Book Review: Command Culture, by Jörg Muth

By HistoryNet Staff
9/6/2012 • Military History Book Reviews

Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and German Armed Forces, 1901–1940, and the Consequences for World War II, by Jörg Muth, University of North Texas Press, Denton, 2011, $29.95

Armies tend to be reflections of the societies from which they are drawn. The 20th century U.S. Army, with its material abundance and penchant for technical solutions, was supported by the most sophisticated and robust logistical system the world has ever known. Likewise, the German army has always mirrored the German national characteristics of organization and discipline. There are, however, other less helpful German characteristics, including an almost unquestioning acceptance of authority, social rigidity and an intense preoccupation with all forms of record-keeping and bureaucratic procedure for its own sake. Such are the hallmarks of the German civil service even today. And while the U.S. Army has a long history of faithfully reproducing the worst features of the American civil service, the German army was somehow remarkably free of such afflictions.

Auftragstaktik was one of the fundamental elements of the German command system. Loosely translated as “mission-type tactics,” it is really more of a command philosophy that gives subordinate commanders a tactical task to perform without dictating in detail exactly how it is to be accomplished. Such a system allows the subordinate leaders to exercise a great deal of initiative, and places a high level of confidence and trust upon them. For most of the last 20 years the U.S. military has paid lip service to that concept but has never really been able to make it work. American battalions and brigades still routinely issue operations orders the size of the Manhattan telephone directory, while German commanders at those levels during World War II issued their orders on a couple of sheets of paper or even orally.

In his penetrating analysis Jörg Muth examines the officer education systems and the command philosophies of both armies through 1945. In doing so he offers answers to three key questions military historians have long pondered: How did the Germans develop and maintain such a flexible and innovative command culture? Why were they able to make Auftragstaktik work far better than anyone else? And, perhaps most intriguing, if the Germans produced the most tactically proficient armies of the 20th century, why did they lose both world wars?

As Muth points out, officer training at all levels could not have been more different in the two armies. Officer candidates, drawn from the freest and most democratic society in the world, were subjected to a harsh and mindless initiation at America’s military academies, where upper-level cadets learned leadership by brutally hazing the freshmen cadets. Until well after World War II the academic programs at the academies were one-size-fits-all, regardless of what branch the future officer might go into. After four years the new second lieutenant was thrust into the real U.S. Army with little understanding of it. In the German cadet schools hazing was forbidden, and the academic programs were flexible, based on the future officer’s likely assignment. After passing through as many as three successive cadet schools, the future German officer was assigned to an actual unit as a Fähnrich (officer candidate), and his regimental commander had the final say on if and when he would be commissioned as a lieutenant.

The higher levels of American officer schools were not much more innovative than the academies. At the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School and many branch service schools, tactics were taught cookbook fashion, with the dreaded “school solution” being the standard of success or failure. The one bright exception was the U.S. Army Infantry School during the time that future General George C. Marshal was the assistant commandant. The German officer schools, again, were more flexible and innovative, especially the vaunted Kriegsakademie, which trained the future General Staff officers. There was no “school solution” there. The only criterion for success or failure in tactical problems was whether the officer’s solution worked. If it did, it was accepted. Instructors encouraged out-of-the-box approaches, in marked contrast to most American officers’ schools.

So why, then, did the Germans still lose the two world wars? Muth contends the basic flaws lingered at the levels of the high command. The General Staff was a planning organization, but as an organ of command it was deeply flawed. Contrary to the simplicity and flexibility at the tactical echelons, German operational and strategic planning produced elaborate and rigid go-for-broke operations that almost never had a Plan B.

Muth’s analysis of the U.S. Army is a hard one, but he backs it up with extensive research. This is one of the most important books about the German and American armies in many years.

—David T. Zabecki

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