What is infantry for, anyway?

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

When William S. Lind was laboring to introduce maneuver warfare to the Marine Corps in the 1980s, he described it as the third generation of modern warfare, which led the Marines to ask, What will the fourth generation be like? His answer became a Marine Corps Gazette piece, The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation, which suggests that war will return to its pre-modern roots, with little distinction between war and peace or civilian and military:

The Four Generations began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War. With the Treaty of Westphalia, the state established a monopoly on war. Previously, many different entities had fought wars — families, tribes, religions, cities, business enterprises — using many different means, not just armies and navies (two of those means, bribery and assassination, are again in vogue). Now, state militaries find it difficult to imagine war in any way other than fighting state armed forces similar to themselves.

The four generations:

The First Generation of Modern War runs roughly from 1648 to 1860. This was war of line and column tactics, where battles were formal and the battlefield was orderly. The relevance of the First Generation springs from the fact that the battlefield of order created a military culture of order. Most of the things that distinguish “military” from “civilian” — uniforms, saluting, careful gradations or rank — were products of the First Generation and are intended to reinforce the culture of order.

The problem is that, around the middle of the 19th century, the battlefield of order began to break down. Mass armies, soldiers who actually wanted to fight (an 18th century’s soldier’s main objective was to desert), rifled muskets, then breech loaders and machine guns, made the old line and column tactics first obsolete, then suicidal.

The problem ever since has been a growing contradiction between the military culture and the increasing disorderliness of the battlefield. The culture of order that was once consistent with the environment in which it operated has become more and more at odds with it.

Second Generation warfare was one answer to this contradiction. Developed by the French Army during and after World War I, it sought a solution in mass firepower, most of which was indirect artillery fire. The goal was attrition, and the doctrine was summed up by the French as, “The artillery conquers, the infantry occupies.” Centrally-controlled firepower was carefully synchronized, using detailed, specific plans and orders, for the infantry, tanks, and artillery, in a “conducted battle” where the commander was in effect the conductor of an orchestra.

Second Generation warfare came as a great relief to soldiers (or at least their officers) because it preserved the culture of order. The focus was inward on rules, processes and procedures. Obedience was more important than initiative (in fact, initiative was not wanted, because it endangered synchronization), and discipline was top-down and imposed.

Second Generation warfare is relevant to us today because the United States Army and Marine Corps learned Second Generation warfare from the French during and after World War I. It remains the American way of war, as we are seeing in Afghanistan and Iraq: to Americans, war means “putting steel on target.” Aviation has replaced artillery as the source of most firepower, but otherwise, (and despite the Marine’s formal doctrine, which is Third Generation maneuver warfare) the American military today is as French as white wine and brie. At the Marine Corps’ desert warfare training center at 29 Palms, California, the only thing missing is the tricolor and a picture of General Gamelin in the headquarters. The same is true at the Army’s Armor School at Fort Knox, where one instructor recently began his class by saying, “I don’t know why I have to teach you all this old French crap, but I do.”

Third Generation warfare, like Second, was a product of World War I. It was developed by the German Army, and is commonly known as Blitzkrieg or maneuver warfare.

Third Generation warfare is based not on firepower and attrition but speed, surprise, and mental as well as physical dislocation. Tactically, in the attack a Third Generation military seeks to get into the enemy’s rear and collapse him from the rear forward: instead of “close with and destroy,” the motto is “bypass and collapse.” In the defense, it attempts to draw the enemy in, then cut him off. War ceases to be a shoving contest, where forces attempt to hold or advance a “line;” Third Generation warfare is non-linear.

Not only do tactics change in the Third Generation, so does the military culture. A Third Generation military focuses outward, on the situation, the enemy, and the result the situation requires, not inward on process and method (in war games in the 19th Century, German junior officers were routinely given problems that could only be solved by disobeying orders). Orders themselves specify the result to be achieved, but never the method (“Auftragstaktik”). Initiative is more important than obedience (mistakes are tolerated, so long as they come from too much initiative rather than too little), and it all depends on self-discipline, not imposed discipline. The Kaiserheer and the Wehrmacht could put on great parades, but in reality they had broken with the culture of order.

Characteristics such as decentralization and initiative carry over from the Third to the Fourth Generation, but in other respects the Fourth Generation marks the most radical change since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In Fourth Generation war, the state loses its monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents such as al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the FARC. Almost everywhere, the state is losing.

In Lind’s opinion, the challenge in keeping our infantry alive stems from their Second Generation tactics:

The Second Generation reduces all tactics to one tactic: bump into the enemy and call for fire. The French, who invented the Second Generation, summarize it as, “Firepower conquers, the infantry occupies.” The supporting firepower, originally artillery, now most often airstrikes, must be massive. If it is not — as is now the case in Afghanistan, under General McChrystal’s directive — the infantry is in trouble. Everything it has been taught depends on fire support it no longer has. Inevitably, its casualties will rise, and it will often lose engagements.

Fortunately, the answer to this problem has been known for a long time — several centuries, in fact. It is true light infantry or Jaeger tactics. True light infantry has a broad and varied tactical repertoire. It depends only on its own (modest) firepower. Jaeger tactics were an influence on the development of Third Generation tactics, but Jaeger tactics remain a more sophisticated version of those (infiltration) tactics. They are ideally suited to Fourth Generation wars, especially in mountain country like Afghanistan’s.

If we are to reduce American casualties in the Afghan war while sustaining General McChrystal’s absolutely necessary restrictions on supporting arms, we need a crash program to teach U. S. Army and Marine Corps infantry Jaeger tactics. The Marine Corps, which as usual is somewhat ahead of the game, has began such a program, called “Combat Hunter” (Jaeger is the German word for hunter).

This is not a case where we need to invent anything. The literature on true light infantry tactics is extensive. Works on 18th century light infantry remain instructive; I would recommend Johan Ewald’s diary of the American Revolution (Ewald was a Hessian Jaeger company commander) and J.F.C. Fuller’s British Light Infantry in the 18th Century. More recent works of value include the light infantry field manuals published by the K.u.K. Marine Corps (available on d.n.i. and the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Warfare School website); Dr. Steven Canby’s superb Modern Light Infantry and New Technology (1983 — done under DOD contract); and John Poole’s books. Some of our NATO allies also have Jaeger units from which we could learn.

This touches on the greater question of, what is infantry for, anyway?, which one of Jerry Pournelle’s readers commented on:

Dupuy noticed something in his analyses back in the 70s and 80s — historically, the amount of proving ground firepower on the battlefield was much too high to be consistent with the reported casualty rates. Apparently, the bottleneck has almost always been target spotting. Now, if you examine ground combat operations during the 20th century, you discover that the primary function of infantry was always target acquisition — particularly in close terrain — and only secondarily target engagement.

To do this well, the infantryman had to have:

  1. good tactical mobility and unimpaired vision,
  2. reliable communications to supporting weapons and echelons, and
  3. direct access to high-firepower weapons to keep the heads of the opposing infantry down while friendly infantry moved around doing their jobs.
  4. (secondary requirement) some sort of decent protection.

Requirement 1 implied a weight limit of about 50 pounds. That tended to conflict with requirements 2-4.

I think the infantry still has the same functions today. Requirement 1 has not gone away — somebody still needs to move up and look inside. Requirement 2 is getting easier and easier to meet, and I think it increases, rather than decreases the effectiveness of a force to have reliable communications. Requirement 3 implies some sort of man-portable high-firepower weapon with lightweight ammo at the individual, fireteam, or section level. Historically, one per fireteam was optimal. Requirement 4 is a good idea if it doesn’t get in the way of the real work.

The proposal on the table [for heavy infantry] appears to move in the wrong direction.

My recent reading of Panzer Battles emphasized this. Infantry is for infiltrating and screening out infiltrators.  As riflemen their utility is limited.  Even for elite sniper units, this is true.  Their true specialty is infiltration and recon.

In my opinion, infantry can combine the second-generation tactic of calling in artillery with third-generation hunter tactics, because modern technology allows light infantry to accurately designate targets with little more than a high-tech pair of binoculars.  Once you can aim at a target and pull the trigger on a mortar that’s dug-in a mile away, you’ve got the best of both worlds.


  1. The job of infantry is human domestication or occupation. Infantry exists to control human populations through control of territory, part two of Marshal Petain’s quip (quoted by Herr Lind) that “fire destroys, infantry occupies”. 99% of infantry operations throughout history have been garrisoning and patrol duties. Usually the populations they garrison or patrol are under the jurisdiction of the same political community employing the infantry. Most of the infantry you might encounter on a day to day basis goes around under another name: police. And you’re the target.

  2. Alrenous says:

    I’m unsure here. Is infiltration basically for harassment of weak points? E.g. you get some infantry to infiltrate, disrupt the supply line for a bit, and get out?

  3. Isegoria says:

    Infiltrating infantry can do more than harass weak points; they can destroy heavy weapons like tanks and artillery, but only at extremely short range, with satchel charges, etc.

    When tanks are on the move, they need a screen of infantry to keep them from getting ambushed by anti-tank guns, etc., and to spot targets, like pill-boxes, for them to attack.

  4. Alrenous says:

    Right, excellent.

    I consider an unguarded tank to be a soft target, because if the tank at all knows the infantry is there, the infantry is screwed — it can shoot back or even just flee.

    So I guess I should be more specific — the infantry must use stealth and hit targets that aren’t fighting back.

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