Part Two of excerpts from War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today, by Max Boot:
Taking advantage of major innovations usually requires what James Q. Wilson calls a "change-oriented personality"--someone like John Hawkins, Gustavus Adolphus, or Curtis LeMay who is not afraid to shake up conventional ways of doing things. Fundamental changes can be preached from the outside but seldom imposed by civilians on a professional military. Consider the lack of success that J.F.C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart had in the 1930s preaching the gospel of armored warfare to the British army.
The most successful innovators have tended to be people like Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (chief of the Prussian General Staff during the 19th Century Wars of German Unification), Admiral William Moffett (father of American naval aviation in the 1920s), General Hap Arnold (chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II), and General Heinz Guderian (the blitzkrieg pioneer): insiders not outsiders. At best, civilians can play a supporting role in aiding military mavericks against their bureaucratic foes, though popular accounts tend to overstate the influence of flamboyant rebels such as Billy Mitchell.
Western states have been the most successful military innovators over the past 500 years. Having a relatively liberal political and intellectual climate, of the kind that the West developed toward the end of the Middle Ages, helps to create an atmosphere in which innovation can flourish. The Soviet Union's lack of freedom ultimately sabotaged its attempts to keep pace in the Information Age, just as the lack of freedom in Spain and France made it difficult for them to keep pace in a naval arms race with first the Netherlands and then Britain.
But we should be wary of simple-minded democratic triumphalism. History has offered many examples of autocratic states that proved more adept than their democratic rivals at exploiting military revolutions. The success of the Prussian/German armed forces between 1864-1942 and of the Japanese between 1895-1942 shows how well even autocratic systems can innovate. All that is required is some degree of openness to change, a commitment to meritocracy, and an ability to critically examine one's own mistakes—all disciplines in which the illiberal German General Staff excelled. In fact, most democracies, which tend to be less militaristic than autocracies, face a disadvantage in taking advantage of military innovations because they are less inclined to be generous to their armed forces in peacetime: a problem that plagued all of the nations of the West during the 1930s.
Nor is there much evidence to suggest that soldiers fight better for a democracy than for a dictatorship. Man for man, the Wehrmacht was probably the most formidable fighting force in the world until at least 1943, if not later. German soldiers were even known for showing more initiative than the soldiers of democratic France, Britain, and America. Meanwhile, Soviet soldiers stoically endured privations and casualties far beyond anything suffered by their Western allies.
But if democracies do not have an advantage in creating formidable war machines, they do seem to have an intrinsic edge in figuring out how to use them. Autocracies tend to run amok because of the lack of internal checks and balances. Philip II, Gustavus Adolphus, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Wilhelm II, Hitler—they all built superb militaries but ultimately led their nations into ruinous wars. They had no sense of limits, and no other politician was strong enough to stop them. Their tactics may have been superb, but their grand strategy was lousy, the best examples being Napoleon's and Hitler's foolhardy invasions of Russia. Democracies sometimes overreach too (witness the Boer, Algerian, and Vietnam Wars), but they tend to avoid the worst traps because they have a more consensual style of decision-making.
The key to successful innovation, whether for a dictatorship or a democracy, is having an effective bureaucracy. This was the chief advantage enjoyed by Elizabeth I over Philip II in the Battle of the Spanish Armada (1588), Emperor Meiji over Czar Nicholas II at the Battle of Tsushima (1905), Adolf Hitler over Édouard Daladier in the Battle of France (1940), and the two George Bushes over Saddam Hussein. Prussia's secret weapon in the 19th century was not the needle gun or the railroad or the telegraph. It was the general staff, which figured out how to utilize these innovations.
Bureaucracies are so important because, as War Made New has repeatedly stressed, the realization of a Revolution in Military Affairs requires far more than simply revolutionary technology. It also requires revolutions in organization, doctrine, training, and personnel. That is what the Swedes achieved in the early 17th century when they crafted mixed-arms formations made up of pikemen and musketeers, what the Prussians achieved in the mid-19th century when they figured out how to rapidly mobilize and move large numbers of riflemen by railroad, what the Japanese achieved in the 1930s when they decided to group aircraft carriers together in strike groups, and what the Americans achieved in the 1980s when they integrated smart bombs, sensors, stealth, and professional soldiers in the AirLand Battle doctrine.
Bureaucratic innovation can seldom be limited to the military alone because armed forces are always a reflection, however refracted, of the broader society. Each military epoch comes with its own distinctive system of governance. The rise of the Gunpowder Age fostered the growth of absolute monarchies. The First and Second Industrial Ages fostered giant welfare and warfare states. The Information Age is leading to a more decentralized, flatter form of government and the rise of more powerful non-governmental groups. States that fail to keep up with these transformations risk getting run over by those that do.
In lieu of the right bureaucratic structures, the possession of modern weaponry is of dubious utility, as the states of the modern Middle East have found out. No matter how great the Arab preponderance in men and materiel—and against Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973 their advantage appeared, on paper at least, to be insuperable—they have continuously contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The armies of Russia and the United States were far more competent, but in Afghanistan and Chechnya, Vietnam and Iraq, they, too, found themselves stymied by smaller, poorer adversaries, largely because their armed forces were not properly configured for counter-guerrilla warfare. This does not mean that modern military hardware is useless—only that by itself it is not enough to guarantee victory against a clever, determined adversary. When combined with the right organization, doctrine, training, leadership, etc., however, sophisticated weaponry can confer a decided advantage even in battling irregular foes.
Next: the danger of too little change--and too much.