Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hold the Highest Ground

Every student of military history is familiar with the ancient adage “Hold the high ground.” The high ground offers better visibility over the battlefield. Defending on the high ground forces your opponent to make the tiring upwards climb to get at you, which can open gaps in his ranks that you can exploit. It offers the opportunity to place a part of your force where your opponent cannot see it, concealing your real total strength. The U.S. Air Force has long claimed a critical role for itself within the American armed forces based upon its possession of the ultimate high ground, the air over the battlefield. I am convinced that a battlefield also possesses a moral high ground that offers real strength and advantages to the force that holds it. The moral high ground is highly desirable and not to be lightly yielded to an enemy.

As human beings evolved and began living as members of a larger society that was but one among many societies, violence amongst this population evolved into war and warfare. But even at this stage of civilization’s development, it was understood that war meant killing and that unlicensed lethal violence could mean the death of that society. Consequently, society surrounded its warriors with rules and rituals that embody an unwritten contract between society at large and the warriors or soldiers who fight that society’s wars, often reinforced by the invocation of a higher power or Supreme Being worshiped by that society.

This unwritten contract allows chosen individuals to break the most basic rule against taking a human life when they act in the defense of that society and grants them continued full membership in that society without prejudice as long as they abide by the terms of this contract. The visible manifestations of the contract are the rituals with which we surround our warriors – today our soldiers – and the sacred places dedicated for their burial and even their veneration. In more practical terms, it is manifest in the benefits granted beyond simple salary and in the recognition regularly accorded to them and their families in our daily public life. Thus, the contract serves multiple purposes – it protects society’s members from violence, it protects the individual warrior’s place within that society by sanctioning acts of violence committed on behalf of that society, and it ensures that the warrior who fights in battle consistent with society’s rules and rituals will retain the support of the society being defended.

But the existence of such contracts also empower society to hold other societies responsible for the behavior of its warriors on the battlefield, just as it charges each society with responsibility for the behavior of its own warriors. Each society may seek redress for behaviors not consistent with the accepted practices of war, whether set down in custom or written agreement or law.

History shows, and societies long ago learned, that over a long enough period of time battle coarsens and desensitizes warriors to things that would be unacceptable in the civil society they are defending. This goes beyond the mere physical discomforts to the individual’s very interactions with and responses to death, whether of comrades or enemies. This desensitization could well be a survival mechanism, the body and mind’s attempt to preserve the individual’s mental well-being in the face of the extreme experiences of battle.

Thus, society’s contract with its warriors includes the stricture that their battlefield behavior will not embarrass, dishonor, or shame the society for which they fight or themselves as warriors. This stricture protects society in its interactions with other societies and protects it from warriors whose battlefield behavior has so greatly exceeded the limits of what is acceptable as to render them unable, in society’s eyes, to readjust to the limits and norms of civil society. The non-warrior members of society are not only empowered with but entrusted with the responsibility for declaring when warrior behavior exceeds acceptable norms – it’s in the contract.

It’s a contract that protects society from the violence that is a necessary part of war and holds all members of that society to the prohibitions against killing that help preserve society. It’s a contract that binds together society and its warriors and ensures the warrior’s place in that society once the war is over. It’s a contract that supports the warrior’s ability to return from the war with honor and accept again the constraints of life within society. It’s a contract that ensures that the warriors’ actions in battle will not dishonor or shame society or prevent it from the fullest exchange of goods, people, and ideas that are an essential element of modern civilization. And it’s a contract that, when honored, will enable the warrior to hold the highest ground on the battlefield – and in society – the moral high ground.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Burden of Command

“General, soldiering has one great trap: to be a good soldier you must love the army. To be a good commander, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. We do not fear our own death you and I. But there comes a time... We are never quite prepared for so many to die. Oh, we do expect the occasional empty chair. A salute to fallen comrades. But this war goes on and on and the men die and the price gets ever higher. We are prepared to lose some of us, but we are never prepared to lose all of us. And there is the great trap General. When you attack, you must hold nothing back. You must commit yourself totally.”

Michael Shaara wrote the above speech in its original form for General Robert E. Lee speaking to General Longstreet in his novel “The Killer Angels.” The above version is the way it was rewritten for the film “Gettysburg” based upon Shaara’s book. In both book and film, Lee goes on to tell Longstreet that he must not expose himself too dangerously in the coming battle because of his (Longstreet’s) importance to the army.

This speech came to mind as I was finishing William Philpott’s brilliant “Three Armies on the Somme, The First Battle of the Twentieth Century” after recently read several First World War memoirs by junior officers (Robert Graves, Guy Chapman, Siegfried Sassoon, among others). The First World War marked an extreme between the way the soldiers and their generals experienced war.

Veterans of combat, if and when they are willing to speak honestly about it, will generally tell you that ‘combat is a bitch.’ If you look at previous wars, in fact, you will find many generals offering rather similar sentiments that reflected how much more closely their combat experience echoed that of the private soldier. The day after his “near-run” victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington wrote to Lady Frances Shelly, “I hope to God I have fought my last battle. It is a bad thing to be always fighting. While in the thick of it I am too much occupied to feel anything; but it is wretched just after. It is quite impossible to think of glory.” Robert E. Lee reportedly spoke in similar spirit to General Longstreet in the aftermath of the Confederate lopsided victory at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, “It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it.”

Long after their experiences in the American Civil War, commanders on both sides would make similar statements. General Sherman told a Columbus, Ohio audience in 1880, that “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” Confederate partisan leader John Singleton Mosby would write in his memoirs, “War loses a great deal of its romance after a soldier has seen his first battle.”

The truth that the individual soldier fights more for those around him than for any higher cause is today so widely accepted as to have become a Hollywood movie cliché (and in the process proving again that even clichés often conceal a hard truth). The physical and emotional toll of close combat is heavy and post-traumatic stress syndrome is not a new phenomenon, though soldiers of earlier wars might have referred instead to battle fatigue, battle-happy, cannon fever, chicken-heart disease, combat-happy, gangplank fever, or shell-shock, among other labels used.

The commander, however, even during the time of Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Wellington, Lee, and Grant, fights with his mind far more than with his body and individual weapons. The old pre-Nazi German army was aware of this and several senior officers offered the following commentary, though I came across it as from General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord who reportedly wrote in 1933:

“I divide officers into four classes – the clever, the lazy, the stupid, and the industrious. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the high staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy is fit for the very highest command. He has the temperament and the requisite nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be removed immediately.”

Notice the idea that the commander, the decision-maker, must remain calm and contrast this with the battle experience of the individual soldier who often fights with emotion or even passion when the nature of the battle demands it. In the film, “Gettysburg” it is Lee who gives in to his emotions in making his fateful decisions while the frustrated Longstreet finds that his cooler rationality cannot persuade Lee to act differently – and disaster results just as it did in the actual battle. Here, Hollywood and Michael Shaara have reflected if not fully embraced the idea that an army commander needs to avoid making decisions based upon emotion rather than cold, hard truths.

What remains to be addressed here is the further truth that while the commander needs to remain cool and collected, as a leader of soldiers he also needs to be aware of, to connect with, and even to tap that emotion found in those soldiers. That leadership role requires a connection at the personnel level, and that requires a commander who can still find his/her emotions and harness them (because as in the old joke, “it’s all about sincerity, once you can fake that you’ve got it made). I am certain that in the face of the compound strains of maintaining a cool head for command decisions and supporting the soldiers’ morale via that important emotional bond, many commanders must silently echo the wishes of Lt. Gonville Bromhead in the film “Zulu” who as he watched the approaching Zulu, said, “Right now I wish I were a damned ranker.”