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 that furthered their 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 a 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.            

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 it 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…

Veterans’ Court

A few months ago, casting about for some form of activism that would both benefit military veterans and bring to bear my own fairly extensive military experience, I signed up for a course called ETS-SP run online out of Columbia University. Several years retired from the Marine Corps and my job at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, I had been busily writing and trying to write, always about the military in one way or another, whether fiction, non-fiction, even a screenplay and script in the works. But I felt increasingly cut off and even unworthy of my writerly milieu. ETS-SP was a way to close the gap and to continue to serve, as befits a military retiree.

            Army veterans will know that ETS stands for Expiration – Term of Service. The SP stands for Sponsorship Training. The program has the following mission statement. “ETS Sponsorship successfully transitions service members/Veterans to their post-military hometowns in order to prepare them for their next ‘mission’.” The training involved some facts and data on the transition to civilian life and some practical methods to help the new veteran make decisions and navigate the challenges of employment, education, work and relationships. Some emphasis is placed on connecting the vet with other veterans or veterans’ groups. Never far in the background is the specter of veteran suicide, statistically unlikely but far too common and of course devastating in its effects.

            As it happened, I was assigned to help, not a recently separated veteran, but a former Marine who had served in the 1990s and had since compiled a record that mixed impressive accomplishment with failure. I’ll call him Max. A four-year college graduate and union member, Max had lost job and family, had spent time in jail, and was now on probation with the state veteran’s court, his troubles often traceable to abuse of alcohol. By the time I met him, he was attending AA, participating in compensated work therapy, and spending weekends with his son. He was in some ways recovering, but he was still struggling with anger issues and occasional bursts of non-compliance that could have landed him back in jail. Max is lucky to be in veterans’ court. The court is intended to be more therapeutic than punitive. (Why shouldn’t all minor offenders be treated this way?) The judge is a veteran and generally sympathetic. My title is mentor. On the one occasion when we met in person, the judge assigned Max to anger management, which he probably needs, although I am skeptical about its usefulness. Anger management therapy when conducted in groups brings together people with problems controlling or letting go of anger. A lot of angry people together in a room may not be the best setting or cure. In the case of the group to which my protégé has been assigned, this seems to include the counselor, whose alleged habit of frequent swearing is not a good example for Max, who sometimes lapses into “Marine-speak.”

            At the hearing at which Max was referred to anger therapy, it had been revealed that Max went out of bounds by leaving the county. I was able to convince him to acquiesce to the therapy with as good grace as he could muster. I also encouraged him to get a printed read-out of the terms of his probation from the probation officer, which he did. About a week after the hearing, Max casually revealed an additional, though minor parole violation. I remonstrated with him on this. He was resistant, even defiant about this at first, but he later texted to thank me for an “old-fashioned Marine Corps ass-chewing.” On this and on other occasions, I’ve sometimes wondered whether Max means it, or if he’s just placating me, another authority figure to be managed.

To be continued…

America, the Militaristic? Part 2

In my last post, I ended by discussing German militarism, which evolved into what may be the most extreme form of militarism, at least in modern history. Bad as it was, German militarism had origins that make it somewhat understandable. Could we also say this of the United States, that we are perhaps militaristic (not as much as pre-1945 Germany, I would say), but that this is not entirely our fault, but that of allies who asked for our help, of aggressive nations and of terrorists.  It may be that we have made a virtue of necessity, embracing that which we claim (or once claimed) to have accepted only reluctantly. George C. Marshall once said that a political problem looked at in a military light becomes a military problem.

Militarism is related to fascism, in fact mutatis mutandis, they can seem to resemble each other, with fascism perhaps the bigger category and militarism a kind of subset. Whatever we have been, we are now seeing a rise in fascistic thought in the United States: a distrust of democracy and the electorate, a preference for primitive, atavistic thought involving racism and xenophobia, a hostility to reason (See my earlier post on metaphysical thinking). Allied with this is often an uncritical regard for the military, a preference for military solutions over soft power, for nationalism over the pursuit of international cooperation. So militarism, as it often does, creeps in the back door. The January 6 attack on the Capitol, with its high proportion of servicemembers and veterans, may be seen as a manifestation of both fascism and militarism. We are fortunate that neither the military leadership nor the rank and file seem to share the views of the insurrectionists and other extremists in any significant numbers, but the spectacle of right-wing movements involving vets and servicemembers out of proportion to their numbers seems new, and it is troubling. That men and women who have sworn an oath to the Constitution now seek to subvert it is a comment of military culture and education. Military service is supposed to be a school for citizenship. Instead, it has inclined some towards a lawless putsch mentality that is completely at odds with good citizenship.

Of course, extremism among military members is only one manifestation of what can be seen as American militarism. It is more effect than cause, as things stand now. Like the veterans of Hitler’s Munich putsch in 1923, many of the participants in the 6 January insurrection are going to jail, largely discredited, although this does not men that we have seen the last of them. The other possible indicators of militarism, the large military budget, establishment, and industry, the wars, recent interventions and global deployments, remain with us. It may be that 20 years of dubious conflict have knocked some of the militarism out of us. This remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the armed forces themselves can contribute by ensuring that their military does not become militaristic. The fact that books warning of militarism are written by retired officers like Donavan and Bacevich suggests that there is some awareness of the military’s responsibility in steering the nation away from militarism.  A practical idea advanced by Col. Bacevich is to require all officers to attend civilian colleges as undergraduates, then going through officer training at a service academy for a year or two. (He mentions West Point specifically, but presumably this approach would be followed by the other services and their respective academies as well.) In effect, this would be following the British system, where most of those who attend Sandhurst have already graduated from a civilian university. This might have the advantages of improving both the training and the education of new officers, of removing the separation in the officer corps between graduates of service academies and non-academy graduates, and of creating a less insular, less militaristic officer corps.  The education of officers should include discussion of the pitfalls of militarism, which may be especially present in the case of professionalized militaries with generally high morale. Military elitism is akin to militarism.   

Above all, soldiers, veterans, and the military in aggregate must strive to develop a sense of proportion, even a sense of humor, about what they do and their place in society. They must avoid the sins of self-importance and self-righteousness, which Colonel Caldwell in Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle calls the “occupational disease of the soldier, and…the worst sin in all the world.”  The military virtues may have value even in civil life, but they are not the only virtues. Military service is fine thing, done right, but it is not the only or even necessarily the highest form of service. Finally, military solutions may sometimes be required, but they are rarely the best solutions available. Looking back on my two active deployments, to Lebanon in 1982 and Iraq in 2003, neither worked out so well in what we can see of the long run. Still, I would not trade my service, neither for money nor fame. I humbly acknowledge this, and I ask no more than the opportunity to go on serving in my own way, something for which I can be partly grateful to my status as veteran in this uniquely military nation.