Decision Point: The Challenges of Leadership in Battle

Imagine that you are a battalion commander and that you find yourself in the following situation. You have command of an understrength US Army infantry battalion (350 men) and are defending a small rocky outpost with very little support from friendly troops on their right. You are the decisive operation on the left flank and so have zero support from the left. Rocky terrain and steep elevations will not allow for any fire support to be brought to bear on your position, meaning that you have only the battalion’s organic weapons to defend yourself. A five-day patrol has led you to this position, so you are close to running out of water and food.

As soon as you placed your men in positions, you immediately created your engagement area to your front by clearing out dead branches and creating fields of fire on the downward slope. Each subordinate unit uses the rocks, earth, and downed trees to create small fighting positions. You position your command post near the center of the line for best command and control while your casualty collection point is just behind the lines. You are uncertain of the size of the enemy element but intelligence has reported that you are likely to be outnumbered, due to reports from SIGINT (signal intelligence) that you received earlier. Other than that, you know very little about the situation as you were ordered to move to this position by a FRAGO (fragmentary order) from your brigade commander. His commander’s intent was precise: hold the position at all costs.

The situation around you develops quickly. Your forward lines spot enemy movement. Right before you decide to engage, you detach one small element to act as an LP/OP (listening post/observation post) on your left flank to provide early warning of enemy troops. What you do not know is that the commander of that unit leads his men too far off azimuth and they become disconnected from your command.

Once the enemy has established the length of your line they hit again, this time in more numbers. 

The enemy movement quickly develops into an attack, right in your engagement area, which plays out as you hoped it would: a quick firefight and an enemy withdrawal. However, your staff informs you that the enemy is approaching again, moving towards the left, and is probing your lines to see how far they extend. Once the enemy has established the length of your line they hit again, this time in more numbers. You realize at a glance that you are outnumbered and send a message off to brigade headquarters asking for immediate support. 

In the meantime, your men have driven off the second attack. Casualties start to come in and the battalion aid station is busy. The next enemy assault drives at the center of your line and then at the left flank. You have no reports from your LP/OP, so you assume that they have been cut off and destroyed. In order to avoid being overrun on the left, you pull the units on your left side around so that your line resembles an inverted “V.” In this way you can have easy command and control and prevent your lines from being overrun. However, there is a crisis in the center, where the lines form the point of the “V.” Most of the men from the unit in the center have been shot down, so you rush personnel from your headquarters section into the breach, including your own brother.

As you patrol the line, you notice evidence of hand-to-hand fighting and enemy dead so close that they are practically in your own lines. Due to a communications blackout from enemy fire, you have little contact with higher headquarters. However, you do finally get one message: the brigade commander has been killed and no support is forthcoming. You are in this on your own. You have already been yourself engaged in the middle of the line and there are bullet holes through your uniform that you haven’t noticed yet because of the adrenaline rush.

With no resupply in the future, you have a critical decision coming up: stay and fight, or withdraw and save your force to fight another day?

Reports are coming in: your company commanders are sending you their ACE (ammunition, casualties, equipment) reports and you quickly realize you are dangerously close to running out of ammunition. With no resupply in the future, you have a critical decision coming up: stay and fight, or withdraw and save your force to fight another day? Situation reports also indicate that the enemy is preparing for a renewed assault on your position, continuously shifting to your left. This is what Army doctrine calls a decision point, where the commander must decide on a specific course of action (COA). From Army Field manual 6–0:

A decision point is a point in space and time when the commander or staff anticipates making a key decision concerning a specific course of action…A decision point requires a decision by the commander. It does not dictate what the decision is, only that the commander must make one, and when and where it should be made to maximally impact friendly or enemy courses of action or the accomplishment of stability tasks.

A decision must be made. Your key variables are your mission and protecting your force to fight another day. Your mission, as given by your brigade commander, was to hold at all costs, thereby eliminating your force. However, if you are overrun by the superior forces to your front and left, the position would be lost anyways. A fighting withdrawal might buy time to get reinforcements from another part of the battlefield, although none have been forthcoming so far.

Okay, battalion commander, what are you going to do? Your decision must be made right now. 

Chamberlain had little prior military training, which perhaps played in his favor.

Joshua L. Chamberlain, as photographed by Matthew Brady in 1865 | Image courtesy the National Archives

Joshua L. Chamberlain, as photographed by Matthew Brady in 1865 | Image courtesy the National Archives

This scenario might be recognizable to some. It is the one that faced Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain on the afternoon of July 2, 1863 during the Battle of Gettysburg. His small force of 350 men from the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry faced elements of three regiments of Confederate troops. Chamberlain had little prior military training, which perhaps played in his favor. Rather than stay or retreat, he chose to attack, seizing the initiative from the enemy and holding it. His surprise bayonet charge caught the enemy completely off guard, forcing them to retreat in confusion, leaving many prisoners in the hands of the Yankees. His separated element, Company B, appeared from behind a wall and joined in the attack. It also defeated the threat to the Union left flank, which would lead Confederate General Robert E. Lee to believe the Union was weak in the center. This belief lead to Lee’s disastrous decision to send Pickett’s Division against the Union center the next day, where it was decisively defeated.

Viewing this event with a contemporary mindset takes away the fog of time, which can often remove us from the situation. Placing oneself in the shoes of the leader gives us an even better understanding of the critical nature of his decisions. It emphasizes how instant decisions by the unit commander can shape the entire course of a battle. These are the types of decisions that military leaders at all levels are trained to make. Reading these vignettes with a contemporary mindset is a valuable way to learn from the success and failures of past leaders.

Angry Staff Officer is an officer in the Army National Guard and a member of the Military Writers Guild. He commissioned as an engineer officer after spending time as an enlisted infantryman. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. For more from Angry Staff Officer, visit his Wordpress blog site.

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Header image: Little Round Top, with the Warren statue figured prominently in the right-center. This view was taken circa 1900 and is courtesy of the Library of Congress. It is a photo-mechanical colorized print of a black and white negative.