise of the state and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Just as the state’s dominance has never been absolute, so too is the state unlikely to disappear entirely as its power wanes; the state will likely become one actor among many in an increasingly chaotic world.
Just as the Prussians were forced to come to grips with their failures and enact reforms in order to defeat Napoleon, the Marine Corps must come to grips with fourth generation warfare to have any opportunity to succeed in the future. There are four steps the Marine Corps can take that will begin the process of adjusting to the changed character of war.
First, the Marine Corps should adopt the four generations of modern war as an intellectual framework. Marines must understand fourth generation warfare before they can hope to effectively combat it. The fourth generation warfare framework must be taught in Marine Corps schools so that every Marine leader down to the lowest level can understand it. Fortunately, a reading list already exists. The Marine Corps should make the “Canon” [see June 2013 Marine Corps Gazette] required reading for all officers and SNCOs. This list of books, when read in order, takes the reader from first generation warfare into the fourth generation.
With the intellectual framework in place, the second step is to reform the current personnel system. The Marine Corps must do a better job of identifying, developing, and retaining talented Marines. The current system of “up or out” does not work. Marines are forced to seek billets that will help them get their “ticket punched” to get promoted, rather than doing things that they are good at or where they can best serve the Marine Corps. The current system has unintentionally created a highly bureaucratic organization in which a great deal of time and effort is expended on institutional politics rather than on improving warfighting proficiency.
Third, the Marine Corps should build a Marine Corps Training Center where units can conduct free-play force-on-force exercises. The Marine Corps must develop not just individual leaders, but entire units that are prepared for the challenge of fourth generation war. Training in techniques alone is insufficient. In order for Marines to learn tactics and to develop proficiency as battlefield decision makers, they must be placed in situations approximating combat conditions. We must attempt to replicate war as closely as possible in training. The key characteristic of combat is an opposing will. As MCDP 1 stresses, force-on-force exercises are the best means of preparing for war.1 The force-on-force exercises can start simple and progress in complexity to challenge units.
The fourth step is for the Marine Corps to build true light infantry units. The Marine Corps is not true light infantry; it is lightly-equipped line infantry. There is a significant difference between true light infantry and line infantry. True light infantry is self-reliant and is capable of a variety of techniques. Line infantry relies heavily on supporting arms and is not proficient in an array of techniques. Historically, light and line infantry have acted in complementary roles on the battlefield and, presumably, can still do so. The Marine Corps should create one company of true light infantry in every battalion and one battalion per regiment. This will allow the Marine Corps to become more flexible and capable against current and future fourth generation warfare threats.
The sacrifice of blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan does not have to be in vain. The Marine Corps can learn the lessons these conflicts have to teach, but this requires humility and a willingness to examine past mistakes in an open and honest fashion. Prussia reformed her army, played a key role in vanquishing Napoleon, and went on to greater triumphs during the wars of German unification. There is one significant difference between Jena-Auerstädt and Iraq-Afghanistan: failure in Iraq and Afghanistan has not put the existence of the United States in question. The U.S. military in general, and the Marine Corps in particular, must come to grips with fourth generation warfare before this occurs.
1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 1997), 61. French dragoon with a captured Prussian flag, Jena, 1806. (Painting by Edouard Detaille, 1848-1912, “Le Trophee.”) Was establishing a fully Western-style democracy achievable in Afghanistan? (Photo by Sgt Pete Thibodeau.)