Author: World War I hero exemplifies mission command
April 29, 2014
By Nick Duke
FORT BENNING, Ga., (April 30, 2014) -- Col. Douglas Mastriano, an instructor at the U.S. Army War College, visited Fort Benning April 22 to discuss the life and actions of famed World War I Soldier Alvin York.
Mastriano, who teaches theater strategy and campaigning at the War College, is the author of a new book about York, Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne.
York helped to lead a portion of the Meuse-Argonnes Offensive, an operation that Mastriano said allowed Allied forces to clear the Argonnes Forest and advance on to breach the Hindenburg Line, one of Germany's major defensive positions during the war.
During part of the offensive on Oct. 8, 1918, York was able to move behind German lines and capture the headquarters of a German unit. Along the way, Mastriano said York captured 132 German soldiers and killed about 25 enemy soldiers.
Mastriano said York's actions of more than 90 years ago are a prime example of the principles of mission command that are taught currently.
"In today's Army, we talk a lot about mission command and equipping Soldiers with the ability to seize the initiative ... and equipping them with the knowledge and skills to get the job done even when everything goes awry and falls apart," Mastriano said.
"On this day in October 1918, for Alvin York's battalion, things fell apart. ... It was York and 16 other Americans that were able to break through the German lines and surprise and capture German headquarters. ... Truly, this is an example of mission command. Here's a Soldier who used personal initiative to stop his unit from being defeated, to save his fellow Soldiers and to make the difference this day in France for the American Army."
York, then a corporal, was hailed as a war hero and eventually received the Medal of Honor.
While researching York, Mastriano also learned extensively about York's Christian faith, a faith that Mastriano said nearly kept York from serving.
According to Mastriano, York had misgivings over whether his religious beliefs would allow him to kill while in the Army. However, it was the efforts of York's company commander, Capt. Edward Danforth, and battalion commander, Maj. Gonzalo Buxton, that led to York eventually reconciling his faith with his duties as a Soldier.
"(York's) company commander and battalion commander heard about his concerns and saw he was an outstanding Soldier," Mastriano said. "They spent time speaking to him through the Bible about his concerns about killing and serving a nation. In the end, York wasn't convinced that he could kill for his country, but he knew he could die for his country and that was enough for him to go to France.
"How do we get to this aspect of the York story where we killed 25 Germans and captured 132? When he looked around that battlefield, he saw his best friend killed by a German machine gun. ... It destroyed his friend and killed several other Americans that he knew. ... He said to himself, 'I have to stop this.' ... That's when he charged up the hill toward the machine gun and history changed."
While Mastriano said there are numerous elements of York's story that Soldiers should seek to emulate, he said Danforth and Buxton also should be role models for future leaders.
"Let's take time to mentor our Soldiers and to speak to them about their concerns," Mastriano said. "If they have a moral dilemma that's keeping them from being all they can be in the Army, let's talk them through those concerns and take time to contemplate with them their issues and struggles."