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.”

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