The Differences in Military's 'Command Culture'
Jörg Muth’s Command Culture (University of North Texas Press, 2013) is an insightful study that compares the shortfalls and strengths of the U.S. Army officer corps to that of the German Armed Forces. In developing his comparison of the leadership cadre in both services, Muth focuses his attention on the first half of the 20th century (1901 through 1940, specifically), investigating the respective services’ selection and education systems and evaluating their efficacy through the battlefield consequences of World War II. To summarize his project’s intent, Muth writes, “Command culture is in this study is to be understood as how an officer considers himself in command, i.e., does he command as a visible person close to the action or rather through orders by his staff from his command post?”
In very direct language, Muth ties together historical documents, memoirs from past field grade and general officers and personal interviews to paint a picture of of American military education through two schools: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (USMA), as well as the more intermediate Command and General Staff School (CGSS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. From the outset of WWI in 1914 through 1940, West Point graduates – though approximately 1.5 percent of total personnel in the U.S. officer corps – held up to 74 percent of the 480 general officer billets. A professionally educated and trained corps by any estimation.
In contrast, on the German side, Muth reveals a militaristic society that started officer training as young as 10 years-old in Voranstalten (preliminary institutes) through Kadettenschule (cadet schools), finally comparing the Kriegschule (war school) with its U.S. equivalent, the CGSS. The point of Muth’s analysis is clear: Despite an American officer corps rooted in the respected tradition of its national military academy, Germany had built a system that was both longer in duration and likely more effective in its ability to indoctrinate youth in the profession of arms.
In the United States, early-20th century army officers were influenced by the Prussian officer corps’ institutional paradigm. However, according to Muth, it quickly becomes apparent that U.S. schools missed the mark. Muth asserts that U.S. military schools copied the institutional and material aspects, but failed to copy the spirit and educational processes upon which good officers were made. The U.S. schools focused on military science – uniformity, discipline, strict obedience to chain-of-command – at the expense of operational art. Contrarily, German officers were taught to be aggressive, creative, out-of-the box thinkers and doctrinal rule-breakers. German students were taught auftragstaktik; or, what today’s military interprets as ‘mission-type’ orders.
Furthermore, in Muth’s study, the U.S. Army is faulted for being too rigid in its decision-making, and too reliant on senior decision-makers to dictate tactical orders to in-the-field commanders. In his view, executive leaders who do not entrust their junior officers to make decisions limit their units’ combat effectiveness.
According to Muth, USMA taught and emphasized academics and tolerated vicious hazing; however, its graduates were wholly unprepared for the practical world of military leadership. Unfortunately, top-level commanders – many educated at the Academy – relied on and left it to such military institutions to teach officers the intricacies of command culture. Doctrine was king; creative deviations in the school house or on the battlefield were not encouraged. Although Muth cites the abilities of some extraordinary leaders, such as Gen. George Marshall, to correct junior officer deficiencies, it would take years and many combat losses for the U.S. military education system to adapt its system.
The Germans’ invested more time and effort into their junior officers, instilling them with more responsibility at the early stages in the officers’ careers, according to Muth. This technique led to better leadership, while helping to achieve consistent victories at the tactical level of combat. Ultimately, in Muth’s estimation, a series of catastrophic strategic failures on behalf of Germany’s senior commanders contributed to their failure and ruin in World Wars I and II.
What is the modern-day value of Muth’s study of early 20th century military officership? Well, he calls considerable attention to what remain problem-areas for our modern-day Army: over-reliance on doctrine; tactical-level commanders hamstrung by senior decision-makers’ centralized control of the battlespace; and emphasis on military science at the expense of operational art. For these reasons alone, Command Culture is a compelling work of institutional analysis and a useful reference for today’s military leaders.
Daniel J. Bergen is a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. He has served in multiple intelligence and infantry billets, including operational deployments to western Europe, Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.