Small Wars Journal

A Message to the Leaders of the 21st Century Interwar Period

Sun, 10/28/2018 - 7:36am

A Message to the Leaders of the 21st Century Interwar Period


Jonathan C. Nielsen


It is time to refocus military innovation.


In the private sector, the most dominating and innovative companies are those with committed leaders who have an unquenchable thirst to tackle and the most dauting issues.  One may argue that the military profession functions similarly as the greatest military leaders have valued a balance of learning and innovating as an essential blend to make the right decision at the appropriate time in what is, by nature, an uncertain and hostile environment.  But even this comparison is inexact.  The essence is not that corporate and military leadership is different, but the underlying fact is that a military leader is legally empowered to give orders that may tragically result in the death of a subordinate.  It is an incomprehensible authority that is hard to fathom outside of the profession of arms.  For that reason, above all else, it demands the greatest care, scrutiny, and competency.  How then, can military leaders today and tomorrow effectively design and implement effective innovative solutions at the critical moment under challenging circumstances?


Studying history provides a path of clarity.  Contrasting the private sector that is focused on information and technology that is new and pioneering, the basis of a military professional’s education is a sound knowledge of military history.  The analytical study of the past improves cognition and challenges perceptions while providing examples that may assist in shaping a leader’s decisions and directing innovative energy for new ideas.


A combat leader without a depth of historical education is limited to their personal experience.  And this is exactly the critical point: an intelligent and broad-based study of the past allows the learning from thousands of relevant experiences while at the same time developing both essential and ancillary skills that directly assist the practice of military art.  This process is not - and should not - be easy.  Facilitating critical thinking and challenging personal preconceptions should make the leader uncomfortable.  Secretary of Defense James Mattis condenses these gains as an “understanding of history means that we face nothing new under the sun.”1


He might have overstated the case, though.  Although military history provides clarity, it does not – and should never be interpreted to provide – absolute certainty.  Past conflicts are never replicated on a future battlefield.  The extensive study of a previous war will never serve as a custom guide to address the vulnerabilities presented by a current or future adversary.  Instead, what military history provides is examples for leaders at every level and in any environment to think creatively and critically.  This focus refines a more holistic approach to innovating in the current environment while generating a clearer understanding of a difficult situation that certainly awaits.


How can the past inform and focus such innovation?  Almost 100 years ago, following the end of World War I, the Paris Peace Conference reestablished an admittedly imperfect stability to Europe.  The conference marked the beginning of the interwar period, the time between Word War I and World War II, in which the dominant aggressor of WWI, Germany, paid a heavy political, economic, and military price for the war.  The Treaty of Versailles outlined in fifteen parts the restrictions, penalties, and mandates placed upon Germany to prevent a future war from occurring.  The Treaty marked the believed beginning of long-term peace after “the dark shadows of the Marne, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme, the Isonzo, Passchendaele, and the climactic battle lay across Europe” left many nations and leaders unable to “image reliving the horror through which they had just so recently passed.” 2  As the victors of WWI tried to move on and put the more than four years of trench warfare behind them, the Germans embarked on a different road to recovery.


The interwar period in Germany was a time of intellectual debate and professional development that was, for the most part, absent from many of the Allied militaries. With a reduced military of 100,000 troops, 4,000 officers, and little money or equipment with which to train, the Germans created an environment that stressed professional candid leader feedback and innovation to ensure that the officer corps would not repeat the errors of the last conflict.3  The German army (Reichswehr) selected the best of the best officers, particularly those with German General Staff training, to establish 57 separate committees to study the war and by 1933 had produced multiple volumes of lessons learned and a military doctrine of combined arms.4  The Germans humbly reflected upon their mistakes and instilled new practices upon their leaders, demonstrating the characteristics of a learning organization.  The German Army’s learning approach during the post WWI era was very unique.  Under the leadership of General Hans von Seeckt, the Reichswehr implemented a disguised version of a general staff – the Truppenamt –built upon a tradition of excellence by selecting the very best of the best officers. This produced the finest staff system of the early 20th century prior to WWII.  By the mid-1930s, German officers innovated their army under the principles of mobile armored warfare before commanding their first panzer formation.


The German military’s intellectual investment in their human capital transformed leaders and organizations while redefining a collective approach to warfare.  As with any would-be learning organization, the Germans discovered that it is far more difficult to look at failure rather than success.  However, the ability of German leaders to adapt and innovate their entire doctrine, formations, and equipment to address operational problems that plagued them for five years of fighting in WW1 generated organizational change that produced the foremost tactics of mechanized warfare and redefining their concept of Auftragstaktik (mission command).


Contrast the learning of the Germans with that of the allies during the interwar period and one sees a repeated theme of idle contentment.  The British, French, and Russians moved on from WWI with little concern of grasping the professional lessons learned from both the Eastern and Western front.  The British conducted innovative experiments with armor formations, but their leaders’ inability to look internally at the challenges caused by their regimental system limited any sweeping adaptions from WWI and later created the same problems in WWII.5  Worse yet, the French failed to acknowledge the combined-arms concept that developed at the end of the war and instead rebounded to methodical battle.6  Methodical battle in terms of the French army was a rigidly controlled, largely defensive operation in which units and weapons were carefully marshaled and then employed in the phased destruction of the enemy by heavy weapons.


Ironically, this was based on a lessons-learned approach which correctly identified artillery as the greatest casualty-producing weapon of WWI.  This scripted form of warfare resembled attributes less in line with future combat and more resembling a trademark Napoleon strategy with a phased defensive battle using heavy artillery along the Maginot Line of the Eastern French border.7 However, one may argue at the bottom of the list were the Soviets.  Rather than learn from WWI, Joseph Stalin made a distinct effort to break from the past as he eliminated the experience and knowledge of his leaders by purging approximately 35,000 officers in the Red Army and only preserving those he deemed completely loyal to his objectives.8  In doing so, Stalin retarded the combined arms and deep operation revolution taking root during the interwar period by killing the man that developed the concept in 1937 – Marshal Mikhail Tuchachevsky. 9

Lest we forget about the actions of the United States’ military leaders during the interwar period.  U.S. military leaders were far more willing to learn and innovate than the rest of the allies.


General John J. Pershing was convinced another war was inevitable.  He ensured that the U.S. Army analyzed the results of WWI almost extensively as the Germans.  Pershing’s efforts resulted in the publication of the Field Service Regulation of 1923 and later served as the basis as to how the U.S. Army was able to tactically adapt to the new characteristics of combat in WWII. 10  However, leaders failed to look past the tactical lessons learned and innovate for the characteristics of future combat.  Instead of addressing the operational difficulties of WWI, the Army accepted the French manual, based on methodical battle, and consequently faced considerable difficulties with large-scale combat operations in the early stages of WWII. This was exacerbated by the geographic truth that the U.S. in the 1920s faced no continental enemies and had little interest in another expeditionary military adventure.


Why should the lessons from the interwar period stimulate leader’s innovation interest today?  Looking back 100 years, the tactical, operational, and strategic characteristics of today are far different than the interwar period.  However, Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz concluded that although the characteristics of war change such as technology, environment, and social, political, and military influences, the nature of war, “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” remains the same.11  Military leaders that understand the consistent nature of war can study the lessons of the past to enrich their perspective to innovate for the changing characteristics of future combat.


Past conflicts serve as the foundational starting point for the development and refinement of innovation.  The common phrase, ‘if you want a new idea, read an old book’ captures the pertinence of military history knowledge to address current problems.  Military innovation is extremely difficult if viewed only through the aperture of personal experiences.  A broad and deep collection of past conflicts provides abundant examples to tackle current situations that may seem unique to a leader not armed with the tools of history to lean upon.


The Germans demonstrated the benefits of such rigorous historical study.  The Blitzkrieg doctrine, focused on future large-scale mobile combat operations, developed during the interwar period enabled their mechanized formations to maneuver through gaps in the French stagnant defensive Maginot Line in the first engagements on the Western Front of WWII.  The Maginot Line was designed to create a continuous barrier along the common Belgian/French border with Germany.  When Belgium declared neutrality in 1936 and reneged on its pledge to build its share of the forts, it left a gap in the French master plan, one that the Germans exploited in the Ardennes.  Between 1936 and 1940, France did its best to build new forts along the French/Belgian border to negate this Belgian-created gap but simply ran out of time. Had the original plan been completed, the defensive forts potentially would have forestalled German advances and channelized the Germans into killing zones controlled by overwhelming French artillery.  Nevertheless, the French inability to innovate from the operational characteristic of WWI presented a fixed defense that allowed the Germans to march 41,000 vehicles combined with the largest aerial attack in history to that point through the restricted terrain of the Ardennes forest and across the Meuse River in just 11 days in May 1940. 12


Professional leaders with a depth of military historical knowledge can add the events of the interwar period to their own experiences when applying critical and creative thinking steps to military innovation today.  If someone wants to explore the boundaries of large-scale combat operations and not become tangled in a stilted doctrinal perspective, the Battle of France is a real-world example that demonstrates the benefits of being prepared and the consequences of fighting the last war and painful example of where to focus one’s innovative efforts.  Despite the passage of a century, the first interwar period and the initial events of WWII aid in charting a path to prepare combat units today.


The Germans’ rapid defeat of the French has the power to send a historical shockwave on the importance of innovation to military leaders today, and it should.  The French had the paradigm military force after WWI.  After frustrating the German’s Schlieffen Plan in 1914 and contributing, at considerable cost, to the victory over the Central Powers, many nations looked to France as a military example. 13   The French looked back on their great success of WWI and believed the best means to prepare for a future threat from Germany would likely be defending against Schlieffen Plan 2.0.  However, 22 years after the Paris Peace Conference the characteristics of war changed.  German leaders studied doctrine, innovated equipment and tactics, and created organizations that were symbolic of the changes in the characteristics of war.  Rather than execute Schlieffen Plan 2.0, the Germans cut right through the center of a French Army still focused on fighting a WWI battle.  Although the events of 1940 will not repeat themselves anytime soon, military leaders should heed caution as the current global environment with multiple near peer threats presents a similarly important moment in history to focus on operational level military innovation.


The U.S. Army is currently engaged in its 17th year of consecutive combat in multiple theaters.  The lessons learned at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels are abundant. The initial years in Iraq and Afghanistan revealed some difficult realities as organizations and leaders adapted to an insurgent threat.  Most recently, one may assess that some of the key takeaways from the past few years demonstrate a far flatter learning curve.  This change perhaps reflects the experience, strength, and knowledge of leaders and organizations that have adjusted to face the challenges of their environment.  A more concerning observation may be that the predictable characteristics of constant conflicts groomed a force that has become stale to innovation.  If the interwar period taught us anything, it is that the characteristics of past and current wars will not model those of future wars.  Maybe even more gripping is that the paradigm military WWI (French Army) was not prepared for the next war despite having near-perfect knowledge of what their adversaries had and what they intended to do with it, even if lacking precise specifics about when and along what lines of advance.  With even moderate intelligence collection, they should have learned those things, as well. And still they failed.


Military leaders cannot predict future conflicts.  Former Secretary of State Robert Gates stated in February 2011 that, “we can’t know with absolute certainty what the future of warfare will hold…we have never once gotten it right.” 14  Dealing with the complexity of a future combat situation, GEN (ret) David Perkins stated to the Naval War College in 2011 that “in an unknown world you constantly exploit the enemy to get at a position of advantage.” 15  Exploiting the enemy also involves a critical look at oneself.  After WWI, the American military assessed their performance and made numerous tactical level changes.  The operational level was a different story, which left key leaders operationally ill-prepared to face German forces in the deserts of Africa and the European Theater of Operations.  Is the U.S. military currently facing the same challenge?  Today’s Army leaders are not looking to France for the answers to the next war, but perhaps history should remind leaders to take a hard look at the state of the current force so as not to give French errors a second life.


In October 2017, the U.S. Army published FM 3-0, Operations, as the direction for large-scale combat.  FM 3-0 is the first of what will be a major overhaul of Army doctrine to refocus and prepare a force where leaders may have to reassess the principles of mission command.16  As leaders begin to embark on transforming a force with almost two decades of counterinsurgency experience to one focused on large-scale combat operations, the events of the post-WWI interwar period should serve as an important lesson on how to maintain combat effectiveness while innovating for a future war defined by completely different characteristics.


Innovation depends on clear decision-making.  A close study of history aids that process for the military professional.  Although the U.S. military is currently seen as the paradigm force, our standing amongst our partners and by our adversaries is not enduring.  As a master of the military craft, one must strive to improve in every attribute of the profession of arms.  Central to that focus is an education of historical events that produce the theoretical framework for innovation and preparation for future conflicts.  The technology and equipment on the battlefield will continue to evolve, but the strategic and operational level lessons of history will remain, constantly providing the most informed leaders with the most powerful weapon needed to craft the most revolutionary and pertinent innovations – knowledge.  Use it well or learn the hard way that France 1940 was not so long ago after all.


End Notes


1. Williamson Murray.  Military Adaptation in War:  With Fear of Change.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 18.


2. Williamson Murray.  A War to Be Won Fighting the Second Word War.  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 19.


3. Murray, A War to Be Won Fighting the Second Word War, 22.


4. Murray, A War to Be Won Fighting the Second Word War, 23.


5. Murray, A War to Be Won Fighting the Second Word War, 24.


6. Robert Doughty.  “French Operational Art: 1888-1940” in Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art. (Center of Military History, United State Army, 2005), 92.


7. Murray, A War to Be Won Fighting the Second Word War, 24.


8. Murray, A War to Be Won Fighting the Second Word War, 26.


9. Ricahrd Simpkin.  Deep Battle: The Brainchild of Marshal Tukhachevskii.  (London: Brassey’s Defence, 1987) 3-13


10. Murray, A War to Be Won Fighting the Second Word War, 28.


11. Carl Von Clausewitz.  On War. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 75.


12. Karl-Heinz Frieser.  “Panzer Group Kleist and the Breakthrough in France, 1940” in Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art. (Center of Military History, United State Army, 2005), 171. 


13. The Schlieffen Plan was the German army’s plan to attack France prior to WWI.  German General Alfred von Schlieffen drafted the plan prior to his retirement in 1906.  The plan remained as the primary course of action for the Germans in their two-front war with France and Russia.  At the beginning of WWI, Chief of the German General Staff, General Helmuth von Moltke the younger, slightly modified and executed the plan in 1914.  The plan’s primary focus was a large envelopment maneuver with multiple armies through Belgium to Paris to defeat the French.  The plan drastically failed and led to the rapid mental and emotional decline of General Helmuth von Moltke the younger and the defeat of the German Army.  


14. Robert Gates. Speech, United States Military Academy at West Point, NY.  February 26, 2011.


15. GEN David Perkins.  “Lecture of Opportunity.”  Lecture, US Naval War College at Newport, RI.  November 2, 2015.


16. Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 6-0, 2012 defines the principles of mission command as build cohesive teams through mutual trust; create shared understanding; provide a clear commander’s intent; exercise disciplined initiative; use mission orders; accept prudent risk.




Clausewitz, Carl von.  On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.


Doughty, Robert.  “French Operational Art: 1888-1940” in Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art. Center of Military History, United State Army, 2005


Frieser, Karl-Heinz.  “Panzer Group Kleist and the Breakthrough in France, 1940” in Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art.  Center of Military History, United State Army, 2005.


Gates, Robert. Speech, United States Military Academy at West Point, NY.  February 26, 2011. 


Murray, Williamson.  A War to Be Won Fighting the Second Word War.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.


Murray, Williamson.  Military Adaptation in War:  With Fear of Change.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.


Simpkin, Richard.  Deep Battle: The Brainchild of Marshal Tukhachevskii.  London: Brassey’s Defence, 1987.


About the Author(s)

Jonathan C. Nielsen, PhD, is an infantry officer in the United States Army and currently an operations officer in 3rdBrigade, 101stAirborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  His assignments include tours in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  Follow him on Twitter @J_C_Nielsen