Command Failure in War: Psychology and Leadership (Book Review)

Reviewed by Robert Citino
By Robert Pois and Philip Langer
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2004

Why do commanders fail? Military historians typically offer a number of conventional explanations: The balance of forces was unfavorable, or the terrain was difficult, or it rained unexpectedly. Perhaps the commander wasn’t feeling well that day, an explanation that crops up for both Napoleon at Waterloo and Lee at Gettysburg. But what if commanders fail because of events — personal events — that happened to them long ago? What if the specter, let us say, of an abusive father has so wounded the psyche of a commander that he carries the scars with him into later life?

That is the hypothesis put forth by historian Robert Pois and educational psychologist Philip Langer. In Command Failure in War, they attempt a bold intellectual stroke: a re-evaluation of military history, particularly the history of command, in the light of insights provided by modern psychology. In chapters ranging from Frederick the Great’s disaster at Kunersdorf in the Seven Years’ War to the death of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad (with heavy emphasis, three chapters out of eight, on the American Civil War), Pois and Langer argue that a single characteristic, inflexibility, is the link between one failed commander and the next. It is the inability to react to changing circumstances, especially technological change, that is the key. The search for the psychological roots of inflexibility is therefore the heart of the book, since "in military operations, to adhere to a plan of operations is one thing, but to cling to a plan which appears totally inadequate is another." No argument there. The problem with this book, however, is that the authors seem well versed in psychology but much less so in military history. The research is broad, but it is also only an inch deep in places, and it very often relies on literature that is decades old.

The chapter on Frederick the Great is a case in point. We may leave in abeyance the question of whether Frederick enjoyed inflicting casualties on his own army as a way of evening up the score with his long-dead father — a novel hypothesis, to be sure. What demands attention is the relatively weak resource base for the chapter, which would have been far better with some reference to Dennis Showalter’s recent Wars of Frederick the Great or the work of Jeremy Black or John Lynn on early modern warfare. The authors score Frederick for pursuing battlefield tactics that were inordinately bloody, for example, but they fail to identify alternatives. In the age of linear tactics and smoothbore flintlocks, battle consisted of two sides lining up at very close range and blasting away. Heavy casualties were an inevitable result of systemic factors, not a personal choice that Frederick made.

The chapter on Royal Air Force area bombing in World War II has similar problems. Stripped of its verbiage, the authors’ case against Winston Churchill is that he did not understand the problems of strategic bombing and abdicated his responsibility to oversee the RAF effort carefully because he was a traditionalist. It is hardly a stunning interpretative breakthrough, and the analysis of what might have been going through Churchill’s mind is purely speculative. They surmise that the prime minister might have been disturbed by the loss of chivalry and the death of more courtly forms of warfare — a very strange thing to say, indeed, about a man who once bragged about "de-housing" the German people. Incidentally, they invalidate their entire case against Air Marshal Arthur Harris (that he clung inflexibly to his strategy of night bombing of German cities) by agreeing with historian Richard Overy that area bombing may well have made a significant contribution to the German defeat. It is an interesting admission to make in a book called Command Failure in War.

The chapter on Stalingrad psychoanalyzes Adolf Hitler, which is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. It relies on a by-now familiar Freudian model that sees Hitler as being pummeled by his father and pampered by his mother, facts that even the authors admit may or may not be true. Once again, even holding the psychological argument in abeyance, this is a problematic chapter. The account of the 1941 campaign is barely recognizable in the face of modern scholarship. The authors blame Hitler for frittering away the strength of the army in thrusts to the north and south of Moscow, a common accusation, but they also admonish him for not ordering an all-out assault on Leningrad, a strange turnaround. They then descend into absurdity: "It was in large measure due to this fear on the part of one who was never able to transcend the residue of childhood humiliations," state the authors, "that the Wehrmacht, for all of the hundreds of thousands of casualties it inflicted upon the Soviet armored forces, was unable to gain a strategic victory in 1941." Didn’t the Red Army have something to do with it? It suffered not "hundreds of thousands" of casualties, but 4 million (including prisoners), and still found a way to win in front of Moscow.

For the Stalingrad campaign itself, the authors offer a competent recitation of Case Blue’s operational errors (although they repeatedly call them "tactical"): the divergent thrusts by the army groups; the overreliance upon Romanian, Hungarian and Italian forces; the magnetic lure of Stalingrad. They also offer an interesting analysis of the general staff’s "groupthink" regarding Soviet strength and plans. Otherwise, there is very little new here, however, and once again the research is spotty. It is Walter Görlitz’s work from the 1950s and ’60s that dominates, rather than more modern works such as Joel S.A. Hayward’s Stopped at Stalingrad.

Beyond the sketchy nature of much of their military argumentation, there is the book’s annoying tone. The authors repeatedly display unease, if not actual distaste, with the very subject of military history. It shows up in their tendentious phrasing, with references to "so-called military genius"; to "what is sometimes referred to as `military science’"; and interestingly enough, to "the so-called `art of war.’" War is apparently neither an art nor a science. In both the acknowledgments and conclusion, Pois and Langer actually indulge in pointless apologies for having to write a book on warfare, pleading guilty to a certain "morbid curiosity" about the topic, wondering "why people — particularly males, one supposes — are fascinated by military history" and begging the pardon of "historians of a better future."

The authors hate war. Well, good for them. So do a lot of us; even military historians, and yes, even males. Let’s pass over the implied insult to those who do military history for a living and return to the opening question: Why do commanders fail? Perhaps because war, especially modern war, is a complex and often baffling phenomenon in which all the participants have to make snap judgments based on inadequate information. Perhaps military planning is often nothing more than a judgment call, much easier for historians than participants. Perhaps making such judgments is a part of the "so-called `art of war’" that often defies systematic analysis. If even gifted commanders, "so-called military geniuses," make mistakes, how much easier for amateurs like Hitler? Pathologizing such failure, as Pois and Langer try to do here, misses the point completely.

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