Field manuals

I was no enthusiastic reader of German field manuals back when I was in uniform. The very title - "Dienstvorschrift" (~service regulation) was repelling; its tone has a promise of even more orders. You already get ordered around enough when you're in uniform, unless you are at the top where you have to instead lick the boots of career politicians instead.

In the end, it didn't hurt me; reducing field manual reading to the minimum early on helped me to keep an open mind.
To read more field manuals doesn't teach one much anyway; the pedagogy for adults had made huge improvements during the last two generations, but field manuals have actually recessed in quality.

The three best approaches for military education which I have so far found and could serve as alternative to field manuals are mostly old, and now uncommon:

(1) The Fibeln from WW2. Tigerfibel, Pantherfibel, Schiessfibel - humorously illustrated guides which not only keep attention up, but also focus on what's important. I suppose this format is very advisable in its niche; routines.

Tigerfibel page; this style of illustration fell out of fashion
during the 60's, likely due to improved printing technology
(2) Eike Middeldorff's style of writing books (1950's), specifically Handbuch der Taktik. It is loaded with details and no doubt based on specific assumptions. Still, it's much more pleasant reading and much more informative than all field manuals I've seen so far (=too many).

(3) The style applied in "Kriegsnah ausbilden - Hilfen für den Gefechtsdienst aller Truppen"

Honourable mention goes to John F.Antal who produced readable books which did cast stereotypical  U.S.Army doctrine into decision-making game books during the 90's. Nice try, but very limited in terms of lessons.
Another honourable mention goes to Paul Ritschard, a Swissman who attempted to communicate the very basics in a book ("Einführung in die Taktik", 1990).
The Austrian book publications of the Truppendienst Taschenbuch series are also better than corresponding Austrian field manuals (in my experience - I didn't compare many of them).

The modern education approach.
At a university you don't simply learn the symptoms in science classes, as you would learn to choose a route for driving in an armour course. Instead, you learn about the why. A lot. Science education can be obsessed with educating about the evidence background for the really, really simple and handy formula which you actually are supposed to understand.
The advantage of such an approach is that it prepares you for instances when the problem is a bit different than the textbook example. The aforementioned armour course attendee may for example learn to drive along the edge of woodland to avoid early detection by tanks or ATGM teams 2 km away - thus gaining the few critical seconds to survive. The very same route may be suicidal if the main threat aren't main battle tanks and anti-tank guided missiles, but infantry anti-tank weapons and mines. 
I'm not making this up*.

I recently read the U.S.Army field manual about counter-rocket artillery mortar and compared it with what I wrote about the topic. The FM looks like a technical guide specifically for the Iraq occupation by comparison. It doesn't educate more than a checklist would.

It is about time to scale back the bureaucratic style of field manuals. Field manuals shall educate first and foremost. The writers should shed the pro forma blather, make them more readable, should pay much more attention to psychology (both of the reader and on the battlefield) and should pay more attention to organisational and battlefield dynamics as well as changing environments.

Most importantly: We need to make field manuals more ambitious. Modern field manuals (more than some historical ones) appear to be written for the dumbest fifth of the troops, including the dumbest fifth of NCOs and officers. The authors could still separate the basics from the difficult content, but the difficult, thinking-heavy content is the most important. The dumbest fifth isn't going to win our battles and campaigns anyway, and your odds are clearly suboptimal if you didn't elevate your smartest four fifth of leadership to a high level of professional education.
Don't leave the sophisticated stuff all to the trainers in courses. Especially not so if you trained them with dumbed-down lessons as well. The stuff shall be printed on paper to be useful, not to be the bare bones.**

Sven O

*: AnwFE 224/120 411/2 printed1998
**: There is a saying about how one should not write or print anything one intends to keep a secret, though.


  1. How did we get to this state? Too much bureacracy in doctrine development/publication? Assigning the wrong people to write manuals? Poor teaching prior to writing manuals?

  2. Frankly, I'm not even sure about how the complete process of writing or revising field manuals looks.

    I do suspect that the people involved do it because they've been told to do it at their job. It's certain that many of them do not feel an inner urge to educate, write, and be better than most.
    They're safe if they adhere to a known pattern and established process.

  3. My pet theory is that good field manual are only written when there is a real need, like the the years after 1806 or during WWII, or on the other hand when people have a lot of time to burn.

    After WWI the German officers faced a very slow promotion rate, had very useful war experience and "spare" time. This combination gave the gems of the interwar period. The same for 1945-1955 for the former Wehrmacht officers.

    It was also helpful that many authors had a very concise style, that was von Seeck's fault :-), in addition, they worked without computer, i.e. without the temptation of copy&paste and fancy diagrams produced with graphics software. Hence, the results were often exceptionally good.

    My approach for a new manual chapter would be to lock the relevant authors without computer for a few weeks into a bunker. (ok this is not original) :-)