The View From Olympus 3: Some 4GW Resources

French tanks move to the front towards Sedan
French tanks move to the front towards Sedan


For those wishing to learn more about the intellectual framework I call the Four Generations of Modern War, some useful resources are available. The first is “the canon,” a series of seven books which, if read in the given order, will take the reader from the First Generation into the Fourth (my colleague Major Greg Thiele, USMC, has an article on the canon in the June 2013 Marine Corps Gazette). The books are:

1) The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militaerische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 by Charles E. White, (Praeger, Westpower, CT, 1989) Scharnhorst was the key figure in the Prussian military reform movement that rebuilt the Prussian Army after the disastrous defeat of 1806. Without Scharnhorst’s reforms, the German Army would probably not have been able to develop Third Generation war in World War I, more than 100 years later. This is a history not only of adaptation and innovation in the First Generation, but of the importance of ideas in war as well. When I taught a course on the canon for Marine captains at Quantico, one of them said to me, “This book explains why we are reading all the other books.”

2) The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-1939 by Robert A Doughty (Archon Books, Hamden, CT, 1986) This somewhat dry book is essential to understanding the US military today, because what we think of as “the American way of war” was copied wholesale from the French during and after World War I. Every American officer to whom I lent my copy said on returning it, “This is us.” The reader can skip much of the material on French Army organization; it is the Second Generation doctrine that remains alive today.

3) Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918 by Bruce Gudmundsson (Praeger, Westport, CT, 1989) This is the definitive book in English on the development of Third Generation war by the German Army in World War I. By 1918, Blitzkrieg was conceptually complete, lacking only the means to overcome the defenders’ mobility advantage at the operational level, which is what the Panzer divisions provided in World War II. When I asked General Hermann Balck whether Blitzkrieg was developed mostly 1914-1918 or 1918-1939, he replied, “It was all 1914-1918.” Bruce Gudmundsson co-hosted the Modern War television show with me for several years, and all his work is superb (you can probably still find his excellent “Tactical Notebook” series somewhere on the internet).

4) Command or Control? Command, Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918, by Martin Samuels (Frank Cass Publishers, London, 1995) This comparison of the Second Generation (sometimes still First) British Army with the Kaiserheer illustrates the differences between the Second and Third Generations.

5) The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940, by Robert Doughty (Archon Books, Hamden, CT, 1982) In the 1940 campaign, the Second and Third Generations clashed head-on, and the Second went down to defeat in six weeks (though the French had more and better tanks than the Germans). The crossing of the Meuse at Sedan by Guderian’s XIXth Panzer Corps and its subsequent turn toward the Channel was the decisive point, and this gripping book is the best on the subject. Several years ago I joined the US Army’s Quarterhorse Cav for a staff ride of XIXth Panzer Corps’ campaign through the Ardennes, and only when you see the terrain do you realize how great a risk the Germans took. You also note how, at one critical juncture after another, German junior leaders took the initiative while the French waited for orders.

6) Fighting Power: German and US Army Performance, 1939-1945, by Martin van Creveld (The Free Press, NY, 1991) Martin and I are friends, and as I have told him more than once, this is his second-most important book. It compares the Second Generation US Army and the Third Generation Wehrmacht as institutions, showing the vast differences in institutional culture between the two generations. The Second Generation is inward-focused on procedures, processes, orders and techniques; it is highly centralized; it wants obedience, not initiative (initiative and synchronization are incompatible) and it depends on imposed discipline. The Third Generation is focused outward, on the situation, the enemy and the result the situation requires; it is decentralized in its decision making; it prefers initiative to obedience and it depends on self-discipline. The US military’s greatest shame is that it today remains a Second Generation force, despite the ready availability of books like Fighting Power that clearly show the superiority of the Third Generation. Why is it so out of date? Mostly out of sheer intellectual laziness.

7) The Transformation of War by Marin van Creveld (The Free Press, NY, 1991) Though now more than twenty years old, this remains the best book on Fourth Generation war. As van Creveld says, what changes in the Fourth Generation is not how war is fought, but who fights and what they fight for. It works best to read this book after reading van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State, which gives the history on which Transformation is based. Transformation is not only van Creveld’s most important book, it is also the most important book any serving officer can read. Any country whose officers have not read it is doomed to defeat, which may help explain why we are 0-4 against 4GW opponents.

For those interested in navies, I would add an eight book: The Rules of the Game by Andrew Gordon. The Royal Navy developed and institutionalized Third Generation war in the second half of the 18th century. The Rules of the Game is the story of how and why it lost it again in the 19th century.

Beyond these books, another important resource is the Fourth Generation War Field Manuals of the K.u.K. Austro-Hungarian Marine Corps, which are available here. These FMs were written by a series of seminars on 4GW which I led before my retirement, mostly made up of US Marine Corps officers.

Why were they issued by the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Marine Corps? Because we could not write official manuals for the US Marine Corps, and also because, as anyone on the traditional right should understand, it is important to keep the old empires alive, even if only as shadows.