Brutes in warfare

This is another attempt to draw on military history to provide insights for military theory.

Every now and then - often spaced by centuries - some "new" way of doing war proves disastrously superior, often creating empires or destroying existing ones. Not all such innovations (or revivals of long-known ways) have been coined by superior finesse. Sometimes the secret of success is rather that a brutish, savage approach to warfare proves superior to cautious, limited if not ritualised forms of warfare.

One such example was the success of probably the greatest warlord of all times*, Shaka Zulu. The paradigm that he faced emphasised javelins and long spears. The changed this by emphasising bigger shield and shorter spear, waiting for the javelin hail to end and then charging to a merciless melée. There was no mercy for the defeated; they either joined him or died, which enabled him to grow his army through victories.

Alexander the Great's** extremism in warfare came as a shock to existing realms and his savage treatment of Tyre ensured that hardly any other walled settlement dared to resist him later. His heavy cavalry charges aimed to slay the opposing king instead of defeating his army came as quite a shock, too.

There are more examples, but covering the whole facet of the history of war would go towards a history Ph.d. so, here's instead my suspicion:

There may be a systemic possibility that a new paradigm appears once warfare becomes too ritualised, too focused on avoiding close-up brutality, too focused on limiting the devastating effects of warfare. This new paradigm may change power balances and destroy realms.

The obvious question for a concerned observer is thus whether we might be in such a vulnerable, probably doomed paradigm.

The potential is certainly present if the entire pattern holds true:
  1. the dominance of cabinet wars with minor mobilisation
  2. the refusal to use nukes***
  3. the casualty aversion
  4. the idea that support fires can do the job before one is overrun by a more aggressively manoeuvering opponent****

Humans are used to expect a continuation of the past, not a repeat of sudden changes that occurred in the distant past. It's all-natural to not expect dictatorships that lasted for generations to suddenly disintegrate, to not expect a financial market boom to end tomorrow - or to expect a paradigm change in warfare that's not a mere jump forward on the road that's been taken for generations.


*: That's no compliment. The guy turned nuts. He's also one of the greatest militarists in history, along with Lycurgus of Sparta.
**: What a fag. ;-)
***: And this was no criticism.
****: There are no support fires if there are no sufficient radio comms. How would a 90% indoctrinated infantry & 10% radio jammers army fare in East-Central Europe against a 15% combat troops & 85% support troops army?


  1. Shaka, mad as he was - and he was about as mad, bad, and dangerous to know as any dictator in history - was also a logistical and social innovator. He reorganized the Zulu agricultural and social system to support a full-time army. His tactical innovations worked because he had professional infantrymen who could learn the techniques of melee combat he taught, as opposed to a raggedy-assed bunch of herdsmen who "trained" by throwing their spears at a tree while standing around guarding cows.

  2. In one sense, modern armys (especially firepower centric forces like the U.S.) can be considered as kindof brutes.

    You once told me that armys of the past (1940s and 1950s era) depended on many tactics that are now considered unnecessary.

    You were referring to infantry battalions sneaking into enemy lines at night. Are there any other examples of things that modern armys have stopped doing?

    1. Plenty.
      - artillery fire plans for breakthrough (last time seen in 1991) including suppressive fires with free lanes left for attacking forces
      - generally trust much in regular infantry for snatching POW for interrogation and other things now deemed "SF" jobs
      - multi-layered fixed defensive positions
      - properly securing almost all possible routes while on defence (not enough infantry)
      - elaborate field fortifications (including howitzer-proof underground bunkers) and field obstacles (AT trenches, barbed wire - not just at camps)
      - proper, tight encirclements
      - proper anti-tank plans for defence (there aren't even dedicated AT troops any more)
      - artillery battery COs as forward observers and thus FO in full command of at least one battery

      AT tactics changed entirely due to better AT ranges and portability. Tanks-infantry cooperation looks very different, with much less exposure of infantry on open fields.
      The availability of radios down to squad if not individual level changed command and control very much and made messengers largely unnecessary.

      Interestingly, many things that seemed to have fallen out of practice reappeared in the Ukraine, where rather resources-poor forces fought in battle. Stuff like SPGs in AT work, for example.

    2. You misunderstood me, though.
      The Americans are not brutish in warfare; they merely have a very resource-rich and -dependent way of warfare combined with extremist objectives (though not including annexations).

      Burtish today would look different. Examples
      (1) Drop leaflets with "surrender now or die" messages, next day attack and take no prisoners. rinse repeat. After a few times leaflets alone dissolve the defence. (Kind of Alexander the Great's strategy regarding walled cities)
      (2) Drop 20 nukes on 20 battalions, overrun the capital, then annex the targeted country.

    3. Good list. I can see why some of these practises have fallen out of favor, though.

      'properly securing almost all possible routes while on defence (not enough infantry).'

      Maybe thats not a bad thing. Remember your post on repulsion?

      'elaborate field fortifications (including howitzer-proof underground bunkers) and field obstacles (AT trenches, barbed wire - not just at camps)'

      The field manuals still pay alot of attention to this, though. Isn't the value of fortifications in open terrain reduced due to artillery accuracy?

      'proper, tight encirclements.'

      Yes. Its not emphasised in doctrine. They think the enemy can be defeated with artillery fires.

      'artillery battery COs as forward observers and thus FO in full command of at least one battery.'

      Could you explain that?

      'Tanks-infantry cooperation looks very different, with much less exposure of infantry on open fields.'

      Mechanised, mounted infantry for the win.

    4. What's left to explain?
      In the old times a battery commander left his 2nd at the battery, went to a forward position, was forward observer and directed the fires of his battery. Later he was also able to be forward observer for other batteries, if not the whole regiment.
      Nowadays FO are specialists, even JFST have been created that are FO for arty, mortars, fixed wing support and rotary wing support (and possibly even naval gunfire support) in one.
      Whether they can actually command anyone to deliver fires differs between land forces and may also depend on earlier orders given. Often times they can merely request fires. A battery CO was at least able to command his own battery to deliver fires.

      The firing artillery has become a mere service provider, and now batteries are de facto unnecessary because individual SPGs have the position finding, directionfinding, radio comm and computing ability to position themselves individually.

      The state of the art arty of today is -even without PGMs- as different from the arty of the 80's as the arty of the 20's was from the arty of the 1900's.