Wednesday, August 1, 2012

General Wavell Speaking Generally on Generals

My library includes titles on the general subjects of war, warfare, military science, the art of war, strategy, tactics, leadership, and the art of command, among related subjects. The arts of leadership, command, generalship are a long time study, for professional and personal interest. I have had the pleasure of knowing and even working for a few leaders over the years, but it is a rare pleasure and most of the time the best you can hope for is a boss who at least grasps the concepts of good management.

I was delighted last year to add a slim little 63 page paperback to my library. This was the Penguin Special paperback edition (1941) of General Archibald Wavell’s three lectures on Generals and Generalship. This wartime edition looks great among the other paperbacks of similar vintage that I place on display to support my portrayal of a somewhat overage British Army captain during World War II.

Field Marshal Archibald Percival Wavell was certainly someone in a position to write knowledgeably on the subject, having by 1941 spent almost 40 years as an officer - first in his regiment, The Black Watch, and then in higher command positions. These lectures were first given at the Royal United Services Institution beginning in 1936 and, as presented in this volume, were delivered at Cambridge in early 1939.

Wavell admits that in preparing for these lectures, he sought out what all of the great captains and military thinkers had said on the subject and yet found only one that he thought worth sharing, from Socrates, which appealed to his own views about a general’s need to be practical, energetic, and adaptable.

“The general must know how to get his men their rations and every other kind of stores needed for war. He must have imagination to originate plans, practical sense and energy to carry them through. He must be observant, untiring, shrewd; kindly and cruel; simple and crafty; a watchman and a robber; lavish and miserly’ generous and stingy; rash and conservative. All these and many other qualities, natural and acquired, he must have. He should also, as a matter of course, know his tactics; for a disorderly mob is no more an army that a heap of building material is a house.”

The future Field Marshal rather diminishes the importance of physical characteristics that might be desirable in a general, but did identify the essential moral qualities (which he clearly rated as more important):

• Character – in “that he knows what he wants and has the courage and determination to get it.”

• A genuine interest in and real knowledge of humanity, which is “the raw material” of his trade in the form of the officers and men under his command.

• Fighting spirit – i.e., the will to win.

• A spirit of adventure, a touch of the gambler – citing Napoleon, “If the art of war consisted merely in not taking risks glory would be at the mercy of very mediocre talent,” for “the general who allows himself to be bound and hampered by regulations [in waging war] is unlikely to win a battle.”

With regard to intellectual or mental qualities, Wavell emphasized the need to have a sense of what is possible to do in battle, especially with regard to the administrative and logistical aspects of warfare. He noted that the lack of this sense was where most critics of warfare and of generals (as well as most generals who fail) go wrong.

Wavell offered two simple rules for every general:

1) never try to do your own staff work, and

2) never let your staff get between you and your troops.

A general should also know his subordinate commanders and their key characteristics – does one need to be restrained and perhaps another pushed, which of them can be used effectively and decisively in an independent role?

He also discussed whether, and how, a general should address the troops under his command, including whether he should do so collectively or individually. In either situation, Wavell noted, each officer will have to find his own way and manner of doing either but always risks leaving behind an impression other than the one sought. He also notes that a certain of show of temper is not automatically received unfavorably but that sarcasm is “always resented and seldom forgiven.”

Having worked for superiors at various times who used sarcasm, I agree completely with Wavell’s elaboration that “sarcasm…is being clever at someone else’s expense” but believe he might have gone even further to note that a superior thus exercising his (or her) sarcasm upon a subordinate is in reality simply abusing their position of authority and targeting someone who has no recourse or response other than to stay silent and “take it” – but they will remember and resent that moment.

The General concluded his final lecture with a last admonition. He called to mind “the pious Greek” who erected altars to all the known great gods and then added one more, enscribing it “To the Unknown God.” Wavell asked that we add one further military altar to those already erected to Hannibal, Marlborough, Napoleon, et al, and upon this one enscribe “To the Unknown Leader” – understanding this to mean the “good company, platoon, or section leader who carries forward his men or holds his post, and often falls unknown.”