It is interesting to see where this discussion has led. Here is a response from a British government official to yesterday's column by Tom Donnelly.
By "A. Gentleman Ranker"
Best Defense guest responder
I'm afraid Tom Donnelly's comments yesterday about the undeniable British failures of the past have finally prompted me to send you this, which has been in my mind ever since this discussion started. It's from Field Marshal Slim's Defeat into Victory (chapter on "Afterthoughts", pps 619-620 of the 2009 U.K. Pan edition). Slim was of course himself a product of the "British Empire's military system" which, according to the Brian Farrell quote cited by Donnelly "insist[ed that] the situation must fit the plan at all levels":
My corps and divisions were called upon to act with at least as much freedom as armies and corps in other theatres. Commanders at all levels had to act more on their own; they were given greater latitude to work out their own plans to achieve what they knew was the Army Commander's intention. In time they developed to a marked degree a flexibility of mind and firmness of decision that enabled them to act swiftly to take advantage of sudden information or changing circumstances without reference to their superiors. They were encouraged, as Stopford put it when congratulating Rees's 19th Division which had seized a chance to slip across the Irrawaddy and at the same time make a dart at Shwebo, to "shoot a goal when the referee wasn't looking". This acting without orders, in anticipation of orders, or without waiting for approval, yet always within the overall intention, must become second nature in any form of warfare where formations do not fight closely en cadre, and must go down to the smallest units. It requires in the higher command a corresponding flexibility of mind, confidence in its subordinates, and the power to make its intentions clear right through the force...
Seems a pretty good definition of (at least some parts) of Auftragstaktik to me. It prompts three thoughts:
1. You don't need to be Prussian to develop Auftragstaktik. There's no sign in Slim's writing that he's drawing on Prussian thinking, and in fact this part of the chapter is entitled "New Techniques". Of course, all things German were profoundly unpopular after the War, but given Slim's reputation for intellectual honesty, I would expect him to have at least nodded to the German experience if it had been a major influence on him. This counterbalances what I often worry is a modern attitude verging on idolatry towards Imperial and Nazi German military performance. I wonder how much this positive view of the Wehrmacht in particular is still based on the post-war Allied need to justify their poor initial performance against the Germans, on the self-serving post-war accounts of German generals, and on an artificial separation of German military actions from their political and moral context. I also wonder how much this debate is fuelled by national stereotypes and self-images, e.g. efficient and cerebral Germans, stolid and unimaginative British, informal and unstructured Americans etc.
2. Slim does not say this is the right approach for all forms of warfare, e.g. it's not necessarily right for the European theatre, where formations may indeed fight en cadre (which I assume means aligned along a continuous front with friendly units on either flank). He links this approach (to which he doesn't give a distinct theoretical name) to his experience of fighting in the broken terrain of South East Asia, and to what he sees (in 1956) as the likely dispersed pattern of future nuclear-conventional warfare. This makes me wonder whether mission command is in fact the right approach for (e.g.) a campaign like Afghanistan, where formations and commanders serve tours of 6 months - 2 years and then are replaced by fresh ones (albeit often these days with their own experience of previous tours). There has been criticism in Britain that many of the brigades in Helmand have used their mission command freedom to take approaches very different from their predecessors and successors, meaning perhaps, as with Vann's comments on Vietnam, that we don't have five years' experience of Helmand, but six month's experience ten times over. But maybe this is just a result of "higher command" not having been able "to make its intentions clear right through the force..."?
3. Slim's book is of course all about transformation (though he would doubtless have used a more elegant word) - the title "Defeat into Victory" says it all. The British (and imperial) military had of course a great deal of experience with this even before it learnt to eat soup with a knife: Singapore was followed by Slim's victories, Dunkirk led to D-Day, the Royal Navy pioneered convoys, carriers and intelligence fusion as well as dreadnoughts, the army in the American colonies developed greenjackets as well as redcoats etc. Throughout Slim's book he emphasises the traditional, established nature of the skills and principles needed for adaptation to changed and demanding circumstances, e.g. he singles out discipline, which to him seems the essential basic military quality. He implies that failure was as much a result of neglecting these established virtues, as of neglecting to invent new ones (qv his scepticism about the then newly-fashionable special forces). This implies that Eitan Shamir is only partly right to argue that established armies (in Schilling's words) "tend, when confronted with new cultures, to look to their past in an attempt to proof that the 'new' is actually a well-known tradition of their respective force": in fact, armies may genuinely need to return to the old in order to deal with the new.
I am something of an amateur in all these issues, but if Bill Slim thinks along these lines, then I'm inclined to take his word for it. He was, after all, the most successful British general of the Second World War, as well as the one with the clearest writing style.
"A. Gentleman Ranker," when he is not out on a spree, is a British official who has worked on Iraq and Afghanistan issues and is now attached to a think tank.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.