Interrogating the Project of Military History

March 26 - Although my counterfactual analysis of Lee's generalship will focus on his decision-making during the Virginia campaign, it's important to recognize that decision-making is only one dimension of generalship.  This is perhaps obvious when stated explicitly.  But although most battle books contain no explicit model of command, their implicit model seems mostly to have to do with decision-making.  As for the type of decisions discussed, these are often analogous to those made in a game of chess.  There's a book called Be Your Own Napoleon in which author William Seymour offers accounts of ten great battles--Agincourt, Waterloo, Anzio, etc.  Each is told from the point of view of one of the top commanders. At key points the narrative pauses and the reader is asked to select from a menu what choice the commander should make next.  One of the choices is historical; the rest are counterfactual.  In each case, the author explains the reasoning behind making a given choice and then its consequences (actual or projected).  I could wax scornful about the book, but as far as I know it's fun--and, incidentally, somewhat in the tradition of a classic book for junior leaders called The Defence of Duffer's Drift, by Captain (later Major General) Edward D. Swinton. (Click the title to find an online version of the book.)

More to the point, Be Your Own Napoleon is just a somewhat more imaginative way to offer a pretty common form of military analysis.  The choices in it always have to do with analyzing intelligence and moving combat units.  The armchair general is never asked to make decisions about logistics, subordinates, or the relationship of an operation to political objectives.  Even more sophisticated treatments frequently offer a similar picture of generalship.  Martin van Creveld's Command in War  treats command almost exclusively in terms of  information-gathering, decision-making, and communication.  "An ideal command system . . . should be able to gather information accurately, continuously, comprehensively, selectively, and fast."   It should be able to assess that information accurately and realistically.  It must come up with desirable and feasible courses of action.  "Once made, the decision must be firmly adhered to in principle, but not under every circumstance."  Orders should be clear and devoid of unnecessary detail.  Monitoring should be close enough to secure reliable execution, but not so close as to undermine the authority and initiative of subordinates. 

 A few studies get beyond this fixation on the "chess game" type of decision-making.  John Keegan's The Mask of Command  is one such book.  I happened to meet John Keegan while he was researching it.  At that time, he was thinking of organizing the book in terms of "systems of command."  Operational decision-making was only one component.  Generals lay at the heart of other "systems" as well.  The only one I remember for sure is "inspiration systems," which I think he took to mean moral suasion.  Keegan's use of this concept in the final book is more muted and somewhat different in thrust.  He speaks instead of "imperatives"--imperatives of sanction, kinship, etc.--and these are addressed briefly in his conclusion rather than systematically developed in the work as a whole.  But these more intangible factors, it seems to me, get closer to the heart of command--and explain why most of us could never be effective commanders no matter how many battle books or war games we devour.  It's worth noting that in current U.S. Army doctrine, military leaders at all levels are "first and foremost teachers and coaches to their organizations." This is not idle rhetoric.  Indeed, to the civilian eye the most startling thing about the relevant doctrinal manuals is how much space and emphasis they accord this trait and how comparatively little space is given to executive decision-making. 

It would be foolish, of course, to say that decision-making is not an important dimension of command.  A good commander is in part a good decision-maker.  Historians tend to evaluate a commander according to whether he (it's nearly always a he) is a correct decision-maker.  We also assess a good decision by how realistically it assesses the available information and by how clear-cut and firmóhow decisiveóit is.  Good commanders are bold.  Poor commanders are timid.  Thatís our basic paradigm, however much we may respect sound but cautious commanders are deplore precipitous and reckless ones.

At the end of his book on the subject, Martin van Creveld concludes the quest of command is a quest for certainty.  His image of command is about control--a mastery of the battlefield so overwhelming that success is assured--and I think that accurately reflects the view of most officers.  But my colleague Alan Beyerchen, taking his cue from complexity theory, argues that this dimension of command is really more properly described as coping.  Lots of things will go wrong; lots of unexpected opportunities will arise.  Either way, things will go down in ways other than planned.  Effective commanders donít so much dictate the flow of events as manage them so that over time, they tend to flow in directions that are desirable.  I found Alan's distinction between coping and control enormously helpful when I first heard it and have used it repeatedly when conducting battlefield staff rides.  It informs my discussion of command in And Keep Moving On and, come to think of it, formed the basis of a talk I gave at a Library of Congress symposium in 2002.  (To access a cybercast of the session, click here.  My talk begins at the 4 minute 30 second mark.)

The "coping" metaphor also helps to explain why the human interaction dimension of command matters so much.  An effective commander must be able not only to make decisions but also to get people to implement the decision and if at all possible to embrace it as fully as if it were their own.  This can be difficult under the best of circumstances, as anyone who has had even the most minor experience of leadership will know.  It is much more challenging when the stakes are life and death and subordinates are under the physical, mental and emotional strain of combat.  This involves a different but equally critical kind of coping.  The best leaders care about their subordinates:  human beings tend to respect those who respect them and to resent and resist those who do not.  But if a commander simply cared about his subordinates, the organization could not achieve its goalóespecially in war because success will have to come at the expense of some subordinates.  Consequently a commander must be a kind of priest, preaching obedience to and self-sacrifice on behalf of the cause, whatever the cause may be.  There must be, I think, if not a theology of victory, then at least a theology of the warrior.

 Another element in command is the ability to identify and foster leadership among oneís subordinates.  That extends the range of the top commanderís ability to lead, and also helps assure the organizationís success because the subordinate leaders can react promptly and correctly to new situations, even before these can be brought to the commanderís attention. Commanders are certainly required to display "technical and tactical competency," and the personal libraries of field-grade officers overflow with organizational, operational, tactical, and technical manuals, all of which they are expected to master.  But this dimension is clearly secondary to the "teaching and coaching" function.  Moreover, military leaders are also expected to instill a winning organizational spirit, to care deeply about their soldiers, and, in the words of one doctrinal manual, to "safeguard the traditions of selfless service to the nation."

 Are there other elements?  Surely there must be, but offhand I think these are the principal ones.  Yet each of these elements is itself composed of many sub-elements.  One of them, for instance, is the ability to project oneís personality in a way that resonates effectively with subordinates.  We have all seen "born leaders" who seem naturally able to secure a groupís assent, and people who try hard to lead but meet with overwhelming lack of success.  I suspect that good commanders are able to find a leadership style that meshes authentically with their core personality--which is why one good commander, for example a hothead like Philip H. Sheridan, can be so different in style a low-key type like Grant.

From here on out I'm going to be getting into the specifics of the Virginia campaign.  If you don't know much about it, you may find it helpful to read my Quick and Dirty Overview of the Virginia Campaign.

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