Surveying the Responsibility of Command
Anthony King, Command: The Twenty-First-Century General (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Upon receiving this book, I was very interested in reading it, having never come across a book that addressed this specific subject before. The emphasis, or lack thereof, on the divisional level of command in particular has been hit or miss over the years. In my own service, the division level is often subsumed under the Marine expeditionary force because of the way we organize, train, and fight. For any contingency, we tailor the forces that we send forward to the size required by the nature of the operation, but always try to ensure that it is a Marine air ground task force which consists of a command element, a ground combat element, an aviation combat element, and a logistics combat element. When a Marine expeditionary force is deployed, the ground combat element is a division. It is generally only when the personality of the person commanding that division is larger than life that it gets the amount of attention that it likely deserves. This was certainly the case for the 1st Marine Division under then-Maj. Gen. James Mattis for the attack into Iraq in the spring of 2003. This is also likely why it is included as one of the cases studied in Command.
King takes a well-organized approach to his analysis of command at the division level. He starts with looking at why the function of command is so essential to the conduct of operations, then looks at historical examples of the way division command has evolved over time from its fairly hazy start under Frederick the Great in the mid-18th century, to our most recent conflicts. For the actual study of the function of command, he reviews how different countries historically approached division command, then transitions to case studies for how individual commanding generals commanded their divisions with examples from World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, and current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In between his case studies of command from the 20th and 21st centuries, there are two chapters that, to me, were the most interesting in the entire book. The sixth chapter on leadership goes into many of the intangibles of command and how one approaches the enormous task of getting intent across to a body of troops the size of a division. He addresses combat motivation, the theory of leadership, the practice of leadership, failed leaders, and finally the father figure role that commanders have employed at times. His point that this type of commandership was required in the past due to large numbers of barely trained conscripts in the divisions studied is something to keep in mind should we need to return to that model of raising forces for an existential fight. The benefit of this chapter is that King uses brief examples in each area from across a wide variety of times and countries.
The seventh chapter, entitled “The Insurgents,” reviews the different ways that division command was handled in the very difficult circumstances of counter-insurgency fights in Kenya, Algeria, and Vietnam. This chapter was of particular interest to me since I spent much of my time from 2003 to 2008 combating the insurgency in Iraq. If there is one aspect of counter-insurgency operations that I believe he missed, it is that the methods used by any formation in this type of fight have to be congruent with the values of the society the military forces come from. When they are not, defeat normally follows. We saw this from our own experience in Vietnam, but the French had a much worse experience with this during their operations in Algeria. In that war, the French military was so far out of touch with its society that it attempted to conduct a coup against President Charles de Gaulle when he directed the reduction of operations and withdrawal of military forces in the early 1960’s. Commanders have two tasks when faced with combat operations. They first have to figure out what type of fight they are in, then they have to determine the most appropriate way to fight and win. Commanders at all levels have to understand this and operate accordingly. If they do not, they spend lives and resources trying to drive the proverbial square peg into a round hole. The U.S. military started out on this path in Iraq, but enlightened leadership enabled us to change course.
Chapters six and seven set the stage for detailed case studies from more recent examples of command at the division level in the later chapters. These examples serve to illustrate King’s main theme that while command has always been a collaborative affair, over the past century, an observable trend has developed. This trend has taken command from a more individualistic affair where the commander attempts to be the master of every detail and very little of note is decided upon within the division without the commanding general directing it, to more of a collective command arrangement that has arisen due to the enormous complexity of both the challenges facing the modern division, as well as the overall size of a division headquarters. In essence, King argues that no one individual can do what our predecessors did in years past. As the author explains, this has given rise to a significantly increased requirement for professionalization for all members of division staffs to fully enable the function of command for the commander.
Based on my observations from my most recent tour in Iraq from 2015 to 2016, I believe it still comes down to the personality of the commander. In that time, I saw division commanders who were comfortable with a more decentralized decision-making process and others who still attempted to control every last detail. The author discusses the concept of mission command, but there are some commanders who do not really understand what that entails. While some use it in terms of command and control, with a heavy emphasis on control, it really entails passing intent regarding what needs to be done and trusting subordinates to carry out that intent. The natural caveat to this is that subordinates have to rate the trust that is essential to mission command by demonstrating competence and reliability in all things. Trust works both ways and when it is absent, mission command does not work.
While I found the book to be of interest, with the case studies of historical examples being particularly well-researched and written, in general, it seemed to read as better suited for academics than practitioners. Given that the author is a scholar, this is not surprising, but it is leavened with some actual operational experience since the author served as an advisor to both the British Army and Royal Marines, as well as a special advisor to Maj. Gen. Nick Carter in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. The scholarly nature of the book meant that there was a good bit of redundancy and wordiness. An American military advisor would have helped as well, as King got several names and unit designations incorrect. In all, these challenges were minor in nature and the book is still well worth the time it takes to read it. While those with less intellectual curiosity and dedication to the study of the profession of arms may shy away from it due to its length and highbrow language, this book should be on the list of all serious students of our profession. For those who aspire to command as a general officer, it should be required reading.
Maj. Gen. William F. Mullen III is a career Marine infantry officer who has commanded at every level short of division command, to include duty in Iraq as the deputy commanding general for operations from 2015 to 2016 in the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command Headquarters for Operation Inherent Resolve. The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not represent those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps, Lance Cpl. Joseph Prado