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The Perfect Officer

Monday, August 1, 2011

Military establishments cherish heroes that confirm their self-image, and as the embodiment of British cool, Sir John Moore has few rivals: Described by his biographer Carola Oman as an Achilles without the heel, Moore was one of Britain’s most accomplished commanders during the Napoleonic wars, and he has a timeless quality about him. Having risen in the army ranks due to ability rather than wealth, he served in the hotspots of the war against the French: in the West Indies, in Egypt, in Sicily, and on the Iberian Peninsula.

With his direct and unaffected manner, he was the very opposite of a show-off like the navy’s Sir Sydney Smith, who had blocked Napoleon’s advance at Acre and who was busy promoting himself as a second Nelson. Reporting home on the battle of Alexandria, Smith turned up at the Admiralty decked out in a Turkish outfit, complete with turban, shawl, and two pistols in his girdle. Smith was long on daring, but short on judgment. Moore had both. Needless to say, the two of them did not get along.

In the British effort to drive the French out of Egypt, where Napoleon had left his army to fend for itself after Nelson had destroyed the French fleet in Abukir Bay, General Moore was sent to coordinate with the Ottoman army in Jaffa; his equanimity was deemed to have a calming effect on the volatile Orientals.

Not only could Moore fight. He also had a reputation as a trainer of men, established as commander on the Kentish coast.

In the ensuing battle of Alexandria, the reserve under Moore bore the brunt of the French onslaught and stood firm despite running out of ammunition, confirming Moore’s image as “a man impossible to alarm.” The surrender of the garrisons of Cairo and Alexandria marked the definitive end of the French adventure in Egypt.

Not only could Moore fight. His reputation as a trainer of men was established as commander of the Light Brigade at Shorncliffe Camp on the Kentish coast, whence he directed defense preparations against the force Napoleon had assembled across the Channel during the 1803-1805 invasion scare. Moore did not share the enthusiasm for Prussian tactics shown by Sir David Dundas, the army’s adjutant-general, whose drill manual boiled the Prussian method down to eighteen maneuvers, to which Moore referred dismissively as those “damned eighteen maneuvers”: Prussian precision maneuvers might look fine on the parade ground, but on the battlefield, they were outdated.

What Moore sought, he noted, was “not a new drill, but a new discipline, a new spirit that should make of the whole a living organism to replace a mechanical instrument.” Thus the much looser light infantry tactics that became known as “Sir John Moore’s system” required “not so much men of stature as it requires them to be intelligent, hardy and active.” The point was to “encourage to the utmost the initiative of the individual, treating soldiers as men and not as machines.” A well-read and humane man, he was sparing in his use of the lash. Of the 52nd, “there is not a better regiment and there is none where there is less punishment,” he proudly noted.

What was to be his final assignment was with the British expeditionary force on the Iberian Peninsula, an ill-planned and ill-led venture. Moore had to take over after its commander was recalled. The efforts of the Spanish allies had collapsed, but in a daring move, designed to lure Napoleon north, Moore attacked his line of communication, forcing the French emperor to move against him personally, but managing to give him the slip. In disgust Napoleon left it to Marshal Soult to take over the chase.

A retreat is considered the most depressing maneuver a commander can undertake. After untold sufferings in the Spanish winter and casualties of 3,000 dead and 500 wounded that had to be left behind, Moore managed to get his force into position to be extracted by the navy. But first they had to make a stand to beat off their French pursuers, which they successfully did in the battle of Corunna. Moore, however, was among the casualties. A French cannonball smashed his shoulder, and he was buried in his cloak in one of the bastions.

Moore’s death was mourned in Britain like Wolfe’s before Quebec. His diversion had upset Napoleon’s schemes in Spain and a planned thrust against Portugal. Wellington paid tribute to Moore after Waterloo for having saved the British army, allowing it to fight another day, much like Dunkirk in our own time. Throughout the conflict, he had kept promoting Moore’s protégés.

As a result of Moore’s system, which stressed the effectiveness of aimed fire, the French suffered great losses, particularly among officers: “The English were the only troops who were perfectly practiced in the use of small arms whence their firing was much more accurate than that of any other infantry,” a Frenchman wrote. Another grumbled about the killing power of the rifle: “It was an unsuitable weapon for the French soldier, and would only have suited phlegmatic, patient assassins.”

An officer’s work

Of all the jobs in the world, then as now, the wartime officer’s is the most dangerous and demanding, physically and emotionally. It is his job to order men to do something they would rather not, i.e., expose themselves to mortal danger. He must care about his subordinates, yet he cannot afford to identify too closely with them individually, as the mission always comes first. In return, the men need to know that he will not expend their lives frivolously. Needless to say, and as John Moore’s example starkly demonstrates, he must be willing to lay down his own life.

On the plus side, as Moore’s career also illustrates, the job can also be one of the most challenging intellectually. Clausewitz, distilling the lessons of the Napoleonic wars in On War, pointed out that “In war, everything is simple, but the most simple thing is difficult to perform,” since the other side gets a say, too. Thus Clausewitz wished to “expose the error in believing that a mere bravo without intellect can make himself distinguished in war.” The German army’s manual from 1936, Truppenfuhrung, goes further: “War is an art, a free creative activity resting on scientific foundations. It makes the highest demands on a man’s entire personality.”

Among the characteristics required in a successful commander are imagination, intuition, and an ability to improvise, all qualities associated with a free and independent mind. The commanders we revere are invariably the ones who have broken the rules. Thus, Nelson spoke of the need for an officer to use his head when given an order that runs counter to the overall mission: “To serve my king, and to destroy the French, I consider the great order of all, from which the little ones spring; and if one of these little orders militate against it (for who can tell exactly at a distance?) I go back and obey the great order and object.” Of course, this is not without risk, as a penchant for ignoring orders is generally not encouraged in the armed forces.

What further characterizes a great commander is the ability to keep calm under stressful circumstances, the ability to tune out irrelevant information and to keep functioning when things go wrong. It was famously remarked about Napoleon’s Marshal Massena that his mental faculties redoubled amid the roar of the cannon.

Superior generalship explains why Napoleon’s armies for so long could terrify the rest of Europe, and why the resource-poor South in the American Civil War held out against the industrial North for four years before finally surrendering. The same goes for the Wehrmacht’s performance in World War II; it took the Allies five-and-a-half years to smash the German Juggernaut. Fortunately, as the war progressed, Hitler’s constant interventions and overrulings of his generals ended up being an Allied asset.

Counterinsurgency wars pose even greater demands in terms of creativity and adaptability. As Mark Moyar, a lecturer at the U.S. Marine Corps University, demonstrates in A Question of Command, good conventional commanders do not necessarily make good counterinsurgency commanders. In the Peninsular War, Napoleon’s marshals, Soult, Ney, and Massena, the finest conventional commanders of their day, had to fight both British and Spanish regular forces and merciless guerillas, and proved incapable of the task, showing for the first time that Napoleon was not invincible.

Similarly, notes Moyar, generals Grant and Sheridan had triumphed in their Civil War battles, but in the immediate post-Civil War years they proved themselves to be less than skillful in handling the South. Sheridan’s frustration comes through in his statement that if he “owned Hell and Texas, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.” Because of their mailed-fist approach to force and their lack of empathy for legitimate Reconstruction grievances, Moyar says, resentment kept seething among the Southern elites.

All of which highlights the crucial importance of officer selection, which according to Moyar should be a top priority. “The perfect officer” — as William Pitt once referred to John Moore — is clearly the elusive ideal every military organization strives for and wishes to produce: How have various armies set about the task, what are the obstacles, and how come there aren’t more of him around?  

When they falter

Back in the mid-1970s, the British psychologist Norman Dixon caused a stir with his book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by suggesting that generals be judged by the same criteria normally reserved for pilots and platoon commanders. He caused further heartburn by suggesting that those characteristics which are required in a war leader, i.e., an open mind and an ability to cope with uncertainty, tended to be the exact opposite of what he found among men tempted by an army career: These were often immature and insecure individuals drawn to the army’s offer of a well-ordered and controlled existence.

Thus, he viewed military organizations as conformist, anti-intellectual, and reactionary institutions, institutions “that attract and then reinforce the very characteristics that will prove antithetical to competent military performance.” He found it “ironic that one of the most conservative of professions should be called on to engage in activities that require the very obverse of conservative mental traits.”

In the Second Boer War, Generals Methuen and Buller foolishly ordered frontal attacks over open ground.

Dixon denied having any subversive intent. His purpose was not to mock the profession, but to study failure and its originators because the price of their mistakes can be so terrifyingly high. “For devotees of the military to take exception to the study of military incompetence is as unjustified as it would be for admirers of teeth to complain about a book on dental caries,” he wrote.

Whereupon he proceeded to reel off a massive list of hopeless commanders: General Braddock in the War of Independence ordering his troops not to hide behinds tress when ambushed by French-led Indians because seeking cover was an unprofessional and cowardly thing to do. Lord Elphinstone, who after the Kabul uprising naively accepted Afghan promises of free passage for his army out of the country and saw his entire force wiped out as a result. Or Lord Raglan, who with “moon faced complacency” let his troops rot in the Crimean winter for want of firewood, blankets, and greatcoats. In his whole life, Raglan had read only one book, The Count of Monte Cristo, which was of little use in the Crimea.

The American Civil War had already demonstrated that frontal attacks over open ground are a bad idea, but in the Second Boer War, we find Generals Methuen and Buller ordering them against Boer marksmen hiding in narrow trenches, with disastrous consequences. At Colenso, Buller had forbidden his own troops to dig trenches and foxholes on aesthetic grounds, as this would disturb the pleasant terrain and soil their uniforms. Lord Roberts, who replaced Buller as commander in chief, castigated his fellow officers for obsessing with order and regularity while neglecting to encourage individuality and imagination.

That the Brits had learned nothing from their experience against the Boers became obvious in World War I, where attacks across open country were still the order of the day. The set procedure adhered to by Field Marshal Haig, and never varied, consisted of a massive bombardment, followed by a brief pause, followed by the infantry attack. This allowed the German machine gunners just enough time to emerge from their dugouts and greet the oncoming infantry.

Despite a bad start, to Dixon, World War II represented a major advance in military competence and in the determination not to spend men’s lives frivolously: Still, the war afforded plenty of examples of cock-ups, such as the Norwegian campaign, the failure to acquire intelligence before the Ardennes offensive, or the ill-considered parachute drop at Arnhem. In the Far East, you had General Percival in Singapore refusing to order defensive measures against the coming Japanese onslaught, deeming them “bad for the morale of troops and civilians.”

If all this were just a question of lack of intelligence, if all those screwing up were idiots, the problem would be easier to address. Regrettably, they were not. A case like Percival is particularly interesting, notes Dixon, as Percival disproves the traditional “bloody fools theory”: The general was a sophisticated man and was considered a brilliant staff officer; yet he made a disastrous decision.

To build a better officer

Dixon is certainly right in stressing the need to subject the selection of commanders to close scrutiny. In what has become known as Von Manstein’s Matrix, German Marshall Erich von Manstein, in Lost Victories, breezily distinguishes between four kinds of military personality: “There are only four types of officer. First, there are the lazy, stupid ones. Leave them alone, they do no harm . . . Second, there are the hard-working intelligent ones. They make excellent staff officers, ensuring that every detail is properly considered. Third, there are the hard-working stupid ones. These people are a menace and must be fired at once. They create irrelevant work for everybody. Finally, there are the intelligent lazy ones. They are suited for the highest office,” i.e., suited for the top job since they are likely to choose the simplest solutions — and hence the easiest to translate into action on the battlefield — and they are good at delegating.

Of von Manstein’s four categories, the lethal combination is obviously the third, the stupid and hardworking officer. Not only will he create irrelevant work for others, but he is also likely to squander the lives of others to further his own ambition.

Dixon was also right in pointing out that military establishments have a track record of resistance to innovation and new ideas, and the people who represent them. As the Boer war correspondent A.G. Hales complained, “The English cling to old traditions like sand crabs cling to seaweed in storm time.”

Stellar examples cited include General J.F.C. Fuller, one of the British army’s most brilliant minds in the interwar years and a leading proponent of tank warfare whose career was ended in 1933 by a military establishment still emotionally attached to the horse. Captain Liddell Hart, whose essay Mechanization of the Army lost out in a military competition to an entry entitled Limitations of the Tank, suffered a similar fate. According to Liddell Hart, who became military correspondent for the Times of London, a good idea can only succeed if the man proposing it is willing to sacrifice himself.

What finally brought the brass around was the fact that the Germans had so enthusiastically embraced the tank and proved its worth in Poland and France. According to Dixon, it was “1941 before the British began to implement the lessons of 1916.” The same resistance is found in the navy, where innovations often have been introduced only because they had been successfully adopted by rival navies.

Mishandled potty training is of course a riveting subject, but as explanation of military failure it is so sweeping as to be useless.

In the past, the book notes, it has often taken great upheavals such as the French and the Russian Revolutions to open armies up to the innovative and ambitious. Napoleon was an obscure captain from Corsica, and many of his commanders came from modest backgrounds. The bustling, classless America that developed in the 19th century likewise encouraged talent. Generally, Dixon says, the most successful military organizations are those not encrusted in rituals and stuck in set ways of doing business, like the Boers of the old days, or the Israelis today.

So far, so good. But Dixon goes over the top when, after a tremendous buildup of trenchant analysis and amusing detail, he triumphantly concludes that since not all incompetent generals can be dismissed as stupid, instead what unites them is an authoritarian and obsessive personality, brought on by unhappy childhoods and dominant mothers; anal obsessiveness thus becomes the great unlocking secret to military failure.

Mishandled potty training is of course a riveting subject, but as a portent and explanation of military failure it is so sweeping as to be useless. What, for instance, is one to make of boy-man like T.E. Lawrence, who was as weird and immature as they come, requiring the occasional spanking to keep him happy, yet proved to be a highly successful commander in the desert? (Curiously, Dixon presents Lawrence as an example of an officer with an undamaged ego.) Or, as Eliot Cohen and John Gooch wonder in Military Misfortunes, where does this leave Douglas MacArthur, who demonstrated his brilliance in insisting on the Inchon landing over the objections of pretty much everyone else, but then totally misjudged the Chinese response when advancing up to the Yalu river: “Was he struck by a sudden attack of anal retentiveness between June and October 1950?” the authors ask acidly.

In analyzing failure, instead of operating with abstractions like “the military mind,” and automatically heaping all the blame on a single individual, Cohen and Gooch recommend also paying close attention to the organizational weaknesses of the armies that generals command. In addition, they introduce the notion of “complex failure,” involving “more than one kind of error,” and they demonstrate in their case studies how various factors interact to produce catastrophe. This model is especially useful in analyzing modern war, where responsibility no longer rests on one person, but is spread out over a great many people.

While in World War I, for instance, it is certainly true that Haig, French, and the rest had plenty of flaws, John Baynes in his book Morale argues that “the best answer to complaints about British generals is given by pointing out the inability of the ultra professional German high command and general staff to produce any better ideas.” Rather than the result of faulty potty training on the part of the commanders, the problem was that at that point in time, conditions favored the defense even more than usual. Command and control functions had not followed suit with weapons development, leaving the commander back in his chateau unable to exploit developments on the battlefield. The airplane was still in its infancy, and the tank came late in the game and was used incorrectly, piecemeal rather than in mass, and unaccompanied by infantry.

By succumbing to routine psychobabble, Dixon himself becomes a caricature, namely the caricature of the anally obsessed psychoanalyst, to whom the world consists entirely of permanently impaired potty performers.

The Germans

Dixon’s argument may have ended in caricature, but the classic problem, as he framed it, persists: How do you combine the need for obedience and discipline with the need for imaginative and independent thought? How does one overcome the boredom, inertia, and “inevitable leveling down effect” of large organizations, which tend to “encourage the mediocre, but cramp the gifted?”

As Dixon himself admits, military life does require rules, drill, and discipline: “Without it armies would cease to function.” War fighting is a team effort. If every officer were just to follow his own inclination, chaos would ensue. Moreover, deadly weaponry requires strict supervision, and make-work activities can be needed to keep soldiers occupied in dull periods. Drill is equally important for producing reflex responses in times of intense stress, where freezing up would be a natural reaction. At the start of World War I, for instance, the Germans were convinced the Brits had more machine guns than they actually had because of the speed with which the Tommys handled their bolt-action rifles. That kind of speed is only achieved by endless repetition.

Unfortunately for the rest of the world, among those who have best understood how to fuse these opposites was the German Wehrmacht in World War II. As British Field-Marshal Lord Carver has argued, contrary to whatever preconceptions one might have about the Prussians as rigid automatons, German commanders “generally left their subordinates a greater freedom of action than did most British commanders.” Or most American ones, one might add.

Thus Field Marshal von Manstein flatly states in Lost Victories, “the blind obedience of the Prussian is a myth.” Manstein’s leadership philosophy, as set out in his memoir, was that a commander define the goals clearly and unambiguously and deploy his forces accordingly, and then let his subordinates get on with it. Too-tight control means that initiative is lost and opportunity left unexploited. The commander should of course carefully monitor their performances and intervene if things develop in an unwanted direction.

The key element of fighting power is leadership. In screening for officers, the Germans looked at all-around personality.

The Israeli military analyst Martin van Creveld attributes the Wehrmacht’s frighteningly effective performance during World War II to its fighting power, or Kampfkraft, which he defines as “the sum total of mental qualities that makes armies fight.” As he notes in his book, Fighting Power, while weaponry and tactics undergo changes due to the advance of technology, the nature of fighting power remains constant. Thus, according to his equation, “within the limits of its size, the military worth of an army equals the quantity and quality of its equipment multiplied by its fighting power.”

Because of Germany’s limited resources and the risk of a two-front war, van Creveld writes that victory needed to be quick. Partly out of necessity, but partly deliberately, the Germans starved the army’s rear of talent and staked everything on the aggressiveness of its frontline officers, the production of which its whole system of rewards and promotions was geared toward. “It went for quality and quality was what it got. In this, without a doubt, lay the secret of its fighting power.”

The key element of fighting power is leadership. In screening for officer material, the German emphasis was on all-around personality, rather than on intelligence and education alone. Intelligence is important, but even more important is character. A man can be clever and a coward. Or he can be indecisive. What the Germans were looking for was determination, the individual’s willingness to assume responsibility, and his ability to handle adversity. Here van Creveld uses the German word: the officer had to be Krisenfest, “crisisproof,” i.e., steady in emergencies.

Those with the final say were the regimental commanders. They had a vested interest in making the right choice because, after having completed their training, the newly commissioned officers reported for duty in their original regiment. On a more advanced level, candidates for the general staff received part of their training at the front, since in the German view “war is the best teacher of war.” Unavoidably, this meant casualties, but the benefits of direct experience were thought to outweigh the downsides.

All efforts centered on fostering group cohesion. Here van Creveld cites the French 19th-century military theorist Ardant du Picq, according to whom four brave men who do not know each other are less likely to take on a lion than four less brave men who know each other well. Thus German regiments recruited locally, and close ties were maintained between training units and parent divisions, with officers being rotated between frontline duty and training units.

As important, each field division had its own replacement battalion, and replacements joined their units in marching battalions, often commanded by officers newly recovered from wounds and now returning to active duty; they never travelled alone. The Germans rotated whole units in and out of the front, not individuals. These were complicated ways of operating, van Creveld says, but they produced results.

 Creating a self-contained world, the system produced soldiers of great resilience, who fought on long after any hope of victory had evaporated. Van Creveld cites Colonel Trevor Dupuy’s findings: “On a man to man basis the German ground soldier inflicted casualties at about 50 percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops under all circumstances,” whether attacking or defending.

But it also made soldiers of the German Army indifferent to the outside and capable of committing atrocities that forever tainted its image. “So strong was the grip in which the organization held its personnel that the latter simply did not care where they fought, against whom or why.” Thus the point of his study of the German system, van Creveld notes, is not to advocate a return to outdated forms of organization or to boost the secret — or not so secret — admiration for the Wehrmacht found in some quarters. His dispassionate analysis aims solely at highlighting those universal and emulable aspects of the system which address the social and psychological needs of the frontline soldier.

The Americans

By comparison, the U.S. officer selection process was much more impersonal and centralized, and had more of an assembly line feel to it. Focusing less on fighting power, the U.S. trusted its huge industrial might to get the job done: Superior firepower would decide the outcome. Bringing this to bear, van Creveld says, was above all a triumph of logistics, and he cites the characterization of General Marshall as “the organizer of Victory.”

Thus, though U.S. regulations echoed the language of the German ones, speaking of initiative and imagination, the American emphasis, says van Creveld, was on scientific management. And while in determining officer potential, the Germans emphasized character and went to great lengths to consider the whole personality, the Americans relied on standardized tests and were chiefly concerned with intelligence. Once his training was over, the school commanders would never again see the officer, who was assigned wherever a vacancy existed.

There were good reasons for this way of going about things. The U.S. had not planned to go to war, which meant that its forces had to undergo a dramatic expansion. According to the book’s figures, U.S. Army ranks swelled from a small force of 243,000 officers and men to one of more than eight million; for its officer corps, this meant a 40-fold expansion. Thus the U.S. Army was basically an army of civilians in uniform with officers and men hurriedly thrown together from all parts of the country.

While from the administrative point of view the American approach was a perfectly logical way of proceeding, from the more intangible vantage of creating cohesion and producing quality it was less advantageous. A less experienced officer corps also meant that less could be left to the discretion of the individual officer, who required greater supervision and control from above. In its regulations, the U.S. was forced to use a much more prescriptive approach, spelling out in detail how to handle a wide variety of situations.

The American approach to its officers was perfectly logical but did not always create cohesion and produce quality.

Thus, rather than following Patton’s recipe for deep and daring thrusts, Eisenhower, mainly for alliance reasons, but also out of caution, chose the more workmanlike solution of advancing against Germany over a broad front, which required less skill on the part of the officers. This was a case of the limitations of the organization of which the commander found himself in charge deciding his approach.

Still, while much is explicable, van Creveld refuses to find any excuse for an inhuman and harmful system in which new replacements had to make their way alone to their units and were thrown into the battle lines without knowing a soul, an error that was repeated in Vietnam. And one in which rear echelon officers often would gain faster promotion than front line ones.

After the war, the U.S. Army asked the former German Chief of the General Staff Franz Halder to critique the U.S. effort and offer his suggestions for improvement. “Compared to the German concept of war, the American regulations display a repeated tendency to try and foresee situations and lay down modes of behavior in great detail,” he wrote. The problem in providing set procedures is that the officer’s responses become more predictable and thus vulnerable to countermeasures. Halder further advised that this sentence be included in U.S. Army instruction: “In war, the qualities of the character are more important than those of the intellect.”

Fortunately, for whatever faults one may find with the U.S. approach, it was good enough for the American soldier to win the war. “And not only did he win the war. He did so without assaulting, raping, and otherwise molesting too many people,” writes van Creveld. “Wherever he came, even within Germany itself, he was received with relief, or at any rate without fear. To him, no greater praise than this is conceivable.”

After World War II, as David Hackworth notes in About Face, his classic, primal-scream critique of American war leadership in Vietnam, the American Army took over a great many things from the Wehrmacht, from weapons systems all the way down to the uniform. “Somebody up there was definitely fascinated by the German war machine,” he writes. “It seemed that we copied virtually everything the Germans had to offer except their leadership and discipline techniques.”

Colonel Hackworth wrote, “Under Eisenhower, it was all management. Officers became managers.”

Colonel Hackworth was the embodiment of the American warrior spirit, a highly decorated officer who became disillusioned with conditions in the U.S. Army and retired amidst much controversy. But his analysis of what ailed the U.S. Army of his day remains among the most trenchant. In Korea, where he first saw fighting, America’s industrial and technological supremacy was, after the initial shock, enough to bring about a stalemate. And up through the 1950s, the trends towards what Hackworth describes as “impersonal, almost corporate army” were strengthened, designed for the big war in Europe. “Under Eisenhower, it was all management. Officers became managers.”

But that was not the kind of war the U.S. found itself facing in the 1960s. When things heated up in Vietnam, the old reliance on firepower did not work: “Vietnam was a war that was fought on platoon, company, and battalion levels, but very little time was devoted to individual and small unit training.” The U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning would only pay lip service to counterinsurgency, he writes: Instead, they derived all the wrong lessons from the stalemate in Korea and “made them the standard for Vietnam.” Hackworth describes the base camp mentality of Vietnam as “an outgrowth of the static days of the Korean war.”

“To win in Vietnam we need a Wingate, a Giap, Rommel or Jackson McNair type soldier,” he writes. “But I doubt if our present system will produce such individuals. They are abrasive, opinionated, undiplomatic, nonconformist and effective.” The Patton kind, he notes “would be invaluable in time of war, but is a disturbing element in time of peace.”

Instead, the U.S. had developed a conformist “zero defects” mentality, where the slightest admission of error was enough to derail an officer’s career. To satisfy the bureaucratic obsession with meaningless statistics and phony measurements of success such as the body count, number of bombs dropped, and sorties flown, officers were forced to lie to obtain promotion. If, as the German 1936 Truppenfuhrung manual put it, “a readiness to assume responsibility is the most important of all qualities of leadership,” this is not the best way to set about it.

The ratings inflation of the period meant “any attempt to evaluate even the best young officer objectively and realistically was in essence cutting his throat.” In this environment, the ones getting ahead were the bureaucrats in uniform, “the dancers and prancers” — Alexander Haig being a pet peeve — while the real fighters were sidelined. Hackworth cites an officer’s efficiency report: “Lieutenant Col. Gibson has strong emotional feelings and frequently expressed his opinion that a soldier’s duty is to fight. This attitude limits his value to the service, his desire for self improvement, and adversely affects his subordinates.”

The rotation system was intended to give as many officers as possible a taste of the command experience in a war zone.

Equally counterproductive was the rotation system, the purpose of which was to give as many officers as possible a taste of the command experience in a war zone. But the Company co’s tour was a mere three months, which meant that “just when he was getting the hang of it, he was yanked out,” Hackworth writes. “The practice of the constantly rotating company, battalion, and brigade commanders through Vietnam was not leading to an army with great depth in experienced battlefield leadership . . . but instead to the loss of more blood and more lives.”

At one point, Hackworth’s superior tells him to prepare for bigger things, to which Hackworth responds: “I am not over here to prepare myself for bigger things. We are fighting a war. I want us to win. What bigger things are there?” This sentiment is echoed by a general quoted in Prodigal Soldiers, James Kitfield’s brilliant study of how the generation of officers coming out of the Vietnam debacle set about rebuilding America’s armed forces, “It was almost as if the services were using Vietnam to train officers for the next war, as opposed to fighting the one very much at hand.”

The rebirth of the U.S. Army as a professional army, as told by Kitfield and others, is a stirring story. Inspired by the old gi Bill after World War II, to attract bright officer material the army would pay for their education in exchange for a stint in uniform. A new doctrine was introduced, the AirLand Battle, which involved deep strikes behind enemy lines. New training facilities were created, offering ultra-realistic combat training that forced officers to confront their weaknesses and admit mistakes. The new slogan of the professional army was “Be all you can be,” presenting the army as an attractive career choice, not a last resort.

By the time of the Gulf War, the U.S. had built a superb conventional army. Norman Schwarzkopf’s imaginative plan, striking deep in the enemy’s rear, was brilliantly executed — except for the end, which was bungled because of the political decision to stop the war too early, which allowed the Republican Guards to escape.

In Round II, a decade later, the initial phase went beautifully, as Tommy Franks’s forces sliced through the Iraqi defense and resistance simply melted away. But when the war turned into an insurgency, a different mindset and a wider set of skills were needed, and army planners had to scramble to study the counterinsurgency lessons of Vietnam, which had been suppressed in the mistaken belief that the U.S. would never again become involved in this type of war. Here the urgent need was once more for the unconventional officer, and the same applied in Afghanistan with the resurgence of the Taliban.

All too often in the past, U.S. promotion boards have been dominated by conventional officers who block innovative thinkers.

“At the start of Afghanistan and Iraq, precious few American civilian or military leaders understood the leader centric nature of counterinsurgency,” writes Mark Moyar in A Question of Command. “Under the baking Afghan sun we are rediscovering, by way of pain, that the first determinants in war are human.” In unpleasant, faraway villages, the U.S. needed intuitive thinkers who understood the local dynamics, the intricate tribal patterns and customs, and could transmit this understanding to their men.

Colonel Michael Starz, quoted in David Cloud and Greg Jaffe’s The Fourth Star, has described the challenge posed by the alien universe of Iraq, where all normal moral laws have been suspended: “Loyalty is constantly shifting here and there is no moral component to it. It is so foreign to our way of thinking and it is hard to respect. But you have to remember it is a different way of looking at the world.”

Similarly, when engaged in urban fighting, the U.S. officer could not just use Stalingrad rules and waste everybody inside, as the Russians did in Chechnya. He had to work under complicated rules of engagement, constantly escalating and de-escalating, often risking the lives of himself and his troops in the process. And with the media on hand to second-guess his every move, he always had to consider the political side of his actions.

Which brings us back to the promotion process: All too often in the past, U.S. promotion boards have been dominated by conventional officers, blocking the advancement of innovative thinkers. Unfortunately, some of this still goes on. In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, Renny McPherson, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer, found it significant that that when Stanley McChrystal was fired as commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan for his injudicious comments, General Petraeus had to take a step down to take over, suggesting a scarcity of commanders with the requisite qualifications at the top.

While joint fighting is the name of the game, McPherson noted, crossing service lines is still not encouraged. McPherson based his piece on a longer article he co-wrote for Parameters, the U.S. Army War College journal, for which 37 high officers were interviewed: All of them praised the value of broader experience for today’s complex battlefield, such as attending joint schools, acquiring a Ph.D., working with civilian agencies, or serving with nato partners, but noted that these were regarded as career distractions. These officers, he wrote, “succeeded despite the military training priorities, not because of them.” “We don’t educate to be generals,” one complained. Because of frustration with the system, too many officers are leaving. In A Question of Command, Mark Moyar found it equally telling that in December 2007 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had General Petraeus flown back home to preside over the U.S. Army’s promotion board to make sure some of the clever and outspoken colonels from the war in Iraq got promoted to brigadier general.

The often-voiced objection that one cannot afford solely to concentrate on producing counterinsurgency officers but must also be prepared to fight a more conventional type of war Moyar meets head on: Today’s officer must be able to handle both conventional and asymmetrical warfare, he believes. And while good conventional commanders may not always prove themselves adept at handling counterinsurgency, “a good counterinsurgency leader will also be a good conventional leader.”

The trick then is to scatter such leaders in strategic positions throughout the organization, which will invariably lift its performance. Smart officers tend to pick smart disciples.

The Israelis

Of modern armies, the Israelis have managed to strike an effective balance between obeying orders and the need for independent thought. As David Ben-Gurion wrote in The Way and the Vision, “We need the spiritual advantage more than any other army in the world, because we are few.” Surrounded by neighbors intent on throwing them into the sea, the Israelis are fighting for survival, a powerful motivator: To limit casualties and international fallout, their wars must be won quickly and decisively. They need constantly to anticipate, as even a single defeat could spell catastrophe.

Formed in 1948, the core of the Israel Defense Forces’ (idf) officers came from the Palmach, the Haganah’s elite commando force during the British Mandate in Palestine. The idf fought the 1948 War of Independence, a war in which the officers’ task included leading Jewish newcomers straight off the boats into battle after a short weapons demonstration. Many had never touched a rifle before. The Israelis prevailed, but by the early 1950s, many officers had left the army, and Israel found itself ill-equipped to respond to the constant Fedayeen cross-border terrorist attacks.

The idf doctrine of taking the war to the enemy was established with the 1954 creation of the 101 elite unit, headed by Major Ariel Sharon, which world retaliate deep behind ceasefire lines against Egyptian positions in the Gaza strip and Palestinian targets in Jordan, and which reported directly to the General Staff. The aggressive spirit of the unit, which was merged with the paratroop brigade later that year, offered a model for the rest of the army. The result was seen in the Six Day War.

Culturally, the Israelis are programmed to argue, and this invariably translates into the army. From the very start, the Palmach had downplayed the value of discipline and hailed free spiritedness. Thus, Israeli soldiers do not salute their officers, and they address them by first name. In officers’ training, the emphasis is on initiative and self reliance; officers are encouraged to raise questions and suggest alternatives; however, once the discussion is over, they obey. As Moshe Dayan once put it, “I would rather harness ten wild horses than prod lazy mules.”

A fundamental difference between the U.S. and the Israeli system is that the IDF is a conscript army which relies on its reserves.

A fundamental difference between the U.S. and the Israeli system is that the idf is a conscript army which relies heavily on its reserves: Men serve for three years, women for 21 months; for the men follows 20 years in the reserves, usually with the same group they were conscripted with. While navy and air force applicants attend officer school directly, the idf chooses its officers among soldiers who are already in the service and have already been tested. Thus everybody in the idf starts out as a private, and those who show promise are encouraged to apply for officer school. When their training is finished, they return to their original units, which strengthens cohesion. It also means that every general knows from his own experience what war looks like from the private’s perspective.

As regards discipline, one should not be deceived by the informality. As an example of the Israeli notion of discipline Dixon mentions General Tal’s tightening up of the rules when taking over as commander of the armored corps in 1964, which he ordered not out of concern for discipline for its own sake, but for the entirely functional reason that a tanker had been killed in a training exercise due to not having followed the correct procedures in storing ammunition.

But as Dixon points out, even the best armies can become complacent and lose their sharpness. This was the case in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the Israelis were taken by surprise and faced near disaster before turning the situation around.

A bird’s-eye view of the war and of the breakdown is afforded by the memoir of retired air-force Brigadier General Iftach Spector, Loud and Clear. Having first fought in the Six Day War, Spector commanded a squadron of Phantom Orange Tails during the Yom Kippur War. In this war, the Israeli high command was badly surprised by new mobile sam 6 batteries which rendered its plans of attack useless: The Israelis lost 104 aircraft, almost all to anti-aircraft and Soviet missile defenses. Finding the high command in disarray, issuing contradictory and incoherent orders, Spector was forced to use his own judgment, in some instance aborting hopeless missions and finding other targets: “We knew how to improvise, and when all the rules were thrown in the trashcan and procedures torn up, the Orange Tails found ways to survive in the heart of danger and do our job.”

That the Israelis managed to turn things around was thus not due to the high command, nor to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who completely lost it, but to officers like Spector in the air and his idf colleagues on the ground, who knew how to take charge when the system failed.

Afterwards, retired General Chaim Herzog provided an in-depth analysis of what went wrong in The War of Atonement, including the acute intelligence failure. As for the battlefield lessons, while in World War II it had taken some thirteen attempts for a tank to wipe out its target at 1,500 meters, it now stood an even chance of accomplishing the task with a single shot; at the same time, guided antitank missiles had doubled the reach of an infantry man. Both developments had profound implications, also for future American doctrine.

A similar lack of preparation was found in the idf’s unimpressive performance in the Second Lebanon War, when, after a long period of police-type duty in Gaza and the West Bank, dealing with rock-throwers and suicide bombers, the idf was faced with Hezbollah, a wholly different animal, an Iranian-backed organization halfway between a militia and a more professional force, which had antitank weapons and thousands of rockets and mortars, and knew how to use them. This led to another round of intense self-examination and the development of new tactics; many weaknesses had been corrected in time for the 2008 Cast Lead operation against the Hamas terrorist regime in the Gaza.

As is the case with his American and British colleagues, the Israeli officer faces enemies who, realizing they cannot prevail in a conventional conflict, launch their attacks while hiding among the civilian population —a war crime. To further complicate matters, in Israeli civil society, one finds the same legalistic approach to war, the same collaboration between the media and the legal system as in the U.S.

Unavoidably, this debate affects the Israeli armed forces. Thus, Iftach Spector’s judgment failed him on the question of targeted killings in Gaza, when in 2003, he was the senior signatory of a statement by 28 veteran and active-duty pilots, who refused to hit targets in Gaza and on the West Bank.

On numerous occasions, the Israeli Air Force and the idf have refrained from hitting terrorist targets to avoid civilian casualties. But in some instances, where the target was deemed important enough, they have gone ahead. One such case was the 2004 killing of Sheikh Yassim, a founder of the Hamas; nine bystanders were killed. Another was that of Nizar Rayan, Yassim’s successor, who placed his whole family on the roof in the mistaken belief that the Israelis would not hit him during Cast Lead. In each instance, a careful assessment was made to determine whether the international outcry was worth enduring.

Today, Israeli officers ask why the targeted killing of Sheikh Yassim, a man who had ordered numerous suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, would produce international outrage, while there was general approval when Osama Bin Laden was killed. What exactly, they wonder, is the difference?  

Objectively, both idf and Israeli Air Force officers have shown themselves to be ultra careful in avoiding civilian casualties, as testified to by professionals such as Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander in chief of the British forces in Afghanistan, who noted that no army in human history had done more to reduce civilian suffering than the Israelis during Cast Lead in Gaza. Since then, to further reduce civilian distress in future wars, the Israelis now train a group of army officers to serve as humanitarian officers, to be attached as an organic part of the battalion and the brigade. This carries more weight than civilian outsiders.

Unfortunately, however careful the Israelis are, this is unlikely to help them, as proved by the un-sponsored Goldstone Report, which alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza during Cast Lead while passing lightly over Hamas methods. By the time Judge Richard Goldstone’s retractions came in the Washington Post, the damage had been done. In the court of “world opinion,” while Israel’s enemies are free to commit any atrocity, even the smallest accident is held against the Israelis. Under such conditions, even the perfect officer would come up short.