On War #73

The Canon, continued

By William S. Lind

This column, the third in a series, concludes a discussion of the canon, the seven books which, read in the order given, will take the reader from the First Generation of modern war through the Fourth.  As one Marine Corps captain, an instructor at The Basic School, said, “Unless the guy’s a rock, he can’t read these books in the right order and not get it.”

The fifth book in the canon is again by Robert Doughty, the head of the History Department at West Point and the best American historian of the modern French army:  The Breaking Point.  This is the story of the battle of Sedan in 1940, where Guderian’s Panzers crossed the Meuse and then turned and headed for the English Channel in a brilliant example of operational art.  Here, the reader sees the Second and Third Generations clash head-on.  Why does the Third Generation prevail?  Because over and over, at decisive moments the Third Generation Wehrmacht takes initiative (often lead by NCOs in doing so) while the French wait for orders.  What the French did was often right, but it was always too late.

The sixth book in the canon is Martin van Creveld’s Fighting Power, the second-best book by this brilliant Israeli military historian.  While The Breaking Point contrasts the Second and Third Generations in combat, Fighting Power compares them as institutions.  It does so by contrasting the U.S. Army in World War II with the German Wehrmacht.  What emerges is a picture of two radically different institutions, each consistent with its doctrine.  This book is important because it illustrates why you cannot do what the U.S. military is now attempting, namely combine Third Generation, maneuver warfare doctrine with a Second Generation, inward-focused, process-ridden, centralized institution.  If you are a Marine, the next time the MAGTF Staff Training Program (MSTP) visits your unit, you might want to throw a copy of Fighting Power at them – hard.

The seventh and final book in the canon is van Creveld’s finest work to date, The Transformation of War.  Easily the most important book on war written in the last quarter-century, Transformation lays out the basis of Fourth Generation war, the state’s loss of its monopoly on war and on social organization.  In the 21st century, as in all centuries up to the rise of the state, many different entities will fight war, for many different reasons, not just raison d’etat.  Clausewitz’s “trinity” of people, government and army vanishes, as the elements disappear or become indistinguishable from one another.  Van Creveld’s term for what I call Fourth Generation war is non-trinitarian warfare.  He subsequently wrote another book, The Rise and Decline of the State, which lays out the historical basis of the theory in Transformation.

These seven books constitute the canon.  But there is one I am tempted to add, for naval audiences;  Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game.  The canon is based on land warfare, but the same elements we see in the First, Second and Third Generations also exist in naval warfare, although their development follows different patterns.  In the second half of the 18th century, the Royal Navy developed and institutionalized Third Generation war – then loses it again in the 19th century.  The Rules of the Game explains how and why they lost it.  At the heart of the matter lies signaling, and the illusion that advances in signaling permit effective centralization – a point of some relevance today as our military services drown in a tsunami of computers and video screens.  It is a point Gordon does not miss.

As I said at the outset, what the canon (plus Gordon) offer is an intellectual framework, a construct the reader can use to make sense of events and discern larger patterns in them.  There can, of course, be other frameworks, although I would urge caution toward those based on simple technological determinism (on that, see van Creveld’s Technology and War).  But without a framework of some sort, both history and current developments in war tend to appear chaotic.  Soldiers as well as scholars need a framework if they are to make sense out of the world around them.  The canon offers the best framework I know.

William S. Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation

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