Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

How to destroy young officers and NCOs: Interfere with their decisions (new headline in response to popular demand)

Gen. Frederick Kroesen, who commanded a rifle company in World War II, a battalion in Korea, and a brigade and a division in Vietnam, made this interesting comment in the August issue of Army: It was in Vietnam that the centralization of control reached its apex, with the White House dictating bombing targets and division ...

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Gen. Frederick Kroesen, who commanded a rifle company in World War II, a battalion in Korea, and a brigade and a division in Vietnam, made this interesting comment in the August issue of Army:

It was in Vietnam that the centralization of control reached its apex, with the White House dictating bombing targets and division and brigade commanders playing "squad leader" in the sky." We reached a condition in which the chain of command was in a state of  dysfunction. I have always maintained that a chain of command must function from the bottom up as well as from the top down -- with every squad leader making squad leader decisions and reporting to his platoon leader, "Here's what I found, here's what I did, and here's why I did it." When squad leaders have someone telling them not only what to do but also how to do it, they stop being leaders, and so do platoon leaders and company commanders. Initiative is stymied, and decision making is replaced by waiting to be told. Combat action becomes tentative, and military action bogs down.

In Vietnam many low-level commanders were subject to a hornet's nest of helicopters carrying higher commanders calling for information, offering advice, making unwanted decisions and generally interfering with what squad leaders and platoon leaders and company commanders were trying to do. There is no more effective way to destroy the leadership potential of young officers and noncommissioned officers than to deny them opportunities to make decisions appropriate for their assignments.

Gen. Frederick Kroesen, who commanded a rifle company in World War II, a battalion in Korea, and a brigade and a division in Vietnam, made this interesting comment in the August issue of Army:

It was in Vietnam that the centralization of control reached its apex, with the White House dictating bombing targets and division and brigade commanders playing "squad leader" in the sky." We reached a condition in which the chain of command was in a state of  dysfunction. I have always maintained that a chain of command must function from the bottom up as well as from the top down — with every squad leader making squad leader decisions and reporting to his platoon leader, "Here’s what I found, here’s what I did, and here’s why I did it." When squad leaders have someone telling them not only what to do but also how to do it, they stop being leaders, and so do platoon leaders and company commanders. Initiative is stymied, and decision making is replaced by waiting to be told. Combat action becomes tentative, and military action bogs down.

In Vietnam many low-level commanders were subject to a hornet’s nest of helicopters carrying higher commanders calling for information, offering advice, making unwanted decisions and generally interfering with what squad leaders and platoon leaders and company commanders were trying to do. There is no more effective way to destroy the leadership potential of young officers and noncommissioned officers than to deny them opportunities to make decisions appropriate for their assignments.

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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