The Post-Heroic General: military command in the 21st century

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Politics and International Studies


Many academics, journalists and senior officers have claimed that the Iraq and Afghan campaigns were characterized by flawed military command at the strategic and operational levels. The armed forces have themselves recognized the issue and are currently renovating command structures to overcome the problems experienced on recent operations. Specifically, western armed forces, led by the United States and supported by the UK and France, are re-investing in and reforming command at the divisional level (a formation of some 20,000 soldiers) which they have identified as decisive for future campaigns. This research aims to analyse and assess the reformation of military command at the divisional level in the 21st century.

Emerging during the First World War and enduring for most of the 20th century, the modern 'combined armed' division was a large but simple organisation designed primarily for conventional inter-state land warfare. It consisted of combat troops supported by artillery and typically defended or attacked a small front of some ten miles against a similar opponent. The twenty-first century division is different. It is a multi-functional organization commanding diverse land, air and informational assets against hybrid enemies over a huge area. While the division remains the decisive tactical formation, it has expanded and diversified. It has consequently required a radical reformation of command.

Analysing this transformation of divisional command, the proposed project distinctively focuses not on commanders as charismatic individuals but on the social institution of command, which it locates in the relations between commanders and their staff within the headquarters, influenced by the wider chain of command. The research will show how command is collectively constituted by commanders and their staff. Specifically, the research aims to identify how decisions are made and executed by commanders and their staff together.

The research explores and tests a thesis that command has become 'post-heroic'. Precisely because divisional operations are now so complex involving multiple functions over large tracts of space and time, divisional commanders can no longer direct or lead operations personally, as they did - sometimes heroically - in the twentieth century. No single individual can coordinate this intricate organization and its functions. Divisional command has been distributed and shared so that in place of a single commander making rapid individual decisions, command boards consisting of senior officers, who advise the commander, have emerged. Decisions have become collective and even bureaucratised; staff procedures channel and structure the commander's authority. In order to unite the increasingly complex division, generalship is increasingly becoming 'post-heroic'.

The commander is still vital to a division, of course. Precisely because its functions are so complex, there must be a single and ultimate point of authority. Here, personality remains essential to a divisional command but it takes a quite different form from the 20th century. It is no longer directed so much at sustaining the morale of troops as generating partnerships with other agencies and organisations, many of which are not military. Generals are no longer simply warriors but facilitators.

The research will test this thesis through multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork and interviews in the UK, US, France and Germany, supported by archival research. In this way, the research will identify the distinguishing features of 21st military command to identify its capabilities, its requirements and its necessary limitations.

In this way, the research aims to contribute not only to inter-disciplinary debates in the social and political science about defence, the armed forces, war, organizations and leadership but also to contribute to policy discussions about military reform and to assist practitioners in understanding generalship today.

Planned Impact

This research aims to benefit three constituencies: 1) Western armed forces 2) the British defence policy community 3) the British public.

1) Western Armed Forces:
Military command has been a contentious issue in the last decade and the armed forces themselves accept that failures of command have occurred. This research aims to augment current attempts by the armed forces to improve command performance, by educating British, American, French and German armies about contemporary military command. It aims to do this in three ways:

a) Reflexivity:
Professional militaries are often characterised by a very strong work ethic which can, unfortunately, be detrimental to the process of self-analysis. Armies are reforming divisional command through an intense training programme yet have spent far less time considering the question of command itself; there seems to be an assumption that the function of command is self-evident and unchanging. A series of presumptions have been made about the ideal span and function of command with no analysis of the special character of 21st century command. For instance, in many cases, British experiences from Helmand have just been projected onto the future, even though the operating environment in Afghanistan was unique. Consequently, there is a tendency to overwhelm commanders, assigning them too many units and too few deputies. This research aims to improve the military's understanding of command and, therefore, how headquarters and the forces under them might best be structured.

b) Practical Improvements:
The analysis of command necessarily involves an investigation of staff processes. The research aims to improve the divisional headquarters' ability to conduct political analysis. This is an area with which staff officers typically struggle but it is critical to effective command. I have contributed to the refinement of analytical methods in British stabilization doctrine and have used these techniques on operations in Kandahar but these methods are not widely known about or understood in the army. The research will provide an opportunity to communicate these methods to staff in divisional headquarters.

c) Fostering cross-sector co-operation and exchange:
Institutional reform is most likely to be successful by germinating and fostering an international and cross-sector network of experts and practitioners who can together collaborate with the armed forces in re-thinking and reconfiguring command. Through generating such a network, this research will create the opportunity for new intellectual and professional linkages between military professionals, scholars and policy makers.

2. British defence policy community:
The MOD, Whitehall and Parliament are well aware of the failings of military command in the last decade. However, they are less aware of the special difficulties of commanding military forces in the 21st century. If a sustainable defence strategy is to be developed, civilian policy-makers have to understand and have a stake in military command. By engaging with the defence-policy community and fostering new connections with the armed forces, this research aims to facilitate an improvement in command, to enhance civil understanding of the problems of military command, and to influence British defence policy debates.

3. The British public:
The vast majority of the British public are proud of their armed forces. However, they have little understanding of how the armed forces might be used effectively or the limits of their utility. Consequently, they are unable to make informed judgements about military operations and defence policy. This project aims to to inform the British public about the utility of military force (and its limits) and what they can expect from military commanders by communicating the special difficulties of command in the 21st century.


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