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Chief of Staff: The Principal Officers Behind History’s Great Commanders (Vol. 1: Napoleonic Wars to World War I and Vol. 2: World War II to Korea and Vietnam)

edited by Maj. Gen. David T. Zabecki, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2008, $39.95 each.

Historians and others interested in military operations generally focus their studies on unit commanders, with only passing mention—if any—of the responsibilities and actions of their staffs. Yet staffs, and chiefs of staff in particular, play a central and frequently crucial role in operational matters.

Chiefs of staff are necessarily masters of operational art—the ability to translate strategic notions into tactical practice. A modern commander would find it impossible to create an operational plan and see to its execution without significant staff support.Coordinating such support requires the unique talent of a capable chief of staff.

Considering the key role chiefs of staff have long played in major operations, students of military affairs may well wonder why historians have given short shrift to this critical post. Perhaps because so few people fully appreciate the worth of the position—outside of general officers that have been graced with an able chief of staff. It’s no surprise, then, that it took an officer with experience as both a chief of staff and commanding general to correct this oversight.

The heart of Maj. Gen. David Zabecki’s work is the introduction to each of his two volumes, which concisely describe the historical development, organization, functioning, and strengths and weaknesses of the military staffs of the French, Prussian/German, Russian/Soviet, British and American armies. Indeed, in no other source can a researcher so readily secure a foundational understanding of these seven staff systems. Moreover, Zabecki’s introductions allow quick comparison of the staffs and their various elements. They also outline how the chief of staff billet evolved over the past two centuries into the central position it now occupies in most modern militaries. Although the author focuses on operational staffs, he explains the organization and purposes of national staffs and the relation of the former to the latter.

The introductions frame profiles of 30 remarkable chiefs of staff, written by a number of experts. Each leads with a chronology of the officer’s career, acquainting the reader with key events and assignments. Those profiled range from the well-known (e.g., Erich Ludendorff) to the relatively obscure (e.g., Hermann von Kuhl). The individual stories weave a fascinating tapestry that traces the emerging characteristics of the chief of staff assignment. Most important, however, are explanations on how each chief organized and ran his staff and the manner in which he interacted with his commander. Most accounts provide numerous footnotes to guide further study.

This long overdue work will serve as the standard for those interested in the vital role chiefs of staff play in operational commands. It is particularly useful for officers who seek to serve in this essential position or those whose senior rank will bring them such an indispensable colleague.


Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here