Learning from the Germans Part II: The Future

by Marinus

In the last three decades of the 20th century, the study of German military history, and in particular, the reading of the memoirs of German general officers of World War II, allowed Marines of that era to imagine what maneuver warfare might look like. In the 21st century, a substantial change in the supply of relevant resources raises the question of whether Marines intent upon improving their understanding of maneuver warfare should look for other examples to emulate, experiences to evaluate, and traditions to contemplate.

In 1979, the Old Army Press, a small publisher specializing in the history of the American West, printed 2,000 cloth-bound copies of a book called Tiger Jack. Written by Hanson W. Baldwin, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his work as a war correspondent in the Pacific during World War II, this book told the tale of MG John S. Wood, a U.S. Army officer who, in the course of the last year of World War II, led the 4th Armored Division in a distinctly maneuverist manner. (British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart once referred to Wood as “the Rommel of the American armored forces.”)

Arriving, as it did, during the genesis of the maneuver warfare movement, Tiger Jack should have been of considerable interest to Marines. Notwithstanding the long and happy relationship between Mr. Baldwin and the professional journal of the Marine Corps, no mention of the book appeared in the pages of the Marine Corps Gazette and few, if any, copies found their way onto the shelves of the libraries of Marine Corps bases.1 A few Marines may have run across the reviews of Tiger Jack published in Armor magazine and Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College. Of these, those who were especially adept at chasing down books might have ordered a copy, whether from a full-service bookseller or directly from the publisher. However, only those who were able to spend several days in the reading room of the National Archives, the archives of Syracuse University, or the library of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College would have been able to delve more deeply into the way John Shirley Wood commanded the 4th Armored Division.

Today, dozens of copies of Tiger Jack can be found for sale on the websites of dealers in second-hand books. Better yet, Marines who wish to learn more about MG Wood and the way he handled his division can find dozens of additional works on the website of the Combined Arms Research Library at Fort Leavenworth. These include monographs that reconstruct particular engagements; after-action reports submitted by the commanders of subordinate, adjacent, and supporting units; and accounts that describe the operational context of the decisions made by MG Wood. A broader internet search will turn up additional resources on the operations of the 4th Armored Division during the last year of World War II. These include four complete histories, three partial histories, three documentary films, two histories of subordinate units, and a table-top wargame—as well as a module for a computer-based wargame.

After feasting on these resources, Marines still hungry for case studies in the effective application of maneuver warfare can easily find much material about Japanese, Israeli, French, Finnish, British, and American battles, campaigns, and leaders. Thus, for example, a Marine interested in the “bicycle blitzkrieg” conducted by the Japanese forces led by LtGen Tomoyuki Yamashita in Malaya in 1942, will, in the course of a short internet search, find enough in the way of papers, podcasts, low-cost wargames, and readily available books to permit an in-depth, multi-sided exploration of that campaign. (Readers contemplating such a project may want to start with the seventeen-episode series of audio programs about the Malayan Campaign produced by the Principles of War podcast.)

The existence of this cornucopia of concepts to contemplate, examples to explore, and paragons to imitate raises the question of whether maneuver-minded Marines of the Information Age need bother at all with the study of German military history. At the very least, those seeking to encourage Marines to devote their precious professional development time to the exploration of the German military tradition will not only have to produce persuasive arguments in favor of this choice but will have to deal with a pair of powerful objections.

The simplest argument in favor of the continued study of the German tradition of maneuver warfare stems from on the same wealth of sources and resources that enables the study of alternative models. In the years between 1979 and 2019, more than two thousand English-language books about various aspects of the German military experience were published. The same period saw the printing of hundreds of board wargames and the creation of dozens of computer games that attempted to replicate, in various ways, the tactical and operational characteristics of German forces. The existence of this body of work makes possible the detailed reconstruction of a wide variety of campaigns, battles, and engagements. At the same time, it facilitates the placement of such events in the broader context of strategy, politics, and culture.

The availability of so much material about the German military tradition greatly reduces dependence upon the memoirs of general officers that loomed so large in the early days of the maneuver warfare movement within the Marine Corps. Most of these suffered from the sort of defects so often seen in the genre of autobiography. That is, they were self-serving accounts that minimized mistakes made by the authors, omitted information that would have been embarrassing, and placed the blame for fiascos on third parties. The worst offender in this regard was Panzer Leader, in which Heinz Guderian took far too much credit for the creation of German armored forces in the 1930s and, in doing so, painted the man most responsible for that development, Ludwig Beck, as a hidebound reactionary. Thanks, however, to the work of English-speaking historians, present-day Marines are in a position to not only recognize this gross mischaracterization but learn about the troubled relationship between the two officers. (General Beck, who had resigned in protest from the German Army in 1938, had been one of the leaders of the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In the aftermath of this event, which took place on 20 July 1944, Gen Guderian took aggressive measures to ensure the loyalty of German military officers to the National Socialist regime.)2

A more nuanced case for frequent recourse to the wellspring of German military history rests upon the continuous, consistent, and increasingly central role played by many of the fundamental precepts of maneuver warfare in German military culture. That is, while there were many instances where German military professionals violated one or more of these tenets, a deep appreciation for such things as the inherently chaotic nature of war and the importance of a rapid decision cycle permeated the way that German soldiers fought, thought, and taught for more than a hundred years. Thus, while the American, British, and French practitioners of maneuver warfare often waged war in ways that put them at odds with the cultures of the forces in which they served, German maneuverists could reasonably assume that they were cooperating with superiors, subordinates, and peers who shared their beliefs and biases. Because of this, Marines attempting to imagine a force in which the practice of maneuver warfare is the norm will find more positive examples of such organizational orthodoxy in the annals of German military history than in the tales of mavericks, eccentrics, and doctrinal apostates.3

A more powerful justification for the retention of the link between maneuver warfare in the Marine Corps and the German military tradition begins, paradoxically, with the two most common arguments offered by the opponents of that enterprise. The first reminds us of the large number of war crimes committed by members of the German armed forces during those conflicts. The second rests firmly upon the incontrovertible fact that Germany lost both world wars.

There is no doubt that, during both world wars, members of the German armed forces, acting in their official capacities, violated laws of war that were then in force in a large number of ways. These crimes included the invasion of neutral countries, the aerial bombardment of cities, the sinking of civilian ships, and the collective punishment of civilians. (Outrages of the last types usually took place in the course of attempts to enforce one of the central tenets of the law of war of that era, the rule that civilians may not, under any circumstances, participate in combat.) In the Second World War, moreover, German soldiers, sailors, and airmen served a regime that engaged in the persecution of political dissidents, the maltreatment of prisoners of war, and a gargantuan, frequently murderous, campaign of ethnic cleansing.

As horrible as they were, the war crimes committed by German servicemen in the course of the world wars were far from unique. The armed forces of the victors of the Second World War invaded neutral countries, bombarded cities from the air, sunk civilian ships, maltreated prisoners of war, and engaged in the collective punishment of civilian communities. In addition to these things, they conducted campaigns of mass rape, looting, and indiscriminate murder against civilians they were obliged to protect. In addition to this, they ensured the survival and, indeed, enabled the expansion of the communist regime of the Soviet Union, the crimes of which surpassed in quality, and greatly exceeded in quantity, those of National Socialist Germany.

The war crimes of the armed forces of the alliance that won the Second World War does not, in any way, excuse those of their German counterpart. They do, however, present serious students of the art of war with a conundrum. If German violations of the laws of war prevent us from studying German military history, then the war crimes committed by members of the Allied armed forces during the Second World War should prevent us from making use of the American, British, and Soviet experience of that conflict. Similarly, if connection to a reprehensible regime prevents a military tradition, institution, or personality from offering anything of value to present-day Marines, then we may study neither Soviet military theory nor the campaigns of the Red Army, let alone the memoirs of Georgi Zhukov.

What is true for the question of war crimes also applies to the issue of ultimate defeat. If we limit ourselves to the study of the winners of various wars, then we deprive ourselves of the lessons that we might learn from the study of the achievements of Hannibal, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Robert E. Lee—let alone the strategic contests that we ourselves have lost. What is worse, a one-sided study of history leads easily to the false assumption that everything done by the victors contributed to their eventual triumph and every act on the part of the losers drove another nail into their collective coffin. In other words, it replaces attempts to make sense of the complex interplay of multiple forces with the unthinking embrace of all things, whether help or hindrance, associated with the side that achieved strategic success.

Done well, the study of German military history necessarily produces a great deal of discomfort. Even if a Marine begins with a quest to learn about techniques, tactics, or campaigning, he cannot spend much time with the relevant sources without being reminded of fatal mistakes made in the realms of strategy, policy, and morality. Indeed, it is this “elephant in the room” that makes the study of the German military tradition so valuable to Marines of the 21st century. In the course of helping us learn the nuts-and-bolts of maneuver warfare, it draws our attention towards the higher arts of war.



  1. Hanson W. Baldwin (1903–1991) had already written sixteen books on subjects related to national defense and was well known to well-read Marines of the middle years of the last century. Between 1937 and 1980, authors of articles published in the Marine Corps Gazette mentioned him 79 separate times.
  2. For a sympathetic biography of Ludwig Beck, see Nicholas Reynolds, Treason Was No Crime (London, UK: Kimber, 1976). For an account of the development of the German armored forces in the interwar period that gives considerable credit to Gen Beck, see Bruce Gudmundsson, On Armor, (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005.)
  3. The publicists for the memoirs of German generals published in the English-speaking world in the 1950s, chief of whom was Basil Henry Liddell Hart, took pains to present the authors of such works as nonconformist visionaries at odds with their superiors. This view, however, had less to do with German military culture than with the predilections of those promoters and the prejudices of the readers they were trying to reach. For a short treatment of this phenomenon, see Bruce I. Gudmundsson, review of Guderian: Panzer General (Revised Edition, 2003) by Kenneth Macksey, War in History, Volume 12 Number 4, (October 2005), pages 474–476. For a more extensive exploration, see, among others, John Mearsheimer, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).