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 ...

history.army.mil

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

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.