The Hazards of Command

Military history, specifically the art of command, is a field of enduring interest.  In the current issue of Policy Review Henrik Bering does a nice job of summing up different views on this subject. Some facts were new to me, like the origins of modern American officer training and insights from Israeli experience.  I was already aware of the high esteem that many experts (including Israeli author Martin van Creveld) have for German officer training. Wartime propaganda aside, German officers were more flexible and innovative than their counterparts in Britain and America. This had to do with their esprit de corps and emphasis on technical skill.

“The key element of fighting power is leadership,” says Bering. “In screening for officers, the Germans looked at all-around personality.” The trade-off was that personality was seen only in professional terms. With notable exceptions like Stauffenberg or Boeselager, Hitler’s officers suffered from a moral blind spot. As in any department of life, choices and resources are finite. There will never be a “perfect commander.” The real question is, what will his limitations be?  Though Bering does not mention it, the high “tooth to tail” ratio which made for such good front-line German combat leadership was to some degree negated by the lack of a highly effective supply and medical support system (as was enjoyed by the Western allies). By contrast with the Germans, American officer training since the outbreak of World War II has been notoriously bureaucratic, emphasizing managerial skills more than tactical acumen. But as van Creveld aptly notes, the American soldier won World War II, and did so without committing wide scale atrocities. That still leaves lots of room for improvement as both Vietnam and the Iraqi insurgency have shown.

One appreciates commentary on military leadership that is critical without being carping.  Mistakes are unavoidable in any job. The difference is that successful leaders like Sir John Moore or Von Manstein did not shelter themselves behind personal or institutional complacency. It is also clear, as Bering points out, that some practices are as useless as they are entrenched. That touches on a key issue raised by the article: the degree to which unthinking military conventions may turn away good leaders while retaining bad ones.

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