Former Army Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey issued a challenge to the Army in 2012 to change its institutional culture. In his transformative “Mission Command White Paper,” he wrote that “education and training are keys to achieving the habit of mission command; our doctrine must describe it, our schools must teach it, and we must train individually and collectively to it.”
But what is mission command? Its origins are found in the Prussian military reforms during the first decade of the nineteenth century following the humiliating defeat at the hands of Napoleon at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806. Reformers within the Prussian Army understood that victory hinged on a flexible organization composed of units led by officers empowered to use their own judgement to act based on their appraisal of the situation at hand rather than rigidly adhering to a pre-set plan when their orders no longer fit reality. Instead, officers were expected to understand the overall intent of their commander and use the resources at hand to achieve the “why” of the mission even if it didn’t follow the “how” of the issued orders.
Bruce Gudmundsson and Don Vandergriff, two leading military historians, discuss the origins, implications, and challenges of mission command in today’s military.