The Best Defense

How mission command works: Sherman's memoirs (III) show that it is based in trust, and must work as a two-way street

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on April 2, 2014.

Mission command is a two-way street, as is illustrated beautifully in the Civil War letters between General Grant and his subordinate, General Sherman.

The letters, reproduced in Sherman's memoirs, demonstrated how Grant communicated his intent to Sherman, then offered his suggested course of action, and finally asked Sherman for his thoughts. "In this letter," Grant wrote to Sherman upon hearing that the march across Georgia had reached the sea, "I do not intend to give you any thing like directions for future action, but will state a general idea I have, and will get your views after you have established yourself on the sea-coast."

Grant initially had some notion that Sherman might move his infantry by sea to Virginia, but Sherman really wanted to visit the hard hand of war upon South Carolina. In Georgia he had focused on seizing or destroying the property of plantation owners, but he next wanted to chastise the South Carolinians as a whole for starting the Civil War. He wrote to Grant that, "With Savannah in our possession ... we can punish South Carolina as she deserves.... I do sincerely believe that the whole of the United States, North and South, would rejoice to have this army turned loose on South Carolina." He also thought it would help increase the pressure on Lee in Virginia.

Grant, persuaded by Sherman's arguments, and his tone, agreed. "Your confidence in being able to march up and join this army pleases me, and I believe it can be done. The effect of such a campaign will be to disorganize the South, and prevent the organization of new armies from their broken fragments.... Without waiting further directions, then, you may make your preparations to start on your northern expedition without delay. Break up the railroads in South and North Carolina, and join the armies operating against Richmond as soon as you can."

Sherman's summary of mission command comes later in the book, in his conclusions about the lessons of the Civil War. It is pretty good: "When a detachment is made, the commander thereof should be informed of the object to be accomplished, and left as free as possible to execute it in his own way."


The Best Defense

A Marine officer who also had a career stopper responds to Major Slider's letter

By Lt. Col. Lloyd Freeman, USMC (Ret.)

Best Defense guest respondent

I was disappointed in Mr. Tom Ricks's publishing of the letter from Major Slider, who was lamenting his release from active duty from the U.S. Army due to a DUI he had received earlier in his career. I am a Marine officer and I too received a "black mark" earlier in my career due to my failure to uphold the high moral code of the Corps. I knew my mistake would mean I would not be assigned to select posts nor could I expect to be selected to command, and I wasn't. However, unlike Major Slider, I felt remorse only for the mistake I made and I harbored no ill will towards the Marine Corps, whose high standards I had failed to live up to.

I chose to join the Marine Corps and I was well aware of the high standards required for military service. Military standards are and should always remain higher than those of civilian society and so when I came up short, I accepted the consequences and continued to seek to serve as long as the Marine Corps would allow me to serve. As I watched my peers get promoted and selected for command, the temptation to be bitter was always lingering, but I always reminded myself that it was I, not the Marine Corps, who had failed. Serving the Marine Corps was an honor the Marine Corps bestowed on me... it was not an honor that I bestowed on the Marine Corps. The permission and right to wear the Marine uniform was a privilege bestowed on me by the Corps, not some deserved privilege that I had acquired through my own self-absorption. Whether I served one year or twenty years, the honor I had to serve was not a sacrifice, it was an honor that was bestowed on me, and I will always owe a tremendous debt to the Corps for having taught me to be better then I believed myself capable, even if I didn't get to serve as I might have wished.

Like Major Slider, I failed my service, but unlike Major Slider, I don't expect my service to compromise its standards because I could not live up to them. The Marine Corps and the Army are services of honor and pride because of the standards and moral code they uphold. And if soldiers and marines like Major Slider and I cannot maintain such standards, there are thousands of fine officers behind us with stellar records who will gladly take our places and serve in a more honorable fashion.

Lloyd Freeman is a retired Marine infantry officer who served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

via Flickr/USMC Archives