22 March 2010

Order Command v. Mission Command

Enough time may have elapsed to be able to state the obvious about World War II in the West: the German army regularly kicked the shit out of the Allied armies until overwhelmed by numbers and materiel. Presenting the results of his extensive statistical research in A Genius for War, Trevor Dupuy reached the following unflinching verdict:
On a man for man basis the German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a fifty percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops, under all circumstances. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, they were outnumbered, when they had local air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost.
One reason stands out to explain German combat superiority: Auftragstaktik, known as 'Mission Command' in English. With Auftragstaktik, an objective is identified and the executor has the freedom to achieve it according to his judgement of the circumstances, and the means he can organise to assist him.

In contrast, the British and American armies were wedded to Befehlstaktik – 'Order Command' – in which the executor is told not only what objective he is to achieve, but also how and with what, granting him limited freedom to respond to changing circumstances, and so to develop his own initiative and skill.

Although Befehlstaktik discourages initiative in subordinates, it requires that they should suddenly develop it upon achieving senior rank. Inherently unlikely as that is, the possibility of anyone imaginative reaching a position of authority is further reduced by promotion according to seniority, while conformity is enforced by the dull-witted discriminating against those more favoured by nature – the ‘safe pair of hands’ strangling those judged ‘too clever by half’.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this: Britain has been an Order Command society for a long, long time, and the desperate attempts to micro-manage everything by the current regime represents its ultimate expression. The current British disaffection with their political system can be seen as a belated reaction to centuries of being treated with a distrust bordering on contempt by their rulers.

The 'powers that be' have promised far too much, for far too long, until the power they exercise would be beyond their capabilities even if they were the product of a meritocratic selection process. But politicians and senior officials alike are instead selected according to their ability to lie and dissemble, in a claustrophobic environment that rewards a foul mixture of glibness, moral cowardice, sycophancy and well-timed treachery.

The awful, hope-destroying truth is that prolonged submission to arbitrary rule reduces the possibility of responsible behaviour by the ruled. In the remote possibility that Cameron and Co. actually try to devolve power, they will have to possess the conviction to let those to whom power is devolved make objectively harmful decisions, and to do nothing to ameliorate the consequences of those decisions.

It took the German army well over a hundred years to develop away from the extreme Befehlstaktik of Frederick the Great to the Auftragstaktik that made it so formidable in World War II. And the process only began after its crushing defeat by Napoleon at Jena.

I am not sure that even now the British appreciate how greatly Order Command has failed, at every level. Without that realization, I think it impossible that they will kick the habit of dull submission punctuated by futile grumbling.

1 comment:

  1. With no coaching from me, my two slightly militaristic children (at Swarthmore PA nearly-Quaker high school) drew this conclusion early on - Rommel was their hero - and the older son spent three happy years in Marine Force Recon which greatly benefited his character,capacity for independent judgment, and practice with regard to the choice of appropriate equipment.