Oct. 1, 2017 —
G.S. Isserson and the War of the Future: Key Writings of a Soviet Military Theorist
Translated and Edited by Richard W. Harrison
332 pp. $45.00
Reviewed by Ofer Fridman
Dr. Ofer Fridman is a Sessional Lecturer at the University of Reading and a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London. He served for 15 years in the Israel Defense Forces prior to embarking on an academic career.
On December 8, 1594, William Louis of Nassau, one of the commanders of the Dutch army, sent a letter to his cousin, Maurice of Nassau, in which he suggested a new way to deploy musketeers on the battlefield that significantly increased their rate of fire. He argued that six rotating ranks of musketeers could produce a continuous hail of fire, keeping the enemy at bay. This “volley” technique (known as the “European Countermarch” today) soon became the standard way of force deployment in European armies. It was part of the emerging military revolution that changed not only the ways to conduct wars but also the geopolitical balance in Europe and the general course of history.1 In 1532, 62 years before this pivotal work of the Counts of Nassau, another work of military significance was published—The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. While this book did not deal with military deployment per se, its significance as one of the fundamental works on political-military relations has been widely acknowledged through the centuries.
On the one hand, both these works deserve our recognition as important keystones in military history. On the other, their contributions to the phenomenon of war were entirely different. While the first had an instrumental and practical nature intended to solve problems in the context of 16th-century military technology and tactics, the second shaped the philosophical understanding of why states fight and how they should do it. Therefore, it is not surprising that while the military genius of the Counts of Nassau is remembered only by a small circle of military historians, Machiavelli maintains his position as one of the founders of modern political-military thought.
Reading Dr. Richard Harrison’s translation G.S. Isserson and the War of the Future calls to mind the work of the Counts of Nassau more than that of Machiavelli. On the one hand, Isserson truly deserves his place in the pantheon of all great military thinkers, as one of the most prominent developers and promoters of the concept of deep operations that proved itself so profoundly on the battlefields of World War II. Without doubt, his concept of deep operations was the European Countermarch of the 20th century that changed the way of war. On the other, Isserson is too practical and instrumental in solving the technological and tactical problems of his time, focusing on functional improvement of force deployment, rather than on the broader phenomenon of war or its evolution in the 20th century.
Reading through Harrison’s selection of six of Isserson’s works that comprises the book, it is difficult to see their relevance today or for the future of war. Thus, I do not share the enthusiasm of retired Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper’s foreword, which states that Isserson still has “much to offer for those involved in force development, that is, writing military concepts and doctrine and designing future organizations” (p. 5). Indeed, it is easy to understand why he finds Isserson’s claim—“the determination of the tasks of military operations corresponding to the political goals of war” (p. 4)—attractive, as at the time when Isserson made this claim, the U.S. Army’s textbook on strategy stated that “politics and strategy are radically and fundamentally things apart.”2 However, Isserson’s work served as a practical solution for the limitations created by the technology and tactics of the early 20th century, without any attempt to reduce the significance of his work, but it seems that its relevance to military problems of the 21st century is similar to the relevance of Counts of Nassau and their volley technique to the battlefields of World War I.
Moreover, the suggestion that reading Isserson contributes to the understanding of the contemporary Russian military approach is rather contestable. Analyzing the works of contemporary Russian strategists on the phenomenon of war, such as Aleksandr Vladimirov, Andrey Kokoshin, Vasilii Mikriukov, and others, is invaluable, but it is difficult to find Isserson’s heritage in them. In other words, those American military scholars who focus on Isserson’s work, which is steeped in the context of preparations for World War II, do it much more than their Russian counterparts. Maybe Dr. T.X. Hammes was right after all, and the U.S. military is still struggling to move away from its embrace of the third generation of warfare with its massive force deployments, armored maneuvers, and deep operations.3 Isserson’s manuals, so crucial for the effective deployment of massive forces in World War II, seem to shed little light on Russia’s military decisions in the second decade of the 21st century.
Overall skillfully translated and edited, this volume may deserve “a place in any military professional’s library,” as General Van Riper writes. However, it should be placed on the same shelf with Jacob de Gheyn’s Arms Drill with Arquebus, Musket and Pike, written in 1607, for its historical significance rather than contemporary relevance. Russian military thought has its own Machiavellis, Clausewitzs, and Jominis, who have been shaping the Russian way of war for the last two centuries—Genrikh Leer, Aleksandr Mikhnevich, Aleksandr Svechin, Evgeny Messner, and Makhmut Gareev, just to name a few. Despite their enormous potential to improve the American military understanding of the Russian traditional approach to war, these works, unfortunately, have been generally neglected by American military thinking. Van Riper is right about of the gaps that American military officers have in their knowledge of the Russian military (p. 2), but Isserson’s work is not the best one to start filling these gaps. JFQ
1 Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West 1500–1800, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 18–24.
2 Principles of Strategy for an Independent Corps or Army in a Theater of Operations (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Command and General Staff School Press, 1936), 19.
3 T.X. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2004).