"I am not one who was born in the custody of wisdom. I am one who is fond of olden times and intense in quest of the sacred knowing of the ancients." Gustave Courbet

30 December 2019


Auftragstaktik was developed as a military doctrine by the Prussians following their losses to Napoleon, when they realized they needed a systematic way to overcome brilliant commanders. The idea that developed, the brainchild of Helmuth von Moltke, was that the traditional use of strict military hierarchy and central strategic control may not be as effective as giving only the general mission-based, strategic goals that truly necessitated central involvement to well-trained officers who were operating on the front, who would then have the flexibility and independence to make tactical decisions without consulting central commanders (or paperwork). Auftragstaktik largely lay dormant during World War I, but literally burst onto the scene as the method of command that allowed (along with the integration of infantry with tanks and other military technology) the swift success of the German blitzkriegin World War II. This showed a stark difference in outcome between German and Allied command strategies, with the French expecting a defensive war and the Brits adhering faithfully and destructively to the centralized model. The Americans, when they saw that most bold tactical maneuvers happened without or even against orders, and that the commanders other than Patton generally met with slow progress, adopted the Auftragstaktik model. [Notably, this also allowed the Germans greater adaptiveness and ability when their generals died–should I make a bad analogy to Schumpeter’s creative destruction?] These methods may not even seem foreign to modern soldiers or veterans, as it is still actively promoted by the US Marine Corps.

All of this is well known to modern military historians and leaders: John Nelson makes an excellent case for its ongoing utility, and the excellent suggestion has also been made that its principles of decentralization, adaptability, independence, and lack of paperwork would probably be useful in reforming non-military bureaucracy. It has already been used and advocated in business, and its allowance for creativity, innovation, and reactiveness to ongoing complications gives new companies an advantage over ossified and bureaucratic ones (I am reminded of the last chapter of Parkinson’s Law, which roughly states that once an organization has purpose-built rather than adapted buildings it has become useless). However, I want to throw in my two cents by examining pre-Prussian applications of Auftragstaktik, in part to show that the advantages of decentralization are not limited to certain contexts, and in part because they give valuable insight into the impact of social structures on military ability and vice versa.


An army survives and grows, physically, intellectually and spiritually through its risk-takers. I do not here support the breaking of regulations, or the placing of soldiers in training under unnecessary, or unjustifiable, risk. We have, however, lost our capacity to seek the edge of the allowed envelope. Take, for example, the infantry. I have met over the years many of my own peers who avoid anything to do with field firing, the live fire training of soldiers in tactical scenarios. They achieve this by allowing their own skills to degrade and permitting the willing and capable few to always step in. Field firing ‘by the book’ is not dangerous; it can be the best training a soldier will experience. These officers avoid the challenge not because of the risk to the soldiers, but because of the perceived risk to their own careers if something goes wrong. Risk-takers challenge the comfortable warmth of the status quo; they are willing to trade their potential within the hierarchy for accepting a degree of responsibility the bureaucracy has decided to find distasteful. Even legitimate risk-takers disturb the hierarchy because they refuse to "stay in the box." And there’s no risk-taking, or Auftragstaktik, in the box.


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