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There is a famous quote which I've seen phrased in several different ways.

"Armies prepare to fight their last war, rather than their next war"
"Generals prepare to fight their father's war"
"Soldiers...."

I've seen this quote in many books and news stories; my question is who is credited with saying it first?

comments:

Eric Duminil
I don't think I understand the quote. Could you please explain?

At different periods in history, weapons and tactics have given significant advantages to forces on offense or defense. Over time, new innovations flip these advantages to the other side. When this has occurred militaries are often caught unprepared, focused on their last experience rather than alert to how emerging innovations are changing the properties of war.

At first, fortifications like castles and walled cities yielded advantages to defenders. It's why investments were made in hugely expensive fortifications and networks of castles throughout Europe.

Gunpowder and cannons flipped that and made castles and fortified cities irrelevant. For centuries with firearms, offenses held the advantage. A "Cult of offense" existed among military theorists which professed any effort made towards defense or protection of one's troops was a wasted effort. That troops on the offensive held such an advantage that all defensive efforts were counter productive. Would ultimately cause more casualties and contribute to defeat.

During WWI, the machine gun paired with barbed wire flipped that back again. The cult of offense still held by the generals dictated that hundreds of thousands of men would die in battles on the Western Front. As the defensive advantages demonstrated themselves. The Western Front ground to a stalemate. Major battles fought barely changed the fronts lines. Generals on both sides would order massive frontal assaults believing there troops on offense still held an advantage, while in reality machine guns behind fortified lines cut the offensive troops to ribbons.

In WWII, tanks and new tank tactics would again flip the advantages. Infantry behind massed armor destroyed or simply bypassed fortifications built at great expense by generals who had learned the now outdated lessons of early WWI. See Maginot Line.

The soldiers who best learn the lessons of the wars they fight advance to become the generals of future wars. They prepare to refight the wars they know. Only the nature of warfare changes. In modern times, these changes affecting war tactics have accelerated. Where once these changes occurred over centuries or even millennia, in more modern times they have occurred over decades.

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    @EricDuminil the comments on the current answer are illuminating. Essentially the idea is that it's easier to prepare yourself for a repeat of the last war you fought than it is to predict how the next one will play out and prepare yourself for that, on top of all the various kinds of institutional inertia that make it difficult to do so even if you make the right prediction – llama Jul 24 at 18:22
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    @llama: Aaaaah. Thanks a lot. I understood "last" as in "last ever", so an army would prepare so much as to annihilate the other side, and would never need to fight again. It makes sense, now. – Eric Duminil Jul 24 at 18:25
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    @EricDuminil ah yeah I did the same when I saw the title, I've suggested an edit to "previous" to make it clearer – llama Jul 24 at 18:27
  • Probably someone who lacked the precognition to precisely anticipate the details of the next war. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 27 at 12:41
  • @MarkC.Wallace it's not a matter of precognition. It's really a matter of philosophy. There is great value and safety in studying and emulating what made other militaries successful. It's not that the emerging technology and tactics are unknown. It's that there is a risk in being the first. This risk is something that most experienced military officers historically regardless of civilization are adverse to endure. They come to it as a necessity or their replacements do, after failures. – user27618 Jul 27 at 17:31
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I think this adage is very old and has been rephrased countless times (though with slight modifications), but the modern English adaption might be from the 20th century:

  • King Wuling, "A talent for following the ways of yesterday is not sufficient to improve the world of today." [Warring States Period]

  • Lieut. Col. J. L. Schley, "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." [January–February 1929]

  • The modern proverb is dated to 1934 in 'The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012)' based on this site (kindly verified as a verbatim quotation by @ElizaWilson):

    • “There is a saying that is rather common among the critics of the military profession that ‘soldiers are always preparing to fight the last war.’ Business must not incur the rebuke that it is devoting itself to preparing to sell goods under the conditions of the last economic cycle.”1934 Edward P. Warner, “Present Conditions under the N.R.A. [National Recovery Act],” American Marketing Journal 1: 12:

  • Dallas Morning News, "There is a partly justified criticism that peacetime generals are always fighting the last war instead of the next one." [20 November 1937]

  • W. Churchill, "It is a joke in Britain to say that the War Office is always preparing for the last war. But this is probably true of other departments and of other countries, and it was certainly true of the French Army." [1948, 'The Gathering Storm']

  • B. Tuchman, "Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip and Germans, no less than other peoples, prepare for the last war." [1962]

  • See here for a more comprehensive listing (though not necessarily sourced to specific people).


Edit: Some back-and-forth between myself and @T.E.D.:

I went through my historical quotations (I tend to write out the "good" ones when I see them), and there was nothing really in this specific mold (though my reading has been more random than systematic) except for the Chinese mention which is close but not spot on. The Greek and Roman military mentions went more into the "know your enemy" camp.

It could be this is because it wasn't really known/accepted that warfare could change as rapidly as in the 1920-1939 period. That said, WWI is also a lesson of how the 1861–1865, 1898, and 1904–5 lessons weren't learnt so with enough hindsight we can apply it to other previous situations as well.

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  • Can't help but notice how many of those seem to date back or originate from the period between, the two 20th Century World Wars. The events of WWI would certainly be exhibit A for the principle... – T.E.D. Jul 24 at 17:17
  • ...and 1861-1865. Unfortunately, I fear the Germans, French, and British militaries at the time were of the opinion that wars not involving any of themselves didn't count. – T.E.D. Jul 24 at 17:39
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    I found an online version of The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs that those interested may be able to access with an institutioonal login, and verified that your quote is verbatim. It can be found on page 94. – Eliza Wilson Jul 24 at 19:30
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    @MatthieuM. most of the German invasion of France in 1914 in WWI was through Belgium; German forces in Alsace-Lorraine (German since 1871) barely moved. Then they did it again in 1940 starting later but moving faster. – Henry Jul 24 at 21:58
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    I wonder if anyone ever said something that is sort of a corollary: "And it is the front-line troops who notice this." ? I could imagine some sergeant noticing how many of his men are getting killed because the old formations and other tactics don't take into account new rifles which have a higher rate of fire and telling his lieutenant that they need to take cover or whatever and being told to shut up. – releseabe Jul 26 at 2:19

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