Handgrenade July 2021

John T Kuehn's picture

King of the Battlefield or Queen of the Battlefield?


John T. Kuehn

All, This might  be contentious.  Also, a good one for 4th of July fireworks.

Over the years the metaphor of king or queen of the battlefield has come and gone.  Which military organizational construct is most effective ?  Let us just assume they are all effective, just not equally so in all instances and all circumstances.

At the dawn of the modern age there were three primary “branches” on the battlefield: infantry, cavalry, and artillery.  Artillery, which had been around for years had been relegated to siege warfare during what, for lack of a better term, can be termed the cavalry dominated era from roughly the collapse of the Roman and Han Empires until the early modern era, which began first in China with gunpowder weapons (12th Century).  Then, gradually  the three branches above emerged clearly again and artillery moved from being primarily an expensive siege weapon to a tactical weapon on the battlefield and a component of maneuver.   The so-called era of cavalry, as John Lynn, Kelly Devries and others have emphasized was much more complicated (and sophisticated) than is often portrayed in the Western literature.  The horse archer in laminated armor, not the heavy cavalryman (who had existed since the Cataphracts of Persia), was the paradigm warrior from a global perspective.

            But then the infantryman took his place as queen of the battlefield across the globe, from Sekighara in Japan to the great infantry battles in the collapse of the Ming Dynasty to the famous Swiss pikemen in Europe.   Infantry had again assumed its rightful place as the tactical center of gravity of any army worth the name.  Or so goes the narrative, most especially emphasized in a series of articles in the early pages of the Western-English language anthology Makers of Modern Strategy, both the first AND second editions.  

However,  beginning with Gustavus Adolphus and continuing through Napoleon at battles like Wagram, one finds oneself in the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War and learns that more and more infantry is not doing the majority of the killing anymore on the battlefield.  At battles like Shiloh, Chickamauga, the Wilderness,  St. Privat, and Sedan, one sees see artillery raking in a bloody tax on infantry (and cavalry) in the open.  By the time World War I’s maneuver phase (at least in the West) was over artillery had become “queen of the battlefield.”   Even the infantry partisans could no longer deny its deadly effects.  As the 20th century proceeded, the “age of fires” intensified and there is no argument when strategic and tactical air attack is added to the artillery (or more correctly “fires”) equation.  But even without them, at battles from the destruction of the Second Panzer division not far from Dinat in the Ardennes to Khe Sahn to Fallujah II through X  (will there be another Fallujah? I say yes…sorry to digress), artillery and fires constituted the bulk of lethality.  The primary operational planner for Fallujah II (November-December 2004) then-Major Andrew Dietz, USMC, was an artilleryman and his scheme of maneuver reflected that, to include non-lethal fires and psyops. Andy was on my teacing team at Fort Leavenworth.

   Nothing in this argument relegates infantry to obsolescence; if that was the case the US-led Coalition would never have had to trudge into Kuwait in 1991. My source for that one is personal experience planning, executing, and monitoring the air campaign from the Tactical Flag Command Center (TFCC)  aboard USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) January-February 1991 on the staff of CTF-155.


I vaguely remember a quote from a milhist seminar course in undergraduate school Frederick the Great, I think - to the effect that you can’t defeat an enemy without owning his real estate. And in order to do this, you need infantry.

Have a very good 4 July 2021.

You present an interesting supposition. I suppose I am biased, but I believe that you can bomb and shell terrain ad infinitum but until it is occupied by your army it still belongs to your adversary. I remember reading a letter from Field Marshal Lord Wavell to the Times of London, discussing the role of infantry in the war. The full text is on the web at http://www.regimentalrogue.com/misc/in_praise_of_infantry.htm. I think the relevant passages are as follows:
"Let us be clear about three facts. First, all battles and all wars are won in the end by the infantryman. Secondly, the infantryman always bears the brunt. His casualties are heavier, he suffers greater extremes of discomfort and fatigue than the other arms. Thirdly, the art of the infantryman is less stereotyped and far harder to acquire in modern war than that of any other arm. The role of the average artilleryman, for instance, is largely routine; the setting of a fuse, the loading of a gun, even the laying of it are processes which, once learnt, are mechanical. The infantryman has to use initiative and intelligence in almost every step he moves, every action he takes on the battle-field. We ought therefore to put our men of best intelligence and endurance into the Infantry.
In all the long history of war on land the front-line fighting man, whose role is to close with the enemy and force him to flee, surrender, or be killed – the only method by which battles are ever won – has two categories only – those who fight mounted – once the Knights-at-arms, then the Cavalry, now the Royal Armoured Corps – and those who fight on their feet – the inevitable, enduring, despised, long-suffering Infantry (with a very capital I). Artillery, Engineers, R.A.S.C., and the like simply handle the weapons and equipment which Infantry have from time to time discarded, when they found that they encumbered their mobility and lessened their power to perform their primary role of closing with the enemy. The cannon, bombard, or what-not, when first introduced was an infantry weapon; when it impeded mobility it was handed over to second-line men, to support the Infantry. Similarly with other weapons and devices.
So that the real front-line fighters, mounted or dismounted, are the men who should receive such panoply and glamour as are accorded to this dreary business of war. The mounted men have always had it – prancing steeds, glittering uniforms, sabretaches, scimitars, dolmans, leopard-skins, and the like in the old days; the imposing clatter of tanks and smart black berets in these sterner days. But the infantryman who bears the danger, the dirt, and the discomfort has never enjoyed the same prestige."
I hope all celebrated our independence.

This question and brief summary just emphasizes to me that there are two realities within military history, fads and trends impact military organizations just as any other institutions since people are subject to fads and trends and that, emerging technology appears at first to solve all ills but militaries need to learn how to integrate these new technologies into an overall scheme much faster. Military leaders are always seeking the one weapon that will solve all battlefield problems but then learn the lesson all over again that only a well-balanced and integrated range of weapons can address the multiple battlefield needs and situations.

One can cite numerous examples, especially since 1945, of infantry “owning the enemy’s real estate” without defeating the enemy. The ability of US infantry to go wherever it wanted in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and win lots of tactical engagements did not produce victory (a lasting and beneficial strategic effect) for the USA. This raises the question - infantry may not be “obsolescent” but is it actually useful and relevant in any kind of war in which the US is likely to engage? Can it produce meaningful victory at a tolerable cost?

Owning the real estate means controlling it. Not passing through it briefly while exercising the ability to go wherever one wants. The United States never sent enough troops to Vietnam for spreading them across the country, stationing enough troops in each area to own that area, to be an option. And the US did not choose to occupy even as wide an area as its limited troop numbers would have permitted.

The primary strategy of the United States was to attack enemy forces, and hope that if the US weakened enemy forces enough, the forces of the Republic of Vietnam would then be able to take ownership of the real estate.

The forces sent to Iraq and Afghanistan were far smaller even than those sent to Vietnam.

True enough. But the point of US 'limited war' was to keep the war 'limited' in Vietnam. Expansion by numbers of troops would have set off even worse protests among the antiwar movement and pollitically, this just wouldn't work within the US. Recent history shows just how accurate this assessment could have proven, just as the Cambodian incursion and Kent State student murders proved. Some in their all out approaches just do not learn about consequences which are controversial. Infantry owning realty is what produced the colonial empires of Britain and others for centuries before WW I and II tore them to shreds in the modern 20th Century and now subsequent history to these parts of the world.

As you say .... it depends.

"Over the years the metaphor of king or queen of the battlefield has come and gone. Which military organizational construct is most effective ? Let us just assume they are all effective, just not equally so in all instances and all circumstances."

The enemy is defeated when he thinks he is (sorry for the gender thing) ..... what causes that thought to arise varies.

Infantry is generally needed, but not always. Japan surrendered before a single Allied soldier put boots on the ground, right?

This points to the larger problem that history cannot solve (though there are some cautionary tales) for military planners and programmers ..... what kind of force will we need next?

Excellent point. Aircraft artillery changed outcome of WW II.

Question, then, how revolutionary is nuclear weaponry ? Once answered was the end of WW II.
Another answer has only been given thru Cold War history of policy analysis offered by analysts, since no decision maker has crossed the nuclear line to date. Forbid that way should be taken to resolve this answer. Men in contamination suits
living that way every day to possess real estate doesn't seem like an answer.
How do personnel gain realty if a govt. decided to go nuclear ? No, not really wishing to find out.

Your point about what comes next is well taken. The trick is, in doctrine and force structure, not to be so wrong that you cannot correct in time.
As for your comment about the Pacific War: there was the prologue to dropping the atomic bombs; it took considerable blood and treasure and alliance politics to get Japan to surrender before an invasion could be mounted.

True, but only because of the relatively limited range of long range bombers of that era ..... had (yes, this is a "what if") the US had aerial refueling capability then Okinawa etc would have been unnecessary.

A senior Israeli intelligence (I think) official once commented that there were only two times to use nuclear weapons: too soon or too late--which is probably why Iran gave up on the idea of building any. Add to that the dilemma faced by the Indian war cabinet in 2002 when they considered an invasion of Pakistan to retaliate for an attack on the Indian parliament. As I heard the story, the prime minister asked whether the military had plans to take out the Pakistani nuclear weapons. "Oh, yes, Sahib." "All of them?" "Well, all but one." Then, of course, there is the mess they leave behind, which may well be spread by the wind beyond the borders of the target nation.

Nuclear weapons are, in short, not a very useful class of weapons, something they share in common with chemical and biological weapons. It's probably handy to have a few around to use too late to deter one's enemies, but as for achieving political ends, no.