FORT BENNING, Ga., (March 18, 2015) -- According to Forbes, there are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 new books published each year in America. It's a wonder any of those assigned to our library shelves ever see the light of day or are dusted off and reconsidered.
There's something revitalizing about rereading a book, whether a novel or work of nonfiction. It's an opportunity to not only recall yourself when you last perused those pages, but an opportunity to discover how much you've changed as this old book offers new lessons and insights. Nothing could be truer than my recent experience with Martin van Creveld's Command in War.
Martin van Creveld is an Israeli military historian. He's authored many books, which ought to be on the professional Army officer's shelf to include Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, The Transformation of War as well as his own The Art of War. He served for a time as a visiting professor at the National War College.
Command in War is a field grade and flag officer book. It's a commander's book. I last read the book when I commanded my company in Iraq. Truthfully, I found it mildly interesting then and as I reread it, noticing the lack of annotations and underlining in the text (I treat reading like trench or siege warfare, I scratch my way through), it was apparent how little I gleaned.
Now as I leave several years of staff time and prepare for battalion command this spring, Command in War seemed like van Creveld wrote the book for me.
Command is perhaps the most critical and talked about function in the military. Command is about how one person in-charge and responsible makes timely decisions and achieves results.
The Army prepares officers for command with special courses and recently updated doctrine with its latest concept "mission command," which has the professional journals buzzing. What I haven't noticed in those journals and articles is reference to Command in War.
Writing in 1985, van Creveld organizes Command in War into several sections, which span recorded military history. He takes the reader from the "Stone Age" to Napoleon, Moltke, the trenches on the Somme, the Golan Heights and eventually the jungles of Vietnam.
Along the way, van Creveld beats repetitively three basic principles about successful command.
First, technology plays an essentially neutral role. This idea may shock those wedded to the current technologically dependant concept of modern warfare. The commanders van Creveld explores didn't fail or succeed because of technology, but because they either understood or failed to understand the limitations of their technology. Even through 1985, the biggest trend in warfare was an ever increasing amount of information available to commander and his staff.
Not all information is credible or useful, though, and so van Creveld notes in his second point the commander must organize his staff and command structure appropriately. The Army is doing this now due to sequestration, but van Creveld highlights two challenges. The increasing information and technology available corresponds to an increasing specialization of staff, which creates a prevailing tendency to centralize information and decisions. Successful commanders fight this tendency and decentralize as the Army's doctrine of mission command encourages.
The second challenge is the fight itself. The Army changed the modified tables of organization quite a bit in recent years, modularization for ARFORGEN and the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Van Creveld uses Vietnam as his penultimate chapter in order to explore a different aspect of warfare, counterinsurgency, as well as demonstrate that staff organizations must be attuned to the fight at hand. Like technology, there's no single answer for successful staff organization. There's no panacea.
Van Creveld drives home his third point that after understanding the limitations of technology and organizing the staff for the fight at hand, the successful commander ensures effective processes and procedures to facilitate that new organization.
The Army's Combined Training Centers really excel at exposing the strengths and weaknesses of our units and one of the keys is their evaluation of the unit's standard operating procedures. A unit leaves the CTCs having known whether they actually follow their SOPs and how to make them better.
None of the lessons briefly highlighted above struck me as vividly in 2004 when I first read Command in War. Re-reading the book through the lens of battalion, brigade, and Corps staff experience helped me understand what van Creveld was saying the whole time, but don't take my word for it.
Go to your shelf and find a book you haven't perused in a promotion or two. You'll be glad you did.