The first modern total war, fought with mass armies and modern firearms, was the U.S. Civil War. It demonstrated the importance of industrial mobilization; modern communications (especially railroads and the telegraph), and the deadly effect of new small arms, such as the rifled musket, on mass formations of attacking infantry. Beginning as a contest between armies, it grew into a conflict between two societies; before its termination almost the entire resources of both North and South were engaged.
The lessons of the U.S. Civil War were little noticed in Europe, where strategy and tactics continued to be thought of in terms of mid-19th-century practice. European theorists also ignored the extensive and effective use of machine guns, artillery, and rifles in the colonial wars of the 19th cent. As a result, the bloody stalemate of World War I came as a surprise to most generals. It was characterized by trench warfare and by bloody frontal attacks, which were usually stopped at great cost to the attackers by massed small arms and artillery fire. In an effort to break the stalemate, both sides turned to new technical devices, such as the tank, the airplane, the submarine, and poison gas. The importance of the tank was stressed in theories of mechanized warfare formulated in the 1920s and 30s in the writings of B. H. Liddell Hart, Charles de Gaulle, and J. F. C. Fuller; they proved prophetic when the Nazi blitzkrieg marked World War II as a war of mobility, characterized by vast movements of mechanized armies.
The introduction of aircraft in World War I gave rise to theories of airpower that have dominated strategic and tactical thinking ever since. The basis of airpower was set down by such men as Giulio Douhet, H. M. Trenchard, and William Mitchell, who believed that future wars would be won by air forces. Their theory of strategic bombing called for aerial attacks on the enemy's population and industrial centers to destroy the enemy's will and ability to continue fighting. In World War II that strategy was carried out in massive form by British and U.S. air forces in attacks on Germany and Japan. It was found, however, that aerial bombardment did not cut off industrial production and, in fact, strengthened the enemy's will to continue. In order to win the war the Allies had to conduct a number of campaigns with ground forces and, in the case of Germany, occupy the enemy's homeland.
The introduction and development of nuclear weapons and the guided missile have not changed the basic strategic theory of airpower, but these new weapons have revolutionized airpower itself. The replacement of high-explosive bombs by nuclear bombs and the change from propeller-driven manned aircraft to rocket-powered guided missiles meant that a force armed with these weapons could destroy almost any target on the planet. From the dropping of the first atomic bomb a new school of military theory, nuclear strategy, developed (see Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn). In the 1950s, the United States evolved the theory of "massive retaliation," to be used against the USSR as a response to acts of aggression.
In the early 1960s the threat of nuclear war did not prevent many successful nationalist revolutions and Communist people's wars as advocated by Mao Zedong, Ernesto "Che"Guevara, and Vo Nguyen Giap (see also guerrilla warfare). The result was a greater stress on conventional weapons and on increased tactical and strategic flexibility, as well as an interest in the long history and practice of counterinsurgency. That military strategy has become national strategy, involving complex assessments of technological resources, politics, and national priorities, was made clear in the Vietnam War and Afghanistan War where superior strategies and tactics allowed small nations to defeat great powers armed with the latest weaponry.
Outer space has also become a crucial strategic issue. President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative raised the possibility of the use of space-based weapons and satellites to combat an nuclear attack involving ballistic missiles, as the popular term for the program—"Star Wars"—made clear. Space is also important strategically for intelligence gathering using reconnaissance satellites and for coordination of military forces using the Global Positioning System (see navigation satellite), as was done successfully during the Persian Gulf War.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.