Notes from The Mask Of Command
After the fall of Tyre, when Darius improved his bid, offering the whole of his empire up to the Euphrates, from which Alexander was still 500 miles distant, and also threw in the offer of a large cash sum and his daughter’s hand in marriage, Parmenio at once urged Alexander to accept. Alexander’s famous reply was that “he would indeed have done this were he Parmenio but, being Alexander, he would do no such thing.”
Alexander, in short, sought to lead by indulgence as well as by example. Indulgence could take various forms. Early in the Asia Minor campaign, after the Granicus but before Issus, he made a block grant of what today the British army would call ‘compassionate leave’: “some of the Macedonians had been recently married; Alexander sent them off to spend the winter with their wives in Macedonia … He gained as much popularity by this act as by any other.” Much later, during the Indian campaign, he decreed a general cancellation of debts; ‘nervous lest Alexander had merely tried an experiment to see who had not lived on their pay,’ few at first registered. But, when it became clear that he genuinely intended to spend the army’s accumulated wealth on a moratorium, without enquiring who paid what, the soldiers queued up at the accountants’ table to clear their slates, ‘more gratified by the concealment of their names than by their cancellation.’
Philo’s advice to a second-century general underlines this transvaluation of warriordom in an unmistakable language:
It is your duty not to take part in the battle, for whatever you may accomplish by spilling your own blood could not compare with the harm you would do to your interests as a whole if anything happened to you … Keeping yourself out of range of missiles, or moving along the line without exposing yourself, exhort the soldiers, distribute praise and honours to those who prove their courage and berate and punish the cowards; in this way all your soldiers will confront danger as well as possible.
It was mental powers, not aids to them, which distinguished the true commander from the military functionary.
I want you to discuss with me freely from time to time the details of the orders given for the conduct of battle, and learn my views as fully as possible as to what course should be pursued in all the contingencies which may arise. … I want you to explain my views to commanders and urge immediate action, looking to co-operation, without waiting for specific orders from me.
But all Grant’s despatches were of that quality. Wellington was famed for his powers of literary expression;’ Peel, who was to succeed him as Prime Minister, thought him a supreme master of the English language. Grant, though his writing lacks the controlled passion to which Wellington’s could rise at its best, was equally incisive.
Radio - ‘wireless’ better communicates its crucial military quality - had, by its perfection in the 1930s, dissipated the cloud of unknowing which had descended between the fighting soldiers and their commander ever since long-range weapons had driven him from the focus of combat. Wireless … did allow headquarters art successively higher levels of command to monitor the progress of events and moderate their course by sensible intervention. But ‘sensible intervention’ implied a division of responsibilities. … Churchill, for example, took the closest interest in the conduct of battles but had, or was talked by his advisers into, the sense not to interfere with his generals when crisis at the front transfixed their attention. Hitler, as we have seen, did not.
The successful leader - given that he is not doomed to fight an unwinnable war - is the person (women can lead as well as, if not better than, men) who has perceived command’s imperatives and knows how to serve them. Those imperatives are few - but not all will necessarily yield under assault by a mind as possessed by the urge to power as that of Hitler himself. How are they to be enumerated?
- The Imperative of Kinship
- The Imperative of Prescription
- The Imperative of Sanction
- The Imperative of Action
- The Imperative of Example
Whatever the means he employed to make himself understood, Alexander had grasped from the outset the imperative of prescription - the need of every commander to convey an impression of himself to his troops through words, to explain what he wants of them, to allay their fears, to arouse their hopes, and to bind their ambitions to his own.
In the modern world Raimondo Montecuccoli, the imperial general of the Thirty Years’ War, is almost the only writer to have addressed the subject …
‘Exhortation of the host’ is how he describes the imperative of prescription, ‘when the general speaks pubicly to his soldiers in order to urge them to demonstrate virtu and to infuse them with courage.’ He suggests four main ways by which those objects may be achieved.
- Arguments of use
- Exploiting the fear of infamy
- Exciting the desire for riches and prestige
- Developing confidence.
‘The first quality of an officer,’ wrote the future Marshal Lyautey in 1894, ‘is gaiety.’
Those, like Hitler, the chateau generals and the denizens of contemporary situation rooms, who choose to say ‘never’, do so because of their belief that the dilemma is solved by artificial vision - that supplied by telegraphic, telephonic, and today, televisual communication; their response to the challenge of events was and is to demand more information and to issue stronger orders. It is the third group, formed of those giving the answer ‘sometimes’, whose response to the dilemma is most fruitful. Wellington and Grant - but also Caesar among their predecessors, Guderian and Montgomery among their successors - accepted that neither knowing nor seeing alone return an answer to the challenge of events. Sometimes a commander’s proper place will be in his headquarters and at his map table, where calm and seclusion accord him the opportunity to reflect on the information that intelligence brings him, to ponder possibilities and to order a range of responses in his mind. Other times, when crisis presents itself, his place is at the front where he can see for himself, make direct and immediate judgements, watch them taking effect and reconsider his options as events change under his hand.