Why the German Example?

by William S. Lind

Throughout history, militaries have learned from each other. Borrowing from both friends and enemies, in peacetime and in war, they have short-circuited the normally lengthy process of developing new ideas by using somebody else’s. Sometimes, the borrowing has been wholesale: the Imperial Japanese Navy copied the Royal Navy to the point of serving a daily Western dinner. More often, it has been selective, as in the Soviet combination of Wehrmacht operational concepts with the traditional Russian penchant for mass.

In today’s Marine Corps, advocates of maneuver warfare are borrowing heavily from the Germans. They frequently draw illustrations of maneuver tactics from German military history. They use German terms such as Schwerpunkt and Auftragstaktik. They look to some pre-1945 German military institutions, including German military colleges and the German General Staff, for characteristics which might be applicable to the Marine Corps.

This emphasis on things German has been resented by some Marines. Some of the resentment is understandable. Some Marine officers reject all German ideas because of Germany’s defeat in both world wars. They do not have adequate historical background to separate German tactical and operational performance, which was generally very good, from German strategy and grand strategy, which was so poor it made defeat inevitable. Others fear that acknowledging some areas of German superiority may reflect negatively on our own achievements, even though these achievements are matters of historical record. And some confuse German military practices with the policies of the National Socialist government, even though the former, almost without exception, were developed before or apart from the latter.

Unfortunately, some Marines’ negative attitudes toward German (or other foreign) ideas spring from less excusable origins. A gut-level rejection of anything new and different is sometimes apparent. So is narrow parochialism-the idea that the “Marine way” (or what is perceived as the Marine way) is automatically the best. And so sometimes is outright prejudice and anti-intellectualism, typified by one young officer’s comment in an exercise critique, “Schwerpunkt, bilgepump, it’s all the same to me.” In his case, sadly, it probably is.

If the German example causes so much heartburn among Marines, why do the proponents of maneuver warfare keep pushing it?

The answer is simple: in the West in this century, Germany was the only country to institutionalize maneuver warfare. That is, only the Germans endeavored to make every element of their military-their education system, officer selection, officer promotion, the way their army made its choices and decisions, etc.-supportive of maneuver warfare.

Individual commanders from other armies also practiced maneuver warfare: Patton and MacArthur are among the better known American examples. But they did so as individuals, and the effort depended entirely on them. Often, they did it in spite of their military institutions (the JCS strongly opposed the landing at Inchon). Whether or not a unit could do maneuver warfare therefore depended on chance, the chance selection of a commander.

One non-German Service may have applied elements of maneuver warfare on a Service-wide basis during World War II. That Service was the United States Marine Corps. In their comparison of Army and Marine Corps tactics in the Marshall Islands, Isely and Crowl, in their classic The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War, describe the Marines’ tactics in terms which show elements of maneuver warfare:

. . . it took six reinforced army battalions four days to advance 4,600 yards, from one tip of Kwajalein Islet to the other. The explanation lies in army indoctrination when contrasted with that of the Marines. On Kwajalein there was a marked tendency to knock out most entrenched Japanese as the army troops went forward, rather than to by-pass certain strong points in order to maintain that constant pressure essential in keeping the enemy confused and disorganized. . . .

Holland Smith accurately described the type of speedy fighting done by marines in the Marshalls. “The technique of infantry-tank teams pushing rapidly forward,” he said “closely followed by demolition and flame thrower teams is concurred in by this Headquarters as sound.” He wished, however, to stress “that it must be a continuous [emphasis added] movement in which light enemy resistance is neutralized and by-passed by the forward elements of the infantry-tank teams, then the supporting elements of the infantry equipped with demolitions and flame throwers reduce these isolated enemy positions before they can recover and fire on the rear of our troops moving forward.” Selective by-passing, combined with a quick sustained thrust to keep the enemy disorganized and tactically off balance, would in the end lower American casualties.

Maneuver warfare is also reflected in several points in Gen Vandegrift’s Battle Doctrine for Front Line Leaders (1944):


The Senior Commander of a force plans the battle in its broader sense and is responsible for ultimate success or failure. However, once a subordinate unit has been committed to action, he must, for the time being, limit his activities to providing the necessary support and insuring the coordination of all components. . . .

The conduct of the front line rests with company commanders, and their platoon and squad leaders. The front line leader must plan and execute his own battle. . . .

29. Offensive tactics, briefly summarized, may be stated as follows: Hold the attention of your enemy with a minimum force, then quickly strike him suddenly and hard on his flank or rear with every weapon you have. . . .

30. Remember that supporting arms seldom destroy-they paralyze temporarily. Take quick advantage of their support before the enemy “comes to.” Act suddenly.

38. Positions are seldom lost because they have been destroyed, but almost invariably because the leader has decided in his own mind that the position cannot be held.

The degree to which these and other maneuver warfare concepts were typical of Marine Corps thinking during World War II is still unclear. But maxims and bypassing do not add up to a full understanding of maneuver warfare, much less its institutionalization. The German army remains the single, well-documented case of institutionalization of maneuver warfare. So what? Why should that interest us?

It is of interest-great interest-because the goal of the maneuver warfare advocates is a Marine Corps which consistently practices maneuver warfare. Just as individual practitioners have arisen in the past, so they are likely to arise in the future. But that is not good enough. We cannot count on chance to give us the lone maneuver warfare commander when we need him, where we need him. We need a high probability that any commander will be able to fight in the maneuver style.

We can only hope to achieve this if we do as the Germans did and institutionalize maneuver warfare, that is, design every aspect of our military system so it reinforces our ability to undertake this style of war. For everything we do-not just tactics-is either helpful or harmful in terms of developing the capability to conduct maneuver warfare.

Understanding maneuver warfare is one thing; doing it is something else. Doing it requires more that knowledge. It requires, above all, certain characteristics in our officers: imagination, boldness, inventiveness, ability to see the options inherent in a battlefield situation, willingness to take high risks, and eagerness to accept responsibility. It also requires certain characteristics in our units, above all, agility: the ability to respond to rapid changes without internal disorder.

How do we develop these characteristics and make them general throughout the Marine Corps? We cannot rely only on war games, field exercises, and the schools at Quantico, especially when these are given a relatively small portion of an officer’s or unit’s time. If the activities which take up most of our time do not give room for and reward these characteristics, then they work against our goal.

Again, everything we do, every aspect of the behavior of the institution which is the Marine Corps, is either helpful or harmful to our effort to develop an ability to do maneuver warfare. For example:

* Is our decision-making centralized or decentralized? Centralized decision-making teaches our officers (and NCOs) to avoid taking responsibility, to pass decisions on to those above them, to eschew imagination and inventiveness (which may offend those upstairs), and to ignore options, since the choices will be made by others. Only decentralization gives room for the characteristics we seek. Which path do we follow today, not just when in the field, but in personnel matters, in financial management, in maintenance, in disciplinary issues? How much latitude do company and battery commanders have in planning or conducting training? How much latitude do commanders have in developing a scheme of maneuver or a fire support plan?

* Does the promotion system reward or punish those individuals who demonstrate the characteristics we need for maneuver warfare? How many officers are promoted because they avoid controversy, tough decisions, or difficult billets?

* How does the personnel system define “quality”? What kind of people does it seek? Does it measure quality in ways relevant to talent for combat?

* How does the Marine Corps critique itself? Can it criticize itself honestly? Can it innovate from within? How often do we reward the “school solution” instead of innovation? How many units rehearse the exact MCCRES scenario before they take it?

Once we realize maneuver warfare has implications for our whole military institution, then the importance of the German example becomes clear. Because Germany institutionalized maneuver warfare, her practices can give us some useful suggestions for bringing our own institutional behavior into line with maneuver doctrine.

If we return to our previous examples:

Centralization/Decentralization. Martin van Creveld states in his recent study Fighting Power.

Owing partly to the lingering influence of feudal traditions, but partly also to deliberate choice, the German Army did not employ mechanical methods to administer a force whose size, at its peak, reached 6,550,000 men. This, to modern eyes astonishing, feat was made possible by an extremely decentralized organization; such matters as the distribution of recruits among the various MOSs, the regulation of leave, the administration of disciplinary measures and the exchange of personnel between units-in short, everything concerning the vital questions of the individual soldier and his personality-were left in the hands of unit (mostly regimental) commanders.

. . . the General Staff was reluctant to increase the burden of paperwork resting on the troops and to turn them into collecting agencies for data that would benefit the Army as a whole, but not them directly. . . . Thus, the Organization Department did not demand daily reports on actual strength, casualties and need for replacements; instead, it used establishment strength and losses, reported every ten days, in order to make its own calculations. . . .

Contrary to what movie-goers might be led to expect from a Prussian-German Army, therefore, the system consciously attempted to minimize the amount of paperwork and was quite prepared to take the resulting inaccuracies in stride.

Officer Promotion. In 1920, the Evaluation Forms (Fitness Reports) “were redrafted to put an even heavier emphasis on ‘character,’ i.e., honesty, selflessness, readiness to commit oneself, and a sense of responsibility. Careerism was frowned on.” Throughout the 1930s and World War II, the relative emphasis on character steadily grew, and the importance of seniority became less. The evaluation process was focused on the “whole man,” and forced comparisons and point systems were rejected. The Army Personnel Office’s officers endeavored, through frequent participation in maneuvers and exercises, to know all the general and general staff officers personally, to improve their judgment in matters of promotions and assignments.

Enlisted Personnel System. Van Creveld states:

the (German) system as a whole was . . . simple, decentralized and, above all, personal; it consistently relied on the judgment of physicians and officers rather than on the results of “objective” tests. In the final stage, as so often in the German Army, the decision lay not with some remote personnel officer but in the hands of the commanders who would subsequently have to train a recruit and, quite possibly, lead him in combat.

The Wehrmacht was interested in psychological testing, but:

Here, as elsewhere the German Army concentrated on quality rather than quantity, subjecting specialists (including pilots, drivers of special vehicles, operators of optical and acoustical apparatus, and radio operators) to the most rigorous of tests while leaving everything else in the hands of field commanders.

Since it was believed that the first requirements in war were certain moral attitudes (courage, obedience, loyalty, independence among others) the tests . . . were designed not so much to establish the presence of certain mechanical talents as to bring out a man’s personality. . . . The final result depended not so much on mechanical performance as on the examinee’s overall attitude and his ability to cope.

Ability at Honest Self-Criticism, Internal Generation of Change. A key example of German behavior in this regard is discussed in a recent article in Armed Forces and Society (Winter, 1981), The German Response to Victory in Poland, by Williamson Murray. Murray begins:

Throughout history, military organizations have attempted to learn from experience. For the most part, however, they have tended to extract from their experiences as well as the experiences of others only what supported their preconceived notions. In fact, existing doctrine has in most cases become a barrier to adaptation and improvement.

He notes that the German response to the victory in Poland was quite different:

In fact, the after-action reports (Erfahrungsberichte) of the German army for the whole period of 1938-1940 reflected a very different tone than the author’s experience in the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s. In the latter case, reports on combat capabilities and performance consistently became more and more optimistic, the higher the headquarters. The opposite was the case with German after-action reports: The higher the headquarters, the more demanding and dissatisfied were commanders with operational performance. Moreover, the entire German system during this period seems to have involved a greater degree of trust and honesty between the levels of command. German officers in command positions were not afraid to express their belief that their units were deficient when circumstances justified such comments. . . . This willingness to be self-critical was one of the major factors that enabled the German Army to perform at such a high level throughout World War II.

It is clear that immediately after the conclusion of the Polish campaign, the Germans amassed a considerable amount of critical, detailed after-action reports from the highest level of command down to regimental level. There appears to have been little fear on the part of German commanders that critical comments and evaluations of their units’ performances would be unwelcomed by superiors. . . . These reports and after-action critiques would form the basis of the entire German training program over the winter of 1939-1940.

The contrast between the behavior of the German Army in these and other cases and current practice in the Marine Corps is evident. Equally evident is the relationship between these aspects of institutional behavior and the ability to do maneuver warfare, i.e., the ability to be agile, innovative, and imaginative on the battlefield.

Could the Marine Corps develop institutional practices consistent with maneuver doctrine on its own, without reference to German examples? Probably. But it would take a great deal of time. German examples offer us shortcuts. Marines who close their minds to them condemn themselves, at best, to a lengthy process of reinventing the wheel.

While Marines should be careful not to reject German practices simply because they are foreign advocates of maneuver warfare must also take care to avoid some frequent errors:

*We must, not assume German practices were always the best. We may Well be able to improve on the Germans‘ ways of doing things, once we understand what they were.

*We must acknowledge that the practice of maneuver warfare on the battlefield was not uniquely German-only the institutionalization of maneuver warfare was.

*We must distinguish between the institutional behavior of the Wehrmacht and that of today’s Bundeswehr. The latter is subject to many of the same bureaucratic tendencies we find in our own Services.

*We must point out the failures in the German system. While the Germans were consistently superior to their opponents at the tactical and operational, levels, German strategy and grand strategy in both World Wars were poor. They were sufficiently poor that Germany lost both wars.

With these caveats kept in mind, German examples can be of great use to us. They can save us that most precious quantity, time. We have a long way to go to bring the institutional behavior of the Marine Corps fully into line with maneuver warfare, and we cannot know how much time we have to cover the distance. Anything that can save us time may also save us lives and, indeed, spare us some defeats.

And what of those Marine officers whose prejudice or parochialism will not let them learn from the Germans? We might point out how much we have borrowed from another one-time enemy: Great Britain. All Marines acknowledge the close relationship between the U.S. Marine Corps and the Royal Marines, a relationship from which both benefit. Or, if we wanted to be unkind, we might suggest they start wearing their hair long. After all, the short haircut which has come to symbolize the Marine is really very Prussian.