It’s best translated from German as “mission tactics”, though it’s much more than that.  To the Prussian, and later, German armies, it was a state of mind.  A leadership style.

Jorg Muth, author of a new book on command culture in the US and German armies, writes at Tom Ricks’ The Best Defense:

…Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke was the first to formulate the concept of Auftragstaktik. Moltke was a diligent student of Frederick’s campaigns, of military history in general and philosophy. At a time when he was not yet famous and, not yet the victor of three wars, he observed the annual General Staff war games in 1858. The paperwork and the detailed orders appalled him because he knew that in war there was no time for such nonsense. During the war game critique he decreed that “as a rule an order should contain only what the subordinate for the achievement of his goals cannot determine on his own.” Everything else was to be left to the commander on the spot.

Acolytes of the late fighter-pilot-turned-strategist John Boyd are undoubtedly familiar with the concept.  According to the Loopy One, it was this style of leadership–one which encouraged subordinate commanders to use initiative in the absence of higher headquarters–which made the Teutonic armies such an effective fighting force.  During the late 1970s, these concepts would be incorporated into the US Army’s AirLand Battle doctrine.

We’ve all heard the Army’s leadership laud “strategic corporals“, “empowering subordinates“, and “mission-type orders“.  But while the Army’s Doctrine Men might preach that mission orders should look like this:

I suppose dozens of operations orders have gone out in my name, but I never, throughout the war, actually wrote one myself. I always had someone who could do that better than I could. One part of the order I did, however, draft myself – the intention. It is usually the shortest of all paragraphs, but it is always the most important, because it states – or it should – just what the commander intends to achieve. It is the one overriding expression of will by which everything in the order and every action by every commander and soldier must be dominated. it should, therefore be worded by the commander himself.

–Viscount William Slim, “Defeat into Victory“.

We actually do this:


1.A.1.A.(U) Purpose. To expedite customer service of [redacted] Burger King Eatery during lunch hours.

1.A.1.B.(U) Task to Subordinate Units.

1.A.1.B.1.A.(U) See Coordinating Instructions.

1.A.1.C.(U) Coordinating Instructions.

1.A.1.C.1.(U) Please know what menu item or value meal number being purchased as soon as possible.

1.A.1.C.2.(U) Have money ready.

1.A.1.C.3.(U) Please have one person speak at a time.

1.A.1.C.4.(U) Know what size value meal (if applicable).

1.A.1.C.5.(U) Know what kind of drink you desire.

1.A.1.C.6.(U) Be courteous to eatery staff.

(I am not making that up.  That really is from a weekly FRAGO I received in the Spring of 2010)

Today’s information technology allows us to micromanage to a degree previously unfathomable.  A modern general can use computers to inspect individual soldiers’ training records, or use sophisticated drones to catch troops’ uniform infractions.  His staff can e-mail fragmentary orders weighing in at a whopping hundred pages each week, often so full of useless minutia that commanders ignore it completely.  (Perhaps it’s a surreptitious form of auftragstaktik.)

Sure, they might teach “auftragstaktik” at ILE.  But they’ll still require majors to fill out a vehicle inspection checklist just to drive fifty miles on a four-day weekend.

There’s also the issue of the Army’s perennial fascination with all things Prussian.  I’d argue that the Combined Arms Center has such a fetish for dead Prussians that they’ve either got a pickelhaube in their pocket, or else they just really love Clausewitz and Moltke.

Initiative is great, so long as subordinate commanders make the appropriate decisions.  But this isn’t always the case.  During the opening days of the First World War, Alexander von Kluck, then commander of the German First Army, bucked Moltke the Younger’s intricate Schlieffen Plan, and wheeling his army to the east, just short of Paris.  Von Kluck’s callous disregard for Moltke’s plan caused a 30-mile gap in the German line, setting the stage for a French counteroffensive, known as the “Miracle at the Marne”.

“Initiative” spawned four more years of trench warfare on two fronts.

Von Kluck might have trusted his fingerspitzengefuhl–fingertip feel–of the situation on the ground, thrown caution the wind, and glossed over the finer details the plan.   Then again, so did Leeroy Jenkins.

Perhaps the Combined Arms Center should study Internet memes, rather than dead Prussians.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *