Command: The Twenty-First-Century General
By Anthony King
Cambridge University Press, 2019
504 pp. $79.99
Colonel Allan R. Millett, USMCR (Ret.), Ph.D., is the Ambrose Professor of History and Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans.
Command is two loosely connected books. One book is about generalship in combat in the 21st century with a focus on hybrid conflicts. The second is about imagining generalship as a collective enterprise and the challenges of employing a division of differently sized units with unique capabilities. A division might be limited to units that shoot and destroy and heavy in units that simply collect and process information with such speed that no single commander could possibly make timely decisions. Drawing on his prior work on unit cohesion and military culture as a British army contractor, Dr. Anthony King offers an updated look at generalship and division command for an increasingly complex battlefield.
Command provides a review of how ground combat divisions developed from World War I to the present, spiced with examples of “good” division commanders and, less convincingly, why some generals were not so good. King does useful comparative work on the armies of Great Britain, the United States, France, and Germany, stressing system problems not rooted in generals’ personal style. He emphasizes operational challenges in actual combat, and he acknowledges that different enemies pose different challenges to a division commander.
The second part of Command applies multiple theories of leadership and staff organization to the difficulties of planning and controlling current operations. King does not offer up technological silver bullets as solutions, although he is rooted in a cyber world, so he cannot quite dismiss the notion that we will someday pin stars on an artificial intelligence device and salute it—but the HAL 9000 is not yet here.
Professor King recognizes the power of personality and example by making a distinction between command and leadership. However, this is a distinction without a difference. Lower ranks and citizen soldiers do not know enough to judge professional-operational competence, so sheer courage impresses. Professional troops want a steady flow of ammunition and accurate, prompt artillery fire. They know that even generals in hovering helicopters can be shot down. Today’s OH-58 is yesterday’s white horse.
Professor King has his own Valhalla of modern major generals, who commanded through delegated authority and undelegated responsibility, shaped by team building. It resembles British battalion “O” groups at a higher level. King’s exemplars are General Rupert Smith, General Nick Carter, and General James Mattis. All three, according to King, created centralized decisionmaking systems that still provided subordinate commanders with decisionmaking latitude through vertical and horizontal networks for information-sharing. King champions the “Decision Point” system, which stresses the constant measurement of operations against the newest Rosetta Stone, the commander’s intent. The social science jargon aside, all this sounds like “feel good” decision by committee, but King asserts that focused staff training makes the dispersion and reduction of headquarter staffs more effective and allows better intercommand communications.
Command has many laudable features. One theme deals with a real problem: the evolving exercise of command in complex operational environments that cannot be easily characterized as force-on-force engagements decided by massed firepower and/or technological advantages (for example, information domination). King’s guidance to senior commanders is to use decisionmaking systems that produce useful, timely information before crises occur.
However, King fails to address several important 21st-century issues that division commanders do not face often, for example, questions of appropriateness and proportionality in waging war. A division commander would certainly be aware of his own casualties and would try to estimate the effect of enemy casualties. Commander’s intent is derivative from strategy, which depends on the goals of the highest political authority. It might be far easier to remove a dictator than to replace him, as General Smith learned in Basra. Smith became an arbiter of an Iraqi civil war, a role no amount of gaming could have solved. I believe General Mattis would agree that his command of the 1st Marine Division during the Iraq War was a drive in the sun compared to General Carter’s problems in Afghanistan.
Command would also benefit from a more thorough assessment of the problems of air mission tasking. King admires the Marine Corps system of force integration (protected by Title 10, U.S. Code) without explaining that the headquarters of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force provides a single commander for three elements: a ground combat element, an air combat element, and a Service-support element. The operational capabilities of each element depend on the mission. They may range from destroying an enemy armored force to rescuing flood victims in a foreign country. King’s national system of command, as conceptualized, might allow rapid deployment but does not provide air-ground integration.
Another complication King might have addressed is the domination of rules of engagement (ROE). I had the good fortune to participate in the exercises Bold Guard and Northern Wedding as a Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic watch officer (twice), to observe the annual Ulchi Focus Lens exercise at Command Post Tango in South Korea, to go on patrol with a British battalion in Ulster, and to discuss at length operations in Bosnia and Kosovo with General Wesley K. Clark while he was still Supreme Allied Commander Europe. In all these situations, however diverse, the ROE shaped operations, not strategy—and for no apparent reason.
Written with senior leaders in mind, Command offers useful waypoints for a further discussion of the evolution of generalship, decisionmaking, and division command in increasingly complex environments. It also provides useful nuggets for less senior joint force officers as they consider their own leadership and command style on the 21st-century battlefield. JFQ