The Language of Mission Command and the Necessity of an Historical Approach

This article was developed as a part of Mission Command in the 21st Century: Empowering to Win in a Complex World, a joint project published by The Bridge and Army Press.


“We are indebted to the Germans for this system of teaching the art of war, now gradually working its way into our own Army,” wrote Brigadier General James Franklin Bell in his 1906 Annual Report as commandant of the U.S. Infantry and Cavalry School.[1] The Infantry and Cavalry School was the predecessor of the Command and General Staff College and possessed—just like it does today—a rather mixed reputation.[2]

The commandant referred in his praise about teaching the art of war to the "applicatory method" of instructing officers the U.S. Army schools had adopted from the Germans. For twenty years American officers had been largely graded on their ability to memorize manuals, doctrine and textbooks verbatim and to repeat them exactly during a written or oral exam. Critical thinking was neither required nor desired, which had predictable effects in wartime.

  Arthur Lockwood Wagner (March 16, 1853 – June 17, 1905) was a United States brigadier general and military instructor.

Arthur Lockwood Wagner (March 16, 1853 – June 17, 1905) was a United States brigadier general and military instructor.

The Germans in turn had been requesting their officers to understand a procedure and then apply it to a similar or different situation–hence the name. American instructors had to admit that they were rather slow in taking up new and innovative teaching methods that would benefit the command culture of the U.S. Army officers. Arthur L. Wagner, a tactics instructor at the American school, who had been to Prussia to study the German officer education system, confessed that the applicatory method “was well known and practiced for more than thirty years when we took it up.”[3] When the Americans had finally made up their mind regarding this more progressive and effective teaching method, the Germans were already in the process of phasing it out and replacing it with something more advanced.[4] Role playing exercises, free war games, and decision-making cases now ruled the officer education in Germany, weeding out the slow and the indecisive who would not withstand the turmoil and chaos of war. The teaching method on the basis of cases forcing decisions was borrowed from the German Kriegsakademie—the war academy—by the Harvard Business School after World War II. The Harvard Business School now tout it as “a profound educational innovation.”[5] The Case Method has also been successfully adopted by the Marine Corps University where—in contrast to the civilian university—its German origins are well known.[6]

Why did it take the U.S. Army so long to introduce a superior teaching system? The reasons are mainly a lack of cultural education on the side of U.S. Army officers and a mindset focused on the technical. Sounds familiar? Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are witnesses of history repeating itself as the U.S. Army is trying to introduce mission command.

In the 19th century, hundreds of U.S. officers visited the—in their eyes—ever-warring European armies.[7] Some American officers just needed verification that supposedly the U.S. Army was superior and there was nothing to learn, while most others focused on saddle straps and sabers.[8] Replace saddle straps and sabers with Blue Force Tracker system and drones or any other multi-million dollar gadget the U.S. Army values so much and you are back in the present.

Just as the U.S. Army was thirty years behind in the adoption of a new teaching system, it is now about one hundred years behind in the implementation of a new command culture. Officer education and the establishment of a command culture go hand in hand. Therefore, they are both addressed here.

Auftragstaktik

Mission command—imperfectly translated from its German origin of Auftragstaktik—is widely regarded as the most superior command philosophy in military history. Its great advantages are unrivaled speed, utmost flexibility, authenticity and genuine leadership. All these are battle-winning traits. For strategy, look elsewhere, as this was never Germany’s forte after Moltke the Elder died.[9]

One reason it is so hard to introduce mission command in today’s U.S. Army is not only that this command philosophy itself is generally misunderstood within the armed forces but also that the process of adopting it is misperceived. Many U.S. officers rail against the supposed Wehrmacht worshiping and point out that the Germans not only lost two world wars but also committed a host of war crimes.[10]

Warfare is Darwinian and an army that wants to stay on the winning side and the side with fewer casualties has to constantly review and change its structure, procedures, and education. The point is not to make the U.S. Army a Wehrmacht clone, it is about taking aspects from the German Army seen as superior and introducing them. One of those aspects is mission command, and another is the German officer selection and education system. Without a reform of the latter mission command will exist in the U.S. Army only on paper, as it does at the moment.

  Poland, on the Brda river, with   Generaloberst Heinz Guderian in the command track to the right  . Panzer soldiers on German Panzer Is and Panzer IIs, along with a medium Schützenpanzer half-track.

Poland, on the Brda river, with Generaloberst Heinz Guderian in the command track to the right. Panzer soldiers on German Panzer Is and Panzer IIs, along with a medium Schützenpanzer half-track.

The sources show in abundance that on the tactical level in the majority of battles the German officers held the command superiority in World War II. In the National Archives there are numerous American intelligence reports from all theaters similar to this one: An American regiment had finally, after three days of hard fighting, with overwhelming artillery fire and close air support taken a German position. It had been held by an understrength battalion put together from three broken up units commanded successfully by a 22-year old lieutenant who had taken over two days ago because all his superiors had died in battle.[11]

While in the U.S. Army General George S. Patton’s accomplishment to turn the attacking vector of three divisions in three days from East to North to relief the besieged troops in Bastogne is correctly hailed as a great feat of arms, German commanders did the same on the Eastern Front on a regular basis in a single night.[12] The main reason German officers were able to achieve those accomplishments is their use of Auftragstaktik. Without embracing it, it will not succeed in the U.S. Army, and it might be wise to listen to Major General John McAllister Schofield who commented during the Elihu Root reforms, in support of the Secretary of War, “We might Germanize a little with advantage.”[13] The same is true for the U.S. Army of today as it benefited greatly from the reforms based on the German system in the past.

Auftragstaktik originated in 17th century pre-Prussia, was ordered one hundred years later by Frederick the Great on the battlefield, and put first into words as a system by Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (Moltke the Elder) in 1858. When as acting Chief of Staff observing the annual Great General Staff war games, Moltke was appalled by the monstrous amount of paper used to produce orders and the detailed way of phrasing them. In his critique he stated that “as a rule an order should contain only what the subordinate for the achievement of his goals cannot determine on his own.”[14] Everything else was to be left to the commander on the spot. This remains right through today the clearest and most concise definition of mission command without the need for elaborate and wordy explanations. This is the language of mission command.

By no means was Auftragstaktik adopted overnight. For thirty years, Prussian and German officers discussed the concept in military journals and the officers’ mess until Moltke and his progressive pupils pushed it through from the top. Until then it was unheard of for the chief of staff to visit the military schools, even those for lieutenants, sit in the classroom, and correct the teachers, but that is what Moltke did to succeed in implementing Auftragstaktik.[15] Mission command cannot just be ordered, it has to be lived on all levels.

Thus the command culture cannot be made to fit the army, the army has to fit the command culture. Otherwise mission command will lose its historical effectiveness as it is watered down and warped into something else. It is not enough to implement mission command on a rhetorical level. The U.S. Army has to adjust to it with its whole structure.

Right now the U.S. Army is sluggish to change—to phrase it diplomatically. Armies are conservative organizations and conservative organizations generally don’t like or embrace change. It is generally accepted that is takes a defeat or a well-educated progressive maverick as a senior officer to lead the change. But such people are hard to come by. In an absence of him or her only an historical approach will lead to success. Currently, the U.S. Army is reinventing the wheel and it rather looks like an egg. It is entirely unnecessary to make all the mistakes that have been made before by the Prussian army. Only fools learn by their own mistakes; smart people learn by the mistakes of others.[16]

A New Didactic Approach

To introduce mission command, the present American approach to orders, manuals, and doctrine has to change. Mission command is the enemy of doctrine, of long-winded and complicated orders, and masses of paperwork. German generals did not practice the art of writing five-paragraph-orders, but the capability of rapidly composing and delivering precise oral orders in the chaos of war.[17]

“The language of command must be simple and understandable. Clarity which excludes any doubt is more important than correct form,” states the famous German manual Truppenführung (troop leadership, better translated as "Leadership").[18] The same goes for the manuals that educate officers, and the just-cited handbook is a positive example of that.

Unfortunately, the current U.S. Army manuals dealing with mission command are just the opposite. In the past many U.S. Army manuals had been translated nearly verbatim from the German original and even though watered down they retained a high degree of clarity.[19] In contrast, the current manuals for mission command, ADP 6-0 Mission Command and “U.S. Army Mission Command Strategy” are in part incomprehensible. Even though ADP 6-0 states that “the principal audience for ADP 6-0 is all professionals within the Army,” it reads if written for demented civilians and the manual for the implementation of mission command is even worse.[20] Anaconda-length sentences with a multitude of enumerations and abbreviations are the rule: “The AMCS seeks to achieve unity of effort to effectively integrate and synchronize operational and institutional forces’ roles and responsibilities to implement MC across the doctrine, organizational structures, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities (DOTMLPF) domains. People are the centerpiece of MC.”[21] Sentences such as this read like the terms and conditions a customer has to go through when buying new software. Customers barely bother to read them, and for good reason. Usually, those terms and conditions are phrased in the legal department of a company to cover all bases. There is no trust when lawyers or lawyer-attitude are involved.

Trust, however, is a cornerstone of mission command. Manuals like these should be produced to teach and not to cover any bases—or butts. Therefore, they must have didactic value and clarity in purpose and language. Both of the latter are absolutely requirements for mission command and this has to be translated into the manuals.

The old German manuals were written for every officer from lieutenant to general. Sentences rarely had more than sixteen words and barely any abbreviations or fancy word constructs. It is close to impossible to misunderstand them, and they did not need additional complicated graphics or PowerPoint slides to make them explicable.

The language in which something is taught translates into thinking and, in a military environment, how officers give their orders. That was already recognized by the Germans and so Truppenführung states, “The speed and the force of the attack must not be restricted by orders that are too detailed.”[22] Crystal clear sentences like this stand in total contrast to the writing in the two U.S. Army manuals dealing with mission command.

The U.S. Army is in great danger of repeating the same mistake that was made when trying to introduce the German officer education at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. General Philip Henry Sheridan, observing the deliberations about the new officer education, cautioned that “an imitation of the Prussian scheme in its details instead of in its spirit” would be a mistake.[23] The spirit of Auftragstaktik needs to remain intact in its translated version of mission command for the U.S. Army. Only the word should be translated but nothing else of it should be transformed, otherwise the spirit would be lost and with it the superiority of the command culture.

Conclusion

“The Army needs to continue to find ways to better teach the doctrine and show concrete examples of how mission command is applied in all duties,” wrote then-Army Chief of Staff Raymond T. Odierno.[24] There can be no doubt about that, and the U.S. Army needs a new historical and didactical approach to teach mission command. The concrete examples as required by the Army Chief of Staff can be found in this article. It is time to drag out the old historical concepts and put them into a contemporary framework in a readable fashion. History is unbeatable in teaching lessons. The U.S. Army needs to understand the struggle the Prussian/German Army went through to introduce this superior command culture to avoid the old mistakes and repeat the successes. Only then is there a chance in the future that once American officers will face the enemy not with a superior budget, gadgets, fire power, or electronics but with a superior mind and command culture. The language of mission command is like the command culture itself: brief, uncompromising, focused, and ruthless.


Jörg Muth is an expert on the U.S. Armed Forces and the author of Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II. Command Culture has received several honors and awards and was on the professional reading lists of the US Army Chief of Staff and of the US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence. Two successive Commandants of the Marine Corps have made it required reading for all intermediate officers and all senior enlisted marines.


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Header image: U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant Evan Keel, right, a platoon commander with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 7, gives a mission rehearsal briefing at Camp Bastion in Helmand | Defense Imagery, Corporal Kowshon Ye.


Notes:

I greatly appreciate the help of R. J. Del Vecchio who made this article – and others I wrote before – better with his expert editing skills. He has never let me down and returned all my writings in a timely manner and without fuss, even though he is a very busy guy himself. An additional benefit for me is that as a Vietnam combat veteran he has always known exactly what I was writing about.

[1] Annual Report of the Commandant, U.S. Infantry and Cavalry School, for the school year ending August 31, 1906 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1907). Cited in Philip Carlton Cockrell, "Brown Shoes and Mortar Boards: US Army Officer Professional Education at the Command and General Staff School, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1919-1940" (Ph.D., University of South Carolina, 1991), 36.

[2] For a historical perspective: Timothy K. Nenninger, "Leavenworth and Its Critics: The US Army Command and General Staff School, 1920-1940." The Journal of Military History 58, no. 2 (1994): 199-231. For today’s discussion see the posts at Tom Ricks' Best Defense Blog from Sept. 25, 2015, Dec. 14, 2015, Jan. 5, 2016 and Feb. 16, 2016.

[3] Timothy K. Nenninger, The Leavenworth Schools and the Old Army—Education, Professionalism, and the Officer Corps of the United States Army, 1881-1918 (Westport and London: Greenwood, 1978). 45. Wagner was not the only one noting the backwardness of the American teaching system, read for example the opinion of another experienced instructor: Thomas Bentley Mott, Twenty Years as Military Attaché (New York et al.: Oxford University Press, 1937). 18.

[4] Othmar Hackl, ed. Generalstab, Generalstabsdienst und Generalstabsausbildung in der Reichswehr und Wehrmacht 1919-1945, Studien deutscher Generale und Gneralstabsoffiziere in der Historical Division der US Army in Europa 1946-1961 (Osnabrück: Biblio, 1999), 248-249.

[5] Website of “The HBS Case Method” http://www.hbs.edu/mba/academic-experience/Pages/the-hbs-case-method.aspx.

[6] Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Decision-Forcing Cases (Quantico, VA: Marince Corps University, 2014).

[7] An exhaustive treatment of this phenomenon can be found in chapter one of Jörg Muth, Command Culture—The U.S. Army and Officer’s Selection and Education in the United States and Germany, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II (Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, 2011).

[8] Ibid., 17-23.

[9] Ibid., 36-38.

[10] See the blog posts and the discussion that followed my article "An elusive Command Philosophy and a different Command Culture," at Tom Ricks’ Best Defense Blog on Foreignpolicy.com, Sept. 9 (2011). For an historical perspective: John Sloan Brown, “Colonel Trevor N. Dupuy and the Mythos of Wehrmacht Superiority: A Reconsideration,” Military Affairs 1986. Brown was a U.S. Army officer.

[11] See for example Intelligence Notes No. 54, Allied Forces Headquarters, April 11, 1944, RG 492, Records of Mediterranean Theater of Operations, United States Army (MTOUSA), Box 57, Folder Intelligence Notes & Directives, C 5, National Archives II, College Park, Maryland. Jörg Muth, "An elusive Command Philosophy and a different Command Culture," ed. Tom Ricks, Best Defense at Foreignpolicy.com, no. Sept. 9 (2011), http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/09/09/an-elusive-command-philosophy-and-a-different-command-culture. Muth, Command Culture: 99.

[12] Hermann Balck, Order in Chaos: The Memoirs of General of Panzer Troops Hermann Balck, University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Erich von Manstein, Lost Victories, Zenith Press, 2004. Robert Citino, Death of the Wehrmacht, University Press of Kansas, 2007.

[13] Peter J. Schifferle, "The Prussian and American General Staffs: An Analysis of Cross-Cultural Imitation, Innovation and Adaption" (M.A., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1981), 79.

[14] Lothar Burchardt, "Operatives Denken und Planen von Schlieffen bis zum Beginn des Ersten Weltkrieges," in Operatives Denken und Handeln in deutschen Streitkräften im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Günther Roth (Herford and Bonn: Mittler, 1988), 23. Moltke’s verbal expression was so clear and powerful that it became cultural knowledge in the German officer corps and seventy years later it made it into the manual Truppenführung. See: Bruce and Zabecki Condell, David T., ed. On the German Art of War—Truppenführung—German Army Manual for Unit Command in World War II (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2009), 30.

[15] Jörg Muth, Foreword for Donald E. Vandergriff’s, Developing for Mission Command: The Missing Link, U.S. Naval Institute Press, forthcoming Spring 2017.

[16] Jörg Muth, "A Crisis in Command and the Roots of the Problem," in The Strategy Bridge.

[17] David T. Zabecki, "The Greatest German General No One Ever Heard Of," History.NET May 2008, http://www.historynet.com/the-greatest-german-general-no-one-ever-heard-of.htm/2.

[18] Martin van Creveld, Fighting Power: German and US Army Performance, 1939-1945, Contributions in Military History (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1982). 47. The translation is by Martin van Creveld. Fortunately, Truppenführung was recently completely translated and it offers the following version for the same passage: “The language of orders must be simple and understandable. Clarity that eliminates any doubt is more important than correct form.” See: Condell, Truppenführung, 30. While Condell and Zabecki otherwise offer an expert translation, in this case I prefer van Creveld’s version. Condell and Zabecki correctly state in their ‘Editors’ Introduction’ that “Many U.S. commanders, however, remain far more comfortable talking about Auftragstaktik thank practicing it”. This translated edition of Truppenführung also features in Appendix E a most enlightening and valuable assessment of the U.S. Field service Manual FM 100-5 by German officers.

[19] Cockrell, "Brown Shoes and Mortar Boards," 40. van Creveld, Fighting Power: 38-40. Muth, Command Culture: 25.

[20] ADP 6-0, Mission Command (Department of the Army, 2012). Preface.

[21] U.S. Army Mission Command Strategy FY 13-19 (Department of the Army, 2013). 1. ‘AMCS’ is the ‘U.S. Army Mission Command Strategy’. Note the paradox on in the paragraph that after the barely comprehensible sentence the statement follows that “People are the centerpiece of MC [Mission Command],” which is entirely correct but unfortunately not recognized in the writing style.

[22] Condell, Truppenführung, 92.

[23] Jay Luvaas, "The Influence of the German Wars of Unification on the United States," in On the Road to Total War—The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871, ed. Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler (Washington D.C.: German Historical Institute, 1997), 605.

[24] U.S. Army Mission Command Strategy FY 13-19: Foreword.


References:

  • ADP 6-0, Mission Command. Department of the Army, 2012.
  • Burchardt, Lothar. "Operatives Denken und Planen von Schlieffen bis zum Beginn des Ersten Weltkrieges." In Operatives Denken und Handeln in deutschen Streitkräften im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, edited by Günther Roth. 45-71. Herford and Bonn: Mittler, 1988.
  • Cockrell, Philip Carlton. "Brown Shoes and Mortar Boards: US Army Officer Professional Education at the Command and General Staff School, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1919-1940." Ph.D., University of South Carolina, 1991.
  • Condell, Bruce and Zabecki, David T., ed. On the German Art of War - Truppenführung - German Army Manual for Unit Command in World War II. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2009.
  • Gudmundsson, Bruce I. Decision-Forcing Cases. Quantico, VA: Marince Corps University, 2014.
  • Hackl, Othmar, ed. Generalstab, Generalstabsdienst und Generalstabsausbildung in der Reichswehr und Wehrmacht 1919-1945, Studien deutscher Generale und Gneralstabsoffiziere in der Historical Division der US Army in Europa 1946-1961. Osnabrück: Biblio, 1999.
  • Luvaas, Jay. "The Influence of the German Wars of Unification on the United States." In On the Road to Total War—The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871, edited by Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler. 597-619. Washington D.C.: German Historical Institute, 1997.
  • Mott, Thomas Bentley. Twenty Years as Military Attaché. New York et al.: Oxford University Press, 1937.
  • Muth, Jörg. Command Culture—The U.S. Army and Officer’s Selection and Education in the United States and Germany, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II. Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, 2011.
  • Muth, Jörg. "A Crisis in Command and the Roots of the Problem." In The Strategy Bridge, 2014. https://medium.com/the-bridge/a-crisis-in-command-and-the-roots-of-the-problem-80dfcfd7fd49#.lu4qwoyal
  • Muth, Jörg. "An elusive Command Philosophy and a different Command Culture." In ed. Tom Ricks, Best Defense at Foreignpolicy.com no. Sept. 9 (2011). http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/09/09/an-elusive-command-philosophy-and-a-different-command-culture/.
  • Nenninger, Timothy K. The Leavenworth Schools and the Old Army—Education, Professionalism, and the Officer Corps of the United States Army, 1881-1918. Westport and London: Greenwood, 1978.
  • Schifferle, Peter J. "The Prussian and American General Staffs: An Analysis of Cross-Cultural Imitation, Innovation and Adaption." M.A., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1981.
  • U.S. Army Mission Command Strategy FY 13-19. Department of the Army, 2013.
  • van Creveld, Martin. Fighting Power: German and US Army Performance, 1939-1945. Contributions in Military History. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1982.
  • Zabecki, David T. "The Greatest German General No One Ever Heard Of." In, History.NET May 2008. http://www.historynet.com/the-greatest-german-general-no-one-ever-heard-of.htm/2.