Academic journal article Military Review

Growing Leaders Who Practice Mission Command and Win the Peace

Academic journal article Military Review

Growing Leaders Who Practice Mission Command and Win the Peace

Article excerpt

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

A Philosophy's German Birth and American Adoption

LIKE MANY GREAT military innovations, mission command was conceived in the womb of war following defeat's painful insights. In 1806, Napoleon decisively beat the Prussian army at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt. Although the French attack was poorly coordinated, the rigid Prussian army fought even worse, failing to capitalize on opportunities. In the weeks that followed, Napoleon's Grande Armee pursued their demoralized enemy, destroyed Prussian units piecemeal, and occupied Berlin.

This event's psychic shock propelled the Prussian amy's transformation. Gerhard von Scharnhorst, the chief of the Prussian General Staff, spearheaded reform. Scharnhorst believed that the best way to prepare armies for battle was to comprehensively educate junior leaders and then empower them to make independent decisions. (1) The General Staff and Military Academy he founded would influence generations of German officers to think as he did about command. (2)

The great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz was Scharnhorst's protege. Clausewitz's concept of "friction" gave sustenance to the embryonic philosophy that would later be called "auftragstaktik" (mission command). Clausewitz wrote that because of war's reciprocal nature and underlying moral forces, "war is the realm of uncertainty." (3) Unforeseen difficulties accumulate at every level, creating a "kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war." (4) Success, he concluded, goes to commanders who outmatch the enemy's ability to exploit friction.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who considered himself a disciple of Clausewitz, is known as "The Father of Auftragstaktik." (5) During Moltke's 30-year tenure as chief of staff, auftragstaktik was "established as coherent theory ... and enforced as official doctrine." (6) Moltke cemented the support that military culture, education, and training gave to what had become decentralized command. Schools gave extensive tactical educations even to junior officers and noncommissioned officers. (7) Leaders typically valued aggressive initiative over strict obedience from their subordinates, and, until the 1920s, officers faced training scenarios in which they had to disobey orders to meet the commander's intent. (8)

Decentralized command propelled the Prussians to rapid victory over the French in 1870. In 1918, semiautonomous German "shock troops" achieved the only major tactical breakthrough on the Western Front (a breakthrough they could not exploit due to attrition and logistical shortcomings). (9) Later, as a key components of "blitzkrieg," auftragstaktik fueled the quick defeat of Allied armies in Europe, Asia, and Africa at the start of World War II.

Elements of this philosophy drifted across the Atlantic. Since at least 1905, U.S. Army doctrine has sporadically endorsed these elements. (10) As long ago as the American Civil War, a few notable commanders

(such as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee) routinely issued mission orders. (11) General George S. Patton Jr. exemplified mission command more than any other American commander, even outperforming his German foes in this regard. "Never tell people how to do things," wrote Patton. "Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." (12)

Nonetheless, it was not until our Army looked for ways to offset the Soviet army's huge quantitative edge in Europe that auftragstaktik was given precedence in doctrine. (13) The 1982 U.S. Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, was a milestone in this regard, emphasizing mission orders, subordinate initiative, and an "offensive spirit" (an unintended double entendre). (14)

Today, mission command is the foundation of the U.S. Army's warfighting philosophy. …

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