Throughout Western history there have been a series of periods or wars which have set the intellectual tone in military studies, be they works of theory or history.
For many centuries the touchstone was the classical period of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. For instance, Vegetius’ De Rei Militari, for instance, was in active use all the way into the 17th century. When Machiavelli wrote his Art of War in the early 16th century, he famously denigrated the utility of artillery so that he could make his recommendations conform more closely to the classical model.
Eventually, new thinking started to emerge and there was a period during which there was no obvious touchstone and then came Napoleon who dramatically and repeatedly swept across Europe. Not only did Napoleon write his widely read Maxims, but, far more importantly Jomini and Clausewitz wrote their highly influential works basically to understand what Napoleon had done and this is not to mention the flurry of lesser works devoted to the same topic. Nor yet does it address all the works that built on Jomini and (to a much lesser degree) Clausewitz.
By the time World War I came around, Jomini and Clausewitz were certainly still very important, but other things had happened, notably the Prussian wars against Denmark, Austria, and France, that got people’s brains churning, as well, and arguably there was no single intellectually dominant military event. World War I, however, became a dominant event and, not surprisingly, a great of the post-war literature focused on how we could avoid doing that again. This was a period of great intellectual ferment. Basil H. Liddell Hart’s concept of “indirect strategy” came out of this period, for instance.
World War II then happened and, not surprisingly, dominated people’s attention for decades. After the war was over, the U.S. Army enlisted the help of German generals in helping it think about how to defend against the Soviet Army. Much of the agony of the Vietnam war boiled down to griping (whether well-founded or not is beside the point) that generals whose heads were in World War II were running the war inappropriately. In the Soviet Union, the history of the “Great Patriotic War,” as they knew World War II was even more dominant. Because criticizing current doctrine was a dicey proposition, Soviet officers writing in professional journals would often discuss current issues in the guise of debating history.
Well, now we are in what used to be called the “Global War on Terrorism.” With the direct intellectual influence of World War II fading, will this current struggle become a well-spring of thinking in the future? If so, what will that future thinking look like? Or, alternately, will it sink like a stone, intellectually speaking? The United States does have a tradition of suppressing the memory of conflicts that fit outside of what it wanted to do. It did this to the Philippines War (once known as the Philippine Insurrection) and did it again to the Vietnam War. The Soviets, despite having fought Basmachi rebels during the 1920s and Afghan “dushmen” during the 1980s, kept its attention firmly focused on replaying World War II, except this time with nuclear weapons. If this global struggle doesn’t stick in the brains of strategists and military historians, what will?