Military Reform and Military History

by Maj M.T. Davis, USA

In the wake of the Vietnam War, the United States Army launched an intensive campaign to reevaluate its doctrine and operational concepts. This effort, initiated by Gen William DePuy, was designed to move the Army beyond the Vietnam experience and refocus attention on what has traditionally been the Army’s major mission, fighting a conventional war in Europe.

In 1976, as part of this endeavor, the Army issued a new version of its FM 100-5, Operations, which described an operational doctrine that quickly became known as “Active Defense.” In military journals published by various service schools, as well as those of the private press, this new doctrine was soon taken to task. Critics described it as too bent on defense, too risky in its reliance on lateral repositioning and small reserves, and too quick to surrender that indeterminable yet invaluable condition known as the initiative.

By 1982, when the Army published a new version of FM 100-5, promulgating a doctrine called “AirLand Battle,” it was clear that many earlier critics, especially maneuver warfare advocates who promoted the concept of maneuver and initiative over that of firepower/attrition, had been quite influential. Although the Army did not accept the contention that maneuver and firepower/attrition were dichotomous, it did place considerably more emphasis on offensive operations, initiative, agility, synchronization, and the ability to see and attack deep in the enemy rear.

Nonetheless, the debate continues. The maneuverists, who have expanded their agenda and are now the selfproclaimed “Military Reform Movement,” are not completely mollified. Having a doctrine, they declare, is fine; but before this can be truly meaningful, the officer corps must also internalize doctrine into a “shared way of thinking.” The key to reaching this new level of consciousness is through an education system that relies much more extensively on the study of military history and the “operational art.” So emphatic are the Reformers on the value of military history, that they argue historical research is the only valid basis upon which quantitative analysis on such things as weapons system performance should be based.

This is an intriguing theory, and it goes to the heart of a continuing debate about the necessary content of military education. But like so many other observations offering pat answers to complex problems, it ignores numerous uncomfortable facts.

Two major considerations are relative to this issue. First, although many Reformers refuse to acknowledge it, a considerable amount of military history is currently being taught throughout the professional officer education system. This fact undermines their basic contention that the contemporary military, its doctrine, and its procedures, are hopelessly ahistorical and, therefore, incapable of internalizing and capturing the promise of maneuver warfare.

Second, regardless of the Reformers contentions about the amount of military history taught, they have not demonstrated that it would make any difference if there were not a single hour of military history taught in any Service school anywhere. Why? Because the study of military history is far from conclusive on the virtues of maneuver warfare-or any form of warfare for that matter-and, in America’s most memorable and studied war, the Civil War, it can be shown that detailed knowledge of military history mattered relatively little. Let’s look at this in more detail.

When advancing their claims, Reform enthusiasts like to list those figures in military history who have been successful adherents of maneuver doctrine. This list invariably includes Hannibal, Douglas MacArthur, Stonewall Jackson, Winfield Scott, George Patton, Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel. That many of these figures ultimately lost, and others did not always rely exclusively on maneuver, matters little.

Prominently absent from these listings is the most accomplished “maneuverist” the United States has ever produced, Ulysses S. Grant. For many, this may seem a surprising statement, for Grant is widely regarded as the very symbol of “firepower/attrition” warfare.

But this belies far too narrow an understanding of Grant in particular and warfare in general. As stated in the latest edition of FM 100-5, Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign in 1863 is the finest example of maneuver warfare ever conducted on the American continent. But the following year, as commanding general of all Union Armies, Grant placed himself in Virginia and slugged it out with Robert E. Lee from the Wilderness to Petersburg in evident disregard of the approach that had served him so well along the Mississippi, winning him the reputation as an unimaginative commander and insensitive to casualties. Nonetheless, as Lynn Montross has correctly noted, “Few soldiers in history have been the victims of an injustice as has permanently clouded Grant’s military reputation.”

We can safely assume that the Reformers have heard of Grant, so why do they so consistently ignore him in their analysis? They do so for two quite transparent reasons. First, were they to admit that the Grant of Mississippi and the Grant of Virginia were the same person, that the conditions which led him to maneuver against Pemberton in Vicksburg were absent against Lee in Virginia, then the entire basis of their argument that maneuver warfare is a strictly distinct form of conflict, universally applicable, which all successful commanders must employ, completely unravels.

Second, the inclusion of Grant in any discussion pertaining to campaign leadership raises serious questions about the value of an education heavily based on the study of military history. Although some seem to forget, it is important to note that going into the Civil War two of the Union’s best versed experts on military history were Gens Henry W. Halleek and George B. McClellan. Both had authored studies based on Jomini’s interpretation of Napoleonic warfare, yet both failed as field commanders, eclipsed by Grant who was, by comparison, an illiterate in military studies and theory. As a student at West Point, Grant had no scholarly interests other than horsemanship and mathematics-in that order!

Other examples exist, but Ulysses S. Grant is the most pronounced and obvious. Given the experience of the Union in searching for military leadership during the Civil War, it is difficult to offer a convincing argument that an intensive education founded on military history is the key to either tactical, operational, or strategic success.

If maneuver warfare is not the solution the Reformers had advertised, if its acceptance has not led to the immediate and strikingly favorable results anticipated, the reasons lie not with real or imagined omissions in officer education.

Maneuver warfare has simply been overanalyzed and then oversold. It is, as Grant demonstrated over 100 years ago, a form of warfare that yields favorable results when practiced under favorable conditions. But the conditions of war, as all military analysts agree, are dynamic and frequently unfavorable.

Adding more military history to the curriculum of our military schools is not the key that will unlock the promise of maneuver warfare. It is rather the excuse of those unwilling to reconcile their theory with plainly incongruous facts.