Best Defense

Auftrag-static (VI): Dudes, don’t study how the Germans got it right in WWII, focus on how the British got it wrong

This guest column by my old friend Tom Donnelly (yeah, we disagreed on invading Iraq, but he tends to be right about good food, rock music and the Civil War) makes me think we should compile a list of the “Top 10 books about the British getting it badly wrong in various wars.” In addition ...

This guest column by my old friend Tom Donnelly (yeah, we disagreed on invading Iraq, but he tends to be right about good food, rock music and the Civil War) makes me think we should compile a list of the “Top 10 books about the British getting it badly wrong in various wars.” In addition to the Singapore book he cites, I’d suggest Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. Not sure which World War I book to pick-there are so many-but maybe The Middle Parts of Fortune, which should be better known. If I’d read it, I probably also would suggest Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why. It’s been sitting on my shelf for several years.

By coincidence, I was re-reading General Wavell’s lectures on generalship last night over a robustly hopped IPA, and was struck at his emphasis on endurance as a key quality. I suspect that’s a result of the blood and mud of the trench warfare of the Great War, and resulted in the view that stolidity trumps adaptability.  

Meanwhile, old Starbucks provides his own overview of Auftragstaktik-fest.

Anyway, take it away, Tom D.

By Tom Donnelly
Best Defense guest right-wing columnist

I have been following the discussion of auftragstaktik with interest not only for the debate about the nature of mission command but because it represents, if only indirectly, a larger conversation that needs to be had about the institutions of the Army and the U.S. military.

That discussion — which was constantly open and lively during the years from Vietnam to Desert Storm — has largely been set aside in the post-9/11 era. While the force has adapted rather well to new tactical and operational realities (and must wait for others, mostly civilians, to engage in a much-needed reconsideration of American strategy), its institutions haven’t been as able to adapt. The primary cause may simply be that the combination of a small force, a couple of long wars fought in one-year increments by too many small-minded leaders (but civilian and uniformed), but that doesn’t make the result any different. Stephan Schilling’s recent guest column is a reminder that a system of mission command is something that not only enables gifted leaders to shine but improves the standard of “average” leadership. A system is the product of an enlightened institution, not just the emanation of an individual genius.

Some of the elements for recreating the Army as an institution are present in abundance – the cadre of young officers and NCOs who have figured out how to adapt to the conditions they’ve found themselves in for the past ten years is a priceless asset. On the other hand, if they never supplement the on-the-job education they’ve had with something more reflective, or, when that’s done, never have the assets, opportunity or ability to translate that into a re-fashioned leadership development system, that asset will either be wasted or become a pinhole perspective. And, particularly in the current budget environment, carving out the time, dollars and other resources needed to reform, refit, and remake the Army as an institution is a monumental task.

Nor is the pace of day-to-day operations likely to ease, at least relative to the size of the service. No one knows what size the garrisons in Iraq and Afghanistan will be in a few years’ time, or where the next fight will be. “No more land wars in Asia” is not a plan. The active Army is already on a downward slope to 520,000 and it’s near-certain that the path will get steeper. The troop-to-task ratio is headed down, not up. The minimum price for instituting any durable system of mission command would be a revived TRADOC, one the Army’s golden child but lately a neglected if not abused bastard.

Rather than figuring out how Guderian got it right, it may be more instructive for American officers to study how the British got it wrong. The British army, despite the many innovations developed in World War I, could never escape the constant grind of constabulary deployments along the imperial frontier; by 1942 they had been out-thought and out-fought by both the Germans in Europe and the Japanese in Southeast Asia. And the intellectual rot and become a moral rot: leaders quarreled with one another and did not trust their subordinates. The British army lost, in part, because it expected to lose. Brian Farrell’s The Defense and Fall of Singapore is an acidly honest appraisal of the consequences of a failed military system: “The system produced the plans, men and means,” he writes. “It, not they, invited disaster….From 1921 to 1942 the British Empire’s military system insist[ed that] the situation must fit the plan at all levels.”

Indeed, the discussions in this space show general agreement in regard to the nature of mission command. Paul Yingling is surely right that the conditions of modern combat, particularly for those who serve in the American military, call for a mission-command approach; would any thoughtful veteran of the post-9/11 wars disagree? And a dynamic leader needn’t wait for perfect conditions to improve practices in his unit.

But the challenge is rather in how to systematize, as best as can be done, the Clausewitzian virtues, the coup d’oeil, the courage d’esprit. What we call “mission command” the Prussian described as the product of a cultivated temperament. The student of Napoleonic brilliance could still argue that “it is the average result” – the italics are in the original (or Peter Paret’s version of it) – “that indicates the existence of military genius.”

Thomas Donnelly, Haupt-uber-director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, graduated from the Sidwell Friends School in 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, despite regularly skipping Quaker Meeting to let his freak flag fly.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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