Adopting Mission Command
Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture
Donald E. Vandergriff
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2019, 328 pages
Book Review published on: January 3, 2020
In the U.S. Army, people have an unfortunate affection for buzzwords such as “sustainment,” “network-centric,” “military operations other than war (MOOTW),” “hearts and minds,” and “interagency.” This is not to say that these words and phrases are not important or do not have important meanings. Rather, the real depth of meaning is lost because some people use the buzzword carelessly: “sustainment” when one simply means “logistics,” “MOOTW” when one means “peacekeeping,” and “interagency” when one talks about “Department of Defense.” More often than not, the term “mission command” is used (or misused) in the same way.
Mission command is often conveyed as a new command relationship that perceives a senior commander as almost a bystander who makes pronouncements on what he or she wants the command to accomplish and who then expects the commanders of the subordinate units to figure out how to carry out the instructions. While mission command allows more leeway to subordinate commanders and possibly more creative solutions to battlefield problems, there is more to the concept than that. In the book Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture, Donald Vandergriff takes the time to trace the concept of mission command back to its roots and to lead readers to the term’s modern application.
According to Vandergriff, the origins of mission command can be traced back to its Prussian and German roots. Prussia, a small state by European standards, nevertheless developed a very effective army, bolstered by efficient drills and Frederick the Great’s experiences in battle. Frederick recognized the need for regimental commanders to have initiative rather than simply form a line of battle and blindly obey orders as to whether that line advances, holds, or retreats. The idea that subordinate commanders act on the senior commander’s behalf to accomplish the senior commander’s objectives was wedded to the principle that the leader on the ground best understood the true situation, and leaders of all echelons needed to provide an example for the soldiers to follow. With the formation of the Imperial German Army, this idea became Auftragstaktik, a system that built on Prussian military culture but that also emphasized rapid decision-making.
Contrast this with the U.S. Army’s development. Adopting Mission Command describes the Army as a product of the industrial age, with subordination of the individual soldier to the squad, the squad as part of the platoon, the platoon as part of the company, and so on until there is an army and all of its components. According to the author, each individual is trained on an assembly line to do the same specific job in the same specific way; each infantryman is interchangeable with every other infantryman, each artilleryman is interchangeable with every other artilleryman, and so on. In the machine age, men are built in the same way as tanks, guns, and trucks.
Leaders, also, have to be produced. Vandergriff argues that the officer education model used is inherently flawed because it is based on teaching a prewritten scenario with a definite “correct” answer. In real life, there are no prewritten scenarios; even as the Army tries to plan for contingencies, those contingencies never unfold exactly as planned. Also, there is no such thing as a single correct action. Given the same resources and understanding of the environment, one commander might come up with a solution to a problem that would be tackled in a completely different way by another commander. But it is not just about different solutions that meet the same objective; fixed solutions prevent truly great leaders from coming up with brilliant solutions. Cookie-cutter training results in officers who are training to the test, not training to beat a thinking, learning enemy.
Vandergriff does not simply bemoan the state of the U.S. Army’s officer training program. Instead, he points to recent initiatives to break outside of the box: adaptive course models to teach decision-making and combat applications training courses to teach soldier skills. He also points to the need to move away from the term “instructor” and use the word “teacher.” The role of teacher should be assessed as an important one and given the same recognition as other military skills.
I was surprised to find no mention of the Mission Command Training Program or of the Mission Command Center of Excellence. In discussing the adoption of the principles of mission command, it would seem to be necessary to include the organizations that train and implement them. However, there is certainly much to think about in Adopting Mission Command, and I agree with many of the issues the author brought forth. For mission command to be a success, training must mesh with philosophy.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. James D. Crabtree, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas