Fighting the Last War

By | April 23, 2020

[April 23, 2020]  In December 2004, I had the opportunity to interview captured Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.  During that brief encounter at his prison cell at Camp Victory in Baghdad, I asked him one question, “Why did the Americans defeat your army?”  Honestly, I wasn’t expecting an answer.  But he smiled and told me that “defeat” is a Western concept and he didn’t believe in it.  I thought to myself that he based his failed strategy on fighting the last war with us.

The more I thought about his remarks to me, the more I came to see his thinking as commonplace among military leaders throughout history.  One of the more interesting mistakes in future planning is something called, fighting the last war.  This means believing in and using a strategy that has been successful in the past but no longer works in the present.

Here are some examples from World War II that shines a light on fighting the last war.  The U.S. Army came up with an armored doctrine before WWII that predicted tanks avoiding tank-to-tank battles.  Enemy armor would be dealt with tank-destroyers, and the tanks would take on the infantry.  We abandoned this concept early and for the right reason, it didn’t work.  And, no one copied this idea for a good reason.

In the late 1930s, the British envisioned light-armored tankettes and independent jock columns to strike the enemy forces.  But in combat, they could not stand up to the more heavily armored German formations and the pounding inherent in modern warfare.  The French intended to fight a rigidly methodical battle and instead found themselves in a maneuver contest with the Germans.  The early war went badly for them.

The Japanese believed their “warrior spirit” would make up for the lack of material, manpower, and technology.  Their defeats were staggering after some initial surprise attacks but failed in the end.  Even the Germans who we say got things right, fought a war designed on a short, sharp campaign and quickly bringing their enemies to the negotiating table.  The Germans didn’t figure on a global war of attrition.

Each of these armies was getting ready to fight the last war.  In a sense, they all do that; it’s unavoidable.  How do you predict the future with enough precision to build a military force around it?  This line of thinking is a real problem.  The problem is not just for the military but for all walks of life.  We learn past lessons and apply them.  Doing so makes sense logically.  Our relevant experiences dictate this line of thinking.

What we often do, however, is fail to look forward with sufficient clarity.  Inward thinking works to a degree, and it is not that sort of thinking is easy once we get over our tendency to avoid self-criticism. The future is murky and full of chaos, complexity, and uncertainty.  Fighting the last war as a method of fighting future wars allows us to feel good but rarely works.  Today, the world moves too quickly.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “Fighting the Last War

  1. Kenny Foster

    Your use of WW2 examples are praiseworthy. Why use them? Most of us reading your blog already have some level of familiarity with WW2 and who did what; at least in a simple sense. By using these, we can add to our basic level of understanding and keep up with the arguments. Once again, well done. I look forward to more in the near future where you address more on this current crises with the Coronavirus and China’s military and economic power.

    Reply
    1. Wendy Holmes

      Well argued, Kenny. Lessons from war can be directly applied to all our life’s obstacles. Why? I’m not smart enough to know but maybe it’s just that war magnifies our humanness for good or for bad.

      Reply
  2. Wilson Cox

    Even the British during the 1700s were ‘fighting the last war.’ They were using tactics that won them many battles but they tried to use it later in their American colonies. In the American Revolution, while the British were standing in lines banging on drums in open fields, America’s ragtag guerilla Patriots were in the woods quietly waiting to topple the world’s most powerful army.

    Reply
    1. Xerxes I

      In the last 30 years, our enemies have changed, the battlefields have morphed, and the way wars are fought has been transformed. That’s why we can’t let muscle memory dictate our investments in national defense. We have to be tough and we have to be smart.

      Reply
    2. old warrior

      A musket, a rifle, a tank, or a tactical nuclear device, we still want to kick butt. Or ,,,,, it could be a strong economy with govt backing us up.

      Reply
      1. KenFBrown

        Always great to read your comments, old warrior. Hang in there. Keep up the great work.

        Reply
  3. Max Foster

    Generals always “fight the last war” means that military strategy often focuses on what has happened rather than what will happen. “There is a tendency in many armies to spend the peace time studying how to fight the last war” was cited in 1929 and “peacetime generals are always fighting the last war” has been cited in print in 1937. During World War II in the early 1940s, the saying was quite frequently used.

    Reply
    1. Bill Sanders, Jr.

      Spot-on analysis, Max. Thanks. In the annals of all strategic thinking, the most common error is to “fight the last war,” preparing uselessly for old challenges, rather than girding effectively for the future.

      Reply
    2. Eric Coda

      As early as 1929, Lieutenant Colonel J. L. Schley, of the Corps of Engineers wrote in The Military Engineer: “It has been said critically that there is a tendency in many armies to spend the peace time studying how to fight the last war.”

      Reply
      1. Dale Paul Fox

        Eric, thanks! Good research. I always say that every war, whether physical or metaphorical, has produced its own backward-looking buffoonery disguised as institutional prudence. Hope you got a laugh out of that choice of words. My wife says I’m trying to be a military philosopher.

        Reply
  4. Harry Donner

    “Man seems to come into this world with an inalterable belief that he knows best and that he can make others think as he does by force. Those who read history tend to look for what proves them right and confirms their personal opinions. They defend loyalties. They read with a purpose to affirm or attack. They resist inconvenient truth since everyone wants to be on the side of the angels. Just as we start wars to end all wars.” – Liddell Hart

    Reply
  5. Doug Smith

    “The most instructive, indeed the only method of learning to bear with dignity the vicissitude of fortune, is to recall the catastrophe of others.” – Polybius

    Reply
  6. Army Captain

    If there is one thing I was taught early in my military time was that ‘fighting the last war’ was a monumental failure among senior leaders. That is why we often study old battles and wars … at least we do so in the US. Thanks Gen. Satterfield for another on point article.

    Reply
    1. Tom Bushmaster

      Good points Army Cpt. I recently read “Why We Don’t Learn From History” by B.H. Liddell Hart. It’s a historical account of the strategy implications for war but the lessons are all about human nature and behavioral tendencies that involve many useful lessons. You might want to pick it up sometime. I think you will enjoy it.

      Reply
      1. Santa Fe Mae

        Liddell Hart’s question does not get an explicit answer, but an implicit answer is built up as we read: Under pressure, people who are normally capable and decent are prone to become intellectual and moral idiots.

        Reply
      2. JT Patterson

        Hart is best known for his books on military history and strategy, yet here he discusses a fundamentally important psychological and philosophical question that underlies much of history: Why we don’t seem to learn much from the past.

        Reply

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