Against Bureaucracy

By Adams, Richard | Military Review, January-February 2017 | Go to article overview

Against Bureaucracy


Adams, Richard, Military Review


This article argues against bureaucracy, which is choking the military. It explains how red-tape routine corrodes the deep competence and independence that are critical to mission command, and it portrays the devastating rise of the military bureaucracy as a failure of leadership.

The Mission Command Idea

The doctrine of mission command derives from Auftragstaktik, a German army methodology that espouses initiative at lower levels of command. (1) Perceived and realized in the Napoleonic Wars, Auftragstaktik achieved prominence in the German armies during the First and Second World Wars, finding forceful and famous expression in the 1933 Truppenfuhrung--the German army manual for troop command. (2) Articulating the mission command idea, the Truppenfuhrung underlines the strategic value of individual soldiers amidst the confusion of conflict, arguing, "the emptiness of the battlefield requires soldiers who can think and act independently, who can make calculated decisions and daring use of every situation." (3) In its discussion of Auftragstaktik, the Truppenfuhrung sets down views that "would still be considered radical in many of the world's armies today." (4)

Written largely by Generals Ludwig Beck, Werner von Fritsch, and Carl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel, the Truppenfuhrung established that individual soldiers would be expected to have a clear understanding of circumstances so they could act on their own initiative in accordance with larger strategic intent. Giving doctrinal weight to ideas known later by U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak's colloquialism--the "strategic corporal"--the editors of the Truppenfuhrung recall Hans von Seeckt, who argued, "The principal thing is to increase the responsibilities of the individual man, particularly his independence of action, and thereby to increase the efficiency of the entire army." (5)

But, while ideas of initiative and enterprise resonate in military lore, they have become essentially rhetorical since militaries have grown more centralized, less adaptable, more prescriptive, and more bureaucratic. Honeycombed by legalism, avoidance behavior, and inconclusive language, bureaucracy cultivates irresolution, and excuse. Bureaucracy suffocates personal trustworthiness, which should distinguish leaders, and the independent responsibility that hallmarks effective soldiers.

Merit and Responsibility

Richard Gabriel explains why bureaucratic thinking is antithetic to that of the military, arguing it is "nonsense when... institutions attempt to substitute bureaucratic procedures for ethical judgment and responsibility. [The end result is] a reliance upon bureaucratic rules and mechanisms of control, while undercutting the soldier's opportunities to exercise ethical judgment." (6)

Arguing against bureaucratic thinking, Gabriel points to what Michel Foucault called the "subtle, calculated technology of subjugation... the separation, coordination and supervision of tasks [that] constitutes an operational schema of power." (7) This is bureaucratic panopticism, designed "to ensure the prompt obedience of the people and the most absolute authority of the magistrates," which Alasdair MacIntyre understood to depend for success upon disguise and concealment. (8) Valued for calculable data, for seeming impartiality, and for the centralization of its control, bureaucracy commodifies people and dissolves moral autonomy.

The bureaucracy's oppressive attention to marginal detail is in parallel with the technical evolution of communications networks, which have made it possible and appealing for headquarters to exercise control to a meddlesome degree. Bureaucratic centralization means information from the seat of events is passed upward to headquarters, which issue direction. This dissolves the autonomy of individuals and, as Jim Storr observes, is fundamentally unconstructive since

the amount of information passed between a group of people increases
roughly with the square of the number involved (a consequence of
many-to-many information strategies), while the ability to deal with
it increases only linearly. … 

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