Fighting the last war

On an episode of Hardcore History Addendum, Dan Carlin asks a ‘What if?’ question. What if a military transported through time? In wondering, Carlin addresses “fighting the last war.”

“Fighting the last war didn’t get you killed for most of human history. Fighting the last war was often the best way to fight the next war, especially if you did well.”

We use that expression dismissively. ‘He messed up because he was fighting the last war.’ But as Carlin noted, sometimes this is a good idea.

In, With the Old Bread, E.B. Sledge explains the counterintuitive strategy for Allied troops bypassing Japanese snipers and machine gun nests. The first wave ran past the den and the second wave attacked it.

“Thus mortars fired furiously on the enemy to the front while a small battle raged behind, between bypassed, entrenched Japanese and Marines in reserve. These Japanese frequently fired from the rear, pinning down the advance and causing casualties. Troops had to be well disciplined to function this way, and leadership had to be the best to coordinate things under such chaotic conditions. Marine tactics resembled those developed by the Germans under Gen. Erich Ludendorff which proved so successful against the Allies in the spring of 1918.”

From World War I to World War II some things changed, some did not. For slow moving change we want to fight the last war. For fast moving things we want to ask ‘How is this different?’

Before chemistry made gunpowder, bombs, and airplanes - in the ancient battles - one army could conceivably defeat another. But a force from World War II would decimate a force from World War I. Too much changed.

The Model T was introduced in 1908, but after a brief overview, a time traveler could drive a car today. Some say advertising has changed, but it’s still people we advertise to.

In what ways do things change? In what ways don’t they?