A Cult of Lethality?

November 11th marked the centennial of the end of the First World War. As usual, the anniversary of Armistice Day prompted many comparisons between now and then.[1] And while drawing historical parallels is always fraught with the risk of overreach, the similarities are nonetheless striking.[2] Most of the recent commentary has focused on the declining health of the liberal world order and the flashpoints that might spark war today. But a major factor that compounded the failure of military leaders in the years before 1914 was their inability to grasp that the world was changing around them and to recognize that their tried and tested models were no longer suitable for a new, industrialized era. Today, the United States risks making a similar mistake by failing to comprehend the changing character of warfare in the 21st-century.

After their disastrous defeat at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, French leaders were faced with the difficult task of reforming and reinvigorating their military.[3]

A mural painted in 1884 by Carl Steffeck depicts General Reille delivering Napoleon III's letter of surrender to King William I at the Battle of Sedan on 1 September 1870. (Wikimedia)

Between 1871 and 1914, normally staid military thought effervesced with ideas both new and old.[4] Perhaps the most infamous of the doctrines developed in this interregnum was the so-called French School—known derisively as the Cult of the Offensive.[5] This delusion involved the mistaken belief, zealously held by influential pre-war military thinkers that the spirit of Gallic arms—the flash of the bayonet and the weight of the cavalry charge—could win the day no matter the odds.[6] A generation of French army officers prior to the outbreak of the war were thus instilled with the concept that "returning unto its traditions, [the army] no longer knows any law other than the offensive.”[7]

But by discovering Clausewitz and emphasizing his moral force, French military leaders were preparing for yesterday’s war, not recognizing its changing contemporary character.[8,9] They were hesitant to accept that unparalleled rapid advances in technology made Napoleonic concepts of strategic maneuver obsolete. They feared the emerging tactics favoring cover and entrenchment would lead backward to “…the passivity of which the French were allegedly guilty in 1870, and destroy the moral willingness to advance and fight.”[10] Ignoring the slaughter of the final months of the American Civil War and the immobile character of the recent Russo-Japanese war, they believed in a war between conventional European armies it was the attacker who would ultimately prevail.[11]

Institutions need a shared worldview through which their behaviors can be framed. As they become well adapted to a particular worldview, as the French Army did to the offensive doctrine before the First World War, it invests the structures and mental frameworks that support that view with intrinsic value because they satisfy a need for order and security.[12] Reluctance to accept, or even to acknowledge, changes in the external environment that obviate a dominant worldview is human nature. So, once one is established, it is very difficult to change.[13] This is why it is so important to instill the right mindset from the start.[14]

Nearly twenty years of intractable conflict in the Middle East has soured the U.S. military’s brief infatuation with its most recent nascent worldview focused on low-intensity foreign internal defense and counter-terrorism operations, one dismissed by some as a “cult of counterinsurgency.”[15] In the last few years, as a revanchist Russia seized Crimea, and an emboldened China became more provocative in the South and East China Seas, military planners have searched for a new concept on which to focus, framing it in terms of the many conventional, unconventional, and hybrid threats now facing the U.S. and its allies.

A man with a Russian flag greets armed men in military fatigues blocking access to a Ukrainian border guards base not far from the village of Perevalne near Simferopol on March 3, 2014. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

The Pentagon signaled a desire to return to what it does best with the 2018 National Defense Strategy, focusing on the concept of lethality as its number one priority.[16] Almost a year after the strategy’s promulgation, it has become the department’s defining mantra, all without ever being defined.[17] And though some have questioned the wisdom of this organizing principle, a growing chorus has used it to describe everything from the acquisition of augmented reality headsets to the provision of flu shots.[18]

Make no mistake. Lethal forces are critical—indeed, the raison d’etre of militaries in the first place—but swapping one cult for another incurs risk, because it is akin to putting on conceptual blinders that, while keeping an organization focused on an immediate goal, prevent it from seeing vulnerabilities or opportunities that lie beyond its immediate field of view.

Although near-peer competitors are still building missiles, ships, and tanks, they are increasingly focused on new operational concepts and niche capabilities that create asymmetric advantages against U.S. and Allied vulnerabilities.[19] In other words, they are moving beyond mere lethality.[20] Technology continues to open new domains to war-like activities.[21] China is investing billions of dollars in artificial intelligence, determined to become a global leader in this burgeoning foundational technology by 2030.[22] Russia is accelerating its disinformation campaigns in Eastern Europe and the United States while doubling down on its already expansive suite of electronic warfare capabilities.[23]

China’s concept of informatized warfare, in particular, “…is no longer centered on the annihilation of enemy forces on the battlefield. Rather, [war] is won by the belligerent that can disrupt, paralyze, or destroy the operational capability of the enemy’s operational system.”[24]

Similarly, Russia’s doctrine of non-contact warfare stymies U.S. planners because it doesn’t fit neatly into our idea of what war is.[25] The National Defense Strategy characterizes this as “competition below the threshold of armed conflict,” but fails to consider how a more lethal force can confront it.[26] For example, consider Russia’s construction of a low bridge over the Kerch Strait connecting it to Crimea. This bridge effectively blockades Ukraine’s second and third largest ports, putting a stranglehold on the country and inviting reactions like the skirmishes on November 28th.[27]

Kerch Strait Bridge on a Russian Postage Stamp (Wikimedia)

It is an exaggeration to claim the First World War was caused by naïve leaders pursuing foolishly aggressive doctrines.[28] It is not an exaggeration, however, to say those doctrines were widely held and deeply flawed because they were unsuited for the industrial character of war that emerged as the “glorious summer” of 1914 ended.[29] Faith in the cult of the offensive was largely responsible for the enormous death toll incurred in the war’s opening months, as France suffered nearly a million casualties during the execution of Plan XVII and the Battle of the Frontiers.[30]

The years before the onset of the First World War have been characterized as the “culmination of a century of the most accelerated rate of change in man’s record.”[31] But these rapid and far-reaching changes were not accompanied by parallel advances in human understanding. Improvements in communication, weaponry, mechanization, and logistics, underwritten by expanding road and rail networks fed an increasing continental—indeed global—complexity, widening the gap between leaders’ understanding of a changing world and their own decidedly limited historical perspectives.

As a result, the First World War was unprecedented in its scale and scope. Never before had advances in organizational design, matched with advances in communications and transportation, allowed armies to kill so many, so quickly, and in so many different places. Rather than making war obsolete as some hoped, the spread of revolutionary hardware—from wireless communications and railways to machine guns and long-range artillery—combined with revolutionary social software like nationalism, resulted in the greatest wholesale slaughter in human history. Neither military leaders or national policymakers comprehended the nature of the new era they had entered, and, as one description suggests, practically sleepwalked into the war.[32]

Today the character of war is rapidly changing once again.[33] The pace of this change is even greater than during the industrial revolution; what’s more, it is increasing.[34]

The information revolution is turning the world into a fluid, shapeless whole, in which myriad actors compete for the old reasons of fear, honor, and interest, but with hitherto unimagined tools. The erosion of familiar boundaries—between war and peace, civil and military, domestic and international, even between truth and falsehood— is causing systems that were once separate to become entangled and interdependent, so the causes of specific events are often indeterminable, and affecting one node of a network can have unpredictable effects elsewhere. In this particular brave new world, connections are more important than conquests, and physical geography is less about who owns it than who can connect to and exploit it.[35] The resulting deterritorialization of violence “...makes the kind of ‘decision’ Clausewitz associated with battle difficult to achieve or even to imagine.”[36]

Like their French predecessors, U.S. policymakers and military strategists have been too slow to appreciate the changes going on around them. If the defense establishment fixates on building a more lethal force at the expense of investment in emerging areas of military competition, it will fail in these new domains, perhaps catastrophically.

Zachery Tyson Brown is an intelligence analyst, U.S. Army veteran, amateur historian, and a recent graduate of the National Intelligence University. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the position of the National Intelligence University, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: French soldiers marching in 1914. France’s uniform at the outset of the war incorporated a Napoleonic heritage, but soldiers soon discovered that bright red pants were a poor choice. (Pinterest)


[1] Nick Danforth, “The Troubling Tensions in How We Remember World War One,” War on the Rocks (November 12th, 2018). Retrieved from https://warontherocks.com/2018/11/the-troubling-tensions-in-how-we-remember-world-war-i/.

[2] Ana Swanson, “The World Today Looks Ominously Like It Did Before World War I,” The Washington Post (December 29th, 2016). Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/12/29/the-world-today-looks-ominously-like-it-did-before-world-war-i/?utm_term=.1b3456e3a342.

[3] M. Clodfelter, Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1492-2015 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017), 185 and M. Howard, The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870–1871 (London, UK: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961.

[4] Azar Gat, “Positivism, Romanticism, and Military Theory 1850 – 1870,” in Gat, A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), 307-310.

[5] Stephen Van Evera, "The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War," International Security 9/1 (1984), 58-107; Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August: The Explosive Account of the Early Days of World War I (New York, NY: History Book Club, 1962), 51.

[6] Ferdinand Foch, The Principles of War, (London, UK: Kessinger Publishing, 1903), 31-33 and Azar Gat, “The Cult of The Offensive: The Sources of French Military Doctrine 1871 – 1914,” in A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), 382.

[7] Ed. Peter H. Wilson, Warfare in Europe 1815 – 1914 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2018).

[8] Dallas D. Irvine, “The French Discovery of Clausewitz and Napoleon,” The Journal of the American Military Institute 4/3 (Autumn, 1940), 143-161. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/3038595.

[9] Carl von Clausewitz, On War ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 216-217.

[10] Azar Gat, “The Cult of The Offensive: The Sources of French Military Doctrine 1871 – 1914,” in A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017),406.

[11] Jack Snyder, The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 79-81.

[12] Jeffrey Pfeffer, “You're Still the Same: Why Theories of Power Hold over Time and Across Contexts,” Academy of Management Perspectives 27/4 (November 1st, 2013). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.5465/amp.2013.0040.

[13] Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Pre-Human Times to the French Revolution (New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2011), 451.

[14] Lianne de Vries and Aaron Bazin, “A Strategic Mindset,” The Strategy Bridge, (October 31st, 2018). Retrieved from https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/10/31/a-strategic-mindset.

[15] Michael Crowley, “The Cult of Counterinsurgency,” The American Prospect (January 4th, 2010). Retrieved from http://prospect.org/article/cult-counterinsurgency

[16] Olivia Garard, “Lethality: An Inquiry,” The Strategy Bridge (November 1st, 2018) Retrieved from https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/11/1/lethality-an-inquiry?rq=lethality.

[17] Jeff Schogol, “Why the U.S. Military is Completely Obsessed with One Word: Lethality,” The National Interest (November 8th, 2018). Retrieved from https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/why-us-military-completely-obsessed-1-word-lethality-35527.

[18] Paul Lilly, “US Army Plans to Use Hololens Headsets to ‘Increase Lethality’ of Combat Missions,” PC Gamer (November 29th, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.pcgamer.com/us-army-plans-to-use-hololens-headsets-to-increase-lethality-of-combat-missions/ and Jaimi Chafin, “Surgeon General Increasing Lethality at Wings,” Air Force Reserve Command (November 20th, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.afrc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1694931/sg-increasing-lethality-at-wings.

[19] Abigail Grace, “China’s Influence Operations Are Pinpointing America’s Weaknesses,” Foreign Policy (October 4th, 2018). Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/10/04/chinas-influence-operations-are-pinpointing-americas-weaknesses/.

[20] Maj. David Stuckenburg, Amb. R. James Woolsey, and Col. Douglas DeMaio, “Electro-Magnetic Defense Task Force 2018 Report,” Air University (November 2018). Retrieved from https://media.defense.gov/2018/Nov/28/2002067172/-1/-1/0/LP_0002_DEMAIO_ELECTROMAGNETIC_DEFENSE_TASK_FORCE.PDF.

[21] Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

[22] Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

[23] Roger N. McDermott, “Russia’s Electronic Warfare Capabilities to 2025: Challenging NATO in the Electromagnetic Spectrum,” RKK International Center for Defense and Security (September, 2017). Retrieved from https://icds.ee/wp-content/uploads/2018/ICDS_Report_Russias_Electronic_Warfare_to_2025.pdf.

[24] Jeffrey Engstrom, “Systems Confrontation and Systems Destruction Warfare: How the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare,” The RAND Corporation (2018). Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1708.html.

[25] Valery Gerasimov, "The Value of Science is in its Foresight - New Challenges Demand Rethinking Combat Operations," Military Review (2016), 23-29.

[26] Office of the Secretary of defense, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” Office of the Secretary of Defense (January 19th, 2018). Retrieved from https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.

[27] Staff, “Sea of Troubles: Explaining the Naval Clash Between Russia and Ukraine,” The Economist (November 29th, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/europe/2018/12/01/explaining-the-naval-clash-between-russia-and-ukraine.

[28] Keir A. Lieber, “The New History of World War I and What It Means for International Relations Theory,” International Security 32/2, (2007), 155–91; Scott D. Sagan, “1914 Revisited: Allies, Offense, and Instability.” International Security 11/2, (1986), 151–75; Azar Gat, “The Cult of The Offensive: The Sources of French Military Doctrine 1871 – 1914,” in A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), 400-410.

[29] Jorn Leonhard, Pandora’s Box: A History of the First World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 1.

[30] H.P Willmott, The First World War (New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley, 2003), 52; R.A. Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the First World War (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005).

[31] Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890 – 1914 (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1962), xiv.

[32] Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York, NY: Harper, 2012).

[33] Benjamin Jensen, “Emergence: The Changing Character of Competition and Conflict,” War on the Rocks (February 6th 2017). Retrieved from https://warontherocks.com/2017/02/emergence-the-changing-character-of-competition-and-conflict/; Robert H. Latiff, Future War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017).

[34] Geoffrey West, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2017), 327.

[35] Parag Khana, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization (New York, NY: Random House, 2016), 20-29.

[36] Christopher Clark, “This is Reality, Not a Threat,” The New York Review of Books (November 22nd, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/11/22/future-war-reality-not-threat/.