Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Wartime command structures: Why are we so bad at designing effective ones?

I recently spent several hours trying to make sure I understood who the American commanders in Afghanistan have been since 2001. You’d think it would be simpler than that, but there were questions: Was Hagenbeck ever in command of the entire American presence, or just of part of it? When did Franks turn over country ...

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Wikimedia

I recently spent several hours trying to make sure I understood who the American commanders in Afghanistan have been since 2001. You'd think it would be simpler than that, but there were questions: Was Hagenbeck ever in command of the entire American presence, or just of part of it? When did Franks turn over country command to Mikolashek? Or did he? Are you sure?

And that was the easy part. Next, try to figure out the command structures -- NATO, ISAF, American conventional forces, Special Operators, etc. What a mess.

But not, I further considered, unusual. Schwarzkopf had a screwy command structure in the 1991 Gulf War -- like, why is the ground commander 400 miles from the front? Westmoreland had problems in Vietnam. He was not the theater commander, as best as I can make out, but commander only of American ground forces in South Vietnam. And MacArthur divided his forces, had his chief of staff dual-hatted as a corps commander.

I recently spent several hours trying to make sure I understood who the American commanders in Afghanistan have been since 2001. You’d think it would be simpler than that, but there were questions: Was Hagenbeck ever in command of the entire American presence, or just of part of it? When did Franks turn over country command to Mikolashek? Or did he? Are you sure?

And that was the easy part. Next, try to figure out the command structures — NATO, ISAF, American conventional forces, Special Operators, etc. What a mess.

But not, I further considered, unusual. Schwarzkopf had a screwy command structure in the 1991 Gulf War — like, why is the ground commander 400 miles from the front? Westmoreland had problems in Vietnam. He was not the theater commander, as best as I can make out, but commander only of American ground forces in South Vietnam. And MacArthur divided his forces, had his chief of staff dual-hatted as a corps commander.

It makes me wonder if there is a good book on American command-and-control  structures in modern times. If not there is a good dissertation to be done. If you do it, maybe also include World War I. 

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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