17 June 2019
This book traces developments in how one of the fundamental military formations, the division, was changed at the beginning of the First World War to cope with the demands of industrial war; follows its development through the remainder of the "short" C20 (i.e. to the fall of the Soviet Union) and then describes what the author sees as a profound change in how divisions operate at the end of the C20 and the beginning of C21. Inextricably linked to this is the author's description of how those divisions were commanded and how that has changed in the same period - so inextricably that I could have written this paragraph the other way around (divisions in the context of command) and it would have worked equally well as a description.
The author's big idea - not original, since it has appeared as the author acknowledges in fragmentary form in the recent memoirs of some recent commanders, but here worked into a logical and coherent theoretical whole - is that command has become diffused and delegated in new ways which are fundamentally different from the previous theoretical ideal of the 'heroic' leadership of one individual general commanding a division. The author deals very knowledgeably with the modifications that need to be made to both sides of this statement, but still believes the distinction to be real.
The description of the changes and the vignettes of different styles of command at various historical points are informative and convincing, although the author notes (with regret) that the evidence is vastly from "Western" armies (USA, UK, France, Germany). It is interesting that the author does not appear to consider Israel as "Western" in this regard. Commanders as different as Monash, Rommel, Rupert Smith and James Matthis are all considered. The author is very careful to include examples from counter-insurgency warfare (here, Malaya, Algeria, Vietnam and Afghanistan) as well as more conventional warfare.
The author goes into quite a lot of detail about how and why he believes that command has become more diffused. There are interesting examinations of empowered deputy/assistant divisional commanders, the use of decision points as a staff tool for guiding, and in some cases pre-empting, the decisions of the commander, and the changes in scope, time and space which eliminate the possibility of WW2, 'heroic', on-the-spot command. The author links some of the changes into his thesis in his previous book, Combat Soldier, that motivation has become more professional and requires less demonstrative leadership - although this is heavily caveated.
Interestingly, and admirably, the author includes many of the powerful objections made against this type of command and divisional structure, for example those made by Jim Storr in The Human Face of War, in particular that such diffused staff-led decision making is slow and clumsy and is too dependent on being able to predict inherently unpredictable situations. The author actually refuses to come to a conclusion as to which would be more effective, but points out that as a matter of fact, all the armies covered appear to be heading in a very similar direction. He seems broadly impressed with the apparently increased levels of professionalization, although noting that overall the campaigns seem to have gone badly. I don't think he resolved that tension in the book.
For a primarily sociological book, it is a relatively easy read. It is very interesting (and perhaps unintentionally hilarious) seeing headquarters' update briefs through the eyes of a sociologist!! There is the odd very unusual word, and in the Kindle Edition at least, there are a fair few typographical and (I guess) auto-correct errors. The survey of the literature on the subject is excellent and for the serious student of these issues, worth a glance at the book for this alone.
Despite its many qualities, I wasn't wholly convinced by the author's thesis. I think that if there is something missing, it is that different functions of command, and thus appropriate styles of command, have been moved to different levels over the period. Given reduced numbers, it is not inherently surprising that some functions which were delivered at corps, army or even army group level are now conducted at divisional level. The author does mention this, but I didn't think he worked it through in enough detail to see if that alone could explain much of the apparent change. I had quite a few other quibbles but for me, that didn't so much detract from the book as draw me into the argument.
In all, highly recommended for those interested in senior tactical and operational command from World War One to the present day. It might be too detailed and specialized for the very casual reader, but serious students, professionals and interested enthusiasts and amateurs will find it very helpful.