Command: The Twenty-First Century General, Part 1

Once again, my browsing at a large and venerable bookstore around the corner from my mother’s apartment in Manhattan has paid off. Command: The Twenty-First Century General (Cambridge UP, 2019), by British author Anthony King, is a well-sustained, if at times iterative argument for the importance of the division in land warfare and for what the author terms “collective command.” The two arguments are somewhat related. For a time in the early 21st century, western armies seemed to be adopting the brigade as the primary tactical unit for operations on the ground. After some experience in training and in actual operations, a counter-movement arose to restore the division to its primacy as the most important command. There are emotional as well as tactical or organizational reasons for this. Divisions continue to attract a great deal of loyalty and identification. But the main reason for the shift was that the brigade simply lacked the strength and resources to operate on its own, whether in a counterinsurgency situation or (somewhat more speculatively, since recent experience is more limited) in a conventional, high-intensity conflict. Modern war has grown too complex for the brigade, and it has also (King’s second point) grown too demanding for traditional ideas of single-person command. The modern division staff, larger and more professionalized, with a greater array of specialist expertise, now has a greater role in providing the commander with options and guidance as he makes the tough decisions. It may be said that it has always been the job of the commander to make decisions, and of the staff to ensure that he make the right ones, but now with tools like the decision point and situation matrix, the staff has tools to professionalize and institutionalize this role. Thanks to digital communications, they must also process an enormous amount of data and make it available to the commander in an operationalized form.

            To support his theses, King does a survey of twentieth and twenty-first century division commanders, showing how the practice of collective command evolved over time. His list includes commanders who functioned in counterinsurgency environments. These include Erskine, the British general in Kenya in the 1950s, Massu, the French general in Algeria during the war for independence, and Ewell, commander of the American 9th Division in Vietnam. The choice of Ewell is perhaps unfortunate. Of the three, his performance is the most dubious, although Erskine and Massu especially have their faults. There were certainly better counterinsurgent commanders than Ewell in Vietnam, such as Lew Walt of the 3rd Marine Division. Although well-regarded at the time, Ewell and his chief of staff Ira Hunt have come in for substantial criticism by, among others, David Hackworth and Nick Turse, and he was the model for the callous and autocratic General Lemming in Josiah Bunting’s novel The Lionheads.   

            King devotes a great deal of attention to James Mattis as commander of the 1st Marine Division in OIF1. Mattis is King’s prime example of a very, strong, charismatic, and in ways traditional commander who nevertheless is practicing a form of collective command by empowering his subordinates and ensuring strong feelings of ownership, among subordinate commander especially, but also among the staff. Less surprising than in might seem to those casually acquainted with Mattis through his “Mad Dog” image is the emphasis he placed on love as a social bond among Marines. Love arguably was in effect a force-multiplier that gave the division its extraordinary cohesion and focus on the mission, as relayed through the commander’s intent.               

King acknowledges that collective command is in some ways a new idea, and as yet untried in high-intensity conflict, but there are actually precedents to collective command in history. The shared command among tribunes of early Roman legions, the councils of war that characterized medieval and early modern warfare, Nelson’s band of brothers, and even the Prussian and German General Staff all contained aspects of collective command, suggesting that collective command is not merely a reaction to changes in the nature of warfare, but also a continuing adaptation to some of war’s enduring aspects. Seen in the round, war has always been a complex and extremely human business. Although King’s book is often concerned with what may seem to be technical matters, it is often the human factor that we are left with, as the most decisive, interesting, and even redemptive.

To be continued…


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