Shirreff discusses generalship with West Point Class of 2013
March 7, 2012
WEST POINT, N.Y. (March 7, 2012) -- Understanding the demands of generalship requires a firm grasp on the nature of war. This was a theme Gen. Sir Richard Shirreff, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, presented to the Class of 2013 March 5 at Robinson Auditorium.
"Rather than a neat, linear spectrum of conflict with state-on-state warfighting on one end and peacekeeping on the other, what we see today--and are likely to continue to see in the future--is a kaleidoscope of conventional and irregular warfighting," he said. "Together with terrorism, insurgency, criminal and cyber-activity are all part of a dynamic and hybrid combination ... a patchwork of high-tech combat operations and more protracted stabilization operations, in some cases involving fighting of an intensity not seen for some 60 years."
This sort of irregular or asymmetrical warfare is not new, Shirreff said. Rudyard Kipling captured it a century ago in the poem "Arithmetic on the Frontier" about a skirmish between a young cavalry officer and Pashtun tribesman. What has changed, he said, is this is now a joint civil-military venture that demands a different approach to command at all levels of war. There can be no purely military solutions today and security cannot be achieved solely on applying military force.
"Rather, success depends on the closest possible integration between the military and non-military actors on the stage if unity of purpose is to be achieved," Shirreff said. "[That] depends on the right command and control."
This complex hybrid-kaleidoscope of fighting seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is likely to remain the defining characteristic of 21st century warfare, Shirreff added. The essence of command, leadership and strategy is timeless, but the circumstances and conditions in which these professional skills are deployed are infinite.
"It's about getting the right capabilities to the right place at the right time to deliver the right effect," he said. "This means understanding the problem, mission and constraints."
The complexity of 21st century conflict requires commanders to be equipped intellectually and conceptually in the battlefield.
"As fighters, they must be capable of synchronizing both traditional and new combined arms capabilities, and apply force with precision," he said. "Our commanders must be trained to navigate through chaos, and have the ability and agility to operate alongside civilian agencies of all types, coalition partners and a host nation with sovereign authority ... all of whom will be running different agendas. Our ethos must be to expect chaos and be unphased by it."
On the essence of soldiering and generalship, Shirreff said it demands people who dare to do great things without fear of failure.
"At the end of the day, the profession of arms is about being that man or woman in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood ... the doer of deeds," he said, quoting President Theodore Roosevelt.
Decision-making is at the core of high command, he said, and a leader's judgment does not presume infallibility.
"Perhaps we can take some comfort from Frederick the Great's comment, 'the perfect general, like Plato's Republic, is a figment of the imagination,'" Shirreff said. "Generals need education and training just as much as platoon commanders if they're to get it right on the day. High command entails the willingness to educate and train oneself before one can presume to make decision which may have a profound impact on the lives of others."
Answering questions from the audience, one cadet asked for Shirreff's perspective on the effectiveness of American and British officer training programs in preparing leaders for multinational operating environments.
Shirreff said he is certain from the challenges of operating on two fronts over the last decade has shown unequivocally that the training delivers significant results.
"Your Soldiers are commanded superbly by young American officers on the front lines and in the sharp end in Afghanistan, and I've seen it myself," Shirreff said. "We come from clearly different military cultures and I think that highlights the importance of going with the grain; that's not to say we can't exchange ideas and apply best practices, other ways of doing business and learn from each other. I think that's an area we always want to keep active in our minds."
The occasion for Shirreff's address was the 65th annual Kermit Roosevelt Lecture Series, named in honor of the explorer, writer and soldier who served both British and American armies during World War I and WWII.
"The bond between the United States of America and the United Kingdom is extraordinarily strong and has been for so many, many years," West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. David H. Huntoon said in his introduction of Shireff. "But it has never been stronger than in the past decade because of the astonishing service and sacrifice of both of these armies in the campaigns of the Middle East."