Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Battle Order Number One

Modern militaries have never enjoyed such a high level of communications and data awareness.  The ability for information to flow up and down the chain of command is unprecedented;  some would say unlimited.

Modern militaries have never seen such a high level of micro-management of tactical actions.  The ability of upper levels of command to see down to small unit tactical levels and take control is unprecedented;  many would say with generally disastrous consequences.

These two elements of command and control are always in tension.  Too often, in the U.S. military, the temptation to pre-empt the local commander and micro-manage smaller units wins out.

Pearl Harbor - Failure of Command

ComNavOps is ever one to peruse history, being well aware that those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  I’m reminded of an historical incident involving remote and local levels of command that is worth re-examining.  Pearl Harbor was an example where command and control failed to disseminate information to the local commanders in a sufficiently informative and declarative fashion as to enable the local commanders to take the necessary action.  Historians have delved into the question of who knew what and when at great lengths and I have no intention of re-visiting that issue.  Suffice it to say that whatever information the local commanders at Pearl Harbor had, it was insufficient to trigger preparations for wholesale combat.

So, is this the end of this post?  A statement of the obvious?  No!  Curiously, another local commander who possessed no more, and in all probability a great deal less, specific information came to the exact opposite conclusion than the Pearl Harbor commanders and put his conclusion into action.  I’m talking about Adm. William (Bull) Halsey.  As documented by Steve Ewing (1), on the evening of 28-Nov-41 Battle Order Number One was issued by Halsey and stated, in part,

“1.  The Enterprise is now operating under war conditions.
 2.  At any time, day or night, we must be ready for instant action.
 8.  Steady nerves and stout hearts are needed now.”
November 28, 1941, ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Adm. Halsey and Enterprise were already at war.  How could this be?  What information prompted Halsey to assume a state of war before any official directive?  What made him go to war while the commanders at Pearl Harbor were blissfully engaged in peacetime activities?  I’ve never read any accounting of Halsey’s thought process or state of mind at that time so I have no idea what he was thinking.  Given that nothing has been brought to light on the subject thus far, to the best of my knowledge, we’ll probably never know for sure.  Suffice it to say that Halsey, the local commander, had a far better sense of the situation than the commanders at Pearl Harbor and, quite possibly, the national command in Washington. 

Adm. Halsey - Local Command

I have no wish to turn this into a discussion of Halsey’s career successes or failures.  Other historians have investigated this in great detail.  For the purpose of this discussion, this incident serves as a vivid reminder that the local commander often (usually? always?) has a far better sense of the local situation than higher authority.  Decentralized command is a vanishing characteristic of naval operations and should be actively resisted by higher leadership.

On a related note, this also illustrates the attribute of command courage.  Halsey had to know that he risked an inflammatory incident without authorization and, had it occurred, would have suffered the wrath of naval bureaucracy.  Regardless of personal and career risk, he took the action he believed necessary to safeguard his men and ships.  The commanders at Pearl Harbor could have made the same kind of call that Halsey made and been fully prepared for combat but they chose not to.  The courage of conviction demonstrated by Halsey is woefully lacking in today’s Navy and his example should serve as inspiration to today’s leadership.

(1) USS Enterprise (CV-6), The Most Decorated Ship of World War II (Exhibit Edition), Steve Ewing, Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, ISBN: 0-933126-24-7, 1982, p. 13


  1. Halsey was not alone. Many senior naval officers at Pearl felt there was war coming. Unfortunately, they (like Halsey) were thinking Wake, not Pearl.

    1. The difference is that to whatever degree they thought war likely and wherever they thought it would fall, they took no action to safeguard their command. The fleet was obliging lined up (Battleship Row) as targets, planes were clustered together on the ground, there was no standing CAP, no effective area scouting, and so on. If they thought war was coming anywhere in the Pacific they should have been operating on a wartime footing as was Halsey.

      Further, Halsey was already in an OFFENSIVE mindset and fully prepared to carry out pre-emptive attacks within the scope of his missions.

      Again, I'm not trying to analyze Halsey's career. I'm simply pointing out this instance as an example of the local commander having been 100% correct in assessing the situation and having the courage and conviction to take the appropriate action. Lessons the current Navy could greatly benefit from!

  2. A great example of top-down micro-management is President Johnson during the Vietnam War. He personally scrubbed target lists for USN and USAF planned for the following day, crossing off certain sites. It really disrupted the entire strategic campaign.

  3. I would be curious as to how many times the opposite has happened - where local commanders were given too much freedom, and ended up making things worse/kicking off an avoidable war/doing a Custer and entirely screwing the pooch.

    I know that the commander on the scene is the one in the line of fire, and should be given latitude to respond how they see fit, within reason. But there's always the risk of not seeing the forest for the trees...

    1. That's a great question. Custer misread his situation, for sure, although higher command undoubtedly had no better awareness than he did. Offhand, I can't think of an example where the local commander did worse than he would have with the help of upper command. Are you aware of any? I'm sure there must be but none come instantly to mind.

    2. Honestly, it's not a question I've considered, before today. Things like the USS Vincennes/Iran Air Flight 655 affair and the Tanak Farm incident come close, I suppose, but neither exactly fits the bill.

      Aside from that, no concrete examples spring to mind. It just strikes me that Halsey's attitude, while appropriate (in hindsight) for the situation at hand, shouldn't be what we encourage for every scenario. When you're expecting trouble, everything starts to look like it. And the world's crazy enough as it is.

      I guess it's all about striking a balance. Give the commander on the scene freedom to respond, but limit it to what he (or she) can reasonably be expected to need.

      Which is easier said than done, of course.

    3. I hope you haven't misinterpreted my point. I'm not at all suggesting that active hostility should be the default attitude by local commanders. In fact, your example of the Vincennes is, I think, a perfect example of the opposite side of the coin. Higher command was preaching a climate of watchful restraint and a local commander (CO of the Vincennes) ignored the higher command with disastrous results.

      My point is that the local commander usually has a better situational awareness (whether that calls for aggression or restraint) and should be allowed to exercise his discretion and, further, have the courage to exercise it, as Halsey did.

      I can't find any reference to a Tanak Farm incident. Can you tell me what it was?


    4. Oops, that should have been the Tarnak Farm Incident. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarnak_Farm_incident)

      And yes, I agree wholeheartedly with your point. I guess I just felt like playing Devil's Advocate.

  4. Back in the 1990’s then Marine Corps Commandant Krulak talked about the idea of the “Strategic Corporal” where important decisions are pushed down the chain of command. What used to be done at the battalion level devolved to the company or platoon level. Krulak’s concept absolutely depended on the chain of command to trust junior people to make the right decisions, act on them, and not get micro-managed for it.

    The problem is that modern telecommunications militate against this; the “CNN-effect”.

    1. A great example! Historically, the independence of the individual soldier has always been considered a strength of the U.S. military. In particular, it was one of the stark differences between the Soviet style and the U.S. or, more recently, the U.S. and Iraq.

      Supposedly, the Soviets claimed that the difficulty in countering U.S. military doctrine was that the U.S. military felt no great obligation to follow their own doctrine.

      By the way, whatever happened to the Strategic Corporal? By now he's probably either a Strategic General or retired, I'm guessing.

    2. At least for the Marines on the ground another factor has entered the equation and that is legal ramifications. Against an enemy that doesn't where a uniform and hides amongst the general populace it becomes very difficult to decide when and where to apply force. Those split second decisions are now being examined in legal hindsight and people are being penalized to varying degrees. That's got to have a chilling effect on initiative at the lower levels. If I was running the risk of being charged with crimes all the way up to murder, I'd be real reluctant to exercise independent thought and action.

    3. That's why what I'll call the post-Vietnam way of war militates against lower level freedom of action. Every allegation gets investigated; photos and video must be refuted by a spokesman, and the whole war effort slows down. An investigation or PR statement necessarily must come from a central authority.

      The enemy takes advantage of all that. One example: every Hellfire strike kills dozens, sometimes even whole weddings, to pull even harder on the heart strings.

      If the same principles were applied in 1944, Eisenhower would have testified before the Senate numerous times, and the push from the Normandy beachhead would have taken years instead of months.

      Even something like the dead is stretched out. A Vietnam veteran made a good point to me a couple of years ago. He didn't like the idea of governors flying flags at half-staff for two weeks when a service-member from that state died. He said if that had happened in previous wars the flag would never reach the top of the flagpole for the duration. That didn't mean they cared less for troops back then, but they didn't obsess about it. Most people in that state cannot name the person for whom the flag is at half-staff for at the moment. He had a good point. As someone who has lost buddies over there, I agree.

  5. Local decisions will always be made best by locals.

    The problem is, local decisions can have international consequences.

    How many times have locals ignored high command and been worse off?
    Perhaps never.

    How many times have locals ignored high command and started a war?
    McArther nearly went nuclear on his own authority didnt he?

    Personaly, I think we need to start over.
    Imagine an army in which Colonels are the highest rank. Generals dont command, they advise, they administrate, they support, they inform.

    Reading some of the reports that have come out of Afghanistan are just horrifying.
    I've read every variant possible of Captain/Major/Colonel in a fox hole saying "I cant do that with those resources", and a Brigadier or higher in Bastion or Khandahar, or even London/Washington send back that they had plenty.
    And then the mission failed.....

  6. I think part of the problem is the technology of communications now. But it is also how our society looks at war.

    I was in Anbar province in Iraq in 2004 when a NBC crew embedded with Marines fighting in Fallujah were filmed shooting terrorists that were wounded in the battle. They did so because earlier Marines and Corpsmen were hurt or killed trying to help wounded terrorists who played possum and popped a grenade.

    There was a minor kerfuffle stateside about what occurred. For two reasons, the actual footage and public attitude. Previous wars did not have that kind of footage available. But in previous wars the public attitude was that "war is hell". Our servicemen were not held to an unattainable standard of perfection.

    That Marine seen in the footage shooting the terrorist was pulled out of his unit briefly, and after an investigation returned there. But the message was unspoken yet clear: don't do what will save your life and expect the chain of command to back you up.

    Nothing like this could have happened in WWI & WWII. The public would not have reacted like that to such footage, and would have blamed the enemy for forcing GIs to do this as a precaution.

    1. You make a great point. I recall an example from Desert Storm in which we bulldozed over trenches that had Iraq troops hiding in them. There was an outcry over the inhumane method of killing them. ??!! There's a humane way of killing in war?

      This leads to the next logical point which is committment to war. If we, as a country, are not prepared to enter fully into war by killing in whatever fashion best works, by being willing to destroy whatever building an enemy is hiding in (no sactuaries), and crossing any borders that an enemy may be hiding beyond then mayber we should be asking ourselves whether we should be in that war. I tend to believe that war is an all-or-nothing affair and that we shouldn't be so quick to jump into "police" actions.


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