Future Warfare


THE director of Germany’s military effort in the last war, General Ludendorff, has recently set forth his ideas on future warfare, and his creed of national life in preparation for it. He seeks to expound the doctrine of ‘totalitarian warfare’ which should be the natural accompaniment of the Totalitarian State. Addressed to his countrymen, his message deserves attention by other peoples. It also requires examination by scientific students of war.

He opens with a heavy attack on the theories of Clausewitz, which, as he emphasizes, were the foundation on which the German plans in 1914 had been built. Clausewitz, who had died nearly a century before, moulded the minds of the leading soldiers and statesmen, not only in Germany but throughout Europe, during the generations which led up to the World War. Since then his theories have suffered some searching criticism, especially from Anglo-Saxon analysts, for their tendency to make policy the servant of strategy, and strategy little more than a straight lane to battle. The theoretical extravagance of Clausewitz’s idea of ‘absolute war’ — ‘violence pushed to its utmost bounds’ — was contrary to common sense. To use force without limit and without calculation of cost may be instinctive in a hate-maddened mob, but it is the negation of statesmanship. Germany’s exhaustion in 1918 was the natural consequence of this delusion. The conductors of her war machine, less wise than Bismarck, did not know when to stop; they went on until they tumbled into the abyss.

Although cause and effect here seem so clear, Ludendorff is still unable to see it. Through his colored glasses the fault of Clausewitz’s teaching is not that it lent itself to such extremes, but that it did not go far enough. It allowed policy too much importance, not too little. As typical of Clausewitz he cites a passage concluding, ‘The political goal is the end, and warfare is a means leading to it, and means can never be thought of without a certain end.’ To Ludendorff this is old-fashioned nonsense. The totalitarian principle demands that in war a nation should place everything at its service; and, in peace, at the service of the next war. ‘War is the highest expression of the national “will to live,” and politics must therefore be subservient to the conduct of war.’

It becomes clear that the main difference between Clausewitz and his successor is that the latter achieves what seemed unthinkable to the former, and ‘thinks’ of war as a means without an end — unless making the nation into an efficient army be considered an end in itself. This is hardly so new as Ludendorff appears to imagine. Sparta tried it, and the end of her existence lies two thousand years back.

With the aim of developing the nation for war, of creating a super-Sparta, Ludendorff’s first concern is to ensure ‘the psychical unity of the people.’ For him ‘the Christian faith, and the life shaped by it, are the prime causes of a national breakdown in the totalitarian war.’ This faith must be replaced by one ‘built on racial convictions, where life is rooted in an affined knowledge of God peculiar to itself’: to put it in simpler words — a belief in a purely German God. From this will spring a healthy nationalism in which all women will accept that their noblest task is to bear vigorous sons to ‘bear the burden of the totalitarian war,’ and all men will develop their powers for that purpose: in short — to breed, and be bred, for killing. The other positive suggestions which Ludendorff offers toward this problem of creating psychical unity boil down to little more than the age-old prescription of suppressing everyone who expresses, or even entertains, views contrary to those of the High Command.

The next need insisted on is for a sound and self-sufficient national economic system suited to the demands of totalitarian war. Ludendorff thus seems to realize that military power rests on an economic foundation. Yet, curiously, when he dwells on the crippling difficulties suffered in the last war and gives striking evidence of the effect of the Allied blockade, he does not see how this reflects on his belief that wars are decided by battle between the armies. For the only point of praise which he can give Germany’s old guide in war is that ‘Clausewitz only thinks of the annihilation of the hostile armies in battle.’ To Ludendorff this remains ‘an immutable principle,’ although it is a theory which has rarely been borne out in practice during the century since Clausewitz died. Happily for Ludendorff, he is not troubled by historical facts when they present obstacles to his faith.


Let us now study his picture of the way that the totalitarian war will be waged. It should open without a declaration of war — lest the people of the nation which declares war should feel any guilty sense of being the aggressors. Within a few hours of the decision to make war, air, land, and sea striking forces must reach their full war readiness. The rest of the air force and navy will complete their mobilization by the second day, and the rest of the land forces a few days later. Hostilities will have already begun with the dispatch of the mechanized divisions near the frontier to force an entry into the enemy country. On the seas the surface and submarine attack on the enemy’s commerce will coincide with this opening stroke. ‘The focusing point of the war now lies in sending air formations to gain air superiority over the enemy, to strike at the advance of the enemy’s army by rail or otherwise, and also at aerodromes. Air battles will ensue.’ It may be worth while also to bomb important industrial towns. Within forty-eight hours or less, the navy should sail to seek decisive battle with the foe. The main land advance may begin a little later, because of the masses that will have to be brought up — and these will have to come by rail, since motors will be inadequate to carry the numbers. ‘There is no doubt that by the end of the second week of war operations will be in full progress everywhere.’ Battle will follow battle till the enemy is finally crushed, or till reserves of men and material run out. ‘In the wars waged by continental countries the decision lies on land.’ The air force must first be used to help in beating the opposing army; only then will the army be able to act ‘with its air force’ against the enemy country in rear.

Land, air, and sea action all have in common the fight to bring about a superiority of fire over the enemy. Nevertheless this will not suffice ‘to bring about the annihilation of the enemy.’ ‘The final decision on land will lie in the fight of man against man, tank against man, or tank against tank’ — how a tank can destroy a tank, any more than a warship can destroy a warship, except by fire, Ludendorff does not explain. For him the land battle is still a process in which the infantry is helped forward by artillery, machine guns, mortar and tank support, until it ‘overwhelms the enemy in a man-to-man fight.’ Furthermore, ‘attack is always the deciding factor in battles.’ Army battles with army, supported by aircraft; navy battles with navy, supported by aircraft; and ‘in air battles air squadrons fight one another.’ All movements should lead to battle; mechanization simply quickens the rush to battle.

He has no moral objection to striking direct against the enemy people — ‘the demands of totalitarian warfare . . . will ever ignore the cheap theoretical desire to abolish unrestricted U-boat warfare.’ And aircraft will now combine with submarines in sinking every vessel which tries to reach the enemy’s ports, ‘even vessels sailing under neutral flags.’ Likewise on land a time will come ‘when bombing squadrons must inexorably and without pity be sent against’ the people in the enemy country. But on military grounds, which are the ruling considerations, that time should normally be delayed until the battles have been won.

Ludendorff declares that technical means are becoming ever more important, yet clings to the old belief that strength lies in numbers — ‘it is a fact that viclory “goes to the big battalions."‘ Hence ‘the totalitarian war demands the incorporation in the army of every man fit to bear arms.’ He admits that the conditions of war require the fighting man to be increasingly individualistic, yet assumes that this is compatible with the strictest discipline, and fails to reflect that the Totalitarian State is hardly the soil in which such individualism can flourish. He has a welcome for every new weapon and instrument, but rarely appears to consider how they may affect each other. He conveys no clear picture, and seems to have none himself, of the different factors of war in rela tion to each other.

His message would seem to be: multiply every kind of force as much as you can, and you will get somewhere — but where he neither worries nor wonders about. The one thing on which he is really clear is that ‘the Commander-in-Chief must lay down his instructions for the political leaders, and the latter must follow and fulfill them in the service of warfare.’

What is offered in return for this claim to unlimited power for the military chief, this demand for a blank check on the resources of the nation? A faith, certainly — if it requires limitless faith to swallow it. The main articles of Ludendorff’s creed might be phrased thus: ‘I believe in a pure German God, the maker of the German nation in arms; and in the Commanderin-Chief, his only son and representative on earth. I believe in the almighty power of numbers — in battle as the means of winning war; in attack as the means of winning battle; and in the hand-to-hand fight as the ultimate means of overcoming the enemy’s resistance.‘


While it is clear that Ludendorff’s faith is built on the traditional military theory, despite his sweeping repudiation of the theorists, and that it is essentially derived from the past, it is difficult to find solid support for it even in past experience. It is easier to find the wars where battle did not prove decisive than where it did. Take the first great war of modern history — the Thirty Years’ War. There were many battles in which one army was virtually destroyed, yet none had any decisive influence on the struggles. The mutual exhaustion had such effect, however, and made so deep an impression on military thought, that for nearly two centuries the average general was chary of fighting battles at all, while even the great ones took care only to fight when, by chance or by strategy, the dice were loaded heavily in their favor — when, as Saxe said, there was ‘all imaginable reason to expect the victory . . . without trusting anything to accident.’

There was a change when Napoleon came on the scene. A Corsican, not a Frenchman; a supreme careerist, not a true patriot, he was unchecked in pursuing his ambitions by any sense of responsibility for the ultimate welfare of his country as apart from himself. If his dreams were boundless, he took short views, since his horizon was his own life span. Time was always against him; and he needed quick results. Now, whatever be the difficulties of winning a war by a battle, it is the quickest means — if it can be achieved. Hence his predisposition for this means.

In adopting it, too, he was helped by new assets. First was the newly introduced organization of the army in independent divisions, — whereby, instead of being a single body, it grew limbs, — with which it could grip the enemy at one point while it struck him elsewhere. This made it easier to force a battle on the enemy, to take him at a disadvantage, and to concentrate strength against weakness — while hindering the enemy’s concentration. Another asset was the new mobility. The Revolutionary armies could no longer maintain, or be maintained by, the old elaborate supply system. They had to find a new flexible system; they had to secure their supplies where they could; they had to learn to live sparsely and march light. The troops themselves could not be kept in the old stiff-drilled formations, nor restrained to a slow pace for the sake of symmetry. But they could cover the country much faster than their opponents, and made rings round them on the battlefield. A further asset was the new artillery methods — of concentrating fire rapidly against key points; of disorganizing the resistance by this blasting fire before the assault was launched.

But even in Napoleon’s hands unlimited battle ultimately proved an unlimited liability. The military splendor of the Napoleonic age fixed the worship of battle like a yoke round the neck of soldiers. Yet the later Napoleonic wars were not decided by battles. Napoleon destroyed the Spanish armies only to find his trouble beginning. And it was not by battles that the Spanish guerrillas undermined his power in Spain, and started his general ruin. Napoleon beat the Russian armies, but he did not beat Russia. The Russians wrecked his army by avoiding battle until Generals Hunger and Winter could get to work, and his real downfall was consummated in 1814 — when the Allies sealed his fate by swooping on Paris while he was trying to tempt them to meet him in battle.

The American Civil War saw plenty of battles — and Lee’s failure to win a victory at Gettysburg certainly damped the hopes of the South. But it was Sherman’s back-door entry into the South, his strategic march through Georgia and the Carolinas, which undermined the will of the Confederacy by an attack on their supplies and the morale of the people.

The last war was filled with battles, yet the most that the historian can fairly say is that they were a contributory factor — one of many, the main factor in the collapse of Germany being economic pressure. On this point there is Haig’s own confession, at the end of October, 1918: ‘Germany is not broken in a military sense. During the last weeks her armies have withdrawn ... in excellent order.’ The Allied armies were exhausted, and needed to be reorganized before they could follow up. But Germany was broken internally — by hunger, sickness, and despair. Her breakdown developed directly from military disappointment — from the depression which spread when her own offensive in the spring failed to bring the victory that Ludendorff had promised. But the foundations of her resistance had been undermined by the Allied blockade.

The abortiveness of battle as a means of winning wars can be traced to the declining power of the attack to overcome defense. This condition was due to the growing power of modern firearms, and had been long in evolution. It was first manifest in the American Civil War, where it came to be a standard calculation that one man in a trench was equal to three or four in an assault. In Europe the wars of 1866 and 1870 brought fresh evidence of the paralyzing influence of fire, although the brevity of those wars tended to obscure it. Nevertheless, after the second, the winning strategist, von Moltke, drew the conclusion that his victory could not be repeated, and enunciated the lesson that ‘as a result of the improvement of firearms the tactical defensive has acquired a great advantage over the offensive. ... It seems to be more advantageous to proceed to an attack only after having repelled several attacks by the enemy.’ His warning was lost on his successors. Their optimistic view, as expressed by von der Goltz, was: ‘The idea of the greater strength of the defense is a mere delusion.’ The optimism was shared in France, where, near the end of the century, the future Marshal Foch coined the axiom that ‘any improvement in firearms is bound to strengthen the offensive’ — and proved it to his own satisfaction by specious arithmetic. British experience in the war against the Boers showed the fallacy of such assumptions, but was merely regarded in Europe as evidence of the frailty of the British attacks. Then came the Russo-Japanese War, which foreshadowed nearly all the factors which upset military calculations in 1914 — the paralyzing power of machine guns, the hopelessness of frontal attacks, and the consequent relapse of the armies into trenches. But military optimism was even more impregnable — to the assault of facts. To ardent soldiers war was unthinkable without successful attack, so that they were able to persuade themselves that attacks could succeed. The delusive basis of that faith was quickly exposed when the World War began, and was made clearer still when the trench deadlock set in — for four years. And it is significant that the only great battles which had far-reaching results before morale had broken down were those which took the form of a counterstroke after the enemy had spent himself in vain attacks — the Allied victories in the first and second battles of the Marne, the German victories at Tannenberg, Gorlice, and Caporetto. Yet none of the commanders at the outset, and hardly any later, showed remembrance of Moltke’s advice, or were willing to delay their own offensive dreams until they had dispelled the enemy’s.

The historical basis of the belief in the hand-to-hand fight is equally false, and it reacts on the belief in numbers. For a century the military manuals of Europe continued to emphasize the decisive importance of physical shock, echoing Clausewitz’s dictum: ‘The close combat, man to man, is plainly to be regarded as the real basis of combat.’ The French doctrine of 1914 fervently declared that the object of all attacks was ‘to charge the enemy with the bayonet in order to destroy him.’ Something might be claimed for it if the emphasis had been on the psychological effect of a close-quarter threat, but the time and attention devoted to bayonet training showed that the bayonet fight was regarded as a reality. Yet even in the eighteenth century a practical soldier like Guibert had remarked its rarity, while Jomini was but one of a number of witnesses of the Napoleonic battles who said that, except in villages and defiles, he had ‘never seen two forces cross bayonets.’ Half a century later Moltke would point out the fallacy of the French assertion that the victory at Solferino had been won by the bayonet. In 1870 French troops were to pay heavily against Prussian fire for this delusion among their leaders, yet Boguslawski records that in actual fact ‘bayonets were never crossed in open fight.’ But there are over two thousand years of experience to tell us that the only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.

Only in conditions where shock was a practical possibility could the theory of massing superior numbers be effective. It was difficult to adjust it to conditions where one man with a machine gun might count for more than a score, or a hundred, or sometimes even a thousand, who were advancing upon him with the bayonet. As the capacity to make such an adjustment proved to be lacking, the formula of victory became merely a formula of futility — and death. The more ranks of attackers, the more swaths of dead — that was all. The fallacy was proved most emphatically of all by the Germans against the Russians; by their superior weapons and technique the Germans utterly discounted the vastly superior numbers of their Eastern Front opponent. The ‘big battalions’ merely made big cemeteries, burdened their own communications to breaking point, and bankrupted their own country’s power. Yet the lesson is largely lost on the man who directed the German forces. After twenty years for reflection he resuscitates these delusions for application in another war.

Nevertheless we should be unwise to ignore them, and to accept instead the popular assumption that the next war will be waged in the air with the contending powers each seeking to destroy the enemy’s capital and bomb the people into surrender.


It is worth while to approach the problem of future warfare along Ludendorff’s paths, not because his idea of the result is likely to prove real, but because it shows what is likely to be attempted. It is a guide to the outlook which still prevails among the military chiefs of Europe, to the persistence of obsolete conceptions along with new weapons, and to the consequent confusion of military thought. The general trend of the rearmament race now in progress fosters this by piling up numbers and by feeding the military chiefs with more means than their minds can assimilate. Ludendorff’s is a fair representation of what may occur at the outset, if not in the issue, of a future war.

Mechanization has given the General Staffs a new ground for belief in mobile warfare — the picture to which armies always revert in peacetime, along with a renewed confidence in the speedy success of their own attacks. Prolonged as was the resistance which the military authorities everywhere offered to the idea of mechanization, now that they have embraced it they build expectations on it which dumbfound a sober and long-standing advocate of this inevitable evolution. In many countries they have burst out into prophecy that trench warfare is a thing of the past, and that the wars of the future will be fought and finished with a quickness hitherto unknown.

For the initial movements, mechanized troops certainly offer a great advantage over those who have to march on foot or be brought forward by rail. This is the more important because of the growth of new fortifications along the frontiers; the prospects of an invasion will obviously be handicapped if the enemy is given time to man these with the reserves that become available on mobilization. Thus there is little doubt that the new mechanized divisions which the European armies now possess will be used in the first hours of war, with the aim of penetrating the enemy’s frontier and opening the way for the subsequent general advance. All the General Staffs are trending toward this new picture, in which the first phase of a war is fought out by the mechanized part of their forces actually available, instead of waiting, as in 1914, until the main strength of the army has been assembled.

But there is reason to doubt whether this mechanized spearhead will produce the decisive advantage which is sought. The chances are against this, unless the enemy is not only taken unawares but is himself unmechanized. For, in the first place, obstruction is the natural antidote to the power of delivering mobile strokes which mechanization has revived. By utilizing rivers, canals, and railways as barriers, by demolishing bridges and blocking defiles, the defender may go far to nullify the new menace. Moreover, mechanization itself enables the means of obstruction and demolition to be moved more swiftly to any threatened spot. And the defenders’ mechanized troops, having less risk of being checked by hostile obstructions, may be switched to meet the danger faster than the mechanized attackers can develop it. Despite the apparent advantage that mechanization has brought to the offensive, its reënforcement of the defensive may prove greater still.

While the prospects of this initial stroke by the mechanized forces are slight, they are bright compared with those that await the main masses of the European armies. Even if these come close enough to strike, what ground is there for expecting that they will make more impression on the defense than in the last war? The main weapon that then stopped them was the machine gun: there is now a far higher proportion of machine guns, light and heavy, in all armies. The weapon on which the attackers mainly relied to overcome the defending machine gun in the last war was artillery: there is far less artillery now in all armies than in 1918. Even if this could be increased to the wartime scale, it is a weapon that, when used in mass, tends to block the path of the infantry it is trying to help. By ploughing up the ground, it acts as an automatic military brake. Furthermore, it increases the encumbrance by the mass of transport required to supply its heavy appetite for shells. Armor, in the form of the tank, proved a better means in the last war of helping the attack forward; but armor used in a direct assault against organized defense would now seem to have lost much of its value through the great and widespread development of armorpiercing weapons — there are now highly efficient anti-tank machine guns, and even rifles, as well as guns.

There are greater possibilities in the skillful use of obscurity as a cloak to the attack. Fog, natural or artificial, and darkness are the best antidotes to the defensive machine gun. The risks of obscurity are mainly those of confusion; they are certainly less than those of annihilation, by machine guns with a clear field of fire, and they can be much reduced by training. The superiority of highly trained troops over normal troops is much more pronounced in the dark than in daylight. Such a level of training, however, is difficult to attain during practice in mass armies raised by conscription.

But the greater question that affects these mass armies is whether they will ever reach the battlefield. Their approach must be made by roads and railways; they will crowd these arteries which now, for several hundred miles back, lie under the menace of air attack. Their immense demands in food and ammunition supply require a continuous circulation along these arteries; thus the strain and the susceptibility to interruption are maintained all the way back even when the armies themselves have passed on. To gauge what might happen it is worth studying the process of mobilization and assembly in 1914. Despite all the care and effort devoted to its machinery there were hitches which caused serious trouble, and threatened worse. Yet in 1914 there was no interference from the enemy such as is certain to-day through the intervention of air power — from bombs on the bridges and rail junctions as well as on the trains and marching columns themselves; probably also from mustard gas sprayed over the roads, stations, bivouacs, and supply depots. There is no need to assume that the devastation will be as overwhelming as popular imagination and air enthusiasm picture. The complexity and delicacy of the process of mobilizing and moving forward an army are such that a mere touch, or series of touches, may well suffice to cause its collapse. The larger the army, and the more its mobilization process is speeded up, the more susceptible it will be to dislocation because the greater will be the congestion of all the traffic arteries.

If the opponent should employ mustard gas, the paralysis of war is still more probable. For in the fighting zone mustard gas is most effective as a defensive blocking agent; it constitutes the most impassable, if invisible, barrier to advance, especially advance by armies composed of infantry; while in the rear zone it is essentially a dislocating agent, upsetting administrative arrangements and traffic circulation. But mustard gas is not essential to produce this stagnation. Machine guns and demolitions should suffice to stop an advancing army; air bombs acting on inherent congestion behind should suffice to prevent it remaining where it has stopped. Blocked in front, the mass army is likely to break down in the rear. If the maintenance of such armies is straining the resources of the nations in peace, in war the attempt to use them threatens national bankruptcy.

The attempt to seek victory in battle at sea has hardly more promise. Here again there is no need to imagine that the battle fleets will be bombed to destruction. If the battle fleets of the last war were deterred from meeting each other by the menace of the submarine and the mine, how much more likely is such a paralyzing effect now that to these weapons are added the new dangers introduced by shorebased aircraft and torpedo-carrying speedboats — the little ‘ sea-sleds ’ which are fast multiplying in many navies.

As for battle in the air, here at present is a sphere where the offensive is superior to the defensive. But that offensive need not take the form of striking at the hostile air forces; it is simpler, far simpler than it has ever been on land, to strike direct at the sources of the enemy’s power without first breaking through his shielding forces. The spaces of the air are so vast and the speeds of aircraft are becoming so high that it is waste of effort to fight when it is possible to slip past. Faithful to military tradition, some of the air forces, especially when under the control of conventional soldiers, may set out to defeat their aerial opponents; but, if so, they stand to lose the war while they are pursuing the battle.

For, coincidently and subsequently, economic pressure will be in progress in all its varied forms — as even Ludendorff foresees. With the growth of social and industrial organization, economic targets have proportionately outgrown military targets, and they have become more sensitive as the latter have become less vulnerable. The complex web of a nation’s commerce and industry, its administration and supply, can be easily torn. Externally the flow of its supplies can be more easily reduced to stagnation now that its trade routes are exposed to attack from shore-based aircraft and other war agents of interference.


Military wisdom now lies, not in amassing armies, but in diminishing national vulnerability. This is a compound of factors. The very industry that augments a nation’s strength for military action may produce a counterbalancing degree of vulnerability. And the centralization of industry may counteract the growth of industry from a military point of view. Every means of reducing and dispersing targets, and also of decreasing their sensitiveness, should be studied and sought. The preparedness of the people is no less important. As safeguards against air attack, for example, education and understanding count at least as much as concrete measures for the provision of anti-aircraft weapons and shelters. A sturdy individualism based on a régime of reason and freedom, so long as it does not relapse into inertia, may withstand the shocks better than the emotionalism bred by totalitarianism, with its insistence on mass psychology and incessant appeal to mass sentiment. The self-reliant individual, capable of thinking for himself, has a better chance of adaptation to the unexpected. And the one certainty about modern war is that it is more uncertain than it ever was.

As compared with to-day, it was simple to make military calculations in 1914. To launch a war then was no worse a hazard than backing the favorite — even so, the favorite has often lost. But to-day it is like backing a horse that has never run, and whose breeding even is unknown. If calculation ruled the rulers, they would surely abstain from aggression. But ambitious and warlike rulers are apt to prove the most hardened of gamblers. Napoleon is their patron saint — and there never was a worse case of obstinate self-delusion than his triumphal assurance on the march to Moscow. His kind may still produce gamblers of that kind. But they carry their own antidote so long as they concentrate on building armies for battle, and thereby burden their war organization with a weight it can no longer safely bear. There would be more reason to fear them if they were to develop a new art of war aiming at paralysis rather than annihilation, and operating by multiple pressure without combat: a superguerrilla warfare aimed at the sources instead of at the face of the enemy’s armed power, and striking at the greatest number of points — economic, political, and psychological — over the widest area, without offering a target or coming to a clinch.