The Art of Successful Command

Martin Van Creveld's book successfully conveys the issue of command in war even to those who did not choose a military career

Kudos to the Doctrine & Training Division of IDF GHQ for initiating and assisting in the publishing of the Hebrew version of this book by Martin Van Creveld, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University and one of the most important current military historians worldwide. Most of van Creveld's books were published in English and are regarded as mandatory reading in the various colleges of the US military. Only his book Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton has been published in Hebrew.

The book "Command in War" focuses on the art of command. To illustrate the importance of commanding military power, the author begins with a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte, who said "It was not the legions that crossed the Rubicon, but (Julius) Caesar". For illustrative purposes, the book focuses on several major battles, including Napoleon's victory in Jena, von Moltke's operations in the Battle of Königgrätz, the Yom-Kippur War and the Vietnam War. The author reviews in this book the various developments in battlefield command from ancient Greece to the Vietnam War but does not miss the opportunity to add a comprehensive analysis of the command doctrine of IDF, by referring briefly to the Six-Day War (whose fiftieth anniversary will be noted next year) and more thoroughly to the events on the southern front during the first few days of the Yom-Kippur War.

According to van Creveld, a structured command system can set its own goal and continuously strive to accomplish it while being fully aware of the fact that problems will be encountered, but at the same time being confident that when such problems occur – it will be able to overcome them from within. To illustrate this, he quotes excerpts from a lecture delivered by IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Mordechai Gur in 1978, in which he compared a structured command system to a ballistic missile launched at a precisely-specified target, and along the way can overcome numerous malfunctions and interruptions, both internal and external, and still reach its original destination.

The primary argument presented in the book is that the most essential function of military command is dealing with the issue of uncertainty. The book devotes particular attention to the relentless pursuit by military commands of certainty – regarding the enemy, the conditions on the battlefield and, naturally – regarding the forces subordinated to them.

The first chapter of the book presents a comprehensive review of the evolution of command and how it was consolidated in response to the growing complexity, mobility and deployment and also because of the developments in communication and information processing technologies as they are applied to command, control and communications (C3). This evolution is illustrated through the leadership of the tribal chief during the Stone Age and Alexander the Great of Macedon, through von Moltke's general staff in 1870, which totaled no more than 70 officers (who, during the war against France, commanded about a million troops), a few wagons with filing cabinets and maps, a team of mounted messengers and such technical assets as binoculars, flags, bugles and drums, and homing pigeons that were subsequently replaced by telegraph and telephone. The unchecked swelling of the command system since World War II to the present threatens, according to the author, the defense budgets to such an extent that eventually, it might be left with nothing to command.

The second chapter deals with the Stone Age of command, when, owing to the primitive communication technology available at the time, the supreme commander was forced to deal with numerous other issues that may otherwise have been assigned to secondary commanders. As technology evolved, commanders who had up until then conducted the operations in the field could now relinquish "direct observation" in favor of the "situation appraisal" method that relies on a study of the map and the written intelligence reports.

The third chapter addresses the strategy revolution that followed the technological evolution – a revolution that began in the time of Napoleon, when the organization of armed forces improved and staff groups started to emerge alongside the supreme commander. In addition to the changes in doctrine, these staff groups enabled "the God of War to break free of its chains" and win the battle of Jena.

The fourth chapter deals with railroads, rifles and telegraph lines. It illustrates the technological watershed through the victory of the Prussian doctrine at the Battle of Königgrätz against the Austrians.

The fifth chapter describes the industrial management doctrine in the late 19th century, all the way to the widespread implementation thereof during World War I.

The sixth chapter, dealing with the masters of mobile warfare, provides an elaborate description of the command doctrine of IDF through the successful results of the Six-Day War and the failures of the counterattack during the Yom-Kippur War.

The seventh chapter addresses the helicopter and the computer and focuses on counterinsurgency warfare, which is typical of the changes in the nature of warfare. It presents an analysis of the combat operations of the US forces in Vietnam during the stage when there was still hope for a decisive military victory, when the US military command, trained and indoctrinated in the conduct of conventional warfare, was transplanted in an environment of guerrilla warfare with which it was not qualified to deal.

The book, presented to the reader in eloquent, fluent prose, will prove stimulating to IDF officers and to anyone interested in military and history issues.


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