The Most Terrifying Lesson of World War I: War Is Not Always "Short and Sharp"

Why nations like China, the United States, Russia and others should look back to the Great War for perhaps the most important reason of all.

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The centenary of World War I has spawned numerous retrospectives comparing 1914 to 2014. Some have drawn parallels between the complex webs of security guarantees that helped spark conflict in August 1914, and similar treaties and commitments that might lead to war in our time. Others have used the outbreak of “the Great War” as a reminder that economic interconnectedness does not preclude conflict; great-power war today could unravel the globalized economy in much the same way that it did a century ago.

While these comparisons may be valid, there is another more worrying similarity between 1914 and 2014: a failure to prepare for the possibility of protracted conflict based on the flawed belief that conventional war between great powers would be brief and decisive.  In 1914, the failure to consider or prepare for a conflict that might last years rather than weeks made war more likely by creating the illusion that strategic goals could be achieved at minimal cost. Today, advances in technology have fostered a similar notion regarding conventional war between major powers. And yet militaries have a poor track record when it comes to predicting the character of future wars, particularly in times of rapid technological change. New military hardware may simply increase the destruction wrought by great-power war, much as it did in 1914, without making the conflict shorter or more decisive. Avoiding a similar catastrophe in the 21st century may therefore require deterring military adventurism by planning and preparing for protracted conflict.

Before World War I, military leaders and statesmen failed to comprehend how technological change had altered the conduct of war. A host of late 19th and early 20th century inventions, including smokeless powder, rapid-firing rifles, machine guns, breech-loading artillery with recoil compensation, reconnaissance aircraft, wireless communication, and barbed wire gave defenders an enormous advantage over attacking forces, yet every major power entered August 1914 with offensive strategies and military doctrines designed to achieve quick, decisive victories.

In hindsight this paradox seems obvious, but few contemporary military thinkers fully grasped how these new technologies would interact on the battlefield, largely because their use until 1914 was one-sided. During the wars German Unification, for example, early versions of some of these weapons were used by one belligerent or another, but not simultaneously by both sides. These conflicts, and particularly the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, left the impression that war between industrialized great powers could be short and decisive. Possible counterexamples such as the American Civil War, Russo-Japanese War, and Boer War were marginalized or misinterpreted, while European forces spent much of the period from 1870 to 1914 using their technological edge to overwhelm poorly equipped colonial adversaries. In the years leading up to World War I, therefore, European militaries had the impression that war would be swift, with the advantage accruing to the side that could mobilize fastest.

Worryingly, echoes of this mismatch between the technological means of war on one hand and its doctrinal ways and strategic ends on the other are evident today. Military hardware has advanced at a rapid pace alongside developments in civilian information technology. Capabilities that were either cutting edge or science fiction decades ago—such as precision-guided munitions, unmanned systems, satellites, stealth aircraft, data networks, and cyberwarfare—are becoming more commonplace. Much like the weapons of 1914, however, the use of these systems in combat has thus far been almost entirely one-sided.

Beginning in earnest with the first Gulf War in 1991, the United States and its allies have exploited their technological edge to defeat a string of weaker conventional opponents and inflict disproportionate casualties on irregular foes.  Based on the evidence of these lopsided wars, the U.S. military has come to view the combat phase of conventional warfare as a relatively brief affair. Official strategy and doctrine pertaining to conventional war frequently discuss rapid, decisive major combat operations. The topic of protracted conflict is consigned to discussions of irregular warfare and, after more than twelve years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, protracted irregular warfare is viewed as something best avoided. The opening days and weeks of conventional wars are dissected in countless war games and table-top exercises, but less energy is devoted to examining how these scenarios might unfold from day thirty onward, save for occasional discussions of post-conflict stability operations. This is primarily because many U.S. defense planners view a conventional great-power war as unlikely and protracted great-power war as a virtual impossibility.