Command, Part 2: The Human and Social Factor, with Remarks on Afghanistan

The failings of Ewell/Hunt are perhaps less conceptual or cognitive than personal, or we might say ethical, failings that fed their drive to deliver results, no matter the methods used or the uncounted cost involved, and furthered heir self-interested desire for advancement.  The personal in aggregate becomes the social. Just as human qualities continue to be a significant factor in war, the social bonds uniting a military organization never lose their significance, although the nature of these connections may vary depending on the type of army, whether revolutionary, citizen/conscript, mercenary, professional, or other.  One place in King’s book where the human or social factor emerges is in his discussion of meetings. Often despised and dreaded as a waste of valuable time, as an occasion for self-promotion and unproductive dialogue, the meeting for King is not just an opportunity to share information, but a time for the participants to cement relationships and renew commitments to the mission and to each other. Some meetings are occasions for “heightened emotional commitment” that may be both rare and significant, and especially needed when it comes time to work together in a crisis. The staff and commander give one another emotional, and in effect professional, support, whether with thanks, humor, guidance or the odd “Airborne!” or “Oo-Rah!” 

             The commander draws strength from the staff as well as ideas. King identifies three main functions of command: mission identification, mission management, and mission motivation. Under collective command, mission identification is the most dominated by the commander; mission management, which may be said to resemble the “control” half of the traditional “command and control” dyad, is most the business of the staff; while mission motivation, normally thought to be the province of the commander, is sometimes shared with the staff, who may be said to both reciprocate and also to relay the commander’s efforts to motivate people to accomplish the mission.

            Another tool of command that has gained in importance is the decision point. In a sense, the decision point represents an act of humility on the part of the commander. The DP is a point in space/time at which the commander may have to make a decision. Modern decision points are ringed around with various requirements and conditions. Some of these are critical go/no go criteria, like helicopter lift for an airmobile or air assault operation; some are more subjective, and they may even be hard to determine, like the state of the enemy’s morale or the attitude of an indigenous population. But the DP is an important tool, albeit less so in crisis or situation that defies one’s earlier expectations. In effect, the DP may be said to limit the commander’s options at the decisive moment by establishing in advance how a decision will be made. The commander may of course go against the conditions of a DP and decide otherwise, although in doing so she acts in opposition to a professional consensus in which he had a part.   

            The voluntary yielding of what may seem the commander’s own omnipotence is not without precedent. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there is a marked contrast between the command styles of Napoleon and the eventually victorious Russian Kutuzov. Napoleon always insists on imposing his will, in spite of adversity and the will of others. Kutuzov is seen to bow to the inevitable, for a time. For long weeks and months, he recognizes that the conditions to take on Napoleon’s Grande Armee in a decisive engagement have not been met. He allows Napoleon to wear himself out on the Russian countryside and deplete his forces in a deserted Moscow. Command has never been absolute but has always had to take in a variety of competing factors. Those who insist otherwise, who yield to hubris, are those who fail most catastrophically.            

There is a reminder of this in our recent withdrawal from Afghanistan. Those willing to fight on might ask themselves what more fighting, with all the attendant, reciprocal, collateral destruction and loss of life, would accomplish that twenty years of skill and sacrifice could not.  If we were to line up the conditions under which a continued or renewed conflict would be justified, it is hard to imagine that these conditions have been met, even at the most optimistic valuation. We have found before that even the immense resources and military power of the United States do not always prevail. The Taliban may also be getting a lesson in the limits of mere military victory. Afghanistan has changed in the last twenty years, with higher rates of literacy and a greater awareness of opportunities and of the outside world. With the Taliban apparently trying to court some semblance of normal international relations, it may be awkward for them to apply their customary methods to hold back the forces of change.  Meanwhile, like Kutuzov, we may be well to observe events and await our opportunities.            

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