Many credit the miscalculation of entry into Russia during the winter, along with the waging of war on two fronts, as the downfall of Nazi Germany’s efforts in the second world war. Although Adolf Hitler may have made another, less obvious fault. And that was to so intensely centralize his control over war operations. In The Mask Of Command, John Keegan touches on the histories, successes and failures of several of history’s prominent generals. A passing remark is left that those who seek to command over others may, out of necessity, be insane.
Hitler’s micromanagerial control went beyond what was typically anticipated from a position of command. He had centralized decision making far from the front and took it upon himself to coordinate operations in the most minute detail. Through this, he missed critical but minute information, not at the forefront of planning, affecting the ebb-and-flow of battle. In contrast to Ulysses S Grant, who afforded his men a high degree of autonomy, Hitler can be viewed as having monopolized operations. While history also confirms a greater success in Grant’s overall generalship.
Parts of The Mask Of Command linger in my thoughts, among them a bit cited from Hitler’s Mein Kampf:
‘The stain of cowardly submission can never be effaced . . . This drop of poison in the blood of a people is passed on to posterity and will paralyse and undermine the strongest of later generations.’
A lesson that many of us today are beginning to [re]learn in the most regretful fashion.
Keegan also pontificates on the justification behind state violence:
There can, however, be nothing mechanistic about the excercise of power through force, whether naked or implicit, long though the power-holding and power-hungry have sought such a secret. Force finds out those who lack the virtue to wield it. Such virtue, in theocratic societies, is deemed to descend from God or the gods, and rulers by divine right may in consequence despatch their subjects to the battlefield without thought or the imputation of need to lead them there. Secular rulers enjoy no such moral exemption, in their worlds the virtues that attach to force are those by which it is resisted - therefore either go in person or else find the means of delegating the obligation without thereby invalidating their right to exercise authority outside the battlefield and in times of peace.
Where religion has given way as the motivator and grand justification for power and conquest, new systems have been devised and perfected to take up its place. If anyone reading follows the work of the Corbett Report, one might make connections as to how well a new technocratic security state may fit into that brief vacancy.
Keegan goes on:
Government is complex; its practice requires and endless and suble manipulation of the skills of inducement, persuasion, coercion, compromise, threat and bluff. Command, by contrast, is ultimately quite straightforward; its exercise turns on the recognition that those who are asked to die must not be left to feel that they die alone. But the relief of the warrior’s ultimate loneliness is achieved by means quite as complex as those that attach to government.
To that list, I might add robbery, narrative shaping, information control, the ceaseless suppression of discourse and, most of all, the erosion of choice.
The book is not, however, a commentary on government or on human free will. It is not about centralization versus decentralization. But it does cover some fascinating balances that must be made during large scale coordinated efforts, whether to lead boldly from in front, or safely from the rear, and the kinds of personality archetypes who find themselves forging decisive battles.