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Command Culture

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In Command Culture, Joerg Muth examines the different paths the United States Army and the German Armed Forces traveled to select, educate, and promote their officers in the crucial time before World War II. Muth demonstrates that the military education system in Germany represented an organized effort where each school and examination provided the stepping stone for the next. But in the United States, there existed no communication about teaching contents or didactical matters among the various schools and academies, and they existed in a self chosen insular environment. American officers who finally made their way through an erratic selection process and past West Point to the important Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, found themselves usually deeply disappointed, because they were faced again with a rather below average faculty who forced them after every exercise to accept the approved "school solution." Command Culture explores the paradox that in Germany officers came from a closed authoritarian society but received an extremely open minded military education, whereas their counterparts in the United States came from one of the most democratic societies but received an outdated military education that harnessed their minds and limited their initiative. On the other hand, German officer candidates learned that in war everything is possible and a war of extermination acceptable. For American officers, raised in a democracy, certain boundaries could never be crossed. This work for the first time clearly explains the lack of audacity of many high ranking American officers during World War II, as well as the reason why so many German officers became perpetrators or accomplices of war crimes and atrocities or remained bystanders without speaking up. Those American officers who became outstanding leaders in World War II did so not so much because of their military education, but despite it.

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1. Prelude: Military Relations between the United States and Germany and the Great General Staff Fantasy

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Prelude: Military Relations between the United States and Germany and the Great General Staff Fantasy

“The German Army has been busy since the War, as it always was busy before the War, in developing new weapons or new applications of old ones, new tactics and new methods of training.”1

—Thomas Bentley Mott, U.S. military attaché to France at the turn of the twentieth century

“We are indebted to the Germans for this system of teaching the art of war, now gradually working its way into our own Army.”2

—Annual Report of the Commandant, U.S. Infantry and Cavalry School, 1906

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t has been stated that “no other army in history has ever known its enemy as well as the American army knew the German army when the Amer­ icans crossed the Rhine River and began their final offensive.”3 While the

U.S. Army might have known a lot, it understood little.

The German Army—and before that the Prussian—has been a source of inspiration and education and even a role model for the U.S.

Army since it came into existence but especially since the successful wars of German unification.4 However, because the Americans have misun­ derstood the German culture of war until the present day, the lessons drawn from it by the U.S. Army often were, and still are, flawed or not implemented. Warfare is so much based on culture, tradition, and his­ tory that it would have been hard anyway to put into practice the warwaging culture of one army in another but it becomes close to impossible when this culture is misinterpreted.5

 

2. No “Brother Officers”: Cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point

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No “Brother Officers”:

Cadets at the United States

Military Academy at West Point

“You can never be a ‘brother officer’ to him whom you once degraded. [ … ]

The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment.”1

—Major General John McAllister Schofield, USMA 1853

“The best way to extinguish a man is to send him to West Point.”2

—Dr. Charles E. Woodruff, Army Surgeon, 1922

D

espite some “structural” similarities of both armies discussed in chap­ ter1, the route to becoming an officer differed dramatically in both nations. Young Germans who sought to become officers, either via a position in a military academy or in an existing regiment, pursued this goal with the intent of becoming regulars for a lifetime.3 In contrast, the majority of young Americans who applied to West Point saw a military school or academy as a means to a free education unavailable in expen­ sive private colleges. American adolescents, however, often became grad­ ually overwhelmed by the martial spirit and at least tried to start a career in the military. More than 85 percent of the officers who had graduated from West Point in the years from 1900 to 1915 remained on active duty until their retirement.4 The reason for staying that long in service, how­ ever, can not be attributed only to a martial spirit or a sense of duty; the occurrence of two world wars has to be taken into account.

 

3. “To Learn How to Die”: Kadetten in Germany

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“To Learn How to Die”:

Kadetten in Germany

“You are here to learn how to die!”1

—commander of a German Kadettenschule to new arrivals

T

he pursuit of a free education via the military academies sharply distinguishes the American officers from their German counterparts. To become one of the emperor’s, or the Weimar Republic’s, finest, a young German usually had to come from one of the “Offizier fähigen Schichten”—officercapable classes. In general, mid- to high-level officials, professors, the whole nobility, and current or former officers belonged to those strata, the sons of which filled the ranks of potential future military leaders. Those who lacked these privileged backgrounds yet held ambitions to become officers could pursue their goal through a “technical” arm, such as the artillery, which since the times of Frederick the Great traditionally welcomed common men of

“low” birth. Frederick fully acknowledged that commoners as officers could show the same mettle as those of noble birth. He expected, however, the sons of nobility to have the additional motivation not to shame their family heritage, especially their fathers, something they learned from earliest childhood.2 This incentive still lives in officers’ families in modern times.3

 

4. The Importance of Doctrine and How to Manage: The American Command and General Staff School

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The Importance of Doctrine and How to Manage: The American

Command and General Staff School and the Overlooked Infantry School

“A career officer is going to school as long as he lives.”1

—General Matthew Bunker Ridgway

A

nother cornerstone of the American professional military education system was founded by General William Tecumseh Sherman,

USMA 1840, in May 1881 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Then known as

“School of Application for the Infantry and Cavalry,” it went—even in later years—through several name changes, which proves the point that it “initially lacked a clearly defined purpose.”2 The problem of lacking a definite educational task would haunt the school even decades later.3

From the outset, the school ran into several problems that tainted its reputation. Though the U.S. Army had the greatest demand for officers with knowledge of professional staff work, the majority of students

Leavenworth school admitted at first were lieutenants. Officers with this rank, however, were supposed to command a platoon, while the school was supposed to teach staff procedures for higher units.

 

5. The Importance of the Attack and How to Lead: The German Kriegsakademie

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The Importance of the Attack and How to Lead: The German Kriegsakademie

“One can do in war only what one has learned in peace.”1

—Hauptmann (later Generalleutnant) Adolf von Schell

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s a supposed threat to Europe, the German Great General Staff was forbidden by the Versailles Treaty, as was the education of General

Staff officers. But, with a little ingenuity, the Germans just renamed the

General Staff into Truppenamt (troop office), whose section T4 dealt with the education of the General Staff officers. The staff officers them­ selves were in turn just renamed Führergehilfen (leader assistants). That fooled the Inter-Allied Control Commission for a few years. No regula­ tion of the Versailles Treaty was more thoroughly “circumvented” than that of the abolition of the General Staff and education and selection of its officers.2 The fact that they were undertaking illegal activities was well known to the majority of the German officers.3 Though the whole ex­ tent was not recognized by the visiting American officers, they knew the

 

6. Education, Culture, and Consequences

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Education, Culture, and Consequences

“If, in order to succeed in an enterprise, I were obliged to choose between 50 deer commanded by a lion or 50 lions commanded by a deer, I should consider myself more certain of success with the first group than with the second.” 1

—Saint Vincent de Paul

“Rules are for fools.” 2

—Generaloberst Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord, commander in chief of the Reichswehr, 1930–1934

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fter the overwhelmingly successful wars of German unification, the

U.S. Army switched its focus completely from the French to the vic­ torious Prussian/German Army. The American officers also changed their priorities from matters of equipment and weaponry to the supposedly warwinning institution of the Great General Staff. They got it all wrong.

Though it is evident that an army needs a top planning institution, such an organization does not guarantee success or superiority. Even when staffed with professionally trained officers, it will show only aver­ age performance—or even harm the war effort—if there is not out­ standing leadership in the highest positions. It is no coincidence that two of the greatest chiefs of staff ever, Moltke the Elder and George C.

 

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