Fighting doctrines always have been expressions of their time and place, much as any other artifact of military history. Any armed force operates in accordance with a conception of war that evolves as a consequence of its history, the state of military knowledge available to it, the technology at hand, the objectives to which the force expects to be committed, and, not least, the caliber of those who must attempt to give it life on the battlefield. Although modern soldiers expect their doctrines to be explicit, professionally authoritative, and officially sanctioned, for the greater part of American military history the doctrines under which soldiers fought were rarely so all‐encompassing, prescriptive, or explicit as they are today. These earlier doctrines are best regarded as loose collections of military folkways. The history of U.S. military doctrine describes a rough evolution from these folkways toward its contemporary forms.
The military doctrines that were brought to America during the colonial period reflected the orthodox European military interests of the day: limited dynastic wars emphasizing sieges and battles between drilled formations of soldiers armed with pike and musket. Important early colonists— John Smith, Roger Williams, John Underhill, and Lion Gardiner among them—had learned their military skills on the Continent.
Implicit in their military orthodoxy was the assumption that one's enemies were mostly like oneself. Colonial warfare against Native Americans permitted no such assumption, however. American Indians possessed their own military habits, most of which were at great variance from those of their European enemies. Native doctrines reflected their tribal origins, in which individual rather than collective purpose governed action. Most often, natives fought for the achievement or preservation of honor or self‐esteem within the tribe, and not the kind of state policy war so familiar to the Europeans. Native American warfare favored fighting to satisfy individual aims: skirmish, raid, and ambush; single rather than the collective, orchestrated combat his enemies attempted. And although both sides did militarily acculturate themselves, the Europeans were loathe to forsake their Continental military heritage. The colonial experience thus induced a certain schizophrenia, where a tension persisted between the new world of warfare and the traditions of European orthodoxy.
George Washington and Nathanael Greene embodied this tension during the Revolutionary War. It was Washington's ambition to transform the tiny American Army into one that could stand against British regulars in the stylized tactical fashions of the day. Greene was happier with practicality: he would fight in the orthodox mode when the occasion suited, but he was not so enamored of the European style as his general in chief. Greene developed a form of guerrilla warfare in the south. Washington pined for the climactic, war‐winning battle.
The Americans' quest for military respectability led to the appearance of military doctrine in a form that modern soldiers would recognize. In 1778–79, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Washington's Inspector General, wrote his Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, a drill manual that would ever after be known simply as “The Blue Book.” Von Steuben based his drills on those he had learned in the Prussian Army, but he tried to tailor them to the particular needs and character of the American soldier. The practical results never quite produced the army Washington wanted, but “The Blue Book” represented the European military ideal for a generation, until in 1812 it was finally superseded by a French manual of arms.
The advent of French military texts in America coincided roughly with the Napoleonic Wars, when the few professional military officers in America began seriously to study the arts of war. The French style became the fashion and remained so for the next several decades. After the War of 1812, Gen. Winfield Scott published the first edition of his Tactics, generously indebted to French tactical manuals, which held sway until the eve of the Civil War. Tactics hardly acknowledged the realities of war in America, nor did the other tactical manuals produced in the United States during the antebellum years. The dichotomy between European orthodoxy and American necessity achieved its fullest expression when in 1836 Scott himself attempted to employ Napoleonic tactics during the First Seminole War—with predictably dismal results.
American doctrinal thought exhibited a certain retrograde character during the years before the Civil War. Very like their European colleagues, American officers looked nostalgically over their shoulders at Napoleon even as the conduct of battle was changing before their eyes. Technological progress improved the speed, range, and deadliness of small‐arms and artillery fire. However, American military writers— Henry Halleck and Dennis Hart Mahan among them—took little notice of these advances. When William J. Hardee's Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics finally replaced Scott's Tactics in the 1850s, troops were to be arranged in the same close orders as before: Hardee's remedy for the new, deadlier battlefield was to move the troops faster, and his Tactics was the definitive Civil War text for citizen officers on both sides.
American soldiers of both armies entered the Civil War thus ready to fight a version of war more than half a century old. A few officers applied themselves to rectifying the disjuncture between doctrine and reality, among them Emory Upton. A reactionary military aesthete, Upton understood the essential tactical problem of his day: how to advance across the fire‐beaten zone to close with the enemy. Upton understood that formations must disperse themselves more widely if they were to survive the assault. But dispersing or “opening” formations meant surrendering one's tactical control. Close formations cost casualties; open formations threatened purposeless action. In either case, tactical failure awaited.
Upton was the first to offer solutions. Two years after Appomattox, an army board approved his Tactics, the most notable feature of which was his “system of fours,” combat groupings of eight or twelve soldiers—forerunner of the modern infantry squad. Upton's “fours” forced combat direction toward the lower ranks.
For the rest of the nineteenth century and well into the next, professional soldiers argued over the proper balance of firepower, mobility, and shock. Where one stood on this question fixed one's views on a host of subordinate issues: whether the offense or the defense was superior in modern war; the benefits of individual marksmanship versus those of massed volley fire; whether formations should be dense and “robust,” or whether they should be “fragile,” articulated organizations susceptible to precise tactical control. Such concerns were by no means confined to Americans alone. In all of the advanced industrial nations, soldiers worried over the new shapes of battle.
Some would grumble at the pedantry of these debates, but this intellectual foment also gave rise to schools of higher military education and an institutional home for doctrinal studies. At Fort Leavenworth in the School of Application for Cavalry and Infantry, doctrine boards produced field manuals that culminated in 1891 with the publication of Infantry Drill Regulations, as well as manuals for artillery and cavalry. These boards set a new course for field manuals, which previously had aimed only to prepare troops to fight; the new manuals also addressed how to fight. Too, earlier manuals had been known by the names of their authors. The new manuals were regarded as the product of the corporate mind of the army, officially approved and sanctioned, a point driven home in the 1905 edition of Field Service Regulations that first carried the imprimature of the army's newly formed General Staff.
Meanwhile, nearly three centuries of frontier soldiering had produced its own unique school of practices, few of which were reduced to formal knowledge. Horseborne warfare and western geography lent a different character to frontier conflicts after the Civil War, but the clash of military cultures was every bit as dangerous as when Europeans and Native Americans had first met in combat. Although much professional energy was devoted to codifying orthodox military knowledge, frontier doctrines remained mostly implicit, the kind of knowledge communicated informally in garrison and in the saddle, over campfire and on the trail. A collection of beliefs and prejudices, tricks of the trade, fieldcraft, and frontier field doctrine was wholly vocational and often quite ephemeral. There was precious little theory in it.
For all that, it would have been a rare soldier (or sailor) before World War I who could have provided a definition of doctrine or its functions. In truth, the nature of military doctrine was being transformed in those years. Only a few perceived that armies might create doctrine as an expression of their operational philosophy. Navy commander Dudley Knox, and Army captain John McAuley Palmer were exceptions who did grasp the larger potential of doctrine. As early as 1914, Knox wrote that the “object of military doctrine is to furnish a basis for prompt and harmonious conduct by the subordinate commanders of a large military force, in accordance with the intentions of the commander‐in‐chief.” Palmer, a pivotal figure in the army, saw how modern warfare demanded a doctrine that transcended training routines. Knox and Palmer agreed that doctrine ought to provide a common basis of understanding and communication for professional soldiers. Palmer especially thought that one dividend of regularly returning General Staff officers to line units was to “spread a common doctrine as to the purposes and ends of training, the means to be employed, and the results to be attained.”
Despite such high‐minded sentiments, Americans soldiers wrote practical, vocational manuals during World War I. Driven by the necessities of industrialized warfare, twentieth‐century armies were forced to learn new technical tasks. The grafting of millions of civilians upon the old professional army demanded instructional literature free of the empty formalism all too typical of earlier field manuals. The means by which technical military knowledge was rendered into doctrine was already in place, however, dominated by the various branches and their schools, as well as the staff and war colleges and the General Staff itself. The progressive doctrine that Knox and Palmer had envisioned was out of the question. By war's end, doctrine had been thoroughly domesticated: its role was not so much the advancement of military thought and practice as the ratification of orthodoxy.
Thus, military knowledge after World War I advanced without the assistance of doctrine. In only one particular could doctrine be said to have lent itself to innovation. The 1921 edition of War Department Regulations No. 10‐5 contained a list of nine “principles of war.” For nearly a generation, Western military thinkers had been calling for a “scientific” approach to the study and practice of war. This, they believed, would lead them to battle's universal characteristics, said to have been embodied in the “principles” of war. The British military historian J. F. C. Fuller had noted them as early as 1914 and after the war had codified eight such principles. Fuller and others held that these were immutable, and that although their actions had always guided the conduct of war, only now had military knowledge advanced sufficiently to recognize and appreciate their existence.
However compelling the scientific analogy, the principles of war kept changing, both in number and content, from edition to edition of American field manuals. This approach to understanding war, while no doubt appalling to philosophers, was highly attractive and deeply satisfying to soldiers. And although the precise meaning of each “principle” was subject to an infinity of interpretations, their most appealing feature was that one could possess in shorthand the military wisdom of the ages.
After World War I, doctrine was of marginal importance to military innovation, becoming instead the creature of anonymous official boards and committees, far from “the best available thought that can be defended by reason”—as one official definition had it. Whether addressing subjects grand or mundane, doctrine was aimed at providing not the best available thought, but the most acceptable thought. By the time a solution to any important question of theory or practice was committed to doctrine—and there were many between the world wars—it bore the army's stamp of official approval. Military intellectuals might have disapproved of chaining doctrine to orthodoxy, but doctrine had become the means by which the army established and enforced military standards. “Doing it by the book” became a figure of speech, and “the book,” the field manual was always available if imagination failed, specifying in detail the minimum acceptable standard.
Thus one may read official army doctrines after World War II as a text from which the intellectual state of the army may be deduced. The advent of nuclear weapons quite naturally posed the most extreme challenge to concepts of land warfare and the doctrines that might implement them. But the army failed to offer a credible vision of how it might conduct itself in a nuclear battlefield. The army's chief of staff in the late 1950s, Maxwell Taylor, was forced to “conjure up” a specious concept whose name was more important than its substance: his “Pentomic” army was merely a reorganization scheme with a Madison Avenue adjective attached. Within five years, even the army was unable to sustain the fiction that Pentomia had doctrinal credibility.
The Pentomic reorganization might have been the low point in the postwar history of doctrine but for the war in Vietnam, where the U.S. Army clung to the orthodoxies of conventional warfare. The army was reluctant to contend with the doctrinal problems of guerrilla war: that belonged to the class of unorthodox conflict for which it had never felt much affinity. As early as 1962, President Kennedy had directed the army to pay more attention to these forms of conflict. But during the first few years of the Southeast Asian conflict, the military leaders still focused upon the defense of Europe. When the army did finally commit its orthodox forces to Vietnam, it turned a war it did not approve of into one that it did. The agency of this transformation was the heliborne “air cavalry” division, whose innovative design and striking mobility were offset by the stolid manner in which it was employed, applying conventional tactics more quickly. The unreality of this doctrine in the final years of the war contributed importantly to one of the darkest and most frustrating periods in the history of the U.S. Army.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, strategic retrenchment narrowed the scope of American interests once again toward European defense. Against this backdrop, the Arab‐Israeli War (1973) offered a glimpse of what might be expected in modern, orthodox warfare: combined arms conflict, characterized by armored speed, high lethality, and precisely guided munitions. That war also seemed to show how far out of date the U.S. Army had become during its years in Vietnam. A group of American generals led by William E. DePuy began a decade‐long campaign to modernize the army and, not incidentally, erase the legacy of the lost war in Southeast Asia. DePuy believed military doctrine might be one important means of rejuvenating an army that, everyone agreed, was an institutional wreck.
This high‐ranking interest in doctrine in the 1970s and 1980s heralded a new conception of its nature and functions. DePuy and his colleagues harnessed doctrine to several purposes. Doctrine would be made to serve its traditional role of describing how an army fights. But doctrine would also establish the army's public and operational raison d’etre. Like Dudley Knox and John McAuley Palmer, nearly a century earlier, DePuy thought that doctrine could be progressive, that it could promote the army's modernization, both materially and intellectually. DePuy and his colleagues took a direct, sometimes peremptory, hand in doctrinal reforms from the beginning, and often wrote it themselves. They called their new doctrine “the Active Defense.” Doctrine had become generals' business.
It had also become everyone else's business—including civilian scholars and military writers. Because the army had elevated the Active Defense to such a prominent role in its modernization campaign, it achieved an unprecedented degree of public exposure in the late 1970s. The flowering of doctrinal debate did not sit well with DePuy and his colleagues, but the new doctrine, which was widely criticized as unimaginative, and as a defensive prescription for disaster, did galvanize public attention.
Doctrine was no longer of negligible importance in the professional lives of American soldiers. Perhaps inevitably, reaction set in. More than any other American soldier since Upton, DePuy's name was associated with military doctrine; evidence suggests that part of the reaction against it was reaction to DePuy himself. When DePuy retired in 1978, the critics hoped his doctrine would be overturned. DePuy's successors nevertheless did manage to exercise control over the next doctrinal evolution, which was to be named “AirLand battle.”
That new doctrine was published in FM 100‐5 to generally favorable reviews in service and defense journals in 1982. The AirLand battle was imagined as a sophisticated, highly orchestrated application of all the army's combat power in conjunction with that of the air force in order to build a chain of successful engagements all pointed toward one operational objective. As a doctrine, AirLand battle was more sophisticated, certainly more attuned to the sort of enemy the U.S. Army might have to face in the years ahead, and it was not so exclusively fixed upon European defense. Ideally, it was hoped, many of its precepts could be utilized anywhere the army might fight. Intellectually, the new doctrine was the product of a cadre of young military intellectuals that had collected at the staff college during the late 1970s. And while the highest‐ranking officers of the army acted as the doctrine's patrons, the new field manual was regarded as much less the result of one man's passion.
AirLand battle doctrine has not been substantially revised since 1982. The success of American arms in the Persian Gulf War, many have argued, can be directly traced to the doctrinal “renaissance” of the 1970s. Modern American soldiers do have a certain appreciation for a fighting doctrine that enjoys credibility and authority; but none would go so far as to argue that doctrine alone can win a war, any more than doctrine alone could lose one.
[See also Clausewitz, Carl von; Deterrence; Education, Military; Strategy; Tactics; Theorists of War.]
Russell F. Weigley , History of the United States Army, 1967, rev. ed. 1984.
Russell F. Weigley , The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Policy, 1973.
John I. Alger , the Quest for Victory: The History of the Principles of War, 1982.
Brian Holden Reid , J. F. C. Fuller, Military Thinker, 1987.
Paul Herbert , Deciding What Has to Be Done: General William E. DePuy and the 1976 Edition of FM 100‐5, Operations, 1988.
William B. Skelton , An American Profession of Arms: The Army Officer Corps, 1784–1861, 1992.
Robert H. Scales, Jr. et al. , Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War, 1993.
Perry D. Jamieson , Crossing the Deadly Ground: United States Army Tactics, 1865–1899, 1994.
Virgil Ney , The Evolution of the United States Army Field Manual, Valley Forge to Vietnam, 1996.
The Soviet and Russian understanding of military doctrine is often a source of confusion because other societies usually subscribe to a narrower definition. For most Western military and naval establishments, doctrine typically consists of the distilled wisdom that governs the actual employment of armed forces in combat. At its best, this wisdom constitutes a constantly evolving intellectual construct that owes its origins and development to a balanced understanding of the complex interplay among changing technology, structure, theory, and combat experience.
In contrast, doctrine in its Soviet and Russian variants evolved early to reflect a common understanding of the state's larger defense requirements. The issue first surfaced after 1905, when Russian military intellectuals debated the necessity for a "unified military doctrine" that would impart effective overall structure and direction to war preparations. In a more restrictive perspective, the same doctrine would also define the common intellectual foundations of field service regulations and the terms of cooperation between Imperial Russia's army and navy. In 1912, Tsar Nicholas II himself silenced discussion, proclaiming, "Military doctrine consists of doing everything that I order."
A different version of the debate resurfaced soon after the Bolshevik triumph in the civil war. Discussion ostensibly turned on a doctrinal vision for the future of the Soviet military establishment, but positions hardened and quickly assumed political overtones. War Commissar Leon Trotsky held that any understanding of doctrine must flow from future requirements for world revolution. Others, including Mikhail V. Frunze, held that doctrine must flow from the civil war experience, the nature of the new Soviet state, and the needs and character of the Red Army. Frunze essentially envisioned a concept of preparation for future war shaped by class relations, external threat, and the state's economic development.
Frunze's victory in the debate laid the foundations for a subsequent definition of Soviet and later Russian military doctrine that has remained relatively constant. Military doctrine came to be understood as "a system of views adopted by a given state at a given time on the goals and nature of possible future war and the preparation of the armed forces and the country for it, and also the methods of waging it." Because of explicit linkages between politics and war, this version of military doctrine always retained two aspects, the political (or sociopolitical) and the military-technical. Thanks to rapid advances in military technology, the latter aspect sometimes witnessed abrupt change. However, until the advent of Mikhail S. Gorbachev and perestroika, the political aspect, which defined the threat and relations among states, remained relatively static.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a recurring redefinition of the twin doctrinal aspects that emphasized both Russia's diminished great-power status and the changing nature of the threat. Nuclear war became less imminent, military operations more complex, and the threat both internal and external. Whatever the calculus, the terms of expression and discussion continued to reflect the unique legacy that shaped Imperial Russian and Soviet notions of military doctrine.
See also: frunze, mikhail vasilievich; military, imperial era; military, soviet and post-soviet; trot-sky, leon davidovich
Frank, Willard C., and Gillette, Phillip S., eds. (1992). Soviet Military Doctrine from Lenin to Gorbachev, 1915–1991. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Garthoff, Raymond L. (1953). Soviet Military Doctrine. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Bruce W. Menning