In 1904, war broke out between Tsarist Russia and Imperial Japan; Western nations sent observers to the seat of war to observe the effect of modern technology on the character of warfare. The British Indian Army’s lead observer was Lieutenant General Sir Ian Hamilton, an infantryman and veteran of several significant colonial wars, including the First and Second Boer Wars, and who would later command the forces of the British Empire at Gallipoli during World War I. Attached to the Imperial Japanese Army advancing from the Korean peninsula northward, Hamilton observed a succession of battles in which the modern, disciplined, and well-led Japanese forces defeated the poorly commanded Russian field army. Russian forces, using equipment, methods, and tactics largely unchanged since the Crimean War of half a century earlier, were simply outclassed by the Japanese. Incompetent Russian generalship flattered the attacking Japanese army, which nevertheless suffered grievous casualties and was often unable to exploit success as a result. The lesson Hamilton reported back to the British Indian Army was that, even on the early-twentieth-century battlefield, disciplined and determined infantry would always carry the day—even against entrenched positions. If Hamilton had been present at the Japanese army’s attempts to force its way through the modern defences of Port Arthur, far to the south, he would have seen a very different picture: piles of Japanese infantry hanging on barbed wire, stopped in their tracks by machine guns and artillery fire. Inevitably perhaps, Hamilton, a former commandant of the British Army’s School of Musketry, formed an analysis based on unconscious bias. Dr. Philip Towle quoted described it this way, in Richard Connaughton’s Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear:
The British armed forces tried harder to learn from the Russo-Japanese War than from any foreign war before or since, as the number of officers sent as observers and the number of official histories clearly demonstrated. But each observer tended to draw lessons which reinforced his own belief and the interests of his regiment or corps.
Only ten years later the results of his bias would be made clear to Hamilton at the Dardanelles. That bias is known as presentism—privileging the observed present over the experience of the past—and it is a growing trend in those whose job is to direct military strategy.
Of course, there is more to bias than merely the turning of a blind eye to inconvenient evidence. After the end of World War I, Major General J.F.C. Fuller, the military theorist and arch-advocate of tank warfare, would claim that the tank had completely revolutionized warfare. Throughout the interwar period, Fuller was outspoken in his belief that the modern battlefield was no place for cavalry, infantry, or unmechanized artillery. In future wars between Western nations, he claimed that the tank alone would dominate the battlefield, maneuvering in vast formations, akin to naval fleets, across the terrain of Europe, leaving the role of infantry as mere occupiers of territory, mopping up already broken enemy resistance in the wake of the landships. Although his intellect was widely admired, Fuller’s theories met with a mixed reception in the United Kingdom, something he ascribed to the innate conservatism of the British military. They were, however, viewed with interest by Soviet military theorists and consumed wholeheartedly by pioneers of the German panzerwaffe like Colonel Heinz Guderian. As a result, Germany pushed ahead with the creation of armored formations dominated by tanks, adopting tactics in which tanks and aviation, acting as flying artillery, would strike deep into enemy territory, dislocating and disrupting the defenders, using shock to paralyze them. The German infantry followed on in horse-drawn transport and on foot, in the manner of their predecessors, reducing any remaining resistance. The successful application of these tactics against Poland in the autumn of 1939, and against West European nations in the spring and early summer of 1940, appeared to vindicate Fuller’s theory. Operation Barbarossa would prove its undoing, as German tank formations left their infantry and combat service support elements trailing many miles behind, forcing the tanks to slow or even halt, unable to exploit the tanks’ advances and thereby allowing Soviet defending forces to regroup. Additionally, the tank was found to be far more vulnerable than the theory suggested. The solution to this problem was a combined arms approach as identified by officers like Lieutenant Hermann Balck, whose Chir River valley operation remains a model of combined arms maneuver. Tanks fought best not when operated independently, but when fought in mixed formations protected by, and protecting, infantry and artillery. Despite the evidence, Fuller would remain an enthusiast for all-tank formations until his death in 1966.
Single-issue zealotry in military affairs, of the kind demonstrated by Fuller, is far from a twentieth-century curiosity. Recent and ongoing conflicts in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe have been used to promote the pet theories of zealots, often against the run of evidence. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020 is a suitable case study, providing any number of lessons, depending on the enthusiasms of the teacher. The war has been used to prove that the tank is dead as a weapon of war, that the tank remains a useful weapon in a combined arms context, that the drone has replaced the manned aircraft, and even that urban warfare has become the dominant and decisive environment. Like scavengers picking over a carcass, each advocate is keen to get the lion’s share. Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnically majority Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan. The collapse of the Soviet Empire in the early 1990s led to the growth of a separatist movement that claimed independence for the enclave, which it named the Republic of Artsakh, enjoying military support from both Armenia and Russia. Over the next quarter century, the conflict rumbled on, until in the autumn of 2020 Azerbaijan sought a definite military solution. The Nagorno-Karabakh War was a classic combined arms maneuver battle, albeit fought with some novel methods and technology. The Armenian and Artsakh side operated a formidable and integrated radar-controlled antiaircraft defense system; the Azerbaijanis knew it would be expensive and difficult to try to penetrate this “snow dome” conventionally. Instead, by flooding the airspace in front of Artsakh territory with antiquated aircraft and drones they forced the Armenian operators to activate their defense system, generating recognizable radiation signatures, and giving away the defensive system’s shape and position. Precise targeting by Azerbaijani artillery and loitering munitions destroyed the identified positions, gifting the Azerbaijanis air superiority and allowing ground-based formations to break in, disrupting Armenian and Artsakh defenses and shattering cohesion. Simultaneously and at high tempo, long-range artillery and aerial assets were used to seal the battlefield, preventing Armenian reinforcement. This was the decisive moment of the war, a surprise attack creating shock among the defenders, leading to their psychological and physical collapse. The final act of the war was the capture of the city of Shusha, the key defensive position protecting the capital of the breakaway enclave. Contrary to the evidence, it has been claimed by some that the fight for the city was, in fact, the decisive action. This interpretation is correct only in the same sense that World War II in Europe ended on the streets of Berlin; the final act was a consequence of decisive action, not the cause of decision itself. The lessons that can be extracted from the war are clear: Tanks operating in combined arms formations proved effective, while tanks that did not proved vulnerable. Airpower, much of which was remotely piloted, proved critical for success. If the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War proved anything, it was that age-old problems could be solved in age-old ways, supported by modern technology.
The existential threat to military thought comes not from bias, misinterpretation, or misrepresentation; after all, historical investigation and the use of evidence are the stock in trade of students of war. Rather, it comes from those who reject or ignore history as a source of understanding. The danger of this approach is that by rejecting the lessons of the past and inflating the importance of evidence from the present, military development becomes rudderless, its guiding star merely a vision of a possible future, creating “a witch’s brew of high-tech fantasies and basic unpreparedness” of the type that unhinged the Israel Defense Forces in the country’s 2006 war with Hezbollah. The current struggle for the intellectual soul of militaries is thus one between those who are guided by history and those guided by science fiction. In his Christmas speech to the Royal United Service Institute in 2018, then Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter asserted a view that the world is experiencing a period of political instability unparalleled in over a century. This belief, combined with the observation that technology and its effect on society are advancing at an unprecedented rate, have become key drivers of military transformation. Evidentially, believers in this notion of exceptional instability point to recent, multiple emergent threats to what they term the liberal rules-based system—the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014, Chinese attempts to control access to the South China Sea, and the actions of belligerents in civil wars in Syria and Yemen. At the same time, technologists use advances in information and cyber technology, artificial intelligence, and autonomy to rationalize their own arguments regarding military transformation. Their case seems compelling from an early-twenty-first-century perspective. But perhaps more important than what is seen—the trends of eroding stability and rapidly growing technological advancement—is the lens through which these are viewed. When that lens is characterized by presentism and neophilia, rather than placing the present in the context of history, the consequences may be dire.
In 2022, Ukraine and the Baltic republics are arguably menaced not by cyber effects, information warfare, or influence operations, but by tanks and artillery of which some Western armies have largely divested themselves. Perhaps the lesson that should be learned, possibly too late, is that the character of war changes by evolution, not revolution, and that revolutionary solutions to age-old problems should only be adopted based on facts, not science fiction.
Paul Barnes is a serving warrant officer in the British Army with almost thirty years’ military experience. He served on operations in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Afghanistan and is currently employed as a doctrine writer at the British Army’s Land Warfare Centre. He is a Chief of the General Staff’s Fellow, a Chief of the Air Staff’s Fellow, and former Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the author is affiliated with, including the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence and the British Army.
Image: Illustration of Japanese assault on a Russian defensive position during the 1904 Battle of Nanshan