Doctrine Is Not Enough: The Effect of Doctrine on the Behavior of Armies

By Johnston, Paul | Parameters, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Doctrine Is Not Enough: The Effect of Doctrine on the Behavior of Armies


Johnston, Paul, Parameters


What effect does doctrine ever really have on an army's behavior? That's a strange question, perhaps, for a journal such as this. At least since the founding of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) in 1973, there has been a great deal of debate in the US Army and wider defense community about what doctrine should be: attritional? maneuverist? AirLand Battle? More recently, further doctrinal debates have emerged about jointness and the "revolution in military affairs." All such discussions seem to assume that doctrine--formal written doctrine--really matters, that it is what determines how an army will fight. Is that true? A survey of the history of armies and their doctrines suggests that, in fact, doctrine has a weak-or perhaps a better way to put it would be "indirect"--effect on the actual behavior of armies in battle. Fundamentally, how armies fight may be more a function of their culture than of their doctrine.

Just What is "Doctrine" Anyway?

Disconcertingly, the very meaning of "doctrine" in the military sense is not altogether easy to get at. Today, the US Army officially defines doctrine as: "Fundamental principles by which the military forces or elements thereof guide their actions in support of national objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgment in application." [1] The word doctrine springs from the Latin doctrina, meaning teaching, [2] and was originally used in a religious context by Roman Catholics to designate the body of correct beliefs taught by the church. This original concept has been adopted by militaries to describe the body of concepts and precepts which they teach. But there has always been a strong element of the written word to doctrine. Doctrine is what is written down, usually at the highest levels, for dissemination throughout an army, the usual intention being therefore to instruct and standardize. In this sense, military doctrine has roots in the earliest drill manuals, which date back at least to the time of Maurice of Nassau at the beginning of the 17th century, outlining the precise tactical evolutions in which all troops were to be trained. [3] The modem concept, however, goes considerably beyond this; indeed, like the official definition above, modern writers of doctrine are generally at pains to avoid prescribing overly precise, drill-like procedures. They are seeking rather to describe the conceptual framework of how best to prosecute military operations.

This is an approach that developed over the course of the 19th century; neither Wellington nor Napoleon had doctrinal manuals describing for them the principles of war and what approach they should take toward operations. However, even while Napoleon was still campaigning, the famous Swiss military commentator Baron Henri Jomini began publishing works purporting to explain Napoleon's method. This approach gathered momentum throughout the 19th century. As militaries professionalized and standardized (and bureaucratized), there came about an increasing tendency to formalize not just the tactical details of drill, but the very approach to war that higher commanders should take. Perhaps to a certain extent this was driven by the proliferation of staff and war colleges, and this approach was not without its critics. Some argued that such a prescriptive attitude stifled original thought and led to "doctrinaire" solutions to military problems, [4] but by 1914 this approach was quite firmly established in all major Western forces, to a greater or lesser extent.

Doctrine, then, is the officially sanctioned approach to military actions--the considered opinion as to the best way to go about things, if you will. More specifically, it is found in certain official texts. [5] In other words, it is meant to form behavior--specifically, the behavior of armies in battle. This, however, raises a real question of cause and effect: To what extent does doctrine actually affect behavior in battle?

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