Venable on Hunzeker, 'Dying to Learn: Wartime Lessons from the Western Front'

Michael A. Hunzeker
Heather P. Venable

Michael A. Hunzeker. Dying to Learn: Wartime Lessons from the Western Front. Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021. 264 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-5845-4

Reviewed by Heather P. Venable (Air Command and Staff College) Published on H-War (December, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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How do military institutions best learn during wartime to increase battlefield effectiveness? Michael A. Hunzeker's Dying to Learn: Wartime Lessons from the Western Front effectively uses applied history to provide insights for current military professionals seeking to assess their own institutions' learning practices. Using three case studies from World War I, Hunzeker compares and contrasts Great Britain, Germany, and France, selecting these nations due to their general symmetry. Each army was relatively similar in size, equipment, and doctrine. These nations also faced the same general problem: how to break through an opponent's defenses. Over the course of the war, Germany learned the fastest and transformed its army most significantly, while the British lagged just behind, the war ending before they could complete their transformation. Meanwhile, France began the learning process the soonest but never completed it.

Hunzeker, who served in the Marine Corps between 2000 and 2006, studied under Aaron Friedberg and Stephen Rosen, graduating with a PhD from Princeton University. He subsequently joined George Mason University, where he is now an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government. Interestingly, although he has chosen to focus on a more conventional war, his own interests in wartime learning have been shaped greatly by his personal window on US counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Global War on Terror.

As Dying to Learn’s thesis, Hunzeker offers that World War I is "uniquely relevant" for current military organizations seeking to prepare for future warfare due to three reasons: the rapid rate of technological change prior to World War I undercut developments in readiness, doctrine, and training as institutions prioritized modernization; business drove much technological change, making it harder for militaries to anticipate the right "balance between dispersion and control"; and the lack of major conflicts before World War I meant that Germany, Britain, and France did not have a clear sense of what future warfare would look like (pp. 3, 4). These reasons are not entirely convincing for a number of reasons. Most important, given the author’s focus on wartime learning, these points focus more on prewar preparation.

By contrast, he more effectively draws on Williamson Murray’s contention that these three nations provide something close to a “natural experiment” in military history (p. 5). Murray may have inspired the choice of case studies, but Hunzeker uniquely offers a theory of wartime learning that he labels "assessment, command, and training (ACT) theory" (p. 7). Hunzeker limits his model’s usefulness to modern Western ground armies—or those fighting after 1870—in longer wars, hoping that his successors will explore the theory’s validity in a far broader sample set.

Hunzeker defines learning as the "act of updating and refining an existing war-fighting doctrine so as to make it as effective as possible" (p. 17). He argues that scholars have not devoted enough attention to learning; instead, they have preferred to explore innovation, adaptation, and emulation. Hunzeker critiques this approach, insisting that it is not only “impossible” but also “analytically arbitrary” to distinguish between them (p. 18). Even more usefully, perhaps, this section suggests that there is an important distinction between change and learning. A change can occur, but until an institution appropriately evaluates, validates, and disseminates that change, then learning has not occurred. In other words, learning requires a deeper and more systematic level of integration and continuous iteration than change.

Hunzeker’s theory predicts that the first requirement for learning success entails having a moderately decentralized approach to battlefield command and control, which allows unit experimentation without overwhelming the institution with excessive information. In the second stage, an institution needs "an independent, prestigious, and rigorous doctrine assessment mechanism" to validate the most effective experiments to shape new doctrine (p. 7). In this vein, Hunzeker argues that existing scholarship suggests that making decisions regarding what to change is easy; by contrast, he insists that leaders typically must decide between an array of “reasonable” choices (p. 30). After a leader has made a decision, the third phase requires a military to centralize training to ensure that the new doctrine spreads cohesively and fully throughout all units. Taken together, Hunzeker views the ACT theory to be akin to considering military organizations to be "gigantic, dynamic, and evolving search engines." As soon as war proves prewar doctrine to be inadequate, institutions must "develop a range of alternatives, select the best one, implement it across the relevant parts of the organization, and reevaluate," continuing this process until the war's conclusion (p. 10). As a result, Hunzeker privileges "organizational structure” over what he considers his field’s overemphasis on culture, which he does not find “subject to control" (p. 13). More synthetically, however, he seeks to blend studies on top-down military innovation with bottom-up adaptation theory.

Hunzeker’s model shows different rates of learning in each of the three phases regarding how each army tried to solve the problem of breakthrough on the western front, which required more effective doctrine regarding assault tactics, combined arms, and elastic defenses in depth, which Hunzeker maintains still offer the key to effectiveness on modern conventional battlefields. Taking assault tactics as an example, Hunzeker points out how France first explored learning, followed closely by Britain and then Germany. However, Germany moved faster in starting to assess its battlefield experimentation. Although the French engaged in a longer experimentation process compared to the Germans, they first implemented new assault tactics. Hunzeker provides a fascinating visual representation of the different rates of experimentation, assessment, and implementation in a chart on page 46 regarding all three key areas of doctrine. Hunzeker’s chart may not stand up to the analysis of experts in the field; as applied history, however, it offers interesting dynamics for military professionals to consider.

While France may have led the way in refining its learning on assault tactics, Germany generally emerges in the work as the example of what modern militaries should emulate. Regarding battlefield command and control to allow experimentation, Germany pushed command down to lower-ranking officers while Britain initially did the opposite by increasing centralized control, belatedly realizing it, too, needed to decentralize. For organizations wanting to improve their learning ability, Hunzeker reinforces the importance of sound organizational structure for his second phase of assessment. France, for example, lept “ahead” initially in learning, but successful learning depends less on “individual brilliance” and more on “organizational efficiency” (pp. 64, 65). As a result, the “well-trained mediocrity” that was the German officer corps ultimately learned better because it could turn “good concepts into practical doctrine” (p. 65). Finally, for the third phase of highly centralized training, Germany succeeded in being the first to centralize its training, with Britain being slower in this regard.

Hunzeker may focus on wartime lessons, but his work has peacetime implications: military institutions should ensure they begin wars with a smoothly oiled organization primed for experimentation and assessment. By grooming highly motivated officers to join its general staff, for example, Germany ensured not only that its officers knew how to plan operations but also that they could write doctrine. In a critique of current professional military education’s rigor, Hunzeker describes how each year more than 1,000 officers vied for the 160 seats at the German War Academy, only graduating after three years of highly competitive and challenging education. Graduates also received a kind of career safety blanket that allowed them the freedom to advocate for “unpopular recommendations,” a key example of the independence he views as so central to rigorous wartime assessment (p. 87).

In conclusion, Hunzeker argues that moderately decentralized learning organizations will begin experimenting on the battlefield before those with more centralized command and control. For the best chance of assessing this experimentation, institutions need to have independently minded, analytical, and objective military officers in place. Once leadership decides what doctrine to pursue, centralized training will then ensure the most efficient and even transmission of that learning throughout the organization with newly updated doctrine, until new problems are identified and the process continues in an iterative fashion.

While historical experts of any of these armies may likely challenge Hunzeker’s case studies, his theory holds intellectual heft in helping military professionals think about how their own institutions approach experimentation, assessment, and implementation. Whereas modern militaries tend to stress decentralized command and control, for example, Hunzeker helpfully points out that centralization can have a place, especially in training. His chart showing different rates in experimentation, assessment, and implementation, moreover, helpfully reminds institutions that learning is a process and that the different phases of learning may occur at varying rates. Experimentation may occur relatively quickly, or it may not; the same is true for assessment. Ultimately, what matters most is the speed of the entire process as well as the objectivity of the assessment process.

Only a seasoned historian with a long and productive career of rigorous archival research and continued refinement of argument could probably synthesize, compare, and contrast three World War I armies in 190 pages of text. But an applied historian—using a blend of secondary historical research and primary doctrinal sources—can provide much to ponder for the student of wartime learning. Ultimately, Dying to Learn has more utility for military professionals than professional military historians. It is clear, engaging, and thoughtful, with the case studies providing plenty to spark and stimulate thought about how military organizations can best establish themselves prior to war to ensure they minimize dying, one of the highest costs of wartime learning.

Citation: Heather P. Venable. Review of Hunzeker, Michael A., Dying to Learn: Wartime Lessons from the Western Front. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2022. URL:

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