G. S. Isserson. G. S. Isserson and the War of the Future: Key Writings of a Soviet Military Theorist. Translated and edited by Richard W. Harrison. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2016. 332 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-6236-7.
Reviewed by Aleksandra Pomiecko (University of Toronto)
Published on H-War (November, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
In compiling and translating the works of Georgii Samoilovich (G. S.) Isserson, Richard W. Harrison seeks to revive the ideas of a Soviet military theorist, whose contribution to the field of operational art has been undervalued. The preface by Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper highlights the relevance of the publication of Isserson’s essays and invites members of the American defense community to study Isserson’s work. This is followed by Harrison’s preface, which outlines each of the essays and provides contextual background, including the audience and recipients of his texts, noteworthy historical context around the time they were written and presented, and the central ideas of each. His selection of these essays is intended to highlight the progression of operational art in the Red Army. In the index, Harrison offers detailed explanations of terminology that may be unfamiliar to the reader.
Harrison then offers a short biography of Isserson. Most notably, he points out the fact that Isserson survived the military purges of 1937, unlike other proponents of the theory of deep operation, which garnered a subversive connotation during this time. His survival, however, was paired with a turbulent personal life, including exile to Kazakhstan and Siberia during the Second World War, as well as familial tensions. It should be noted that more extensive biographical context can be garnered from Harrison’s earlier work, Architect of Soviet Victory in World War II: The Life and Theories of G. S. Isserson (2010), a book that he recommends reading in tangent with these translated essays. The biographical portion of Isserson’s life, presented in Harrison’s earlier work, is particularly useful for better understanding the military purges and Isserson’s tenuous position as a Soviet military theorist.
In the first five essays, Isserson stressed the working state of his work. These essays are intended to offer preliminary observations for further debate and discussion. The first essay, “The Evolution of Operational Art,” published in 1932, is divided into two parts. It discusses the legacy of operational history, followed by an argument in favor of deep strategy. Overall, this essay is a reactionary argument in favor of deep operations as a result of the failures of linear warfare in the First World War. Isserson noted this shift in military theory to be as crucial as the one that occurred after the French Revolution. Furthermore, he argued that while there had been a tremendous development in more advanced technology and tactics, the study of the operational aspect had not been equal and necessitated change. He advocated that a successful operational plan would entail a unified system, offering expanse as well as depth on both the western and eastern fronts.
Isserson’s second essay, “The Fundamentals of the Deep Operation,” published in 1933, continues the ideas of the first essay and proposes more justification and tentative plans for the implementation of deep strategy. The work should be understood in the context of the first Five-Year Plan, which stressed rapid industrialization and affected the production of weapons. Subsequently, Isserson focused on the means of transporting weapons, tanks, and combat units cohesively and effectively to the front for both initial and deep penetration. He also accounted for massive industrialization, in general, across other states, which had altered the approach in defense measures. Isserson noted the importance of developing practical strategies to existing theoretical works on deep operation, and he hoped this manifested into a proper manual.
The subsequent three essays were developed during a cautionary period following the military purges, which Isserson managed to survive. In “The Fundamentals of the Defensive Operation” presented to the General Staff Academy in 1938, he focused on the defense portion or operational art, which, he argued, had received less attention since the conclusion of World War I. The piece offers more of an observational summary of the evolution of defensive strategy during World War I, the Russian Civil War, and the wars in Spain and China, followed by a discussion of the prerequisites required. “The Fundamentals of Conducting Operations,” from 1939, stresses the continuity of military strategy from politics and illustrates elements of tactical, operational, and strategic cooperation that would be necessary for Soviet success. This is followed by Isserson’s “The New Forms of Struggle,” published in 1940. In it, he continued his observations of the Spanish Civil War, in addition to the German-Polish War of 1939 and the ongoing war in Western Europe, while discussing the differences between wars of improvisation and those of maneuver. He ominously pointed out that “Spain could be called the prologue to the drama, while the German-Polish war is the opening—and the war in Western Europe is its development ... the finale of the entire drama is still hidden in the historical future” (p. 239).
The sixth and final essay, published eleven years prior to his death, reflects a shift in politics in the Soviet Union. Whether or not you take Harrison’s recommendation to read this last essay first, or if you follow the readings chronologically, “The Development of the Theory of Soviet Operational Art in the 1930s” either offers an introductory overview to the Red Army’s study of deep operations or summarizes the previous essays in a more open manner. When compared to the preceding five pieces, this work is a marked departure in the recognition of those who contributed to the Soviet military theoretical field. Here Mikhail Tukhachevskii’s role in furthering the theory of deep operation is notably highlighted by Isserson. The absence of Tukhashevkii in Isseron’s previous essays most likely stems from the fact that Tukhashevskii was a victim of the military purges in June 1937, thus attributing any development to him would have been detrimental to Isserson.
While the author of the preface assesses the importance of this work to the US defense community, there are elements of this collection that are insightful and interesting to individuals outside of this group. This comes through in Isserson’s writing, which uses Marxist-Leninist language. Although Harrison warns that Isserson’s alleged honest belief in the ideology may “detract from a clearer understanding of the matter at hand” (p. 9), I would argue this adds another interesting analytical challenge to the reader, and presents how—to borrow from Stephen Kotkin—Bolshevik was spoken in the military theoretical context.
At times Isserson seemed to interject a phrase to keep his work politically current but did not develop or explain how this was related to deep operation. On a general level, he interpreted the revolution’s effect on future wars as having a large mobilizing effect that demanded new ways of theorizing and developing operational art.
Isserson also incorporated historical examples to serve as comparisons between different cases. For example, to demonstrate the diminishing importance of tactics vis-à-vis operations, he noted the Battle of Tanenberg during the First World War. Later he compared the Polish defeat in 1939 to that of the Prussians at the hands of Napoleon at the Battle of Jena in 1806. He strung together the ideas of Carl von Clausewitz, Helmuth Carl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (Moltke the Elder), Erich von Falkenhayn, and Napoleon to both disprove and substantiate ideas relating to operational and tactical issues, as well as offensive and defensive warfare. The last essay, in particular, offers a succinct and informative overview of the development of the theory of deep operations among Soviet military theorists from the 1920s until the Second World War. In this way, Harrison’s translation and compilation of Isserson’s essays offers rich material for both the military and non-military student.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Aleksandra Pomiecko. Review of Isserson, G. S., G. S. Isserson and the War of the Future: Key Writings of a Soviet Military Theorist.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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