A revolution in leader-to-subordinate relationships, coupled with new matèriel and doctrine, produced the Army that performed with unprecedented effectiveness in Panama and Iraq." Auftragstaktik How U

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A revolution in leader-to-subordinate relationships, coupled with new matèriel and doctrine, produced the Army that performed with unprecedented effectiveness in Panama and Iraq."

How U.S. Army officers disgruntled by the culture of
"looking good"and "ticket-punching"survived the system,
became generals and created a revolution in military leadership
by Faris R. Kirkland
Ph.D., Lieutenant Colonel (USA, Retired)

Taking care of subordinates has been a cornerstone of Army leadership doctrine since Baron von Steuben's Blue Book of 1779.1 Though this leadership tenet has often been out of fashion, since the Korean War it has been implemented to the point of leaders almost immolating themselves for their troops. It is generally understood that the subordinates to be cared for are private soldiers; no one has mentioned taking care of leaders.

To be fully effective, a leader needs three kinds of integrity: ethical, physical, and psychological. Each kind of integrity has an impact on the others, and all require self-care. Ethical integrity has to do with behaving in ways defined as good--telling the truth, taking care of one's troops, not ordering subordinates to do things one is not willing to do oneself. Taking care of himself is not in the leader's ethical canon as it is currently defined. It is worth noting that the ethical principles embraced in the American armed forces are not arbitrary values; they are practical guides to strengthen cohesion and combat efficiency.2 Take truth, for example. It was so unfashionable a generation ago that there were several forms of institutionalized lying in the Army--the Hamlet Evaluation Survey for one,3 the readiness reporting system for another.4 But during the past two decades there has been a partial but growing recognition that lying is operationally dysfunctional. Truth, on the other hand, allows leaders and subordinates alike to have an accurate appreciation of enemy, friendly, and situational realities. Honesty is also the foundation of trust, about which more later.

Physical integrity has to do with the physiological and bodily ability of a leader to function. The Army has held leaders responsible, in a punitive sense, for their own physical fitness for more than 30 years. But holding them responsible for getting enough food, water, and sleep for themselves is a new idea. During Operation Desert Storm all soldiers were accountable for consuming adequate amounts of water to preserve their physical integrity. Some units organized sleep plans for continuous operations to assure that people on duty, particularly those in positions of leadership, would be capable of coherent thought.5 This was the operational birth of leader self-care. But it was not universal, and it was fortunate that the ground war only lasted four days. Self-care is still ethically suspect in the Army, and at the end of the ground war, a good many leaders were exhausted.6

Psychological integrity is a new and possibly unwelcome concept. There is an emerging awareness that psychologically secure leaders perform more efficiently than those who are insecure.7 Military operations are fraught with uncertainty and danger, and those leaders who enter combat free of preexisting burdens of fear, anxiety, and doubt are best able to take the risks of trusting and empowering subordinates, bringing their initiative to bear to take decisive action, and making ethical judgments in the midst of the chaos of war. By preexisting burdens I do not mean neuroses that arose in childhood, but nonessential anxieties generated by maladaptive aspects of the psycho-social context of the Army--particularly the ways in which commanders treat their subordinates.

The most important factors supporting the psychological integrity of leaders are competence, knowledge of subordinates, and belief that their superiors are on their side. All of these factors can respond to policy. Competence is the product of military schools and training in units.8 Knowledge of subordinates is a function of policies that bear on the permanence of personnel in units. Belief that one's chief has an interest in one's welfare has not been the subject of policy initiatives to date, and it is the essential prerequisite for a leader to feel safe engaging in self-care. Such beliefs, and self-care by commanders, are not common in the U. S. Army today. However there is a historical precedent, Auftragstaktik, that offers a framework for the policy initiatives to make them common.

Auftragstaktik is the term used by German military leaders in the post-World War II years to describe the system of command that evolved in the Prussian and German Army in the 19th and 20th centuries. Auftragstaktik is usually translated into English as "mission tactics." This is appropriate because German commanders at all levels assign missions to subordinate leaders but do not prescribe the methods by which the subordinates are to accomplish them. Auftragstaktik also includes the expectation that junior leaders will use their initiative to find the best way of carrying out the commander's intent even if it entails deviating from the mission and/or disobeying orders.9 During the past two decades many American soldiers have come to understand and embrace these aspects of Auftragstaktik, and have incorporated them into U. S. Army doctrine.10 But respect for the judgment and trust in the initiative of subordinate leaders are only two manifestations of the complex set of values, perceptions, and behavior that comprise Auftragstaktik.

The essence of Auftragstaktik that has made it important as a combat multiplier is the socio-professional relationship that united German officers and governed their behavior toward each other. The relationship was egalitarian, collegial, trusting, and supportive. German officers of all ranks were members of a select group "who wore the King's coat."11 For almost 200 years superiors have trusted their subordinates and dedicated themselves to their subordinates' success. Commanders' behavior was oriented toward building subordinates' competence to assess military situations and apply adaptive solutions, and to building their confidence in making decisions and acting independently. Commanders required their officers to study their profession, and set up situations in which they could practice what they had studied. Critiques were supportive and collegial rather than demeaning.12 Superiors did not meddle in their subordinates' spheres of responsibility. Even in wartime when inexperienced second lieutenants were commanding companies, senior commanders entrusted them with complete discretion in the training of their companies. When there was failure, commanders backed up their subordinates and used the occasion as a learning experience.13

The psychological consequence of Auftragstaktik for both junior and senior officers was a sense of security. The junior, be he a second lieutenant or a general, could feel at ease airing his doubts and problems with his superior, confident that the older man would be constructive and helpful.14 He could work on his shortcomings without feeling pressure to compromise his ethical integrity--to look good at the expense of being good. Though empowering and trusting subordinates always entailed risk for the superior, the supportive climate and candor of Auftragstaktik assured German commanders that they would know accurately the condition of their subordinate units. They could develop their subordinates' competence by assigning them tasks that made them reach for higher levels of proficiency. Though responsible for everything their subordinates did or failed to do, commanders were secure knowing they could trust their own superiors to practice Auftragstaktik, and support them.15

There were special circumstances that led to the emergence of Auftragstaktik in the German but not in other continental armies, or in the American or British Armies. First, from the defeat of Prussia in the Napoleonic Wars (1813) til the end of World War I (1918) the king, aristocracy, and officers were united in a compact to sustain the monarchy against armed insurrection and political challenge by liberals and socialists. For their part, the officers received the place of honor in the German social order, and their sons were assured commissions in the Army.16

Second, throughout the 19th century the Army was continually expanding, but the number of families whose sons were considered socially and politically suitable for commissions did not expand. The Army was short of officers for more than a century, officers had almost certain job security, and commanders had no choice but to make the best of the material they received. During the 19th century no standards of intelligence or education could be imposed without excluding applicants who met the crucial social and political criteria. Regimental commanders, who made the decisions on applicants for commissions, could not afford to turn down a politically sound applicant. Neither could they threaten an officer with relief; there was no one to replace him.17 The task for German commanders was to build an officer corps for an expanding army during a century of rapid technological changes, most of which tended to increase the dispersal of units on the battlefield. They had a limited pool of intellectually average and educationally inferior young men on which to draw, but they could build on traditions of mutual respect and professionalism.18 Their approach was to teach and model patterns of behavior intended to build military proficiency, patterns that also supported the psychological and ethical integrity that enabled officers to welcome responsibility and act on their own judgment. The result was the most effective group of combat commanders and staff officers in the history of warfare.

The officer corps of both the French and British Armies also had traditions of commissioning men on the basis of their social origins, but in neither state was the army the foundation of the governing regime. The French officer corps was never the exclusive preserve of the nobility, and it was further democratized during the Napoleonic Wars. As a consequence, the trust and mutual respect that united the German officers was never part of the culture of the French officer corps. Mistrusting and mistrusted by many of the frequently changing regimes of the 19th century, the officers held aloof from politics. Between the world wars French officers became alienated from the regime, the nation, and ultimately from each other. Centralized control and rigid authoritarianism crushed the initiative of subordinates and blocked cooperation between branches, with catastrophic consequences in 1940.19

British officers clung to aristocratic notions about leadership as long as the Germans did, but were not united by a tradition focusing on professional matters. The regime in Great Britain in the 19th century was more flexible than that in Prussia, and was not so severely challenged by social revolution. Officers faced a range of militarily backward colonial adversaries, and were under no pressure to develop a high level of proficiency. British military traditions expected officers to serve as models of courage and honor; they did not have to be particularly competent. An excess of either "cleverness" (intelligence) or zeal was bad form.20 Since 1945 reduction in size, the elimination of colonial responsibilities, and democratization have changed the culture of the British Army. The current doctrine, known as directive command, embodies aspects of Auftragstaktik, and requires British officers to become serious about their profession.21

Leadership in the U. S. Army

In the United States there was no aristocratic tradition and a minuscule Regular Army officer corps. When expansion was necessary to conduct a war, temporary officers were appointed. The primary qualification for a temporary commission, as well as for accelerated promotion in the Regular Army, was political influence. There was almost no socio-political homogeneity in the officer corps, and little possibility of building common professional views. Officers were scattered in small posts in the western reaches of the country, or in the Philippines. Leadership behavior varied widely.22




  • "The values that permeated the Army in the wake of World War II did not work. The combination of leadership by intimidation, authoritarian and maladaptive personnel policies, and micromanagement by marginally qualified commanders led to excessive casualties during the Korean Conflict and a general collapse of vertical cohesion and discipline during the war in Vietnam."

  • "The reforms they instituted brought bright, well-educated soldiers, self-paced individual training, realistic training for units, candid and rank-blind after-action reviews, emphasis on the development of trust and cohesion, efforts to attend to the practical and emotional needs of military families, and a new emphasis in leadership doctrine on trusting, respecting, and empowering subordinates."

  • "During the past decade it [NCO Corps] has developed an ethos among enlisted personnel of mutual trust and respect without regard to ethnicity or any values other than military proficiency. When we recall that in the mid-seventies the enlisted culture scorned military values, embraced drugs, and engaged in sometimes lethal racial strife, we have every reason to expect that the commissioned cadre can change its culture. "

 There were about 5,000 officers in the regular Army in 1914 for 100,000 enlisted men. The officer corps expanded 25-fold for World War I. After the war it retained 14,000 officers for 120,000 enlisted men. The officer corps expanded about 60-fold for World War II, and retained 70,000 officers for 500,000 enlisted personnel in the late 1940s.23 The world wars exposed Regular Army officers quite suddenly to responsibilities far beyond anything they had experienced, and forced them to rely on subordinates who were essentially commissioned amateurs. To give a measure of coherence to operations, and to alleviate their own inevitable anxieties, most commanders issued detailed orders, insisted on unquestioning obedience, and used staff officers to check on compliance. This approach set a pattern for the socio-professional behavior of superiors toward subordinates that lasted until the 1970s. That pattern was "If you can't hack it, I'll fire you and get someone who can."24 For an insecure commander, micromanagement and threats were more reassuring, less trouble, and less risky than mentoring and empowering junior leaders. Reposing trust and confidence in a subordinate entailed the possibility that he might fail, and embarrass his superiors.

There were five times as many permanent officers in the late 1940s as there had been in the late 1930s. Men who would never have dreamed of holding a commission in 1936 found themselves officers in the Regular Army in 1948. While many of these were fortunate additions to the corps, many others were insecure in their new positions.25 Their insecurity was exacerbated by the winnowing processes that accompanied the postwar demobilizations and continued into the postwar years.

For insecure officers, the authoritarian behavior that they had experienced and used during the world wars was psychologically adaptive. They were in competition with their peers, they knew that they would only be in a position for a short time, and no one cared how well their units could perform combat missions as long as they looked good.26 The slogan of "Zero Defects" typified and perpetuated the ethic of unrealistic expectations, endemic mission creep, and indifference to the long-term capabilities of units that characterized the Army of 1945-1980. The values that permeated the Army in the wake of World War II did not work. The combination of leadership by intimidation, authoritarian and maladaptive personnel policies, and micromanagement by marginally qualified commanders led to excessive casualties during the Korean Conflict27 and a general collapse of vertical cohesion and discipline during the war in Vietnam.28

Many junior leaders in Vietnam perceived the culture of the Army to be militarily counterproductive and psychologically intolerable. Their views became a matter of record in the Army War College "Study on Military Professionalism" in 1970.29 General William Westmoreland had commissioned the study, but he and other senior officers who were conditioned by the culture of the World War II Army repudiated it when they saw the results. But enough of the officers who were disgruntled by the culture of looking good and ticket-punching survived the system, became generals, and began in the late 1970s a revolution in the human dimensions of the Army. The reforms they instituted brought bright, well-educated soldiers, self-paced individual training, realistic training for units, candid and rank-blind after-action reviews, emphasis on the development of trust and cohesion, efforts to attend to the practical and emotional needs of military families, and a new emphasis in leadership doctrine on trusting, respecting, and empowering subordinates. Together with renewal of matèriel and doctrine, these reforms produced the Army that performed with unprecedented effectiveness in Panama and Iraq.30

No aspect of the reforms in the human dimensions addressed taking care of leaders or leaders taking care of themselves, though many provisions increased the stresses on them. A cohesive unit demands more of its officers and NCOs than a less tightly bonded group does. Compared to soldiers in ordinary units, members of cohesive units expect more professional expertise of their leaders, and seek continually increasing complexity and sophistication in training exercises. Soldiers in cohesive units evolve group expectations that their leaders will devote almost unlimited attention to their subordinates' personal, professional and familial welfare. Trusting and empowering subordinates can impose heavy psychological stress on leaders when they are ultimately responsible.31 However, stressed-out leaders need not be the price of cohesive and high performing units if those leaders enjoy the trust, respect, and support of their own superiors.

Future military operations may include high-intensity combat in nuclear, chemical, or biological environments, support of friendly regimes against domestic insurgents, prevention of war in volatile situations, and alleviation of suffering in unstable states that do not control the armed groups in their populations.32 The characteristics common to all of these are wide dispersal of friendly elements in the zone of operation, unpredictable adversaries, and continuous danger. To survive and accomplish their missions, units will require junior leaders who have the three kinds of integrity: ethical to be able to identify and choose the harder right; physical to be able to be at the right place with a clear head; and psychological to manage stress while devising adaptive plans to achieve the commander's intent and acting autonomously to execute the plans. Auftragstaktik creates a climate in which the subordinate leader knows his chief is committed to his success, will not abandon him on the battlefield, and will support his efforts to care for himself.

The U. S. Army has the highest officer-enlisted ratio of any major army in history.33 Superiors can afford to pour on the pressure and force some leaders to fail, or to compromise their ethical and physical integrity. The most effective psychological antidote an insecure commander has for his own anxiety is to induce fear in his subordinates. In such a climate, officers are anxious, initiative withers, the performance of units falls short of their potential--and self-care is unthinkable. Conversely, both military and academic research has demonstrated that a secure commander who gives power away to his subordinates, who backs them up when they stumble, and who convinces them that they are all on the same team makes them feel secure.34 Such commanders mobilize the intellectual and physical commitment of every member of the unit and build high-performance units.35

Though the U. S. Army does not have the unique social, political, and demographic situation that gave rise to Auftragstaktik, it has demonstrated a remarkable knack for cultural change. During the past decade it has developed an ethos among enlisted personnel of mutual trust and respect without regard to ethnicity or any values other than military proficiency. When we recall that in the mid-seventies the enlisted culture scorned military values, embraced drugs, and engaged in sometimes lethal racial strife,36 we have every reason to expect that the commissioned cadre can change its culture. There are and will continue to be officers who select themselves into the Army because they see it as an authoritarian institution congenial to their personal needs. They will be slow to trust and quick to threaten, and they will continue to oppose anything resembling Auftragstaktik. But the consensus is tending toward trust and respect down as well as up the chain of command. Trust and respect must start at the top and build feelings of security all the way down the chain of command. Such feelings are essential if leaders are to to feel safe engaging in self-care. A sense of security is the essence of Auftragstaktik; security made it work and made its practitioners winners against odds.


1. U.S. Continental Congress, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, Part I (Philadelphia, Styner & Cist, 1779) pp. 138, 141.

2. Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Scribner, 1994) pp. 5, 9ff; Faris R. Kirkland, Ronald R. Halverson, & Paul D. Bliese, "Stress and Psychological Readiness in Post-Cold War Operations," Parameters, 26, 2 (summer 1996) pp. 86-87, 89.

3. Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988) pp. 697-98; David Hackworth, About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989) pp. 747-48; James Kitfield, Prodigal Soldiers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) pp. 119-21.

4. Lewis Sorley in Thunderbolt, his biography of General Creighton Abrams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), quotes Abrams's comments in 1965 on the importance of accuracy in the Unit Readiness Report (p. 182). General Maxwell Thurman, in an interview with the author in 1993, described the report as a "farce."

5. Robert H. Scales, Jr., Certain Victory: The U. S. Army in the Gulf War (Washington: Brassey's, 1994) p. 150; Thomas Taylor, Lightning in the Storm: The 101st Air Assault Division in the Gulf War (New York: Hippocrene, 1994) pp. 159, 229, 242, 286-87.

6. Scales, p. 380; Taylor, pp. 191, 370-71, 390, 395, 397.

7. Interviews with General Maxwell Thurman, Feb.-Mar. 1994.

8. William R. Richardson, "The Training Revolution that Built Today's Army," Army, 46, 6 (Sept. 1996) pp. 8-12; Kitfield, pp. 191-92, 306ff.

9. John T. Nelsen, II, "Auftragstaktik: A Case for Decentralized Battle," Parameters, 17, 3 (Sept. 1987) p. 21.

10. U. S. Department of the Army, U. S. Army Field Manual 100-5, Fighting Future Wars (Washington: Brassey's, 1994) pp. 6-5, 14-2.

11. Steven E. Clemente, For King and Kaiser! The Making of the Prussian Officer, 1860-1914 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992) p. 165; Franz Uhle-Wettler, "Auftragstaktik: Mission Orders and the German Experience" in R. S. Hooker, Jr., ed., Maneuver Warfare (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1993) p. 239.

12. Nelsen, p. 22; Antulio J. Echevarria, II, "Auftragstaktik: In its Proper Perspective," Military Review, 66, 10 (Oct. 1986) p. 51.

13. Bruce I. Gundmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army 1914-1918 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1989) pp. 147, 172-73.

14. F. W. von Mellenthin & R. H. S. Stolfi with E. Sobik, NATO Under Attack: Why the Western Alliance Can Fight Outnumbered and Win in Central Europe Without Nuclear Weapons (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1984) p. 134.

15. Nelsen, pp. 24, 26; Echevarria, p. 53.

16. Clemente, pp. 47, 49, 56, 165, 198, 212-14.

17. Clemente, pp. 55, 144-46, 159, 206, 209.

18. Wettler, pp. 240-1.

19. Pierre Chalmin, L'Officier français de 1815 à 1870 (Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1957); Raoul Girardet, La société militaire dans la France contemporaine, 1815-1939 (Paris: Plon, 1953); Douglas Porch, The March to the Marne: The French Army 1871-1914 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Robert A. Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939 Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1985).

20. John Baynes, Morale: A Study of Men and Courage. The Second Scottish Rifles at the Battle of Neuve Chappelle, 1915 (New York: Praeger, 1967); Simon Raven, "Perish by the Sword: A Memoir of the Military," Encounter, 12 (May 1959) pp. 3, 43, 45, 48; Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1929); Brian Bond, "Doctrine and Training in the British Cavalry--1870-1914," in Michael Howard, ed., The Theory and practice of War (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1965) pp. 100-02.

21. Gavin Bullock, "Military Doctrine and Counterinsurgency: A British Perspective," Parameters, 26, 2 (Summer 1996) pp. 10-12.

22. Edward M. Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime 1784-1898 ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 61-63, 194-98; John R. Elting, American Army Life (New York: Scribner's, 1982) pp. 55, 84; Allan R. Millett, The General: Robert L. Bullard and Officership in the United States Army 1881-1925 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1975) pp. 100-06, 140-49.

23. Russell F. Weigley, History of the United States Army (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984) pp. 598-600.

24. Richard D Mallonee II, The Naked Flagpole: Battle for Bataan (San Rafael, CA: Presidio, 1980) pp. 16, 29; Jay Luvaas, "Buna, 19 November 1942 - 2 January 1943: A Leavenworth Nightmare" in Charles E. Heller & William A. Stofft, eds., America's First Battles 1776-1965 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1986) p. 211.

25. T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War (New York: Macmillan, 1963) p. 151; Roy E. Appleman, South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu, June-November 1950 (Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1961) p. 84; Hackworth, pp. 57-58, 116, 137, 142, 152, 160-61, 228-38, 252-55, 272.

26. Brig. Gen. Ted Mataxis, letter to the author.

27. Faris R. Kirkland, "Soldiers and Marines at Chosin Reservoir: Criteria for Assignment to Combat Command," Armed Forces and Society, 22, 2 (Winter 1995/96) pp. 260, 264-71.

28. Cincinnatus [pseud.], Self-Destruction (New York; Norton, 1981) pp. 65-70, 109-10, 151-52, 195-98; Richard A. Gabriel & Paul L. Savage, Crisis in Command (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978) pp. 43-46, 56, 71-72, 80-86; William L. Hauser, America's Army in Crisis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973) pp. 69, 96-108.

29. U. S. Department of the Army, Study on Military Professionalism (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U. S. Army War College, 1970).

30. These reforms are the central themes of Kitfield's Prodigal Soldiers (op. cit.) and of James F. Dunnigan and Raymond M. Macedonia's Getting it Right: American Military Reforms After Vietnam to the Gulf War and Beyond (New York: William Morrow, 1993).

31. David H Marlowe (ed.), Faris R. Kirkland, Theodore P. Furukawa, Joel M. Teitelbaum, Larry H. Ingraham, & Bruce T. Caine, Unit Manning System Field Evaluation, Technical Report Nr. 5 (ADA 207193) (Washington: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, 1987).

32. Robert D. Kaplan, "The Coming Anarchy," The Atlantic Monthly, 273 (February 1994) pp. 66, 72-74; Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: Free Press, 1991) pp. 143-49, 218-21; Alvin & Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993) pp. 184-85, 192-94, 199-203.

33. In 1995 the Army had 70,203 commissioned officers for 422,073 enlisted personnel, a ratio of one officer for every six enlisted personnel.

34. Lloyd J. Matthews, "The Overcontrolling Leader," Army, 46, 4 (April 1996) pp. 31-36.

35. Jerry A. Simonsen, Herbert L. Frandsen, Jr., & David A. Hoopengardner, "Excellence in the Combat Arms," Military Review, 65, 6 (June 1985) pp. 19-29.

36. Larry H. Ingraham & Frederick J. Manning, The Boys in the Barracks (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1984).

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