- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Williamson Murray, one of the author-editors of "The Dynamics of Military Revolution,1300-2050," visited the newly appointed director of one of the military services' innovation labs in 1995. The purpose of Mr. Murray's visit was to offer advice and assistance in implementing successful innovation. The director airily dismissed his offer explaining that emerging technology had rendered history irrelevant. Three years later, the director had retired and his innovations (some of them quite good) had collapsed in shambles. This thoughtful book is a potential tool for future innovators to use in avoiding the mistakes of the past while navigating their way through the stormy waters of military revolutions.
The book is a series of essays on revolutions in military affairs (RMAs) in the past seven centuries with book-end introductory and conclusion essays by MacGregor Knox and Mr. Murray that nicely frame the arguments in between. One primary theme of the book is that RMAs have a strong relationship to social and economic revolutions that precede them. Another theme is that RMAs are never permanent. Battlefield success in one conflict is usually mimicked by the conflict's victims in the next. A third resonating theme is that technology is only one aspect of RMAs and often the most fleeting.
Finally, the book stresses that the most successful, lasting innovations have been the ones that stress decentralization of command and control in war. All of these themes run counter to the conventional wisdom that calls for top-down, technology-driven centralized decision-making in formulating the military transformation that has become a buzzword in Washington in the last few years.
The book's chapters include essays on the English RMA in the 14th century, the French experience in the 17th century and the wars of the Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, the wars of German unification, British naval supremacy, World War I, and World War II. Each stresses that successful RMAs were only achieved by a combination of technology, organizational concepts, tactics and sociological advances. In most examples, technology is a strong contributing enabler, but in none is it a stand-alone factor. Quite the opposite is true. The most fleeting advantage of any RMA is the one in which technology is the largest factor, that being the sea power revolution led by Great Britain in the 19th century. Every British development was quickly mirrored by its rivals, which matched its technology if not in industrial capacity.
Both author-editors have impressive academic and publishing credentials. Mr. Murray is a recognized expert in military innovation and has done much of the research underpinning the ideas of Andrew Marshall and his Office of Net Assessment. He has advocated a balanced mix of technology, tactics and organizational innovation in pursuing an American RMA in the 21st century. Other contributors include notable thinkers such as John Lynn, Dennis Showater and Holger Herwig. Perhaps the weakest essay is Jonathan Bailey's treatment of World War I, which emphasizes the contribution of indirect artillery fire at the expense of other factors that get relatively short shrift. In reality, World War I represented an RMA gone terribly wrong. It represents a cautionary tale of a hellish mix of technology and national passion that resulted in the slaughter of a generation of European youth to no positive end. Mr. Bailey's point in the essay seems to be that artillery could have been better employed by both sides. While this is undoubtedly true, its narrow scope does not fit with the wider aspirations of the book that are generally realized by the other contributors.
If the concluding essay has a hero, it is Mr. Marshall who has argued for balance in seeking an American RMA. The primary villain is retired Adm. William Owens who has argued strongly for an RMA built around technology managed in Washington by technocrats in computer-lined command bunkers.
Mr. Knox and Mr. Murray argue convincingly that history does not support this approach. The question posed by the author-editors is whether today's emerging class of military professional is up to the challenge of creating a successful RMA. They openly question whether the current generation of senior officers is worthy of their predecessors who led the American military establishment out of the morass of defeat in Vietnam to the triumph of Desert Storm. The question of whether there are Colin Powells and Al Grays waiting in the wings remains open. For the good of the nation, we can only hope that there are.
This book went to print before the events of September 11. Consequently, the new kind of war thrust on the American people on that black Tuesday were not considered, but Mr. Knox and Mr. Murray touch on some issues that will be key, such as the exploitation of nontraditional resources like cultural intelligence. This is an important little book. It deserves to be widely read.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who regularly writes on military affairs.


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