The Ancient Egyptians were probably the first people to establish a professional army composed of career soldiers. The Mesopotamians also established a professional army about the same time. These armies were trained and led by a professional corps of officers and tacitly led by a variety of Kings and Princes although many of these were generals and warriors in their own right. These armies were organized into various specialty units such as; infantry, cavalry (chariots), archers (artillery), and the usual corps of supporting units like engineers, ordinance, logistics, etc. Weaponry tended to be alike as did strategies and tactics with the outcome of battles being largely dependent on the quality of the leadership and the discipline of the troops. Battles tended to fall into two categories—battlefields and sieges – or offense and defense.
This was the pattern of warfare until the introduction of gun powder in the 13th Century. Prior to that, changes were largely improvements to existing weapons technology, i.e. cross bow, long bow, shorter Roman Lance, shield design, stronger castles, etc. With the introduction of gun powder came cannons, which rendered the Castle largely obsolete, although these strong points existed right up to the First World War in the form of the Maginot Line. The introduction of muskets again changed the face of war although the same tactics which relied on massed troops maneuvering on the battlefield under fire, continued through the American Civil War.
The reaction to the carnage of the American Civil War led to a revision in tactics, which led to a more defensive mentality reminiscent of the siege warfare of the Middle Ages where troops were sally forth from the castle and retreat back to the Castle if things didn’t go well. But World War II led to some additional tactical rethinking. First – battles became three dimensional with the introduction of the Air Force. This allowed generals to reach behind the front lines and attack the enemies infrastructure, spelling the end to permanent strong defensive positions. But in addition to the Air Force, the Armored Cavalry was now able to sweep around these strong points and render them untenable. But overall while the tactics were refined, the weapons improved, and battlefield changed to three dimensions, the essential battle structures remained unchanged.
That is while the battlefield was now larger it was still controlled by a Central Command and relied on Corps, Division, Brigade, and Battalions executing a planned strategy. Officers in the field were given very specific objectives, reported back through a chain of command, and had limited flexibility in their decisions. Throughout WW II Infantry, Artillery, Cavalry, and the Air Force were major components of land warfare. The objective was to physically destroy the enemy and to occupy his land. However, overlooked in the enthusiasm surrounding the victory, was the residual war in China, which was actually a civil war between the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communists. The struggle was interesting for several reasons, but primarily because the Nationalists were well armed, well organized, and supported by the Western Powers. Although the Communists had the support of Russia they were essentially on their own. They were not well armed but were well organized and highly motivated but what set them apart was their reliance on guerilla tactics and their ability to simply blend into the landscape and population.
Although guerilla tactics have been employed since the Israelites fought the Romans, they really have only been destabilizers rather than a victorious strategy. But Mao Tse Tung used these tactics very successfully and eventually drove the Nationalists offshore to Taiwan where they remain. Since that time the Viet Cong successfully employed these tactics against the French in Indochina and then later against the US in Viet Nam. But during this time several things remained constant. First, the Guerillas were backed up by trained and well organized military units. Secondly the battles continued to be orchestrated and controlled by a central command structure with the units organized into the classic military structure, such as; corps, divisions, brigades, etc. But more importantly, the various combat arms remained distinct and functioned as distinct units, other than the liaisons and this is how things stood for Gulf War I. In fact Generals Powell and Schwartzkopf were probably the last of the classic generals fighting a classic war where maneuvers were at the corps and division levels, with armor based flanking movements ala General Patton.
Gulf War II started much the same way with General Franks using division based tactics supported by the air force to overwhelm the Iraqi Army in a matter of weeks. But General Franks aided by SecDef Rumsfeld changed the face of war and it continues to evolve. First, gone are the distinctive work uniforms and in their place are the ubiquitous camouflage used by all branches. Units are now made up of combinations of Marine, Army, and Air Force personnel. These units are not always mixed branch but commonly are. Furthermore, even those homogenous units can be made up of Artillery, Infantry, and Armor troops with all being employed as infantry.
This new face of warfare has been brought about by the rapid collapse of the Iraqi military and the unanticipated rise of the militias and incursion of foreign guerillas. This new form of warfare is not only guerilla based but relies of terror. In this environment the generals and central command have largely been relegated to advisors or at the least have lost any close control over day-to-day field operations. Instead, it is the Sergeants, Lieutenants, Captains, and the occasional Major who are conducting the war with only broad direction from the central command. Tactical units are now at the Squad, Platoon, and Company level with occasional use of battalion or brigade sized units. Large field maneuvers have vanished and in their place are these small unit battles conducted by the junior officer corps. These junior officers may be Marines, Army, Navy Special Forces, or Air Force.
The result has been a huge improvement in inter-branch communications, much greater teamwork, and a blending of the Armed Forces into a cohesive whole that has not been seen before. The military is changing not only how it thinks but how it fights. Most recently small company sized units have taken up residence within the neighborhoods they patrol and protect. This is in response to the guerilla tactics of blending in with the population. By abandoning the central encampments (i.e. castles or strong points) the military now is more vulnerable but also more able to determine friend from foe as they become familiar with the local population. This also gives them more frequent and reliable human intelligence.
SecDef Rumsfeld has been heavily criticized for his actions, especially by those politicians and old fashioned generals who want to retain control and to continue fighting the last war. Just as General Billy Mitchell demonstrated the value of the air force and its effectiveness against battle ships and paid the price for his audacity, Secretary Rumsfeld may be in the same category. Time will tell but it is unlikely that the American war machine will ever go back to what it was and in the future the Sergeants and Junior Officers will play a much larger role and have greater flexibility.