Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

An elusive command philosophy and a different command culture

This guy is coming at the U.S. military from such a different perspective that I am going to ask those who comment to read the twice piece before hitting send on their responses. And you thought I was tough on U.S. military education! By Jörg Muth Best Defense department of Auftragstaktik affairs Auftragstaktik. The word ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

This guy is coming at the U.S. military from such a different perspective that I am going to ask those who comment to read the twice piece before hitting send on their responses.

And you thought I was tough on U.S. military education!

By Jörg Muth
Best Defense department of Auftragstaktik affairs

This guy is coming at the U.S. military from such a different perspective that I am going to ask those who comment to read the twice piece before hitting send on their responses.

And you thought I was tough on U.S. military education!

By Jörg Muth
Best Defense department of Auftragstaktik affairs

Auftragstaktik. The word sounds cool even when mangled by an American tongue. What it means, however, has always been elusive to Americans. The problematic translation of that core German military word into "mission type orders" completely distorts its meaning. Auftragstaktik does not denote a certain style of giving orders or a certain way of phrasing them; it is a whole command philosophy.

The idea originates with Frederick the Great, who complained after more than one battle that his highly experienced regimental commanders would not dare take action on their own but too often ask back for orders and thus waste precious time.

Nearly one hundred years later the military genius Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke was the first to formulate the concept of Auftragstaktik. Moltke was a diligent student of Frederick’s campaigns, of military history in general and philosophy. At a time when he was not yet famous and, not yet the victor of three wars, he observed the annual General Staff war games in 1858. The paperwork and the detailed orders appalled him because he knew that in war there was no time for such nonsense. During the war game critique he decreed that "as a rule an order should contain only what the subordinate for the achievement of his goals cannot determine on his own." Everything else was to be left to the commander on the spot.

In the following decades, when he rose to the highest rank of the Prussian and then the German Army, Moltke and his disciples promoted the concept in the military. However, the British military writer Basil H. Liddell Hart noted correctly, "that the only thing harder than getting a new idea into a military mind is to get an old one out." Thus Auftragstaktik, not yet known under a single name, was heavily embattled and discussed in German military journals who were then leading in the world. In 1888, the year Moltke retired, it finally manifested itself officially in the field manual of the Prussian Army.

Interestingly, the literally hundreds of American observers who were regularly send to the old continent during the course of the 19th century to study the constantly warring European armies completely missed out on the decade long discussion about the revolutionary command philosophy of Auftragstaktik. Instead they focused on saddle straps, belt buckles and drill manuals. This is one reason why the most democratic command concept never found a home in the greatest democracy. The U.S. officers simply missed the origins because of their own narrow-minded military education.

Auftragstaktik, a command concept in which even the most junior officers were required to make far reaching decisions, demanded a significant change in officer education. In the German Kadettenschulen (cadet schools) hazing was squelched in a short time. The educational reforms for the officer’s training in the Prussian/German army, because of the new command philosophy, have so far been overlooked in historiography. An officer had to be taught self-confidence, independent thinking and responsibility and not to be denigrated. In addition the seniority system was not set in stone as at West Point. At a Kadettenschule younger cadets could with excellent performance overtake older ones. This, together with the exemplary behavior of the teaching officers, was one of the greatest safe guards against hazing. At West Point no real will ever existed to eradicate it, even though nothing is more harmful to the leadership education of a future officer.

Because the U.S. Army did not possess the command culture of the Germans and Auftragstaktik the differences of two operations should exemplify this. The instructions for the American Forces to land in North Africa had the size of a Sears Roebuck shopping catalogue.

But when the Germans attacked France Oberst (Colonel) Kurt Zeitzler, then Chief of Staff of Panzergruppe Kleist told to the assembled subordinated commanders of the fast troops and their staff officers: "Gentlemen, I demand that your divisions completely cross the German borders, completely cross the Belgian borders and completely cross the River Meuse. I don’t care how you do it, that’s completely up to you."

Generalleutnant (Lieutenant-General) Heinz Guderian, commander of XIX Panzerkorps, which was subordinated to Panzergruppe Kleist, gave an even more famous order to his units in the spirit of Auftragstaktik when he told them they all had a "ticket to the last station," which were the respective towns on the French coast. How his troops got there was entirely up to them. As a result the German fast troops made unrivaled progress.

Even after studying the Prussian and German armies for decades, American officers showed a "difficulty interpreting" the concept of Auftragstaktik and most would not come closer to it when they attended the next higher military education institute.

Only a very few American commanders — George C. Marshall, George S. Patton, Matthew B. Ridgway and Terry de la Mesa Allen — understood the concept, even though it has never been taught to them in American military schools. In these schools doctrine reigned and not free independent thinking. Doctrine, however, is either based on past wars or on theory and thus can be no guideline for an officer in a present-day conflict.

In World War II the result was a sluggish and almost timid operational and tactical command of most U.S. units with the exception of Patton’s Third Army. The dean of U.S. military history, Russell Weigley, noted correctly that when an American commander showed ferociousness or wanted to put "unrelenting pressure" on the enemy he usually had to do so "despite every discouragement from his superiors."

The Germans didn’t know such hampering on the tactical level and U.S. intelligence officers noted that 22-year old German lieutenants would command battalions with great success when their superiors had fallen in battle. It is one of the core concepts of Auftragstaktik that the commanding officer is on the frontlines and fights and dies with his men. German generals wounded in battle many times, sporting a close quarter combat badge or a tank destroyer badge, were no rarity in World War II. More than 220 German Generals died in combat in World War II, in contrast to only 10 percent of that number on the American side — and of these, less than a handful died fighting.

Auftragstaktik is such a core part of the German command culture that until recently no German has ever written a book about it. An American has never done it because it was never understood.

If you have read thus far and still don’t know what Auftragstaktik means, here is an example:

In a hypothetical case an American company commander would get the order to attack and secure a certain village. He would be told to use first platoon to flank the village and third platoon to attempt a frontal assault. Four tanks would be attached to his company to support the frontal assault which would be the main effort. After several hours the company succeeded and the commander radioed back for further orders, the company commander all the while observing the actions from behind.

A German company commander would get the order to secure the village by 1600 hours period. Before the attack he would ensure that even a private knew what was expected of him during the attack. If his platoon commander and sergeant would fall, the enlisted man had to take over. The German company commander might put the allocated tanks on the heights adjacent to the village to provide covering fire or might drive them around the settlement to block the escape of the village defenders. He might take the village by frontal assault, infiltration or pincer attack — whatever he saw fit the situation best and he would lead the attack that he had devised. After he secured the village he would pursue the remnants of the defenders and push forward with those of his elements who would not be immediately needed because he knew the overall idea of his superior was to attack and within the idea of Auftragstaktik all his actions were covered by the simple order to take the village at 1600 hours. Because of his training a German officer simply did not require detailed instruction.

So why the heck did the Germans lose the war if they had such a revolutionary command culture? As the name denotes, Auftragstaktik is a tactical and at most an operational concept, it has no advantage on the strategic level.

The other main reason for the defeat of the Wehrmacht is the sheer boundless arrogance of its officer corps. Being for so long the most famous and prominent group in a nation and admired by their countrymen and international observers alike left its pathological marks. The result became "a persistent tendency of most German Generals to underestimate the size and the quality of the opposing forces."

In the time of greatest crisis the German officer corps became its worst enemy. Traditionally, the most battle experienced officers would gain the highest ranks in the Prussian/German armies, but that had changed with the new officer selection system introduced after the Versailles Treaty. No staff officer who had never even held regimental command, and in the worst case only commanded a desk, would reach the highest ranks. That led to ridiculous situations.

During one of the many desperate situations of the Wehrmacht in August 1942 the Chief of Staff of the Army Generaloberst Franz Halder asked Adolf Hitler to allow units of Army Group North to pull back. The dictator replied that he deemed it not feasible and that "we must hold out in the best interest of the troops." Halder remarked angrily in return that "out there brave rifleman and lieutenants are falling in the thousands as senseless victims" because of Hitler’s inflexibility. That, however, caused the dictator to boil over and he screamed at his chief of staff: "What do you want, Herr Halder, you who only, and in the First World War too, sat on the same revolving stool, telling me about the troops, you, who have never once worn the black wound badge?!"

And it was Halder, and not the Dictator Hitler, who basically nullified Auftragstaktik on the Eastern Front because he was no longer able to deal with the independence of the commanders of the fast troops. Hitler just took over the same system after he fired Halder.

All those immense flaws of the Wehrmacht senior officers counterbalanced the excellence in command, tactics and leadership German officers displayed in World War II. The latter explains why the German army was such an outstanding fighting force on the tactical level but still unable to win the war.

Though the mediocre professional military education of the U.S. Army has taken leaps and bounds since those dark times, never has it been attempted to introduce the most effective command philosophy ever invented into the U.S. Army.

An American brigade commander with more than two decades of experience still has to ask his division commander for permission to operate, who in turn asks the corps commander, who in turn asks the theatre commander. The latter two are usually – as it is unfortunate custom in the U.S. Army — far removed from the battlefield. And decisions are made in an air-conditioned command bunker in Doha about a combat situation in Fallujah — sometimes the results are merely comical, but sometimes they are fatal.

If the most important verb and the most important noun should be found for the U.S. Army and the Wehrmacht according to the vast amount of manuals, regulations, letters, diaries and autobiographies I have read they would be ‘to manage’ and ‘doctrine’ for the U.S. Army and führen (to lead) and Angriff (attack) for the Wehrmacht. Such a comparison alone points out a fundamentally different approach to warfare and leadership.

Because especially in the War on Terror there have been more and more swift actions by small units, a rigid inflexible command system has been hampering the progress of US forces all over the globe. It is time the U.S. Army assesses again its command culture.

Jörg Muth is 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. (University of North Texas Press, 2011.)

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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