Woodrow Wilson’s wartime leadership was either nonexistent or useless. Wilson had famously opposed placing the United States into the war; he changed his mind on the topic because of domestic implications. He discovered that placing the nation on a wartime footing created the urgency – or sense of crisis – which he needed to further his domestic goals: increasing taxes, micromanaging the economy, and regulating various areas of private life. Wilson found that he now favored America’s involvement in the war, but had no strong preference as to which side the United States would support: England or Germany. There were strong reasons for Wilson to consider supporting Germany; a small clique of German scholars had shaped Wilson’s mind. Historian Jonah Goldberg writes:
few figures represent the foreign, particularly German influence on Progressivism better than Wilson himself. Wilson’s faith that society could be bent to the will of social planners was formed at Johns Hopkins, the first American university to be founded on the German model. Virtually all of Wilson’s professors had studied in Germany – as had almost every one of the school’s fifty-three faculty members.
Although Wilson dropped his isolationism and pacifism like a hot potato and eagerly threw America into the war, he offered no leadership or insight – or even interest – in the execution of that war. Pershing deserves full blame or full credit for America’s conduct of the war.
Nenninger’s analysis of the American Expeditionary Force’s mode of command centers in part on Pershing, and rightfully so. But Pershing’s career lasted well past the November 1918 armistice which ended WWI. As Chief of Staff of the Army until September 1924, he was able to codify the AEF’s collective experience in the 1923 edition of the Field Service Regulations and in the re-designation of Leavenworth as the “Command and General Staff School.” Nenninger tells us what, exactly, “the lessons learned” in WWI were.
Pershing’s qualifications to be Commander in Chief of the AEF included his experience, “political connections and political awareness, energy, organizational vision, and character.” He could learned from experience and from mistakes. Nenninger praises Pershing as excellent for the post, arguing that while Pershing was not perfect, there were none better suited.
“The lessons learned” dealt mainly with command and control. In contrast to the AEF, the British armies on the European continent during WWI operated rather independently of each other. The “successful” – Nenninger’s word – AEF commanders “sought centralized, tightly controlled operations” and “considered mission accomplishment paramount.” Nenninger doesn’t tell us what the British commanders “considered paramount.”
The AEF was involved in combat for a rather brief period of time. The United States declared war on 7 April 1917, but large scale entry into combat didn’t take place until June 1918, and the war ended in November of that year. Despite the brevity, “there were nearly two million” U.S. military men in Europe by the end of the war, and some of them had seen substantial combat action, and the AEF’s leadership had gained significant experience. Returning to the theme of “lessons learned,” the AEF encountered factors “beyond the control of American military authorities.”
(It seems to be one of the truisms of military operations that once a battle begins – once the famed “fog of war” sets in – that commanders are inundated by factors beyond their control, and by unexpected events. Despite careful planning, it is wise response to unexpected and uncontrollable events that leads to military success.)
Nenninger identifies three factors which made WWI different from previous conflicts – and therefore constituted challenges for officers who had never encountered these factors before: first, the large scale; second, the role as one nation in a coalition; third, “a three-thousand mile supply line.” The style of command was also different: there was “a War Department General Staff, with organized general staffs in tactical units in the field, and with some officers explicitly trained for the highest command and staff duties.” This command style also made WWI a new setting for U.S. military forces.
Detailed and developed military doctrines had been formulated and taught to officers to a far higher degree than, e.g., at the time of the U.S. Civil War. Organizational structure had been thought out and rehearsed, as well, to greater extent than in previous decades. Finally, technology offered new opportunities for communication and coordination – the value of communication between related military units at the front can hardly be overstated. Yet all of these factors were hindered and disrupted – by the rapid tempo at which massive casualties were inflicted by mechanized warfare, which the U.S. was encountering for the first time. Among the officers, there were in fact different approaches – different ways of doing business – in regard to organization and doctrine: these differences arising in part from the fact that the officers had been trained in different facilities. Some had been trained at the Leavenworth Staff College; some had been trained at the Army War College; some graduated from West Point; still other sources of training were available; diverse sources of training led to conflicting views on command and control. Field telephones and field telegraphs, a relatively new innovation and part of mechanized warfare, integrated units vertically, i.e., field units to their commanding units behind the lines, but not horizontally – neighboring field units to the right and left often had very poor communication. Such electronic communication was also subject to frequent malfunction. “The crucial lesson from the AEF experience was that with organization and doctrine unsettled, technical means unwieldy and not well utilized, personalities became crucial.”
Nenninger’s analysis concerning personalities meshes well with common sense. If a group of officers is supposed to work together in the deafening and chaotic environment of modern mechanized warfare and the PTSD-inducing trauma of casualties on a scale so massive that they are barely comprehendible, despite the fact that they have been given different, or even conflicting, notions about organization and doctrine, personalities will be critical. Will these guys be able to figure out how to work together?
The AEF tried various tactics to overcome some of the obstacles it faced in terms of command and control; one of them was the institution of liaison officers. This was a good move – in Nenninger’s opinion and in fact – but didn’t produce the desired results because the post was not properly understood or regarded by commanders. In order to represent his unit to other units, and communicate in both directions with them, a liaison officer would need to “in the loop” – at least present present at crucial decisive meetings – within his own unit; many liaison officers weren’t. A liaison officers would need to cause information to flow in two directions, but many commanders saw them as only gathering information about the other units, but not providing information to the other units. Finally, an effective liaison officer would need the skills and personality for the task – but many commanders assigned men to that post without regard for their talents or qualifications.
Given both the poor communications and the lack of map-reading skills, AEF units often didn’t know where they were, where or who the units to their right and left were, and knew where the enemy was only because they were engaged with him.
One particular organizational conflict arose between the commanding officers and the staff officers. General staff officers and chiefs of staff formed the team working for the commanders. The extent to which staff officers were to act on their own, but in the name of their commander, and the extent to which the commander delegated authority to them, was not consistent. In particular, the graduates of the Leavenworth Staff College had been instructed to make decisions and issue orders on their own initiative and sometimes without specific approval from their commanders. This was not always acceptable to the commanders.
An additional complexity was introduced by the fact that the Field Service Regulations and the Staff Manual – both texts published for officers – contained different organizational structures for the general staff. Pershing, alerted by English and French allies to the insufficiency of traditional staffing in the face of modern mechanized large-scale warfare, created a third organizational staffing model which he implemented for the AEF. Pershing’s model seems good, but required officers to first unlearn the other two models, and then required time for them to grow accustomed to Pershing’s structure. But time was short; one can argue that, by war’s end, the officers were still growing into a new structure and had not yet fully habituated to it. Like all models, Pershing’s had its ambiguities, which needed time to clarify, and it depended not only on abstract organizational charts, but also on the specific individual personalities which would occupy the spaces in that chart. Pershing’s model proved, after some growing pains, to be effective, and to be growing in effectiveness over time.
Because of the large scale, a doctrine of command was necessary. Such a notion was new for the U.S. military – Nenninger notes that the word ‘doctrine’ was not actually used until later. A key question to be answered by the doctrine of command was this: to which extent, if any, do the chief of staff and the general staff officers receive delegated authority from their commander enabling them to issue orders on their own? The problematic relationship between commanders and their staff officers was never fully clarified during the war. Individuals in some cases managed to carve out successful working relationships, but as a formalized doctrine, no clear arrangement was finally formulated and codified.
The commanders, who were over the staff officers, were largely hand-picked by Pershing. He was concerned to choose commanders who were physically fit and not too old, because of the demands of command duty – lack of sleep, high stress, etc.
Looking at Pershing himself, Nenninger notes both scholars who praise Pershing and those who disparage him. As Commander-in-Chief of the AEF, he kept his “subordinate commanders on a” short leash, but delegated considerable decision-making authority to his staff. He made frequent visits to the front, and encouraged others to do so, so that he could be familiar with troop morale, conditions, and “the state of mind of his commanders.” Pershing was more familiar with, and more involved in, operation than his French and British counterparts. Similar to his allies, however, he “lacked complete understanding of tactical conditions on the Western front, but that hardly set him apart from his contemporaries in other armies.”
In sum, Pershing and the AEF command structure suffered from conflicts arising from ambiguities in structure and from divergent organizational visions arising from different educations, but managed to be effective because it was in the process of improving itself, and because of Pershing’s leadership abilities.