Faith, John C., Army
* COL Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired, has presented in his closely reasoned and convincing article "Mission Command: An Old Idea for the 21st Century" (March) the history of decentralization as the Army's preferred command philosophy and its defining influence in mission command. He cites its prescriptive direction predating our entry into World War II and suggests its preeminence in combat operations since. Unfortunately, the Army's practice of the elements of decentralized control - initiative, empowerment, trust - has been intermittent, at best.
Though practiced by our tactical commanders in combat with the enemy, it was absent from most other aspects of the Great War and from the postwar occupation, where the duties of military government, population control, police and security required firm priorities, rules and centralized direction. With the added, increasing confrontation in connection with the Warsaw Pact, the need for enhanced combat training was added to the already full occupation plate.
How deeply embedded was the centralized control mind-set? LTG Anthony C. McAu) if fe, commander of Seventh Army in the mid-1950s, sent a letter to his subordinate commanders describing "a pronounced and undesirable tendency towards ever greater centralization." Noting a reluctance on the part of young captains to take command of a company or battery, he directed a number of fixes involving proper delegation, trust and de-emphasis of statistical reports, cautioning, "We must not preach decentralization and at the same time punish the commander for practicing it."
A few years later, recognizing that LTG McAuliffe's efforts had not taken root, LTG Garrison H. Davidson, a later commander of Seventh Army, wrote in the December 1961 Army Information Digest: "The process of centralization started during World War ? with mobilization. The training of a widespread, rapidly expanding citizen army required a centralized, tightly controlled organization in order to get the job done [on] time." In his judgment, "these emergency measures have never been relaxed nor adjusted to differing postwar conditions. On the contrary, the process of centralization has grown alarmingly since World War LI." Again, fixes were directed, but didn't last.
Since then, including during the Korean War, the conflicts in Panama, Kosovo and Vietnam, and our more recent wars in the Middle East, centralized and decentralized proponents have disagreed about which methods predominated when, and at what levels. It seems apparent, however, that a fairly consistent thread through all our wars has been decentralized battlefield initiative at the edge, with centralized control more apparent at higher decision levels. Complicating most academic leadership discussions is the fact that they tend to focus on warfighting when, in fact, many of our soldiers spend more time in noncombat positions: teacher, student, trainee, staff officer, researcher and other necessary support roles in the institutional Army. Furthermore, the success of most of these jobs depends on strong individual performance and detailed planning, and too often commanders resort to centralized direction. When faced with budget and resource problems and deadlines, it is difficult - but all the more important - to provide a healthy leadership environment that enables subordinates to exercise their initiative with as much freedom as possible and to make their inevitable mistakes without fear.
To get to the heart of the conundrum posed by COL Fontenot in his challenging article, the Army has touted the value of increased battlefield information, knowledge and control enabled by technology at all levels. These increased capabilities permit commanders to see the battlefield in increasingly accurate and timely detail. The same technologies, however, enable the media, policymakers, the folks at home, and even the enemy to have increased, timely information and thereby make critical judgments. …