Is It Time to Change Army Culture?
Our Army needs to rethink how it produces plans and orders during active combat and how it manages its officers.
Our Army’s penchant for overdetailed, hyperscripted planning procedures—resulting in operations orders that are hundreds of pages long—is for dull, unimaginative people who are good at slavishly following a cookbook recipe. It is not for people who possess the spark of combat creativity. It is an American penchant that makes some allied armies laugh at us. It is a gem of military history that great German generals, with two or three key staff officers at their side, wrote operations orders in minutes, using the hood of their personal vehicle as a desk.
Our writing out multiple “branches and sequels” in our mandatory process of planning the next battle is a fruitless attempt to eliminate the uncertainties of war. Uncertainty is a basic condition of war, and the best battlefield commanders thrive on uncertainty.
We attempt with our branches and sequels to forecast what we will do if this happens and how we will react if that happens, leaving no possibility unaccounted for. Given the unpredictable chaos of battle, however—in which an intelligent, willful enemy gets a vote in what happens—such attempted forecasting is a waste of time and effort. A free-thinking and active enemy, a change in the weather, an unforeseen delay or blunder, the random whims of luck—and the fact that information about the situation is never complete and frequently wrong—will inevitably combine to produce situations not dreamed of in all our branches and sequels.
Far better than overscripted staff procedures is a certain quality that should be part of the mind of every battlefield commander. The French call this quality coup d’oeil, the “stroke of the eye” that enables the great commander to look at the terrain of a future battlefield and instantly intuit how to place his soldiers and weapons on that terrain to defeat the enemy. Napoleon had this quality. The parallel German concept to coup d’oeil is fingerspitzengefühl, the “fingertip feeling” that enables the great commander to quickly and intuitively sense how the chaotic ebb and flow of battle is playing out and to issue new orders to his forces accordingly. Rommel had this quality.
Using an English-language phrase, we could say George S. Patton Jr. had the sixth sense that enabled him to understand a constantly changing battlefield situation and rapidly act on his understanding—always faster than either his fellow American or opposing German commanders could. His pedestrian superior officer, Omar N. Bradley, criticized Patton for being a poor planner. Perhaps Bradley envied how Patton delivered victory after victory by boldly following his inner light rather than bogging himself down in rigid staff procedures. We need to find and nurture more Pattons.
Chapter 3 of U.S. Army Field Manual 5-0 Army Planning and Orders Production is headed by a quotation from Patton: “A good plan violently executed NOW is better than a perfect plan next week.” Ironically, however, the following 64 pages of that chapter quash the Patton spirit by mandating a planning process of overscripted complexity. For just one example, our staffs prepare three courses of action for every operation because Figure 3-19 in Chapter 3 seems to say so. The three courses of action are then presented to the commander for him to choose from.
What’s magic about three courses of action? Why not two? Why not four? Standardized procedure wrongfully trumps an intelligent sense of what any given unique situation requires. This insistence on a point of procedure causes the common vice of staff officers creating one or two courses of action that are intentionally so bad the commander can instantly discard them in favor of the one course of action the staff already knew he wanted. Ginning up courses of action to deliberately see them quickly dismissed is a criminal waste of time and effort in wartime situations, in which every drop of time and effort is precious and irreplaceable.
Worse, having the staff prepare three courses of action from which the commander is to choose implies a disturbing passivity on the commander’s part. Under the time crunch of combat, a great commander looks at the ground, looks at his own forces, looks at the enemy and—quickly—tells his staff that “this” is the one course of action he has decided on. He sets his staff to work doing the coordination to make his plan work. He and his staff win the deadly race against the enemy who is simultaneously trying to figure out what to do and how to do it.
Based on the above, I propose the following:
First, the Army should have two career tracks for its officers: a command track for about 10 percent and a staff track for the other 90 percent. Under this system, young captains would command a company/battery/troop either before or after doing a staff job or two. Then, based on their comparative performance as either commanders or staff officers, they would be slotted as either commanders or staff officers for the rest of their careers. Obviously, those slotted as career staff officers would outnumber those slotted as career commanders by about 10 to one.
Second, commanders at all levels must be forbidden to possess personal computers, forbidden to exchange emails and forbidden to create PowerPoint slides. Let staff officers have ranks of computers and drown in emails and PowerPoint slides.
The rationale for my proposals flows from my observation that the personality traits that make a good commanding officer and the personality traits that make a good staff officer are the perfect inverse of each other.
This dichotomy between the personality traits of ideal commanders and ideal staff officers grows out of the dichotomy between the science of war and the art of war. The science of war consists of knowing all the rules in all the books of how-to-win doctrinal theory, but the art of war consists of knowing when to break the rules to achieve a higher purpose—winning a battle takes priority over exercising pedantry. The science of war is a process of study; the art of war is an act of intuition. The science of war requires diligence; the art of war requires genius.
The ideal commander is:
- An overarching visionary who refuses to be bogged down in pettifogging minutiae.
- A creative, intuitive artist in the art of war, the one who, in a single glance at a map and a battlefield, can intuit what is important and intuit how to create the tactical or operational plan that will win in the unique situation he faces. He is a genius.
- A devil-may-care gamesman.
- A lover of risk.
- Cheerfully able to make up the rules as he goes along—to hell with the rules if they stand in the way of achieving his vision.
- Charismatic; a conspicuous showman, motivating his soldiers to superhuman exertions.
- Motivated by a hunger for fame and glory, which drives him to be a visionary, devil-may-care risk taker.
- Insistent that his name be attached in big letters to the list of all he achieves—proud to the point of arrogance and jealous of the honor that is his and, therefore, willing to die before he suffers dishonor.
- Not too bothered if an occasional mistake on his part gets some of his soldiers killed; able to shrug off losses quickly and drive on to his vision.
- As an inseparable consequence of all the above, a supreme egoist.
Examples include Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Rommel, Patton, MacArthur, Terry Allen, Ariel Sharon and Schwarzkopf.
The ideal staff officer is:
- An anal-retentive detail freak.
- Risk averse.
- Haunted by fear of what will happen if he fails.
- A willing slave to established procedure.
- Most comfortable being hidden in the crowd; cheerfully able to subordinate his pride to the needs of the group.
- Motivated by feeling needed.
- Someone who prefers the quiet satisfaction of a job well done to the roaring adulation of the masses.
- Therefore without an apparent ego.
- Therefore noncharismatic.
Examples include Berthier (Napoleon’s chief of staff), Moltke the Elder and Marshall. And yes: Eisenhower and Bradley.
The natural staff officer who is put in command in times of high-stress combat will be unnerved by the enormity of his responsibility, be immobilized by his worries and will seek the safest course of action (example: McClellan). This behavior is not fatal if the officer is commanding a force enjoying tremendous material superiority over the enemy—which is what saved Eisenhower and Bradley; however, if he is commanding an outnumbered, outgunned force, his aversion to daring and boldness will be fatal.
The natural commander who is put in a staff slot will be bored, cynical and self-pitying—he will feel like he is suffocating. His miserable attitude will be a hindrance to the higher good. He will be prone to sloppiness and carelessness in his duties, assuming too much about what other staff officers are doing without bothering to check. Marshal Nicholas Soult of France was an excellent battlefield commander and fighter, but he was a disaster when he had to fill in for the deceased Berthier as Napoleon’s chief of staff during the Waterloo Campaign.
Patton’s performance ratings from his staff officer times were poor. Fortunately for the Allies, Marshall and Eisenhower had enough sense to know they needed a larger-than-life battlefield prima donna, and they knew where to find him. In time of war, necessity can make anything forgivable, and as soon as the war was over, they made Patton go away. Not even the necessity of war could rescue the brilliant, charismatic, maverick Terry Allen from the safe, solid, dull Bradley.
Furthermore, leadership by PowerPoint and email is killing our ability to ever again produce somebody like Patton. Computers, emails and PowerPoint slides are a scourge that threatens to make commanders indistinguishable from staff officers.
I propose “Richey’s law” with two corollaries:
Demands from higher headquarters for more information and more staff coordination will always expand to choke whatever new communications technology has just been invented.
If radios and telephones can’t convey enough information quickly enough, then computer networks of a certain size, speed and bandwidth will. And if that previous-generation computer network can’t convey enough information quickly enough, then a new-generation computer network of greater size, speed and bandwidth will. And so on, ad infinitum ad absurdum.
First corollary: Computers are not labor-saving devices. They are labor-creating devices in that they enable more people at more echelons to micromanage more numerous and more inane issues than ever before.
Second corollary: The deluge of extra information made possible by computers does not improve combat effectiveness, because the sheer volume of information now exceeds the brain capacity of the average human commander to absorb and use in a reasonable time. The wise commander must now know when to turn off the deluge and revert to applying classic commander’s intuition—his “feeling in the fingertips” in the old German phrase or his “stroke of the eye” in the old French phrase—just like the best commanders have done since Alexander the Great. Also, the extra work for staff officers made possible by computers does not improve combat effectiveness because almost all of this extra work is needless “eyewash.” An old-fashioned textual after-action report describing a recent firefight is a better and simpler tool than a high-tech, high-gloss computer graphics storyboard.
Today’s commanding general at war typically exchanges hundreds of emails a day, and any commanding general who sends and receives hundreds of emails a day is not commanding! He is chained to his computer when he could and should be out on the battlefield seeing the fight with his own eyes and influencing the fight with the power of his personal presence and example.
These two truths apply to any battlefield:
First, if a commander at any level has something to say, then what he has to say is so important it must be said voice-to-voice with a radio or telephone or, even better, face-to-face.
Second, anything that needs to be said that is less important than what the commander has to say should be said by staff officers and can be appropriately said via email.
Due to the scourge of personal computers, the character of the combat leader is debased while the character of the office bureaucrat is exalted. In today’s Army, an officer who is mediocre at staff work will be passed over for command. His personality traits that could make him an ideal commander will be lost to the Army. Our Army has cut itself off from developing more Pattons. What precious few Pattonesque higher commanders there are reached their current positions in spite of, not because of, our Army’s culture.
In conclusion, our Army should rethink its battle planning process with a view toward streamlining the process while emphasizing the commander’s role as the guiding visionary. Our Army should consider separate career paths for commanders and staff officers of promise. In addition, our Army must liberate its bold battlefield leaders from the shackles of personal computers, emails and PowerPoint slides. We need our Army culture to develop our next Patton, not restrain him.