After Clausewitz, German Military Thinkers before the Great War

Article excerpt

By Antulio J. Echevarria II. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000. 360 pages. $39.95.

Over the past decade a number of military historians have looked to the period between World War I and World War II as offering significant insights into why some military institutions are able to innovate and transform themselves during periods of considerable technological change, and why some are not. Those historical studies have yielded significant results. And yet there remain problems. As we move into the 21st century, our current interwar period is beginning to look less and less like the 20-year period between the two world wars.

The latter period came after a terrible conflict, which had, nevertheless, pointed the way toward the future. Virtually all of the major revolutions in military affairs that were to mark World War II--combined-arms mechanized warfare, carrier war, amphibious war, strategic bombing, air defense--appeared in World War I. Some of these capabilities were only beginning to emerge, but the initial impetus toward change had already occurred in the last war. Because the second great war came within two decades, most of the military leaders and innovators in the interwar period had experienced combat. And throughout the period innovators for the most part perceived clear and discernible opponents and threats against whom they could work out the changes and transformations that would affect so significantly the coming war.

Our current interwar period, however, is emerging from a relatively minor conflict, the Gulf War, which pitted the coalition forces of the first world against Iraq's rag-tag collection of conscripts, a military force that focused more on protecting the regime and executing dissidents in basements rather than on warfighting skills. The Soviet Union's collapse in the late 1980s left the United States and its military forces with no discernible major opponent against whom it can size, develop, and train its military forces. Our current interwar period could last three or four decades. And the world is going through a major period of revolutionary technological change, with profound implications not only for military forces, but for the supporting social and political framework.

Indeed, the current interwar period is beginning to resemble the interwar period from 1871 to 1914. During those years, European and American societies underwent massive technological change. Electricity, telephones, the internal combustion engine, huge advances in chemistry, and the arrival of powered flight caused revolutionary transformations in societies. The implications for military organizations were equally profound and disturbing. In fact this period brought together the industrial revolution of the late 18th and 19th centuries with the mass politics of the French Revolution.

Thus, the arrival of Antulio Echevarria's After Clausewitz, German Military Thinkers before the Great War is particularly timely. As with all good history, and this is first-class military history, Echevarria suggests patterns of human and organizational behavior that should be of considerable utility in confronting the challenges of the 21st century. The substance of the book addresses how European and American military theorists and pundits (with emphasis on the Germans) addressed the knotty problems raised by the rapid changes in military technology as well as a number of the larger issues raised by the rapid transformation of society and economic power.

The traditional historical view has been that pre-World War I military theorists entirely missed the profound implications of the changes in weaponry that were taking place. Thus, by supposedly missing the exponential increases in firepower that the machine gun and rapid-firing, long-range artillery represented, Europe's military organizations made inevitable the terrible slaughter in the trenches that was to take place between August 1914 and November 1918. …