Small Wars Journal

Non-Technical Military Innovation: The Prussian General Staff and Professional Military Education

Wed, 09/14/2016 - 12:02pm

Non-Technical Military Innovation: The Prussian General Staff and Professional Military Education

Jason M. Bender

Author’s Note: This monograph is a revision of a paper submitted for consideration during the 2008 U.S. Army Command and General Staff College historical writing competition for CGSC Course 08-01. The original paper was awarded 2nd place in that competition. In revising the monograph, the author added considerable original work and thought on the subject of professional military education relative to the lessons learned from the German general staff as it pertains to the foundation of our American system of professional military education and the roots of the U.S. Army General Staff.


Innovation within western militaries over the centuries is at best a contentious subject, not by historical standards, but when attempting to judge the innovation in the context of the period in which it occurred. Too often, a particular aspect of military innovation or evolution is viewed or evaluated solely along the lines of its technological cause and effect. Often, however, the subtle effects brought about by shifting cultural norms or values are what lead to enduring forms of non-technical or administrative military innovation. Political commentator Max Boot observes that, “History abounds with examples of the failure to effectively innovate.”[1]  However, in looking at the Prussian example of the creation of the General Staff in the early nineteenth century, an example is provided that illustrates a very successful non-technical, administrative military innovation which not only greatly upset the overmatch of Napoleonic dynastic military power, but continued to resonate in Germany during the interwar period between World War I and World War II. The creation of the Prussian General Staff was a profoundly administrative innovation that had virtually nothing do with technology and was born of a Prussian desire of self-preservation in the face asymmetric advantages of the Grand Armée based on the reforms brought about by the French Revolution and Napoleon.

Beyond the creation of the General Staff, however, Prussian military culture subsequently experienced a profound shift in educational norms, the roots of which can be traced back to the French Revolution based on the concept of leadership by meritocracy rather than aristocracy. A direct result of this over time is thus seen in the Prussian, and eventually German, embrace of the importance of professional military education out of the desire to create a more independent and critically thinking professional military officer. This officer, with the proper education and experience, would then not only serve as a source for continual replenishment of intellect to the General Staff, but also form the nucleus of the future Wehrmacht officer cadre, one that understood the necessity for initiative and decision-making based on the lessons learned by the Germans during World War I. As was the case, Prussia’s move to overcome Napoleon’s reliance on singular military genius for the generation of plans and strategy during the Napoleonic era provides an excellent example of the quest to overcome an asymmetrical military advantage through intellect, an example that remains remarkably relevant today given contemporary operations by numerous nations around the world.

Genesis of the Prussian General Staff

Capitalizing on the concept of the combined arms division, Napoleon “create[d] small arm[ies] of a few thousand men” capable of independent or concurrent battlefield operations. [2]  Developing the divisional concept with the addition of multi-level staff sections, these combined arms formations were capable of operating independently or integrating into larger formations “above the regiment [–] brigade, division, corps, and army.”[3] These small armies were then filled and led by loyal, motivated, and educated personnel – one of the by-products of the French Revolution – which allowed for a level of command and control that, in relation to the existing dynastic regiments of French rivals, was heretofore unthinkable. This ability combine and create larger, combined arms formations provided the French with a capability of turning out large, autonomous field formations with the ability to “mov[e] on separate roads, each responsible for its own area, [and] capable of mutual support,” led by officers who were expected to rely on their best judgment and experience in conducting operations.[4] The direct result of this radical military revolution gave Napoleon the power to “control seven corps on the field more easily than Frederick could control one.”[5]

Napoleon’s institution of division- and corps-size organizational formations “which varied a great deal in size, from less than 10,000 to nearly 30,000,” greatly eased the burdens presented by command and logistics that the field commanders of the ancient régime faced.[6] Yet, even with an increased ability to maneuver and survive on the battlefield, command and control of the Grand Armeé remained with one man. With the revolution in organization and logistics that the division and corps imparted to the Grand Armeé, a natural assumption would be that the direct ability to effectively command and control such a large and complex force would be subordinated by Napoleon to the fledgling general staff that he instituted. This was simply not the case, as Napoleon continued to maintain and exercise sole jurisdiction for all strategy, plans, and tactics, his staff being nothing more than a conduit for information to the fighting forces. However, the overwhelming asymmetrical advantage developed by Napoleon served as a focal point for France’s rivals in their attempts to overcome the gross shift in the balance of power, one that would be overcome by a Prussian military intellectual.

Lieutenant Colonel Gerhard von Scharnhorst, “the son of a tenant farmer and sometime sergeant-major in the Hanoverian artillery,” assumed responsibility for all Prussian military schools when he was posted to the Quartermaster-General’s staff in early 1801 shortly after being conferred as nobility by King Frederick William III.[7] Known for his military writings and publications in the 1790s, by July 1801 Scharnhorst set his sights on the reform of the Prussian army by creating the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin, and as the director of the Militärakademie “became the educator of a new generation of officers whole representatives were to play a great part in decades to come,” many of whom were destined to form the nucleus of the Prussian General Staff.[8] Starting in 1804, Scharnhorst moved back to field assignments, participating in the battles of Auerstadt and serving at Elyau, where he was respectively wounded and presented the Pour le Mérite. Returning to Berlin as a major-general in 1809, he took charge of and reorganized the Prussian War Ministry, working to address the Prussia’s problem of having to:

… cope with the enormity of the French challenge… [by] creat[ing] a special division that was charged with the plans for organization and mobilization and with the peacetime training and education… the preparation of military operations… [and] preparation and direction of tactics and strategy… [for the Prussian army.][9]

The central problem as Scharnhorst understood it was the dynastic reliance upon the Commander-in-Chief’s singular military genius, and in the preface to Walter Goerlitz’s History of the German General Staff, author Walter Millis aptly sums this up:

It was still just possible in Napoleon’s time for individual genius (aided by such improvisations as the divisional system of command and the embryonic staff officer) to direct the new forms of military action which were coming into existence; but even with genius available, the results were not too happy.  And a generation later it was already apparent to the thoughtful that something else would have to be developed to meet the growing problem if generalship in the modern technological state.[10]

Prussia’s attempt to overcome the obstacle of singular military genius thus came in the form of Scharnhorst’s special division, an organization which he named the General Staff of the Army.

Even as early as 1801, when Scharnhorst founded the Militarische Gesellschaft (predecessor to the Kriegschule), he was aware of the need reform the Prussian military in response to the Grand Armée. Universal conscription, the abolishment of corporal punishment, subdivision of the army into combined arms divisions, and the creation of a proper planning staff were in the forefront of Scharnhorst’s mind. However, Scharnhorst’s path was not going to be an easy one.

[M]ost of the generals doubted whether the success of the French ‘mob-heaps’ offered ground for subjecting the system of Frederick the Great to re-examination.  Even [Scharnhorst’s immediate superior Generalleutnant] Rüchel was in the habit of saying that the Prussian Army possessed several generals of the quality of ‘Herr von Bonaparte.’  Such things, however, did not affect the clarity of Scharnhorst’s insight, for the study of the Napoleonic wars had left him in no kind of doubt as to the epoch-making changes which the French Revolution had set in motion.[11]

Created with four main sections, the fledgling Prussian General Staff assumed responsibility for strategy and tactics, internal administration, reinforcements, and artillery and munitions, with the Royal Mapping Office “which had charge of war maps [soon] subordinated to the General Staff” as well.[12] Subsequent to its creation and organization, the General Staff, along with the Quartermaster-General Staff and the Adjutant-General Staff, was subordinated to the War Ministry, effectively consolidating military authority and placing it within one central organization. Shortly thereafter, the head of this newly created staff was “made the highest advisor of the king [of Prussia] in matters of warfare.”[13]

Prior to Scharnhorst’s creation, Prussia was decidedly unable to command and control large field armies due to an “absence of divisional organization and of adequate staffs for the theater commander….”[14] The Prussian General Staff, in its ability to think and plan collectively, provided the necessary tools by filling in the gaps in planning, command, and control that remained in the Grand Armée, thus allowing the Prussians to overcome the French asymmetrical military advantage in organizational control of its field armies. Max Boot surmised, “The longer you are on top, the more natural it seems, and the less thinkable it is that anyone will displace you. Seldom to dominant powers innovate.”[15] Through the creation of the General Staff, Prussia successfully paved a direct inroad to the downfall of Napoleon – the Prussian General Staff was literally able to outthink him by conducting in-depth planning for future operations. Widely viewed as one of the greatest innovations arising in response to the French Revolution, Scharnhorst’s ground-breaking and non-technical innovation allowed Prussia to overcome the dynastic obstacle of singular military genius.[16]

Professional Military Education

One of the contributing factors to the creation of the Prussian General Staff was the concept of professional military education, something that Scharnhorst himself personally exemplified with his publications and efforts as the chief of the Militärakademie. The idea of cultivating “thinking combatants… and a thinking officer corps and staff system honed by Bildung – systematic professional study and the cultivation of decision making skill” – was a concept which Scharnhorst and many of his successors fully understood and thus worked to instill.[17] Realizing that only a nationally representative army focused on decisive battle in a manner similar that of the French presented a unique opportunity to overcome France, Prussia’s effort was about to develop the best non-technical response to a political and strategic situation brought about by the French Revolution.

Similar to the Grand Armée, the Prussians instituted universal conscription to increase the size of their forces, witnessing nearly the same results as did the French, in which the influx of conscripts brought into their force a soldier with more intelligence and education than was previously seen within the dynastic formations. The Prussian officer corps similarly benefited from reforms focused on individual merits which provided opportunities for those with merit and education, but not traditionally of aristocratic breeding, to now pursue an officer’s commission.  Applicants were now allowed to compete for entrance “into the ranks as officer candidates, [having] to pass competitive written examinations before being co-opted, subject to royal approval, by the officers of their regiment.”[18]

Despite the notional simplicity of abolishing aristocratic requirements for commissioned service, the obstacles Scharnhorst confronted as he pursued this reform were not inconsiderable. “The fact is that to the generations of middle-class Germans a commission in the reserve became a symbol of social elevation, and they prized the social status this conferred more highly than any equality of political rights or political power.”[19] Siding with the traditionalists, Scharnhorst moved to maintain the old officer corps by “firmly oppos[ing] all plans for the radical democratization of the Army which the example of the French National Guard tended from time to time to inspire.”[20] Not entirely adverse to the idea that “the troops should elect non-commissioned officers, and these in turn the[ir] subalterns,” he did recommend that the concept be rejected, understanding the “danger to certain fundamental military values.”[21] If discipline was to be instilled, it needed a firm foundation based on morality, something “a system of elected superiors would not secure.”[22]

The reform engendered by Bildung greatly affected “recruitment, officer selection, and operational and tactical technique” in the following years with rank now being determined by merit and “commissioned rank no longer depended upon birth but upon the abilities of the individual concerned….”[23] Scharnhorst fully understood the necessity of creating – and educating – an officer corps that would not flounder without a Frederick the Great as the sole commander and thinker, as was mentioned previously.[24] As Scharnhorst created the Prussian General Staff, he concurrently reformed the staff system itself and created a:

… system based on specialized military education for the very brightest junior and mid-level officers… the center of [which]… was critical thought resting on thorough professional and military-historical understandings… [and whose] aim was aptitude and eagerness for independent action.  Scharnhorst aimed to make staff officers not merely assistants to commanders, but a sort of central nervous system for strategic planning and operational control that would harness the collective wisdom of the best minds the army could recruit.[25]

“Bureaucratic innovation can seldom be limited to the military alone because armed forces are always a reflection, however refracted, of the broader society,” and nowhere was this more true than in Germany during the interwar period, when the true fruits of Scharnhorst’s innovation in military professional education were truly realized.[26]

Appointed as the Chief of German General Staff in the aftermath of World War I, As General Hans von Seeckt grappled with the problem of maintaining a high level of officer education given the severe restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. With the Kriegsakademie abolished under the Treaty, von Seeckt instituted district-level examinations which tested applicants on “included not only the military sciences, but languages, political science, history, a knowledge of railways and communications, and other subjects.”[27] Von Seeckt was determined that the supply of suitable recruits available for the General Staff, forbidden under the Treaty, would not be endangered. In addition to the subjects tested, candidates also had to undergo rigorous checks on character and general education to determine compatibility for professional military training. Due to the extremely small number of positions, the selection process was ruthless. But that is not to say that only the best and brightest got thru; Goerlitz gives several examples of how, thorugh nepotism, bribery, or just based on personal association, mediocre applicants managed to get through over more qualified candidates.[28] These examinations and the subsequent stressing of professional military education by von Seeckt and his successors throughout the interwar years are, indeed, the true innovation. 

Looking critically at their World War I experiences, the Germans under von Seeckt focused on a multitude of subjects:  situations that had not been considered before the war; how effective pre-war views were in dealing with the situations that arose; and understanding new problems which remained yet unresolved.[29] As the Germans “encouraged debate, study, and honest experimentation in their preparations for war,” the British and French armies often stifled innovative thought by frustrating the progression and education of some officers and outright ignoring the thoughts and writings of others.[30] This was further reinforced after the 1939 Polish campaign in which Wehrmacht instituted permanent schools which focused on company and battalion command and the problems inherent with commanding those organizations in combat, and also created a specialized “program for officers of the mechanized units at the Wuensdorf Tank School.”[31]

Murray further says that “[p]rofessional military education was clearly a part of the process; so was serious study and writing outside of the schoolhouse.”[32] One must look no further than to see the ruminations of many German thinkers during the interwar period with the most notable being Erwin Rommel’s Infantrie Greift An, and Heinz Guderian’s Achtung – Panzer, both books published in 1937. Germans put a value – one could say that it was societally driven – on intellectual discourse, education, and criticism in viewing what they believed was an inherent path to success. Whereas with the French, “[w]hat fit la doctrine received attention, what did not [was] discarded or actively suppressed,” with the stifling of innovate ideas starting at the very top of the French command structure, with General Maurice Gamelin “establish[ing] the high command as the sole arbiter for doctrinal matters; all lectures, articles, and books by serving officers had to receive its prior approval.[33] As the French general Andre Beaufre later noted in his memoirs, “Everyone got the message, and a profound silence reigned until the awakening of May 1940.”[34]

It cannot be overlooked that culture plays a large part in the engendering and empowerment of innovation in that “[t]he unique military culture of [some] national armies… mitigate[s] against critical examination of their own policies.”[35] French doctrine during the interwar years relied on the concept of Methodical Battle where rigid control of the situation was maintained at the top and where “units and weapons were carefully marshaled and then employed in combat… [with the battle] conducted deliberately and step-by-step, with units obediently moving between phase lines and adhering to strictly scheduled timetables as they moved toward relatively shallow successes.”[36] The acceptance by the French of this “dangerous degree of rigidity,” was quickly overcome by the German practice of decentralized command and value of junior leader initiative in accomplishing the objective – Auftragstaktik – as was witnessed during the battle for Sedan in May 1940. [37]

More commonly known as mission-type tactics in the United States, Auftragstaktik is most accurately defined by contemporary standards in the Bundeswehr regulation AR 100/100 as the commander’s informing of subordinates of his intention, the setting of clear and achievable objectives, and provision of necessary resources and forces with which to accomplish the mission. The regulation further goes on to say that commanders will:

… only order details regarding execution [of the mission] if measures which serve the same objective have to be harmonized, if political or military constraints require it. [The Commander] gives latitude to subordinate leaders in the execution of their mission.  Thus, Auftragstaktik is more than giving a mission to a subordinate and allowing him the latitude to execute it. Rather, it is the superior’s duty to specify the objective and the framework within which the subordinate has to accomplish the mission. The commander provides all resources required to carry out the mission. This, in turn, means that execution itself becomes the executor’s responsibility. His skills, creativity, and commitment will be the key elements of execution.

Thus, Auftragstaktik is not merely a technique of issuing orders but a type of leadership that is inextricably linked to a certain image of men as soldiers. The true key to understanding Auftragstaktik is in knowing, as AR 100/100 puts it, that it is less a tactic and more a leadership method.  Simply put, as General Helmut von Moltke (the Elder) theorized, “the subordinate is to act within the guidelines of his superior’s intent… [and k]nowing his superior’s intent, the subordinate thus works toward achieving it.” Auftragstaktik finds its success in the understanding by subordinates with the appropriate training that they have the independence for flexible maneuver within the given the intent and guidance. Given a clearly defined objective and intent, subordinates are given a specified amount of time within which the mission must be achieved, and are thus forced to rely on situational awareness, initiative, and freedom and flexibility of execution in order to independently implement the order. The success of Auftragstaktik lies in the executor being able act and achieve the objective, sometimes violating previous guidance or orders in the pursuance of the stated objective. 

While violation of previous limitations is most times assumed, is it an inherently important step which is most often only associated with Western military cultures and their adherence to decentralization. “The term Auftragstaktik first surfaced in the early 1890s. It was coined by those who resented the process, as the term was to show disdain. Auftragstaktik was considered a threat to military discipline and, thus by extension, to everything military. . . . One of the first to recognize the signs of times and draw the right conclusions was Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke, Chief of the General Staff of the Prussian Army from 1857 to 1888. Auftragstaktik was not an idea introduced into German military thinking by decree. Far from simple or rapid, its adoption was a difficult, long-running process. The beginnings of Auftragstaktik can be dated to 1806, following the disastrous defeat of the Prussians at Jena and Auerstedt. Napoleon’s modern brand of warfare exposed Prussian deficiencies and the need for modernizing the Prussian Army.[38]

Auftragstaktik ultimately “emerged as the conceptual foundation of German tactics,” allowing tactical and operational freedom to be achieved – for the most part – through the initiative exercised by junior leaders and senior field commanders largely due to thorough testing by the Germans of new doctrine and conceptual ideas which, as a by-product, also provided the opportunities for junior leaders to achieve experience through extensive professional education and tough, realistic training in which “‘a typical German Army captain or major in 1940 would have participated in more multidivisional maneuvers than the average British or French General.’”[39] The Wehrmacht’s embrace of Auftragstaktik as a “basic philosophy,” and its empowerment of junior leaders, “traces it roots back to Clausewitz’ emphasis on fog and friction in combat, emphasizing decisive action with limited information in an environment characterized by meeting engagements… [and a]s a result, the German Army [became] comfortable operating in a state of self-organized criticality at the edge of chaos.”[40]

The Germans thus reaped the benefits of an invigorated military professional education system during interwar period. German commanders forced themselves to “learn to devolve creative freedom and authority upon their juniors – an unprecedented and largely counter-intuitive step,” creating developmental schools for junior commissioned and non-commissioned officers that stressed the development of both military ability and personal intellect.[41]  This departure from a previously unquestioned military norm ultimately provided the foundation for the success of Auftragstaktik

Goerlitz theorizes that this almost may not have been able to be done had not General Walther von Reichenau, an ardent Nazi, not succeeded in securing an agreement with the late-interwar German government that allowed for “organized courses of military training for university students” to be taught by officers of the Truppenamt – as the forbidden General Staff was known – “and General Staff officers were sent off to the leading universities as instructors in so-called “Military Sports” and in that branch of learning for which the word ‘Defence Politics’ (Wehrpolitik).”[42]  This may have helped alleviate the situation that arose when Germany began its outright abrogation of the Treaty in early 1935. 

As the Wehrmacht began to grow, so did the need for officers, the number of which had been severely restricted under the Treaty. As the officer corps began to grow, it “began to present a most variegated picture. Its members differed increasing from one another in education social background, political orientation, and above all in general suitability for commissioned rank…”[43]  Thus, as the Kriegsakademie reopened in 1935 as the Wehrmachtakademie, Chief of the General Staff General Ludwig von Beck followed the very Seecktian tradition in announcing that “[t]he principles underlying the successful waging of war… had not been changed by the technical revolution… [and that] human beings and not machines were still the real instruments of war.”[44] Von Beck then laid out that the curriculum of the newly opened Wehrmachtakademie was to orient the preparation of officers for service by focusing on “logical and systematic thought, careful working out of all situations and avoidance of the ‘coup d’oeil’ – Hitler’s favourite method. Then, after good planning, decisive action.”[45]  Here can be seen as the basic foundation and genesis for Auftragstaktik.

While it is “generally accepted that the military profession possesses a distinct set of traditions and values that defines [its] society and distinguishes it from the civilian world,” this example clearly shows the vast difference in orientation and commitment by the interwar Germans in relation to the British and the French.[46] The German embrace of professional military education – first espoused by von Scharnhorst in the early 1800s, later encouraged by von Seeckt in the 1920s, and reinvigorated by von Beck in the 1930s – and its inherent and introspective sense of self-criticism, is “[p]erhaps the most universal and enduring concept influencing the German Army’s interwar transformation….”[47]

United States Parallels

With respect to the United States Army, it was not until 1902 that Elihu Root, Secretary of War under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, introduced the concept of creating a General Staff for the American Army to alleviate the confusion caused by command issues at the top levels of the Army, as experienced in the Spanish-American War. Root’s goal was to create and organization whose primary objective was solely to conduct planning for future operations without having to worry about the intrusion or disturbance by existing operations or other duties.  To further alleviate the command confusion, the Commanding General of the Army was to be re-designated as the Chief of the General Staff, and whose duty is to “advise, inform and assist a superior officer who has command and to represent him, acting in his name and by his authority in carrying out his policies and securing the execution of his command.”[48]

Root’s concept was virtually the same model as followed by the Prussians – and for the same reasons – in first decade of the 19th century despite his comments that “[n]either our political nor our military system, makes it suitable that we should have a general staff organized like the German General Staff or like the French General Staff….” Root, however, recognized the importance of a staff organization independent of the command structure: 

“[T]he common experience of mankind is that the things which those general staffs do have to be done in every well-managed and well-directed army and they have to be done by a body of men especially assigned to do them. We should have such a body of men selected in our own way and in accordance with our own system to do those essential things. The most intelligent way to describe such a body of men, however selected and organized, is by calling it a General Staff, because its duties are staff duties and are general in their character.”[49]

Refinement of the American General Staff continued as General John Pershing assumed duties as the Chief of Staff of the US Army on July 1, 1921. Pershing noted that “his first task will be to the organization of a General Headquarters similar to that organized by the French Army before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.”[50] The impetus for Pershing to reorganize the fledgling General Staff, as put together by Secretary of War Elihu Root in the first decade of the 20th century, was based on Pershing’s agitation with having to “disrupt the personnel of the General Staff to obtain officers for his own overseas staff” during the stand-up of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in preparation for commitment of U.S. forces to the battlefields of France during World War I.[51]

The importance of Pershing’s reorganization of the US Army General Staff when viewed with Root’s creation of the organization is that Pershing’s drive was to refine the General Staff which, “though in skeleton form, would be ample to take charge of the field armies of the United States in time of war without disrupting the General Staff,” and during times of peace would focus on “handling the affairs of the War Department and acting as a service of supply for armies in the field.”[52] In viewing this, it should be understood that Pershing’s move was directed toward making the General Staff a more permanent body as compared to that brought into being under Secretary Root, and as such would be able to focus on its duties in both times of war and peace rather than simply being a readily available pool of officers to fill the command and control formations of newly created wartime units and headquarters.

In addition to advocating for the creation of the US Army General Staff, Root also identified in 1902 the need and importance of addressing the problem created during the Spanish-American War of creating new officers by promoting deserving Soldiers from the ranks or by granting commissions to qualified civilians. Some 1542 officers out of a total group of 1818 officers commissioned in roughly the same period were commissioned this way and Root’s concern was that neither group, in the effort to quickly fill the officer corps, received the benefit of qualified education from the US Military Academy at West Point, NY – at this point there was no Officer Candidate School (OCS) or a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).[53]  Recognizing that

… [t]he volunteers and the enlisted men have of course acquired useful experience and thy were all selected on the ground of their military conduct and intelligence… it is generally true of the whole 1542, constituting more than one-half of all of the officers of the line, that they have had no systematic military education…. [54]

Further, Root understood the gravity of this problem and its future ramifications, with the New York Times [NYT] commenting “[a]fter some years, when their seniors have passed off the state, they will have to supply our Generals and Colonels and chief of staff officers charged with the instruction, discipline, and command of our forces.”[55] Recalling the value of professional military education, the NYT opined:

Unless the theory of military education under which we have maintained at the Academy at West Point for a century is all a mistake, it is very important to five to this class of young officers, now that they are in the army, some degree of the educational advantages which the West Point men get before they are commissioned.[56]

In this can be seen the nascent social understanding and the advocation by the nation’s Secretary of War of the power of professional military education, and how the lack thereof by more almost two-thirds of its active duty officer component would potentially leave the US Army in dire straits if the problem were not seriously addressed.

Contemporary Implications – The Big “So What?”

Current military leaders should take heed of the lessons to be drawn from the Prussians in creating the General Staff and system of professional military education. All too often, the contemporary theorist – both military and civilian – becomes overly infatuated with the aspects of technological innovation in seeking to maintain military dominance and thus overlook the continued necessity of professional and intellectual development within the ranks, and this is something about which some observers are wholly caustic, no one more so recently than Williamson Murray.  Murray posits:

In the larger sense, it is the cultures of the services that constitute the greatest cause for alarm. The American armed services remain alone among ‘First World’ militaries in not making intellectual, along with operational and tactical, accomplishments prerequisites for senior command. As one senior officer has suggested, American officers with substantial academic attainment have to prove that they are ‘muddy-boots’ soldiers or ‘blue-water’ seamen, etc., but the latter do not have to prove they have brains.

[I]t is virtually impossible for young officers to find time and opportunity to attain the broad spectrum of historical knowledge, language training, and cultural awareness that the twenty-first century is going to demand. The officer corps of the U.S. armed services are therefore likely become ever more narrowly technological and less capable of adapting and innovating in the face of diverse threats and emerging challenges. For successful innovation in the coming decades, as in the past, it will be the ability to conceptualize that matters.

[T]here are also worrisome trends. The military services, with the exception of the Marine Corps, reflect the attitudes of the American people in being profoundly ahistorical. The ‘revolution in military affairs’ has been to some extent advocated by people who are disturbingly ignorant of history. The emphasis within the services has been, more often than not, on technology and platforms, as embodying in themselves the necessary direction of innovation. [57]

Contemporary military leaders, as Bernard Brodie points out in his book War and Politics, “have always cherished the image of themselves as men of action rather than as intellectuals, and they have not been very much given to writing analytical inquiries into their own art.”[58]  In a sense then, recent appearances of military “anti-intellectualism” might then be traced to “the cognitive demands of [the] modern technology-based force.”[59] But the pervasive sense of anti-intellectualism remains a problem that continually presents itself throughout western military history, and no where more so than in the United States. Where Gerhard von Scharnhorst laid the foundation for the Prussian military intellectualism with his early writings and efforts at the Militärakademie with students such as Carl von Clausewitz, his foundation figuratively spawned the German sense of introspective criticality that allowed others such as von Seeckt to continue to build on the foundation and achieve during the interwar years the most definitive sense of Bildung that the Germans were to realize. In looking at the interwar writings of just Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel is seen Scharnhorst’s legacy. 

Despite the recent examples of General David Petreaus, General John Abizaid, Lieutenant General H.R. McMasters, and Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, who all held advanced degrees earned while on active duty, the contemporary military establishment does not actively encourage its officers to pursue advanced civil schooling in spite of paying lip service and offering incentive for individuals to do so. In thinking about this, one is caused to question whether or not contemporary military intellectuals keep their thoughts to themselves rather than face scorn or ridicule by peers, superiors, and the civilian world. After all, H. G. Wells is quoted to have said, “[T]he professional military mind is by necessity an inferior and unimaginative mind; no man of high intellectual quality would willingly imprison his gifts in such a calling.”[60]

This is not to say that articulate uniformed thinkers have been entirely absent from the [American military] scene – witness the writing of Emory Upton, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Billy Mitchell, Maxwell Taylor, Dave Palmer and, more recently, H. R. McMaster, Douglas Macgregor and Ralph Peters – but it is to say that to the extent that such uniformed writers have succeeded, they did so in spite of and not because of official encouragement.[61]

Similarly, after publishing The Influence of Sea Power Upon History in 1890, Alfred Mahan received an efficiency report on which his senior rater commented: “It is not the business of a Naval officer to write books.”[62] Similar stories and anecdotes abound from not just American military history, but from the British and French as well, and it should be attributable to an existing military culture that fosters it. Parameters editor Lloyd Matthews recounts an amusing anecdote:

Crossing the Plains on an expedition to Utah [in the 1850s], Major Charles A. May searched the wagons in an effort to reduce unnecessary baggage. When he reached the wagons of the light artillery battery, Captain Henry J. Hunt proudly pointed out the box containing the battery library. “Books,” May exclaimed in astonishment. “You say books? Whoever heard of books being hauled over the plains? What in the hell are you going to do with them?” At that moment Captain Cambell of the Dragoons came up and asked permission to carry a barrel of whiskey. “Yes, anything within reason, Captain, you can take along the whiskey, but damned if these books shall go.”[63]

As humorous as the anecdote seems, the truth is that the pervasive sense of military organizational culture that shuns intellectualism in favor of action is very real today, just as it was more than 150 years ago. While leaders do arguably possess a much more robust set of critical thinking skills than did leaders from the nineteenth century, it cannot be overlooked that continuing education and self-development is of paramount benefit for both the individual and the military institution as a whole. Further, where the services purport to select officers for assignments at the military academies and officer producing organizations with an eye toward developing critical thinking and adaptive problem solving skills at the pre-commissioning sources, many of the officers assigned are incapable of thinking critically themselves, let alone teaching someone else how to think critically.

In 2002, Matthews called for a redefinition of the military intellectual to an intellectual officer, defining the latter as a “solid leader who brings the intellectual dimension to his job, accommodating the peculiar needs and demands of the profession.”[64] Pointing out that not all “writers and teachers are intellectuals, not all intellectuals are writers and teachers,” Matthews raises the issue that while the military may indeed be full of such intellectual minds, they simply choose to remain in the shadows, preferring to:

… seek a doctorate, teaching tour, fellowship, attaché assignment or other mind-expanding opportunities that the [man of action] avoids like the plague because under the present career management system such excursions will time him or her out of transiting career wicket X, necessary if the officer is to remain competitive for brigade command and a possible star.[65]

Matthews states that today’s “contemplative officer” is “[n]ot only… a citizen of a country itself notorious for its anti-intellectual tendencies, but he has come into a military establishment that in many respects has been more retrograde in its receptivity to ideas than the European militaries.”[66] At the junior officer levels this is more than likely unapparent, but officers at the field grade levels are increasingly conscious of it. Fear of narrowing potentials for future promotion and positions of higher command are a leading cause for most officers to remain on-the-line rather than seek out new “opportunities to broaden their horizons and gain new perspectives,” with “evidence show[ing] that up-and-coming senior leaders are increasingly choosing to restrict their career paths to assignments that stick closely to traditional warfighting skills.”[67] Doctor Leonard Wong asks “why are so many successful Army officers reluctant to broaden their career paths with assignments away from the Army?” In offering an answer, Wong posits that specializing in warfighting for most of them has worked in the past, so why change?  He further comments that given current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, “officers are consumed with fighting a way, and the idea of taking time off to develop non-warfighting skills seems irrational.”[68]

As is the case with the Global War on Terrorism, the Army’s focus on innovation and transformation appears to be entirely technologically oriented, as is its future focus toward possible war with China. This, in and of itself, is causing China and many other potential enemies of the United States to exploit its many perceived non-technological weaknesses in efforts to overcome its overwhelming conventional military dominance. Serbians in Kosovo were extremely adept at fooling NATO target collection assets into thinking they were looking at functional combat vehicles when in reality they were observing non-functional, immobile vehicles – an in some cases purely deceptive mock-ups. Adversaries’ changing tactics must be continually addressed as U.S. forces prepare to and conduct operations in a multitude of demographically and geographically diverse areas, with low-tech solutions to counter the overwhelming military dominance posed by the coalition and NATO forces.

Knowing the adversary is thus one of the keys to knowing oneself – or at least the potential problems one may face – the ability to anticipate possible outcomes being one of the most important aspects of true critical thinking and preparatory planning. To more fully understand the Chinese view, one should read the “Unrestricted Warfare” series published unofficially by a group of colonels from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), in which they address the intellectual implications to the impact that technological changes have caused within China and other non-western nations and how China may pursue future war outside of a purely military arena.[69] Another excellent example is provided by the article “Fighting Lawfare”, in which the strategy of “misusing law as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve military objectives” is discussed in relation to transnational terrorist organizations “abusing [the] complex [U.S.] legal system to tie up resources, shift momentum, and most importantly, sway world opinion to [their] cause.”[70] If the American military is to be successful against its contemporary enemies in the current fight, it needs to outthink the foe in order to outfight them.[71]

As mentioned previously, a technologically-based force relies on cognition, not necessarily intellect, in developing its tactics. To get past the asymmetrical advantage developed by America’s enemies, future senior leaders need to cultivate within themselves a broader perspective of existing and future threats from an intellectual standpoint – vice technological – in order to more effectively address the problems. Tactics are primarily executed at the platoon and company level; strategy on the other hand, while normally associated with national level interests or combatant commands, is something with which senior leaders at all levels need to comprehend in order to achieve any modicum of success. Just as important is a leader’s thorough grasp of operational artistry as planners endeavor to organize and group tactical means (i.e., objectives and effects) that ultimately contribute and lead to the realization of the strategic ends.


Thinking might hurt, but it is something that must be done, and not just by a select few. Gerhard von Scharhorst corralled the best Prussian military minds when he created the General Staff and through collective thought, planning and strategizing managed to overcome the French reliance on singular military genius.  The subsequent reformation of Prussian system of military education capitalized on the Prusso-German value of education and directly contributed to the German success during the interwar years that produced and refined the tenets of Blitzkrieg, contemporary combined arms warfare, and Auftragstaktik that the Wehrmacht put into action in Poland, France, and Russia between 1939 and 1942 with so much success.

Technical and tactical expertise at the junior officer, and even non-commissioned officer, level is still the ideal. However, professional education at senior levels that focuses solely on development of that expertise shortchanges both the individual and the military as an institution in the long run. Unfortunately, while Department of the Army Pamphlet 350-58, Leader Development for America’s Army, speaks of the three pillars of leader development being institutional training, operational assignments, and self development, the cold truth is currently the focus for most schools is on operational commitments and tactics.[72] Self-development is therefore viewed by many as something that detracts from current duties, or when viewed in terms of supplementing instruction provided at the institutional schools, is simply excess reading which takes more time. Moreover, less and less military professionals take the time to put their thoughts to paper, which in and of itself, is a form of self-development in that constructive criticism and feedback on published writings helps the writer to further refine and develop his or her style or basis of thought when “ideas… are challenged and found to be incomplete.”[73]

In studying the creation of the Prussian General Staff and the accompanying development of Prussian system of professional military education, one can clearly see the factors which contributed to their genesis. The Prussian sense of national self-preservation directly contributed to their effectively countering the threat posed by the Grand Armée with Napoleon’s ability to command and control ever-larger, independently maneuvering, combined arms formations. Further, if it were not the Prussian military cultural espousal of the necessity of professional education arising from the need for officers and soldiers to critically think and evaluate events, and then take decisive action, neither of these non-technical, administrative innovations could have – or would have – taken place, nor achieved the prominence in military history such as they have. 

Finally, it is of crucial importance for the contemporary observer and student of military history to understand how both innovations provided an impetus from which the United States Army followed suit, albeit many years later with the creation and refinement of the American General Staff between 1902 and 1927, and through the evolution of its current system of officer and non-commissioned officer professional military development as seen today. 

What does all this history have to do with the current state of innovation in the U.S. military? In effect, it is a benchmark against which one can measure the trends and the attitudes of its officer corps and senior leadership as to their likely receptiveness to innovation and the major conceptual changes to come in the next decades.[74]

In this regard, the importance of the professional military educational system and its ability to impart needed and relevant education unto – and whose duty it should remain to intellectually develop – military leaders needs to be constantly reinforced, as it is a resource that simply cannot, and should not, be whiled away.


Boot, Max.  “Democratic Advantage.”  31 October 2006.  Available at .

Boot, Max.  “The Race for Military Dominance.”  30 October 2006.  Available at .

Calhoun, Mark T. “Complexity and Army Transformation.”  School of Advanced Military Studies [SAMS] diss, Fort Leavenworth, 2005.  Available at .

Doughty, Robert A. “‘Maneuvering’ Masses of Fire.”  In H200: Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, 194-205.  Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command and General Staff College, September 2007.

Dungan, C. Peter.  “Fighting Lawfare: At the Special Operations Task Force Level.” Special Warfare 21, no. 2 (March-April, 2008), 9-15.

Fitzsimonds, James R. and Manhken, Thomas G.  “Exploring Institutional Impediments to Innovation.”  Joint Forces Quarterly 56, (3rd Quarter, 2007), 96-103.  Available at .

Goerlitz, Walter.  History of the German General Staff, 1657-1945.  New York: Praeger, 1953.

Halborn, Hajo.  “The Prusso-German School:  Moltke and the Rise of the General Staff.”  In Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Modern Age, ed. Peter Paret, 281-95.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. 

Huber, Thomas.  “The Rise of Napoleon.”  In H100: Rise of the Western Way of War, 113-17.  Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command & General Staff College, June 2007.

Knox, MacGregor.  “Mass Politics and Nationalism as Military Revolution: The French Revolution and After.”  In The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050, eds. MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, 57-73.  Cambridge: University Press, 2001.

Lewis, S. J.  “Reflections on German Military Reform.”  Military Review, (August 1988), 60-69.  Reprinted in H200: Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, 187-93.  Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command and General Staff College, September 2007.

Murray, Williamson. “Thinking About Innovation.”  Naval War College Review, (Spring 2001).  Available at .

Parker, Geoffrey, ed.  Cambridge Illustrated History: Warfare.  Cambridge: University Press, 1995.

Widder, Werner (Generalmajor).  “Auftragstaktik and Innere Führung: Trademarks of German Leadership.” Military Review, (September-October 2002), 3-9.  Available at .

__________   “Pershing Plans Staff Innovations.”  New York Times, June 26, 1921.  Available at .

__________  “Secretary Root on Work of the Army.”  New York Times, December 1, 1902.  Available at

End Notes

[1] Mark T. Calhoun, “Complexity and Army Transformation,” (School of Advanced Military Studies [SAMS] diss, Fort Leavenworth, 2005), 1.

[2] Geoffrey Parker ed., Cambridge Illustrated History: Warfare, (Cambridge: University Press, 1995), 198.

[3] Thomas Huber, “The Rise of Napoleon,” in H100: Rise of the Western Way of War, (Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command & General Staff College, June 2007), 113-14.

[4] Peter Paret, “Napoleon and the Revolution in War,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Modern Age, ed. Peter Paret, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 125; see also MacGregor Knox, “Mass Politics and Nationalism as Military Revolution: The French Revolution and After,” in The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050, eds. MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, (Cambridge: University Press, 2001), 67.

[5] Huber, “The Rise of Napoleon,” 114.

[6] Geoffrey Parker ed., Cambridge Illustrated History: Warfare, (Cambridge: University Press, 1995), 198.

[7] Goerlitz, The German General Staff, 15.

[8] Goerlitz, The German General Staff, 19.  Goerlitz points out that Lieutenant Carl von Clausewitz was at this time one of Scharnhorst’s students at the Militärakademie.  Scharnhorst is credited with the design and part-publication in 1788 of the Handbuch für Offiziere in den anwendbaren Teilen der Kriegswissenschaften ("Handbook for Officers in the Applied Sections of Military Science"), and publication in 1792 of the Militärisches Taschenbuch für den Gebrauch im Felde ("Military Handbook for Use in the Field"). He’s additionally credited with the founding of a military journal that endured until at least 1805. [ ]

[9] Ibid; Hajo Halborn, “The Prusso-German School:  Moltke and the Rise of the General Staff,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Modern Age, ed. Peter Paret, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 283.

[10] Goerlitz, History of the German General Staff, 1657-1945, (New York: Praeger, 1953), vi.

[11] Goerlitz, 17-19.

[12] Goerlitz, German General Staff, 31.

[13] Halborn, “The Prusso-German School,” 284. 

[14] Knox, “Mass Politics and Nationalism”, 61.

[15] Max Boot, “The Race for Military Dominance.”   

[16] Georlitz, German General Staff, 20. 

[17] Knox, “Mass Politics and Nationalism”, 70.

[18] Knox, “Mass Politics and Nationalism”, 71. 

[19] Goerlitz, German General Staff, 32-33.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Knox, “Mass Politics and Nationalism”, 71; Goerlitz, German General Staff, 32.

[24] Knox, “Mass Politics and Nationalism”, 71.

[25] Ibid, 71-2. 

[26] Max Boot, “Democratic Advantage.”

[27] Goerlitz, German General Staff, 227. 

[28] Ibid, 227-28.

[29] Williamson Murray, “Thinking About Innovation,” Naval War College Review (Spring 2001).

[30] Murray, “Thinking About Innovation.”

[31] S. J. Lewis, “Reflections on German Military Reform,” Military Review (August 1988); reprinted in H200: Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, (Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command and General Staff College, September 2007), 190-92.

[32] Murray, “May 1940: Contingency and Fragility of the German RMA”, 164.

[33] Murray, “May 1940: Contingency and Fragility of the German RMA”, 164; Murray, “Thinking About Innovation.”  

[34] Murray, “Thinking About Innovation.”  Murray cites here from Beaufre’s book, 1940: The Fall of France (London: Cassell, 1967).

[35] S. J. Lewis, “Reflections on German Military Reform”, 193.

[36] Robert A. Doughty, “‘Maneuvering’ Masses of Fire,” in H200: Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, (Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command and General Staff College, September 2007), 196.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Werner Widder (Generalmajor), “Auftragstaktik and Innere Führung: Trademarks of German Leadership,” Military Review, (September-October 2002), 4-6 (Generalmajor Widder cites p. 302 from Bundeswehr AR 100/100); see also

[39] Calhoun, “Complexity and Army Transformation”, 6-7; here Calhoun cites from James Corum’s book, The Roots of Blitzkrieg (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992).

[40] Calhoun, “Complexity and Army Transformation”, 6-7

[41] Murray, “May 1940: Contingency and Fragility of the German RMA”, 160. 

[42] Goerlitz, German General Staff, 284-85.

[43] Ibid, 299.

[44] Ibid, 294.

[45] Ibid, 294.

[46] James R. Fitzsimonds and Thomas G. Mahnken, “Exploring Institutional Impediments to Innovation,” Joint Forces Quarterly 56, (3rd Quarter, 2007), 96.

[47] Calhoun, “Complexity and Army Transformation”, 6.

[48] “Secretary Root on Work of the Army,” New York Times, December 1, 1902; see also Goerlitz, German General Staff, vii.

[49] Ibid.

[50] “Pershing Plans Staff Innovations,” New York Times, June 26, 1921.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] “Secretary Root on Work of the Army,” NYT. Granting civilians commissions is contemporarily termed ‘direct commission’, whereas commissioning deserving enlisted personnel on-the-spot is commonly termed ‘battlefield commission’.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Murray, “Thinking About Innovation”.

[58] As quoted in Matthews, “The Uniformed Intellectual: Part I.”

[59] Lloyd Matthews, “The Uniformed Intellectual and His Place in American Arms: Part I,” Parameters, (July 2002).

[60] As quoted in Matthews, “The Uniformed Intellectual: Part I.”

[61] Matthews, “The Uniformed Intellectual: Part I.”

[62] Matthews, “The Uniformed Intellectual: Part I.”

[63] William Skelton, An American Profession of Arms: The Army Officer Corps, 1784-1861, as cited by Matthews in “The Uniformed Intellectual: Part I.”

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Leonard Wong, “Fashion Tips for Field Grades.”

[68] Ibid.

[69] “Unrestricted Warfare” can be accessed from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) website, .

[70] C. Peter Dungan, “Fighting Lawfare: At the Special Operations Task Force Level,” Special Warfare 21, no. 2 (March-April, 2008), 9-15.

[71] Matthews, “The Uniformed Intellectual: Part I.”

[72] As cited in Craig Bullis, “Developing the Professional Army Officer: Implications for Organizational Leaders,” Military Review (May-June 2003).

[73] Ibid.

[74] Murray, “Thinking About Innovation”.


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Jason Bender is a career U.S. Army Field Artillery Officer and is currently assigned as the Professor of Military Science at the University of Cincinnati Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) “Bearcat” Detachment. Lt. Col. Bender holds a Master of Military Arts and Sciences from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School; a Master of Science in International Relations (Strategic Studies focus) from Troy University; and a Bachelor of Science in Actuarial Mathematics from Oregon State University. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC) and School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS). Previous assignments include leadership, staff, and fire support positions in self-propelled cannon and rocket artillery units; senior fire support instructor and branch chief at the U.S. Army Aviation Center’s Combined Arms Division; staff officer at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Korea/ROK-US Combined Forces Command/United Nations Command; and as an Iraqi infantry division military transition team (MiTT) executive officer and fires advisor; and Chief of Fires and G5 Strategy and Policy Planner at U.S. Army Cyber Command/2nd U.S. Army. Lt. Col. Bender is also the author of “The Cyberspace Operations Planner” (2013) and “Advising Foreign Security Forces: Implications of Korea and Vietnam” (2010), and is a co-author of “Training Considerations for an Advise and Assist Brigade Combat Team” (2009).