Chaos in Battle

It is a famous military maxim that even the best battle plans disintegrate after first contact with the enemy. Chaos in battle tends to occur because when an army comes in contact with the enemy, the ability to control the massive amount of information that must be processed becomes more and more impossible.

An excellent example of the problems with command and control of military units is in the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon's last battle. In this battle the general officers were assumed to control troop movements. Yet it would seem that the army commander's role in bringing the army to battle was done by the beginning of the battle. He brought his force to bear and laid it out on the battlefield as best he could considering the terrain and the opposing forces. The corp and division commanders had a roll to play in getting near the enemy and the brigade level commanders came into their own as troops neared their objectives. Once the firing began, individual regiments were controlled by their colonels and finally, the actual combat, firing, melee and what have you was left to the individual soldiers. The only the thing the army commander could possibly do is throw in reserves at specific locations, but when done, he almost instantly lost control of the units engaged.

Of course, with modern communications generals can stay in closer touch with the situation on the front and hopefully maneuver accordingly. But battle is somewhat like economics in that the best person to control the situation is not sitting in an armchair, but is on the spot and has the actual assets in his hand, whether it be a tank or a rifle squad. What this means is that individual initiative on the field of battle is, and probably always will be, the final deciding factor in the outcome of a conflict.

The role of the general officer is to see first of all that his troops are trained to operate on this level and to do it well. The most successful armies in history can be traced to this kind of training. The Romans were the first to perfect it. Not even the Greek phalanx could resist the Roman war machine which relied heavily on loose formations where the individual soldier came into his own.

But of course, extending command control, stretching it to its farthest level has had its successes, for an illustration see the campaigns of Frederick the Great. He could extend his command influence to a lower level because of the training of his troops. It was not merely a matter of following a command to execute an oblique attack.

One might also argue that the Schlieffen plan proved successful for the German Army in their invasion of France at the beginning of World War I (also known as the Great War in some circles). Yet here again there was brilliant planning combined with rigorous training. In reality, the Schlieffen plan only brought the forces to bear, and ultimately only failed because the German General Staff failed to carry it out the way Schlieffen had laid it out. The modern United States Army is a perfect example of a force that can extend its command and control beyond the reach of most forces. Yet again control and initiative are pushed to the lowest level.

The reason modern command structures in U.S. forces have been so successful is that they have reduced the amount of information necessary to control an engagement to what is absolutely necessary for a commander to understand. For example, in the U.S. Navy there is a doctrine called "command by negation". This is actually a rule that says once the missiles start to fly the commanders on the lowest levels are authorized to take any action they deem necessary, only they must inform their next superior commander. This commander will generally accept the judgment of the unit commander, but will negate it only if it runs entirely counter to the interest of the entire force engaged.

To conclude, the most efficient fighting forces are those that are trained on the lowest level possible to take initiative and make intelligent decisions in the face of the enemy. The commander's roll is to bring his units to the battle and to release reserves and resources when they are needed. It is the soldier who does the fighting.


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