Why were military organisations identical at the start of the Second World War?

Division 1st_US_Infantry_Division_WWII

This diagram shows the organisation of a US Army division during the Second World War: its organisational structure and capabilities are (almost) similar with divisions of other nations.

At the start of the Second World War (1939-1945), the organisational structures of – for example –  a German Wehrmacht – and US Army division were almost identical: Not only their basic – fractal – structures, but also the capabilities that were available at the various levels of organisation of these divisions.

Around 1500, but also now at the beginning of the 21st century, the organisational structures of ‘armies’ show much more variation.

How can this phenomenon be explained?

I argue that the standardisation of military organisations occurred during the period 1495-1945, when four accelerating war cycles not only shaped the organisational structure of ‘states’, but also of armies which became integral parts of these states.

During this period, an evolutionary process of standardisation ‘unfolded’, of which Europe was the ‘engine’. This process of standardisation impacted on state-structures – including their armies – but (consequently) also on threats these states had to confront.

The four accelerating war cycles were instrumental in that process. During the period 1495-1945, the intense – and intensifying – rivalries and competition between states increasingly ‘narrowed’ – focused – on the ability of these states to produce, mobilise and deploy destructive energy – powerful ‘armies’ – to fight with their counterparts from rival states. This ability determined their survival changes. This standardisation process qualifies as a path dependent dynamic.

During the period 1495-1945, not only the frequency of systemic wars increased – which typically involved all Great Powers in the System – but also the amount of destructive power that was used during these (defining) wars.

The acceleration and intensification of systemic wars was accompanied – facilitated – by a parallel process in which the production, mobilisation and deployment of destructive energy was continuously improved: In the process states centralised their control over territories and their populations, conscription was introduced (Napoleon, third systemic war, 1792-1815), states acquired a monopoly over the use of violence and improved their ability to extract taxes from their respective populations, armies professionalized, and the ability of states to produce and mobilise their populations and resources were improved.

‘In the end’ – in 1939, when the European dominated system collapsed –  war involved complete societies of which armies where integral components.

Because during the period 1495-1945, the organisations of states and armies faced identical ‘environments’ and were constantly optimised based on the same principles, states and armies acquired identical organisational structures: While in 1495, Europe consisted of circa 300 loosely coupled diverse ‘communities’ with diverse ‘armies’ and a total population of 83 million, in 1939, Europe consisted of circa 25 highly standardised states with highly standardised ‘armies’, and a total population of 533 million.

As I explained, the four accelerating war cycles were instrumental in this process of growth, integration and standardisation. It can be argued, that the standardisation of states was a prerequisite for Europe’s eventual integration into a European Union (following the Second World War).

The reason that all armies (of all these European states and the US) at that point (1939) had fractal (self-similar) structures, is because these fractal structures are optimal distribution structures (in this case of destructive energy), and reconcile conflicting demands: Maximisation of the deployment of destructive power and the simultaneous minimisation of vulnerability, against an enemy that obeys the same organising principles. These are the typical conditions when (in nature and social systems) self-similar structures emerge.

However, following the Second World War, especially following the end of the Cold War (1991), the threats that confronted states became more diverse (again). This fundamental change is until now not (sufficiently) understood (and addressed).

Following the Cold War, states collapsed, and ‘armies’ diversified again. States are now not only confronted with other armies (of other states), but also with populations and communities that confront them. Furthermore, an additional ‘domain’ – a virtual  domain – now also impacts war and the utility of military capabilities.

The failure of ‘Afghanistan’ – the inability of the United States and NATO – to ‘neutralise’ the Taliban is (also) rooted in the unsuitability of armies to fight populations (the Taliban) and terrorists. Apart from the question if social change (the declared objective of the US and NATO in Afghanistan) can ever be accomplished by the use of kinetic energy.