Assessing Generalship… and doing it properly!

Couple weeks back I posted a couple of examples and asked “are these guys incompetent?”  That was somewhat a leading question, given Generals Burnside and Slocum, based on how the men are usually received… maybe rated is a better word… by historians and the general lot of us Civil War aficionados.  The knot I was picking at was assessing generalship… historically speaking.

The problem, as I see it, is such ratings and assessments are often given from the ex post facto and from the safety of the armchair or writing desk.  And that is not a dig at those of us 150 years removed.  Rather saying we should… read, must… use the greater access to details and perspectives which our position relative to the place and time affords.  In other words, we should approach such assessments with a degree of formality.  Simply saying, “he was a bad general” is not enough.  We should be able to quantify!

Quantify, well that means we need standards, definitions.  So exactly is generalship?

A simple dictionary definition will reference something to the effect, “exercising military skills in command of a military unit.”  Somewhat generic for our need.  We probably should say one need be a general, in rank, or at least holding a general’s post in responsibility.  A battery commander, who is a captain, would not be demonstrating generalship in command of his four, or six, guns.  Likewise, a general managing a battery is not really demonstrating generalship (though arguably… demonstrating a lack of generalship!).

And what of these “military skills”?  Many will point immediately to tactics and strategy.  But that is somewhat an overshot.  We can certainly say tactics and strategy are part of the mix.  But those are really a subset of skills grouped into larger skill-sets (to use a redundant buzzword).  Instead, I’d offer a definition along these lines:

Generalship: The military skill of exercising command, control, and management of a military unit which is designated as befitting a general’s rank (i.e. brigade, division, or higher command).

I think it is important to focus on those three skill-sets – command, control, and management.

A good place to start is with Army Field Manual 6-0 (FM 6-0), titled “Mission Command.” There we find Command defined:

Command is the authority that a commander in the armed forces lawfully exercises over subordinates by virtue of rank or assignment. Command includes the authority and responsibility for effectively using available resources and for planning the employment of, organizing, directing, coordinating, and controlling military forces for the accomplishment of assigned missions. It also includes responsibility for health, welfare, morale, and discipline of assigned personnel.

We see command tied to a position in the organizational chart.  Generals have the power to command by virtue of position, and not by rank alone.  There are plenty of non-commanding generals (now days and during the Civil War). Think about the Hunt-Sickles interaction at Gettysburg, for an example where this comes into play.

There are three elements of command:

  • Authority – “the delegated power to judge, act, or commandIt includes responsibility, accountability, and delegation.”  In other words, a commander is responsible and accountable for all, but can (should) delegate execution.
  • Decisionmaking – “selecting a course of action as the most favorable to accomplish the mission.”  Ah!  The mission … as in what the unit must accomplish.  “Decisionmaking includes knowing if to decide, then when and what to decide, and understanding the consequences of decisions.”  And the manual reminds us, this is “both art and science.”
  • Leadership – “influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation – while operating to accomplish the mission….”  Notably, “the leadership of commanders ultimately includes the force of will.”

How about control?

… control is the regulation of forces and battlefield operating systems to accomplish the mission in accordance with the commander’s intent. It includes collecting, processing, displaying, storing, and disseminating relevant information for creating the common operational picture, and using information, primarily by the staff, during the operations process. Control allows commanders to disseminate their commander’s intent, execute decisions, and adjust their operations to reflect changing reality and enemy actions. It allows commanders to modify their commander’s visualization to account for changing circumstances. Control also allows commanders to identify times and points requiring new decisions during preparation and execution.

This also contains three main elements:

  • Information – “…in the general sense, is the meaning humans assign to data.” The modern spin on this is the commander will develop, through his staff, a common operating picture, shared with subordinates.  Applying “analysis and judgment” the commander reaches a situational understanding.  And that… well it becomes the foundation for decisionmaking.  There’s a lot more to the modern interpretation here… but let’s keep things simple for the moment.
  • Communication – “… means to use any means or method to convey information of any kind from one person to another.”  Communication is the commander’s voice.  Just that simple.
  • Structure – “… is a defined organization that establishes relationships among its elements or a procedure that establishes relationships among its activities.”  So not just who reports to whom. Consider here that repeatable practices, such as handling resupply or placement of guards at intersections, are structure.  These allow the commander’s intent to be exercised in absence of direct communication.  Structured behavior.

Finally, management… I include it in my definition, but you’ll find the modern military is short to describe that element.  There is a tendency to pit leadership against management, with leadership being the preferred quality.  One does not “manage” a firefight, but rather leads the command through it! Armies are led, don’t you know!   And management is something better conducted in the motor pool or supply room.

But let’s not relegate management to the logistical endeavors. Notice in the discussions above about command and control, we saw not a feather paid to tactics, operations, and strategy.  That’s because those are aspects of management.  To put it plainly, management in the military sense is the movement, placement, orientation, and maintenance the military unit.  And not just maintenance in the sense of greasing axles and cleaning muskets.  Rather, going to the broader sense to encompass all needed to maintain the unit’s presence in the operation and purchase on the situation toward accomplishment of the mission.

A lot of deep thinking here.  But let’s circle this back to the point of departure.  If we decide, in this historical sense, a general was not a good general – that is we find his generalship lacking – then I believe the burden of proof is on us. We have to lay out an assessment of that general’s behavior.  It should address how the general exercised command, control, and management.  And it should honestly demonstrate successes and failures, where ever they may be.

It is simply not enough to say the general left a flank open.  That may be a tactical sin, but is not necessarily an overwhelming condemnation of generalship.  It’s what brought the general to the decision about the flank… or his failure to communicate a better disposition… or his failure to exert his leadership… that we need to examine in order to derive a conclusion.  To do otherwise is certainly committing a sin … that of bad history!


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