The location of the commander

From field manual FM 3-90.2 "The tank and Mechanized Infantry Task Group", June 2003 (U.S.Army)

3-3. Location of the commander
In the past, commanders have been torn between the conflicting requirement to visualize the battlefield and the requirement for his presence in the main command post to participate in the military decision-making process. This dilemma slowed the planning and execution of operations while frustrating the commander’s efforts to “get out of the command post.”
     a. All commanders within the task force have the ability to visualize their battlespace in all dimensions and to share a common operational picture (COP). Perhaps the largest and most immediate impact of digitization is its effect on the operations process (plan, prepare for, execute, and assess operations). Digitization streamlines planning and preparation by allowing the near-simultaneous transfer of information to all leaders. This transfer of information facilitates parallel planning and preparation. Using digitized equipment should compress the planning cycle for commanders and allow planning at all levels to begin sooner. Task force commanders also have the ability to locate and track targets precisely and conduct simultaneous operations employing lethal and nonlethal means while operating with joint and multinational forces. In addition, task force commanders retain the ability to recognize and protect their own and other friendly forces. The commander cannot, however, fully visualize the battlefield while directing and synchronizing the efforts of his task force from a computer screen at the main command post. He must move from the main CP to assess the situation face-to-face with subordinate commanders and soldiers. The C2 system within the task force permits a commander to position himself where he can best command without depriving himself of the ability to respond to opportunities and changing circumstances.
     b. The commander can be virtually anywhere on the battlefield to best affect ongoing operations without disrupting the planning and preparation for future operations. Near-real-time information updates, continuous assessment, and command decisions can be briefed, approved, and disseminated from task force to company team level via the available INFOSYS with the C2 system.
Astonishingly, this quote is from "Section I: The art of command".
I suppose I don't need to quote older German or American sources which highlight the morale influence of the commander on the troops through his presence. Nor do I need sources to highlight how being where the main action is can be crucial for quick decision-making and quick communication of orders to subordinates, right? Nor do I need to elaborate on radio ECM or radio silence, for sure. The OEF and ISAF troops in Afghanistan had radio communication troubles for years even without facing any electronic warfare threat.

I didn't quote this I-want-to-believe-in-technology text to bash a particular institution or country. Instead, it's a very very nice document to show how innovations are often exaggerated, and even supported by deliberate exaggeration in order to push them forward, to reap their benefits.
This quote may actually be useful if combined with a more classic education of the officer. I'm not sure that all of them get the same, but there are only so many mechanized battle group commanders, so I suppose it's possible to reliably convey the critical omissions in a less formal way if necessary.
Such biased military education tools may be much more troublesome when directed at less experienced personnel than majors. This is - especially in regard to technological exaggerations - worthy of major concern because technological sophistication has crept from supreme HQ level (general staff having telegraph connection to all armies by 1864) to squad/section level (electronic warfare tools, radios, GPS et cetera carried even by small patrols). It's important that laymen politicians and bureaucrats don't fall for the fashion du jour either. The barrage of pro-fashion propaganda in military journals (including the advertisements!), in field manuals, in presentations, on official websites, in parliamentary hearings and in private discussions can easily warp the idea of what's important when it comes to deter or prefer for war.


P.S.: This is how I would have written this sub-chapter about the location of the commander in battle (my first and only draft):
The well-established insights on the great morale value of a commander's presence among his troops during times of great challenges remain valid in face of digitization. A commander's first-hand experience of the terrain and the current combat situation remains valuable under most circumstances.
An old commander's conflict is between choosing his presence at the HQ for great influence on the staff's performance and choosing his presence with the troops in contact for great influence on their performance. This conflict can be reduced through digitization if reliable radio communication can and shall be maintained.
The commander can through digitized radio stay in sufficient contact with his staff while away from the HQ and he can exert some morale influence and gain impressions from the battlefield remotely as well. Couriers such as motorcycle couriers can transport not only verbal or on-paper information, but also large amounts of easily transported encrypted digitized information between the commander and his staff, allowing him to benefit of digitization without radio emissions, albeit with lags of several minutes on average. The same applies to the commander's communication with other distant subordinates, such as platoon leaders on a flank security mission, for example.


  1. "well-established insights"?

    Anything else but self-important claims and superstition?

    Did troops actually fight worse in absence of visual contact to their commanding general? Is this checked for the correlation of said presence and placement of main effort?

    1. It's one of those utterly self-evident things that nobody bothers to make an empirical analysis about because nobody who's thick enough to not see it would have much use for an empirical study about it.
      The story of how commander's presence had a huge morale impact is ancient, with Darius' lost battles against Alexander the Great as early evidence and WW2 lessons learned (especially Patton, Wehrmacht) as zenith. Military history is so very much filled up with stories about commander's influence on troops morale that any debate about it would be ridiculous.

    2. OK, Anonymous.

      From your question "Did troops actually fight worse in absence of visual contact to their commanding general?" I can only conclude that you do not read German and, even more intersting, that you do not even read good stuff in English.

      You have to understand that the Prussian/German army does not make a difference between platoon CO or divison/Korps CO:

      All officers have to lead in a way that allow them both, to get crucial pieces of information and boost the morale of their soldiers. For thousands of German officers this was indeed trivial.

      If you get the numbers of Generals KIA (emphasize is action) then you will find that the higher operational performance of the German army correlated with much higher loss ratio of Generals or other battle group commanders, this was a result of leading up front by higher officers.

      Muth in "Command Culture" stated that this situation was an exception in the US army (e.g. paratroopers, a few tankers) in WWII but the rule in the Wehrmacht. Crefeld clearly implies the same.

      Why not reading "Fighting Power" or "Command Culture" as starter?


  2. Ah, like witches! Allthough it goes against everything we know about why soldiers fight.

    "well-established insights", "utterly self-evident thing", "thick enough to not see it", "so very much filled up with stories" - your BS-meter is hitting 9000!!!

    1. Look, I'm really not inclined to explain things to hostile anons, obviously.
      Keep in mind my comment policy states that anon comments may be blocked or deleted at will, so I've already been quite lenient here.
      I feel comfortable with the thought that you stay ignorant about this matter because I really don't care about you.
      I write the blog for people who don't visit blogs with hostility towards the author in mind.

  3. The fact that commanders my affect the tide of a battle is attested al across human history. Ramesses II at Kadesh is an even older example. Leonidas at Thermopylae, Ashoka besieging the Rajputs, Takeda Shingen repeling Tokugawa's attacks, Uesugi Kenshin rallying his troops, Genghis Khan, Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, Mehmed storming Constantinople... we can go forever in examples when the presence of the commander, if he possesses leadership traits, is invaulable, specially facing a difficult situation. As humans, when we feel that the guy who planned it all is there, enduring all the sufferings,and well aware of the situation, we tend to push ourselves even further. Charismatic leaders can achieve huge success exploiting this, but even commanders not as gifted can get an extra from his/her subordinates just by being there.

  4. Folks, he did not really criticize substance. He just wanted to express his hostility to me and feel superior to someone for a minute.

  5. Would the (removal by) death of incompetent commanders in battle in a culture that puts the commander "in the front" also be an important contributing factor to better overall performance?

    1. I remember no examples, though at the battle of Mollwitz saw a resolute and decisive Prussian infantry assault after Frederick II (not great yet) had left and a competent general had taken command.

      The morale influence of a commander changed a lot after the 18th century. Previously, his flight usually signalled a defeat, while his participation in the attack meant that this attack must succeed and he be protected for else it would turn into a general defeat - and pursuit was often much deadlier to the defeated than battle itself. Withdrawal also mean the loss of the camp, with booty and pay.

      20th century commanders had somewhat different influences:
      Their presence meant that the troops nearby knew they would get whatever available support and reserves they need. A commander far forward would also often temporarily override more junior leaders with his greater experience and his understandings of the greater situation.

      One anecdote from 1940; a WWI veteran led an infantry regiment which was already exhausted. The soldiers prepared to rest for the night, and so did the junior leaders. The veteran colonel insisted on assaulting just once more to capture a hill. He led the assault and it was a relatively unbloody success. By next morning, they faced plenty hostile reserves ahead; an assault on the same hill at this time would have been very bloody, but it would have been necessary.
      The very same colonel would hardly have been able to get his exhausted men to assault the hill immediately and successfully if he hadn't led the assault personally. This is something which you cannot pull off from a HQ; you need to be present.

    2. There's a school of thought that says 2Para performed better at Goose Green after the CO was killed while assaulting a machine gun trench. Until then the plan had been overly complicated and companies struggled to work together. After the DCO took over things went much smoother.

    3. Wasn't this the battalion commander who paraded on the battlefield with an umbrella?

    4. Maybe because someone told him, being visibly present on the battlefield would help his mens morale? :)

    5. Maybe, but I always thought of him (the guy with the umbrella, not sure if it's the same one) as an old-fashioned British eccentric officer. Military institutions with a long history have no difficulty compiling a list of eccentric officers they had, but the British army would have it especially easy.

      Besides, I think the massive WW2 with its wealth of events is really a more notable source than the tiny Falklands ground conflict. It only served to remind us that infantry combat didn't evolve much since 1918.

  6. I see your cult has gained followers. And all the traits of a fervent faith are present:

    Reference to holy books (Muth :D),

    ridiculus statements ala "Prussian/German army does not make a difference between platoon CO or divison/Korps CO",

    obfuscation of correlation and causation,

    failure to distinguish between myth and reality,

    and between bureaucratic organisations (modern Brigades, Divisions, Korps) and face-to-face-societies (Ancients and a modern company if you like),

    not to mention a cult leader always zealous to accuse people of moral defects if they point out, that ceasar is actually naked.

    Now I am not only entitled to feel superior towards you, but two disciples as well. A good day indeed sir, and may Rommel or whoever you worship be with you.

    Same as yesterday, dont bother.

    1. The funny thing is, I already told him this blog is not being written for people like him, yet he returns.
      Also, note how he criticizes without bringing forward contrary evidence of any quality.

      Some people simply seek conflict because of an innate desire, not because of actual issues. It's foolish to deal with them as if their hostile behaviour was really about the topic.
      A.K.A. trolls.

  7. I think that when it comes to the recognition of the importance of the presence of the leader at the fronts, there may be some observational bias in your thinking. Cases where the leader wasn't going in to the fight himself are typically less reported in anecdotes, because there isn't anything flashy about it. Admiration for such behavior is something distinctively germanic too. That's just cultural bias. For example take the battle of Grunwald 1410. The behavior of the leader of the crusaders, who was in the fight himself is universally reported as just stupid and fatal. Where you get the false rumor that Jingis Han was fighting among the ranks? Being from the east I can tell you that he is actually considered to be the prime example of the attitude that the wise leader does exactly the opposite.

    1. The closest thing to a comprehensive empirical study done on the value of leading from the Schwerpunkt or location of crisis is probably the work of the OKH lessons learned department in WW2.
      The leader of this department authored books post-war, and I assure you I've never seen written words placing more emphasis on the importance of the commander's location on the morale of his men than his books.

      High-ranking officers (or princes, kings) at times fail or simply die while exposing themselves to the hazards of battle, sure. The Burgundian empire fell this way and Byzantium almost did so as well. This doesn't indicate that there's not much to be gained, though.

      Interestingly, the German armies placed probably more emphasis on overqualifying subordinates than any other army, IIRC since about 1908. This leadership system not only exposed commanding officers to unusual risks, but also attempted to provide for their instant replacement by competent subordinates.

    2. Why not name book and author? Afraid someone will actually call your bluff?

      Like me, who is actually pretty sure to know who you are talking about and just an arms length away from a copy?

    3. You forgot in your pointless hostility that you can't be an "arms length" away from a copy if it was a "bluff".

      BTW, I get tired of your trolling. Every time I show friends the output of some troll they wonder why I don't block the crap right away.

  8. Is the true benefit of the commander being at the focus point one of morale, or one of having a closer grip on things there? I've always been skeptical that troops themselves perform more dilligently when someone many levels above them is present... in my mind, I think it's that the commander can personally see the situation at the crisis point and exert his own leadership more effectively there. Or is this what we actually mean the benefit to be?

    1. Yes. Being up front and with the troops is a conventional leadership tool. It conveys not only a more immediate impression of terrain and enemy, but first of all of ones own troops. In a more intuitive way Informations can be optained that don t travel well in mediated communication or are concealed by subordinates. Furthermore courses of action can be better discussed face-to-face, also for security reasons. Wether a moral side effect exists is quite irrelevant, puting it on top is actually a distraction from those leadership tasks the commander must act on (and think about) conciously when he is with the troops. Focusing instead on a fuzzy effect, that does not require any action from the leader is potentially dangerous, but making an antagonism out of leading from the front and fullfillment of all the rational and technical leadership tasks is the criminaly misguided center of the official doctrine and and Svens shot at improving it.

      It s propably a laymen / mil-nerd problem. Not having any actual experience and only equipped with a hazy conception of what leadership means, first of all in technical terms, most of them seem to hold the idea, that it is (as movies attest) mostly about idle talk and shouting orders in between.

      It s the german (not germanic) militarys tendency towards idealism and monarchism that lead to the adoption in doctrine and historiographic narratives of some kind of sanctity of officership. Revealingly it s mostly the authors themself or their hero, that get the moral boost trait in historiography.

      Whats the real issue? A leader must not be swayed by the information that is presented to him, but actively and counciously search by all means for the information he needs. Siting in front of a computer screen or a field telephon with a SITREP coming in every two minutes is propably the worst challenge of technology against proper leadership.

    2. I've been thinking about the English military word Reconnaissance and the difference to Aufklärung. The choice of our military to use the word Reconnaissance has a specific connotation of exploration and surveying. Aufklärung, I see, is broader in usage because it's closest equivalent in English is 'enlightenment' or clarification / illumination. It has a different feeling than using Reconnaissance; it's the feeling (at least in English) of a man inquisitive, an active agent in searching for his own epiphany rather than the dry search for pieces of information.

      Our Army has developed many assets to collect raw intelligence (aerospace, signal, human, etc) and we've gone through so many different systems in the effort to extract "intelligence of action" from all that garbage. So far I've heard more positive feedback where raw intelligence sources are presented without being analyzed (corrupted) by other parties and the actor is trusted to draw good conclusions himself. This only occurs in our Army in special mission units so far as I know, however.

      It's not strange that the US Army is reluctant to trust soldiers (even experienced career NCOs) with raw national intelligence... but the paradigm of leader as consumer of processed intel places great burden on the complex system of intel procurement and I'd think the interest of such procurers should not be paramount over the benefit of the leader swiftly gaining uncorrupted raw intel.

      What all this means is I'm musing on the terminology of the US Army framing the essence of the issue as the acquisition of data points, vis-a-vis leaving it more primordially as the journey of a man to reach understanding of his situation. We've been great at delivering torrents of information to the consumer but not perhaps so successful at framing the problem in terms of utility to the consumer.

    3. "Aufklärung" has several meanings, 'enlightenment' is but one.
      The literal translation would be approx. "clear up".
      In the military realm it is mostly reconnaissance, but has content overlaps with scouting (Spähen), screening (Sicherung), keeping contact (Fühlung halten) and route and site reconnaissance (Erkundung). The Americans attempted to keep historical continuity by calling much of this 'cavalry missions', and this helps to remember a little better the potential of skirmishing by 'cavalry' (forcing the enemy to move carefully, delay him to secure friendly movements etc., far ambushes for harassment and attrition).

      I don't think there's much insight hidden in the slightly different delineations in German and English.
      German has afaik only two advantages here; "Fühlung halten" is more prominent than what I know as translation and there's a clear separation of recce by combat troops (in their vicinity & for the attack) by an additional word: Gefechtsaufklärung (literally; combat reconnaissance).

      Last but not least some fun: The Swedish word for recce is apparently "spaning", which may be related to the German "spannen", a colloquial verb for the activity of a voyeur. :)

  9. Oh Sven,

    I know the book exists and so know you. That means we both know, it doesnt contain anything to prove your point about morale.

    I suggested you didnt clear my replies right away. So everybody but you saw, that you didnt have a shred of evidence right away. Does it make you think?

    1. Dude, you lack the concentration and honesty to discuss things properly:
      I wrote "I assure you I've never seen written words placing more emphasis on the importance of the commander's location on the morale of his men than his books.", not 'there's definitive empirical proof in those books'.
      One example; "Handbuch der Taktik", chapter A.V.b) ; more than six pages about the location of the leader depending on the situation and nothing else + many times mentioned elsewhere in the book.

      About "shred of evidence"; you cannot understand what's written here, I think we get that. We could provide 10 pages of supporting evidence and you wouldn't recognize it. That's because you're locked in hostile mode.