Jorg Muth has written what sounds like a very interesting book contrasting the early-20th century officer education systems in Germany and the United States, arguing that the differences largely account for disparities in tactical effectiveness during the Second World War. (I've not read the book, only some summaries and review blurbs.) It's plain to see that he's used this essay on Ricks' blog as an opportunity to pitch the thesis of his book. But in doing so he fails to sufficiently account for the influence of strategic context and intellectual history on each army's concepts and methods of operation; accordingly he goes much too far in his single-minded critique of formal officer education.
Muth opens his essay by making the important point that "Auftragstaktik does not denote a certain style of giving orders or a certain way of phrasing them; it is a whole command philosophy." One could argue that it's even more than that: not just a command philosophy, but a theory of war, a leadership ideal, and a warfighting philosophy. Auftragstaktik was not simply the principle of minimalist orders and freedom of action in line with commander's intent, but an entire operational culture. (This point is very effectively made in then-MAJ John T. Nelsen's September 1987 Parameters essay, "Auftragstaktik: A Case for Decentralized Battle" (pdf), which is essential reading on this subject.) As such, it can't be abstracted from the conditions that produced and propagated it, nor understood when examined from only one perspective as Muth attempts to do. We can't pretend like the idea simply never occurred to American officers, or that they failed to register its evolution in foreign armies. Here's Muth:
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.This is a staggeringly limited and insufficient explanation. Let's look at a few of the other reasons that, in Muth's words, "never has it been attempted to introduce the most effective command philosophy ever invented into the U.S. Army."
1. Auftragstaktik didn't spring into being fully-formed from Moltke's warrior-brain (nor from the inspiration of Frederick—a curious assertion): it was a product of a specific set of historical circumstances that the German army faced in the latter part of the 19th century.
Developments in the technology of war – notably the newfound ability to concentrate overwhelming and accurate firepower on massed troops – combined with the proliferation of railroads and the creation of a dense road system to both allow and force the geographic dispersion of armies over distances not previously envisioned. (Certainly Napoleon didn't have to deal with such complications. He embodied perhaps the Platonic antithesis of Auftragstaktik, and you could argue he had a pretty effective command philosophy.) As such, commanders had to delegate and devolve authority while imbuing subordinate leaders with a meaningful sense of purpose and intent in order to ensure that slow communications and distance from the commander-in-chief didn't render their formations immobile and useless.
These developments had an impact on the American way of war, too, of course. Sherman operated with tremendous freedom thanks to "mission orders" from U.S. Grant, and Lee often granted his cavalry commanders similar discretion. It would be difficult for anyone familiar with the Indian wars (and particularly the demise of Custer's 7th Cavalry) to assert that the late 19th-century U.S. Army was dominated by doctrinaire centralization of command and overcomplicated execution orders.
2. Germany's strategic context – that is, its geographic position and relative weakness – mitigated in favor of warfighting concepts that emphasized speed of decision.
By the turn of the 20th century, it was clear to the German general staff that any war with France would of necessity become a continental war. The famed Schlieffen Plan was a response to this realization: in order to survive a general war on two or more fronts, Germany would need to act decisively to defeat the main enemy through envelopment and a battle of annihilation, then concentrate its resources and offensive effort eastward. Only France's total defeat and surrender would suffice; there could be no limited political objectives or negotiated settlement, for the German army was too small and weak in comparison with its adversaries to survive an incomplete commitment of forces or an extended war of position and attrition.
This meant two things: first, that operational speed and initiative were vital to exploit early tactical success, and second, that the "commander's intent" was quite simple and required little interpretation. Commanders in the field had to be given the authority to operate without explicit direction so as to translate victory in battle into strategic decision through unrelenting pursuit and destruction of the remnants of the enemy force. (Guderian would later adopt the same approach in the east, only to learn that the tactically and operationally sound concept of Blitzkrieg failed at the strategic level, where in Gunther Rothenberg's words, the enemy "could trade space for time" and mobilize nearly endless reserves in a defense-in-depth.)
3. Moltke's views on decentralization and initiative at the tactical level were inextricably tied to a Jominian belief in the autonomy of the military within the confines of war. Rothenberg again:
[Moltke] argues that once the army had been committed to war, the direction of the military effort should be defined by the soliders alone. "Political considerations," he wrote, "can be taken into account only as long as they do not make demands that are militarily improper or impossible" (Paret 298).Such an approach is sensible if we imagine that the Moltkean ideal of rapid decision through a battle of annihilation – one that "deprived the adversary of the means and the will to fight further" (Paret 302) – could render the military's contribution to policy clean, discrete, and self-contained. As far as the U.S. Army is concerned, such clarity may be preferable but has rarely been seen. (World War II is the obvious exception.) This wasn't a prescription for total war, however: Moltke did view war as policy and the army as the government's instrument, and believed that his conception of autonomous action within a defined and appropriate space would limit and professionalize violence.
But this mode of thinking, so important to the German ideal of military professionalism, would later inform the eventual divorce of operational concepts from strategy and fuel the evolution of Germany's senior officer corps from strategists into mere technicians of violence. The army's desire to preserve war as its separate, autonomous space led it to abstract the methods of war from its functions, working simply to solve the problem of how to maximize the application of combat power to the enemy. War had its own space, but it lost its linkage to policy. Hitler completed this slide by ideologizing state policy, eventually rendering German strategy nonsensical and ultimately hopeless. (This is a complicated argument and there's no space to flesh it out fully here; read Michael Geyer's chapter in Paret if you're interested.)
4. U.S. Army operations in World War II were similarly informed by history and strategic context, not just officer education.
From the middle part of the 19th century, the U.S. has been – for all intents and purposes – an island nation. This has led to brief periods of fascination with fortification and coastal defense, and more generally with a strategically defensive orientation. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point was founded and evolved in this context, and its (particularly early) focus on producing engineers and military technicians rather than spirited maneuver warriors is reflective of that. (It's no coincidence either that the Army has for quite a long period of its history been essentially Jominian, what with interior lines secured by manifest destiny.)
When we look at the different command philosophies in the German and American armies of WWII, it's impossible to ignore the plain fact that those armies were operating in wildly different strategic contexts. As I've already mentioned, Germany's need for quick and decisive victory led to an offensive orientation and an emphasis on initiative to exploit tactical success; but U.S. forces in that war were expeditionary and part of a multinational effort—they could not afford to endanger operational and strategic plans through well-intended tactical blunder. While the U.S. population was large and geographic distance from the fighting would have allowed for steady resupply and an extended campaign of attrition, it's difficult to envision continuation of the war if the Allied armies had been annihilated in 1944 and a continentally hegemonic Germany sued for peace. To put it more simply, U.S. commanders were less inclined to allow initiative because they didn't need (like Germany) to accept tactical and operational risk to have a hope of strategic success.
Let's also not forget that the U.S. officer corps (and army in general) was largely non-professional by the time of its landing in Europe; even if officer education and professional culture in the pre-war had emphasized the sort of freedom of action within a framework of consistency of thought that characterized Auftragstaktik, it's hard to believe such concepts could've been implemented across the 1944 force, or that they would have been decisive.
5. Auftragstaktik is fundamentally unsuited to the operations of the modern joint/combined arms force or the realities of modern recruiting and retention.
Niel Smith discussed this in his excellent rejoinder to Muth, but it's worth repeating and elaborating: while modern Army forces may operate in geographic dispersion and with significant responsibility devolved to them, the integration of supporting fires, ISR, and other enablers requires a sort of coordination and centralization that simply isn't possible when you give independently operating platoon leaders carte blanche. Muth's illustrative hypothetical is instructive for how it underlines the differences between 1945 and today: simply give one guy responsibility for accomplishing a discrete mission, assign him tanks to support his force, and let him get it done how he wants. But in the modern operating environment, you can't just give the tactical commander control of allied units, strike assets from different services, ISR platforms with a broader mission in the AO, and so on. All those enablers help him get the job done, but now he has to do the job in a more predictable, structured, and coordinated way. It's the trade-off for combat multipliers.
When we talk about moving toward an Auftragstaktik-style approach in the modern Army, we have to remember the point I made up front: this isn't just about "mission tactics" or mission orders or commander's intent, but a culture shift. Part of the reason it worked so well for the Germans, that they were able to tolerate initiative and independent thought and resort to non-"book" solutions is that both the officer education system and the entire way of doing business in the German officer corps contributed to the development of similar analytical frameworks. Moltke might've argued that you can account for your uncertainty about what the enemy will do through supreme confidence in what your own guys will do: even if you don't know how they'll do it, you have a sense for how they'll look at the problem and confidence that they'll accomplish the objective. But how do you embed this sort of collective thinking and cultural identity in the consciousness of a group of officers that turns over so quickly (I'm talking here about both the brevity of individual assignments and the low percentage of career officers)?
I couldn't help but let out a disbelieving grunt when I read Muth's assertion that in U.S. military schools, "doctrine reigned and not free independent thinking," accompanied by the helpful bromide that doctrine "is either based on past wars or on theory and thus can be no guideline for an officer in a present-day conflict." Guffaw. First of all, U.S. Army doctrine is authoritative, but not prescriptive: it provides a guide for action, not a template to be followed. It exists to distill best practices and boil down the collective wisdom of the service into basic principles from which specific tasks can be derived and training developed. Second, I wonder what Muth would think of this paragraph from the introduction to FM 3-0: Operations (pdf), the Army's capstone doctrinal manual:
Chaos, chance, and friction dominate land operations as much today as when Clausewitz wrote about them after the Napoleonic wars. In this environment, an offensive mindset—the predisposition to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative to positively change the situation—makes combat power decisive. The high quality of Army leaders and Soldiers is best exploited by allowing subordinates maximum latitude to exercise individual and small-unit initiative. Tough, realistic training prepares leaders for this, and FM 3-0 prescribes giving them the maximum latitude to accomplish the mission successfully. This requires a climate of trust in the abilities of superior and subordinate alike. It also requires leaders at every level to think and act flexibly, constantly adapting to the situation. Subordinates’ actions are guided by the higher commander’s intent but not circumscribed by excessive control. This is a continuing tension across the Army, aggravated by advanced information systems that can provide higher commanders with the details of lower echelon operations. The temptation for senior leaders to micromanage subordinates is great, but it must be resisted.Sounds a lot like Auftragstaktik, huh? You can talk all you want about mission orders and initiative, but it doesn't work without the whole surrounding culture. That means building these ideas into doctrine and concepts, but also building them into the structure of the institution, individual and collective training, and yes, officer education.
I know this has gone on much, much too long and deals with a lot of complicated subjects, so I'm grateful if you've made it this far. I suppose in the end I'm grateful to Ricks for running Muth's essay, and for the discussion and thinking it has prompted. (I still think his argument is oversimplified and silly, though.) Stuff like this is essential to the process of sorting out what the Army of the future ought to look like, how it ought to be structured, how it ought to think and train and fight. It's interesting to see century-old concepts invoked in this context if only because it wasn't so long ago that the Revolution in Military Affairs crowd was trumpeting a future of Net-Centric Warfare, information dominance, and all the inevitable centralization that would be associated with it.
In some sense, Auftragstaktik represents one extreme on a spectrum that spans all the way across to the other extreme of perfect information and centralized mission command: one end believes there's no such thing as perfect information and that junior leaders ought to be empowered to operate in an environment where they can react to circumstances more quickly and coherently than could echelons above, while for the other side there's still a hope of understanding the enemy's thinking before he does and acting on a decisive point to near-bloodlessly defeat him. This latter idea, present throughout history (in the guise of strategic bombing, maneuver warfare, NCW, and other forms of "the indirect approach") and eminently un-Clausewitzian, will hopefully be consigned to the scrap heap at some point, but shows no sign of doing so just yet.