X-Post: MiWSR: King on Vandergriff, "Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture"

Other than for political reasons, have been wondering for quite awhile why US mil would consider emulating Fascist German military as some superior form of military conduct and organization; especially so since US military defeated said vaunted forces practices and abilities.

There does seem a sort of disconnect. Any thoughts.
This Review was quite informative and the critique of the Author's work very much to the point.

Hello again Dr. Wyatt,

As always, it’s an honor to engage in conversation with you.

Let me attempt to answer your question as to why we should emulate *some* aspects of German military practice.

We must first specify that there are three distinct levels to the Art of War: tactics, operations, and strategy.

It is obvious to all that at the level of strategy, the Germans were bankrupt in both World Wars. They were insane to attempt what they attempted: taking on, in effect, almost the whole rest of the world put together, with a few allies who were more harm than help, and with the severely limited resource, industrial, and population base they had.

Where the Germans command admiration is at the tactical and operational levels. At 0300 hours on 22 June 1941, the German Army was among the best the world has ever seen at the tactical and operational levels of war. This statement is born out by their speedy and (almost) easy triumphs of the previous year in France and the Low Countries. This statement is borne out by one German victory after another in the tremendous encirclement battles of 1941. Yes, the Germans reached their culminating point before they could reach Moscow in the autumn of 1941 and before they could secure the Caucasus oil fields in the autumn of 1942. But these failings are in the realm of strategy where the Germans bankrupted themselves trying to reach strategic objectives that were beyond their logistical and material means.

The fresh Americans did not confront the German Army in a big way until 1943. By 1943, the German Army had already been in constant action since 1939 and was badly, badly attritted. By the end of 1943, the best and brightest of the German Army was already pushing up sunflowers in the Ukraine. The U.S. Army *never met* the German Army when the German Army was at the top of its game. By the autumn of 1944, the catastrophic losses in key junior small unit leaders the Germans suffered in Normandy and in Operation Bagration enabled the Americans to overtake and surpass the Germans at the tactical level. In the Bulge, American tactical performance was clearly superior to German tactical performance. But in the Bulge, a large part of the German infantry was composed of ill-trained, ill-led boys, ex-navy sailors, rear-echelon scrapings, and entire battalions of troops who shared common medical conditions. Their tank crews were hastily trained and ill-trained, due mostly to a crippling shortage of fuel with which to train. The Americans came into the war with hastily industrially machine-stamped junior officers and hastily industrially machine-stamped infantry divisions; quality was obviously sacrificed for hasty quantity. Where the Americans deserve praise is how quickly they learned—albeit the hard way at terrible cost—the art of tactics. It was by quickly learning the hard way at great cost that the rapidly improving Americans overtook and surpassed the rapidly deteriorating Germans at the tactical level of war.

If the German Army as it existed in the spring of 1941 could have met the U.S. Army as it existed in the spring of 1945, then *that* would have been a fair test of who was best at strictly the tactical and operational levels of war.

It is a tribute to the excellence of German tactics and operations that they came so hair’s breadth close to achieving their strategic objectives in both World Wars in spite of their strategic bankruptcy. It is a tribute to the excellence of their tactics and operations that they were able to drag out both World Wars so long, at such horrific cost to the Allies, in spite of their strategic bankruptcy.

In both World Wars, the Allies defeated the Germans by burying the Germans under mountains of vastly more natural resources to dig and drill out of the ground, mountains of vastly bigger and more numerous factories to build the implements of war, and mountains of vastly bigger populations with which to man mines, quarries, oil rigs, factories, armies, navies, and air forces. And mobilizing superior resources of all kinds to fight a war is an element of the strategic level of war at which I admitted at the outset the Germans were bankrupt.

If the U.S. goes to war with Russia or China either singly or in combination, guess what, the tremendous advantages in potential industrial, material, and population superiority we enjoyed in World War II will belong to the other side. Given that scary reality, our survival depends on us upping our tactical and operational game to an extremely high level.

So—we would do well to retain our traditional strategic superiority from World War II while simultaneously emulating the Germans in tactics and operations.

The fact that the tactically and operationally superb German Army fought for a horrible regime is totally irrelevant. We can still learn from them and we need to learn from them.

Let me sum up my long exegesis above as follows. The U.S. Army as it existed in December 1944 was superior at the tactical level of war to the German Army as it existed in December 1944. But the German Army as it existed in June 1941 was superior at the tactical level of war to the U.S. Army as it existed in December 1944. In June 1941, the German Army was arguably the best the world has ever seen at the tactical level of war. At the tactical level of war, the U.S. Army was at the top of its game in December 1944 while the German Army was at the top of its game in June 1941. I assert that the German Army at the top of its game was better than the U.S. Army at the top of its game at the *tactical level* of war. Therefore, the U.S. Army of 2020 would do well to emulate the German Army of 1941 at the *tactical level* of war. This is the point Vandergriff makes in his book. It is a point with which I agree.

I greatly, appreciate Stephen Richey's comment. Not only did he save me a lot of time drafting something along the same lines but he surely does it better than me. I concur with every single word.

Vandergriff in no place in the book advocates copying the Wehrmacht. This is about aspects of a superior command philosophy that should be carefully looked into and introduced and the book provides the ‘how’.
The review also revealed misunderstandings that King obviously has about Mission Command. These misunderstandings are one reason why it is so difficult to implement in today’s army.

The reviewer’s erroneous statement “but there is little evidence that the Wehrmacht practiced Mission Command as Vandergriff describes it any more systematically than the Allies” makes one wonder if the reviewer ever read the US Army intel reports of WWII or the AARs, letters and diaries from the Eastern Front written by German soldiers. Auftragstaktik was a daily occurrence on a multitude of levels practiced by hundreds of subordinates.

In the case of the Rommel example: It was Rommel’s prerogative overriding one of his regimental commanders because Rommel saw the situation differently. Rommel was on the spot and had a greater advantage of decision making than the regimental commander. The success of the 7th Panzerdisvion and Rommel’s command culture speak for themselves.
Auftragstaktik’s principle of freedom of action is to protect the frontline commander from staffs and superiors who do not see the battlefield, not from commanders who are present at the same space and time. Only a fraction of the allied commanders were ever where the bullets flew while it was common for most German generals up to the corps level.

Last but not least the reviewer hails the supposedly awesome fighting prowess of the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan while dozens of books have been written – by participants from lieutenants to generals - effectively challenging this narrative.

Vandergriff’s book does not suffer from the ideological ballast that often critiques bring to the table. It is a book for practitioners. More than 2000 years Ovid wrote “it is not dishonorable to learn from your enemies”. Vandergriff does nothing less but pointing out a way to do it.

Danke vielmals, Jorg.

So speculating about 1941 German Army vs 1944 US Army sounds like similar debate over 1977 Oakland Raiders vs 2020 Seattle Seahawks, i.e., of doubtful utility.

Rob Kirchubel

I think a case can be made that the US Army was, for a time, over-infatuated with the Wehrmacht. But I believe there were and are good and sound reasons to emulate successful practices, even from barbaric role models. In both world wars the Germans did much that was right from the operational and tactical warfighting perspectives. Their officers led from the front, where situational awareness was most readily available -- think of von Rundstedt, the Army Group Commander, standing next to Guderian at the vulnerable Meuse River bridge in May of 1940 as the latter's corps was crossing. They empowered leaders at every level, encouraging them to think for themselves and adjust their orders to the situation at hand. They relentlessly practiced ground truth lesson-learning and broad dissemination thereof. As you will learn from some of the recent scholarship on, e.g., the Norwegian campaign, while the Nazis may have been famously dysfunctional at higher command levels, at the lower levels soldiers, sailors and airmen cooperated instinctively, with little friction.

Nothing wrong with filtering out the successful operational/tactical practices from the mass of horrifying strategic error. I'm sure all this, back in the 80s and 90s, was totally unrelated to the helmet redesign.

Dear H-Warriors,

I have to say that I think we should be very cautious about this mystique surrounding the German army. I recently published an article showing that the military ideas of Frederick the Great – perhaps the most famous German general of them all – were actually inspired by French practice (https://academic.oup.com/gh/article-abstract/38/1/24/5560167). What we think of as the ‘German way of war’ was all taken from the generals of King Louis XIV.

Similarly, Marco Sigg, in his book on Auftragstaktik, noted that we need to look at international comparisons to see whether German practice really was so different, since other armed forces had similar expectations in their leadership doctrine.

We must try to avoid national stereotypes.

Adam Storring
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Always have concerns for emulation of an opponent who uses tactics outside the laws of war, if such laws can truly be said to be law. That nations uphold any law during war does indicate they are conscious at least of some boundries to conduct in operations and tactics.

This being observed just would suggest that one would wish those lessons learned from an opponent are the right ones, since at some point a distinction can and will be made between right and wrong both as values and practices.

As for the strategic level of thought, poor strategy might not it be always said is followed by those who lose rather than win ? How important is this question for the actual outcome to a history that recognizes both winners and losers ?
Germany in WW II, and have heard it said, strategy is for amateurs while tactics and logistics are for professionals, certainly might be an example of strategic amateurism IF you conclude Hitler was the strategist and not the German General Staff. But how important was political correctness to the General Staff for it to even be allowed to conduct the war; only if Hitler approved ? The US system from its 20th Century history, was to separate the political from the military, to allow for military decisions and this is a key point made by Eisenhower to determine conduct of war, not politics.

Welcome any and all such discussion including the comments made by Stephen.
One other point, that made regarding the Commander on the spot overruling the local Commander. True enough but the American system has been to allow field commands to exercise their own authority so long as within the overall plan and established strategy, This independence of thought and command was on display for example in the Kuwait-Gulf War and if not mistaken is one such America doctrinal and military practice considered essential and profoundly important to military successes.
Others could speak to this more completely and probably importantly.

If 1941 Germans were better than 1944 Amercans, let us wish we never have to find out the truth of that claim.

But Dr. Storring, the post-Napoleonic Prussian/German Army was a totally different creature from the pre-Napoleonic Prussian Army. While Frederick may have owed a lot to the generals of Louis XIV, can the same be said for Moltke and Guderian? And if one wants to say that the elder Moltke learned a lot from Napoleon, can the same be said for Guderian?

Major Richey, your point is well made, but I think the example of Frederick the Great should lead us in general to question whether some of the military practices that we have traditionally described as typically German really are “German”.

The concept of “short and lively wars” came from the writings of the Marquis de Feuquières, and Frederick experienced it in practice through France’s successful strategy in the 1733-5 War of the Polish Succession. Tactics of envelopment are of course as old as the hills (though they have often been described as typical of the German army), but Frederick learnt them from the Vicomte de Turenne.

As I say, these national stereotypes can be misleading.

Adam Storring

That's fascinating Dr. Storring, thank you.

The initial discussion was about Mission Command and not a complete'German Way of War'.
However, Rob Citino has written a whole well researched book about the later and it takes more than just an article to refute his thesis.

'Fritze and the French Connection' appears to be a vastly overstated thesis.

Louis had a whole bunch of generals but in Adam Storring's argumentation only a handful show up repeatedly and these are mainly the Viscount of Turenne and the Great Conde. They were both exceptions in the French army and among the French officer corps. Fritze was learning from them because they were good and not because they were French. Fritze had a great admiration for the French culture and wrote most of his books in the French language. That admiration though did not stretch to the French war culture and one must ask what did he not take from the French?
The Prussian regiments made of French immigrants were renamed and 'Prussianized'. The uniforms, coats and hats, - previous in French style - were cut in much shorter Prussian style and the musket barrels were shortened also. The Prussian Army did not deploy like the French Army and it used amassed Grenadier battalions as special forces.

The French officer corps was known to travel in style with several wagons of their personal belongings from mirrors to silverware and mistresses. Such was expressively forbidden in the Prussian army and only regimental commanders received allowance for one wagon. All other officers had to do with one pack horse - an inconvenience unimageable in the French army.
Furthermore, in recorded communications with his officers - and for my first book i have mined a lot of them - the French Army or their tactics are barely ever mentioned. The ancient times swere much more important as an inspiration for Fritze which is shown in the fact that junior staff officers were selected after being quizzed on Caesar's 'De Bello Gallico' and not a French book.
Last but not least the Battle of Rossberg - in which the French army received the spanking of a life time by the Prussians - should not be omitted in this context.
No military historian with credibility has stated that Fritze invented the wheel but he certainly created a lot of innovations in his time. As a scholar and reader he was influenced by many sources and cultures. The outcome, however, was typically Fritze, and that was recognized by contemporary Europe.

Dear Dr Muth,

It’s a great honour to have you taking an interest in my work. I read your book “Flucht aus dem militärischen Alltag”, and much enjoyed it.

I’m glad you agree about the influence of Turenne (and the Duc de Luxembourg) on Frederick. If you say that Frederick’s “admiration though did not stretch to the French war culture” and that “the French Army or their tactics are barely ever mentioned” by Prussian officers, then I must ask you to explain why Frederick gave his officers copies of the military treatises written by the Marquis de Feuquières and the Chevalier de Folard. Why were the three military books that Frederick took on campaign in 1745 all by French authors? Why, when Prince Henry of Prussia created a gallery of great generals, did he pick four French commanders of the age of Louis XIV, alongside four Prussian commanders of his own age? In his work, Feuquières argued for surprise attacks, bypassing fortresses to occupy a country quickly and then swiftly end the war. This was the notion of short and lively wars of movement, which Robert Citino and others have characterised as typically German. Having used exactly this method to conquer Silesia in 1740-41, Frederick then gave 25 copies of Feuquières’s work to his officers. The intellectual inspiration for what he was doing seems pretty clear.

Best wishes,

Adam Storring

P.S. For those who don’t have access to the article itself, the manuscript is available open-access here: https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/290287.

Dear Adam,
thank you for your kind comments on my book.

I am happy to return these compliments for your article. I just happen to disagree with the thesis.

Just because the author of a book has a certain nationality does not imply that the reader is influenced by the authors culture. That stick is too short for me as a historian. The reader might just enjoy the narrative or learn certain facts without adopting elements of the author's culture.
Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz wrote classics of strategy, yet I have not observed people becoming Chinese of German in their cultural approach after finishing the books.
The Chevalier the Folard was considered a maverick within the French officer corps and was ostracized for his writings. It is thus questionable if he could be considered typically French. I have not read the Marquis de Feuquières and thus cannot comment on it. Judging by other literature for the little cadets, they were between 12 and 16 after all, the reading was more concerned with how to be a proper gentlemen than how to be a tactical or strategical genius.
Prince Heinrich hated his older brother deeply, as is well known, and used every opportunity to insult him or diminish his accomplishments. Thus there are French generals featured by him.
That wars should be "short and lively" is a typical Fritze sound bite, of which there are hundreds. No one wants his wars to be long and slow. Thus, any overemphasizing of this sound bite is in my eyes not merited.

We will just have to agree to disagree on this.

Let me know if I answered all your questions sufficiently. If not you are welcome to send me a private email. I enjoyed the discussion.
Best wishes

Adam, quite interesting thesis you've posited. Unfortunately, I can't access the article in either format to read the full text (both want a login). My comments are offered in light of only having read the abstract and the above thread.

To my mind, the danger in this discussion is to link two wildly different military institutions and cultures. As Jörg pointed out, the Brandenburg-Prussia model was distinctive from the French model in a variety of ways, especially in their headquarters. Direct links are difficult at best in that regard.

I think there may also be a bit of correlation rather than causation here. We tend to forget that Brandenburg-Prussia really didn't engage in wars for its own sake until Friedrich II, so there's not exactly a long history of great native commanders for him to draw on as his inspiration. Too, there was (and is) an accepted canon of great captains that all contemporary military figures discussed and said were their inspiration: Maurits of Nassau; Gustav Adolf, Baner, and Karl II; the many other commanders of the Thirty Years War; and Condé, Turenne, Luxembourg, Villars, and a dozen other French commanders during the reigns of Louis XIII and XIV. Every work on military theory written during the period will nod to these men, either as paragons or as lessons. In reality, this was more of a literary trope than a reality, a way of granting a work the imprimatur necessary for it to be taken seriously by military thinkers and practitioners in the same way a reference to Vegetius, Caesar, or another Classical writer would. In the same way, commanders and writers, including Friedrich, would reference a particular great captain or a specific battle in order to provide support for their own ideas, even to the point of falsifying a quote or attributing an idea to a person who did not have it - you see this a lot with Turenne, who did not publish during his lifetime and had many spurious memoirs published after his death. Finally, contemporary generals were expected to read and study the great campaigns of the great captains, whether they were Classical, German, French, or Italian (we've notably excepted Eugene of Savoy and Montecuccoli from this list, so far) and adapt those examples for their own practice. As a result of all of this, drawing direct lines between institutions, especially as different as the French and Brandenburger-Prussian, is a difficult thesis to prove.

At the same time, I think you oversell your case, Jörg. Friedrich undoubtedly used the examples of French commanders of the prior period to educate both himself and his commanders. We all know his predilection for French culture over German, particularly considering how new Brandenburg-Prussia was relative to other German states, giving him few "native" examples to draw on. Feuquières' book was considered the best work on military theory in the early eighteenth century (if only because it didn't have any real competition), so it's natural that it was passed around every army. Louis XIV's many wars produced a variety of skilled commanders and campaigns worth of study - how could we deny that they were not read and digested by Brandenburger-Prussian generals, including Friedrich and Heinrich? Too, Folard was not a "maverick," nor was he "ostracized for his writings" - he was a favorite of Maurice de Saxe, became his mentor in military theory, and inspired two subsequent generations of French military theorists, including Saxe himself, Mesnil-Durand, and a host of others, in creating and sustaining l'ordre profond. I cannot say, however, that Folard exercised any influence over Prussia, as he largely concerned himself with tactics, not operations or strategy.

Ultimately, I think this discussion comes down to the definition of "influence." There's absolutely no need to fall into the murky waters of learning theory, but I think it's impossible to say a group of military commanders in Prussia who were reading French military theory and campaign narratives were not influenced by them. At the same time, I don't think we can definitively say that French examples directly produced any element of Prussian doctrine, especially in the hands of Friedrich II. Trying to locate "cortes et vives" in some French example will only lead us down the road of determinism.

Adam, really looking forward to reading your article when I can get ahold of the full version. Jörg, always enjoy hearing from you - your book has been quite useful since grad school.

Jonathan, thank you for your thoughts. If email me at alstorring@gmail.com, I’ll send you the manuscript (anyone else is welcome to do the same). The evidence of French influence on the oblique line, ‘short and lively’ wars, and Frederick’s personal command of his armies is all in there, and I also spend quite some time considering the potential influence on Frederick of classical military history and other contemporary commanders.

More broadly, I should point out that we now seem to have general agreement that Frederick the Great frequently referenced French military ideas (even if Jörg argues that this didn’t make Frederick culturally French). So we are clearly not dealing with a monolithic national military tradition, but with military ideas crossing state and linguistic boundaries. At least in the 18th century, it’s not at all clear that “the Germans” were following “German” military ideas, and those who propose to emulate the methods of more modern German armies would do well to bear this in mind.


I've now read your article, and I think it's an excellent detailing of your argument. I don't think it materially changes the points I made in my prior post. I do completely agree with you that the orthodoxy of the period requires revision, especially with regard to the prejudices that speak of "national" "ways of war." In reality, war and warfare were practiced on a dynamic continuum that used a variety of examples and often transcended categorization, even in a culture as relatively unique as Prussia's. Unfortunately, that makes for sloppy, if not impossible, meta-narratives.