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Concepts and DoctrineShort Read

Where to Mission Command?

Executive Summary

Based on John Lauren’s review of Andrew Milburn’s book When the Tempest Gathers, the article focusses on Milburn’s lamenting of the disconnect between the tactical and strategic levels of conflict.  This dissonance is considered through the lens of mission command; in particular, as it is currently defined in Western military doctrine.  The article contends that the extant doctrine remains too focussed on the commander, and does not place enough emphasis on the impact of the ground truth, demanded by a culture of mission command, on all levels of war.

“…in war something must be allowed to chance and fortune, seeing it is in its nature hazardous and an option of difficulties…1

I read with pleasure John Lauren’s excellent book review of ‘When the Tempest Gathers’ by Andrew Milburn.  I hope more books of this type emerge; they provide a welcome relief to the self high-fiving prose of retired generals.  In particular, my attention was caught by the sentence, ‘The other sadness inherent in the tale is that policy makers and strategists seem set to continue to misuse the military instrument and that tactical and operational successes will not bring the desired strategic results until the two are better linked.’  Tragically this is not a new trope; it echoes through many conflicts such as the Vietnam War (in both David Hackworth’s About Face and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie) and the French Algerian War (so well described by Alistair Horne in A Savage War of Peace).  Even into World War II in texts such as Erich Von Manstein’s Lost Victories.

The recent US Army study of the Iraq War concluded that the primary strategic beneficiary was Iran.  The Shia of Iran/Iraq waited out and bore the burden of western military power and skill at arms (yes, even special forces), just as the Vietnamese people did forty years prior.  Within the study, many examples of Milburn’s disconnect exist.  One such dissonance some readers may be all too familiar with:

‘It was the reverse of the body count. It [was] not the number of guys who we’re killing; it [was] the number of guys you [were] training. Just like a body count, that does not really tell you whether you are obtaining your strategic or operational goals. The training body count, how many guys are in [the] Iraqi Security Forces, does not tell you anything about your strategic or operational objectives and how well you are doing towards [achieving] them.’2

Similarly, as starkly revealed in the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers:

“every data point was altered to present the best picture possible.”  

The reasons for strategic failure are rarely readily apparent and linear.  However, one lens that may assist the why of Milburn’s recurring dissonance may be to view it through the lens of mission command culture.  Any discord in the commander’s intent is a violation of the principles of mission command, regardless of the level of war.

I was taught as a junior leader a fundamental maxim: ‘the person on the ground is usually right, but the first contact report is usually inaccurate.’  So it is the inherent duty of any higher headquarters to place considerable effort in understanding’ ground truth’.  How, therefore in this supposed age of mission command and never better communications, is such a disconnect between tactical results and strategic outcomes possible?  If mutual trust is a crucial competent of mission command, then such an egregious detachment raised in Milburn’s book would demand the recasting of both operational and strategic concepts as initial tactical operations commenced and provided critical feedback.  The strategic to operational to tactical nexus is not a one-way hierarchical flow.  As James Sharpe and Thomas Creviston have put it, ‘The principles of mission command demand that understanding comes from the bottom up and not just from the top-down.’

To provide a clue to one potential point of detachment, I take issue with one of the current Western doctrinal imbalances in the approach to mission command.  This imbalance is exemplified by the phrasing of the guiding principle of mission command in the British Army’s Land Operations: “The absolute responsibility to act to achieve the superior commander’s intent.”  In the majority of operations and with increasingly sophisticated decision support, a greater level of insight should be available to the higher commander.  What happens, however, if the commander is wrong, or the situation has been so fundamentally misunderstood or has changed that the ‘intent’ is nonsense.  Does absolute responsibility remain?  Absolute is a compelling word to use, which does not seem to leave much room for Wolfe’s chance and fortune.  As the modern father of the mission command culture, Helmuth Von Moltke the Elder, put it, “Obedience is a principle, but man stands above principle”.

The emphasis on the superior wisdom of the higher commander is even sharper and runs as a continuous theme in the US Army’s ADP 6-0 Mission Command.  This despite Jörg Muth‘s warning that the great commander of the US Army in the past seems to risen despite of the American military training system. More broadly, Martin Van Creveld in probably his seminal work Command in War further warns about such reliance on apparently more extraordinary minds:

‘The best system of command, to caricature Clausewitz’s famous dictum on strategy, is always to have a genius in charge, first in general and then at a decisive point.  However excellent in principle, this advice is less than useful in practice, the problem consisting precisely in the inability of the military (and non-military) institutions to achieve certainty either in producing a steady supply of geniuses or in identifying the decisive points into which, once available, they should be put.’

There are still strong echoes of John Keegan’s ‘heroic leader’ in the majority of the publicly available military leadership doctrine, something Keegan stated must be left behind.  Current Western doctrine does not adequately reinforce, as the foundational text, Truppenführung puts it, that “the battlefield requires soldiers who can think and act independently, who can make calculated, decisive, and daring use of every situation, and who understands that victory depends on every individual.”  The ghosts of the ‘great captain’ endure, both within ADP 6-0 and to a lesser extent Land Operations.  There is always a gap between doctrine and practice, and many serving professionals may refreshingly state they experience something better and more aligned to Truppenführung than their current doctrine.  However, Milburn’s concerns about strategic dissonance indicate that in the recent past, this is not always the case in that most critical of spaces, on operations.

As it is always easier to criticise than create, can I humbly suggest a broader recasting of the guiding principle (based on Truppenführung) to something like: “To possess the ability to make independent decisions and carry them out resolutely and positively; with a deep understanding of the enemies intent and accounting for changes in the situation, while at the same time being aware of the high degree of responsibility carried at all levels of war.”  Yes, more of a mouthful but at least it is moving past John Keegan’s heroic leader paradigm.

In conclusion, the dissonance that has occurred from the tactical to strategic level across recent decades of Western military operations is a complex and recurrnt problem, but it is not intractable.  Mission command, or rather the culture of mission command, may offer another perspective in helping to remove what is ultimately self-generated friction.  English speaking militaries in their rightful adoption of mission command, at least doctrinally, are yet to let go of the ‘heroic leader’ mindset; that the higher intent is the right intent.  If as S.L.A. Marshall once concluded ‘All values are interpreted in terms of the battlefield itself’, greater attention must be paid to the feedback of the tactical level of war up to the highest levels of command.  True acculturation of mission command may take us some way there.

Jason Thomas
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Jason is a retired Australian Armoured Corps Officer who served in a variety of command and staff appointments.  Including capability development and future warfare positions. He holds a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering, a Master of Science in military vehicle technology, and a Master of Arts in strategy and policy. Currently, he is living in Copenhagen where besides reading for a PhD in Mission Command at the University of Sydney, and being a house dad, he occasionally writes on military topics with a focus on leadership and strategy.


  1. Then Lt Colonel James Wolfe, 1757
  2. p387, The US Army in The Iraq War, Volume 1

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