’The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men. Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.’
Leading and Learning
As many spend time in isolation, and as new Cadets graduate into Regiments and Battalions during these uncertain times, I thought it would be prudent to offer a document focussed on the professional development for those of us still fortunate enough to be in command at the combat team level and below. Field Marshal Slim said ‘the four best commands in the Service are a platoon, a battalion, a division and an Army… A platoon because it is your first command, because you are young, and because, if you are any good, you know your men in it better than their mothers do and love them as much.’ Leadership at this level is the most intimate of any and often unforgiving, with perseverance and professional knowledge two of the most important traits for junior commanders.
Since its inception, the Australian Army has built its reputation on the combat performance of our soldiers and their leaders. The onus is on you to perpetuate this hard-earned reputation. Short of actual combat, the best way to do this is to benefit from the lived combat experience of others. Yet too often we come to realise the importance of reading for professional development too late into our careers. While books such as Gary McKay’s In Good Company and Tom Clancy’s Into the Storm were instrumental to me in learning my trade as a young officer, I wish I had read Gullet and many others earlier in my career. The following list of books and resources may be a useful guide for those junior combat leaders in the Army who wish to develop themselves in their chosen profession.
Junior Combat Leadership
Perhaps at the top of the list for junior combat leaders should be books that focus on junior combat leadership from Platoon level up to Battalion actions. The outstanding Army Doctrine of Junior Leadership on the Battlefield (only accessible on the DPN) is a great start point for all. Remember, doctrine forms the basis for mutual understanding and is often written in blood. Jo Gullett’s Not as a Duty Only, An Infantryman’s War covers an Australian Infantryman’s war starting in North Africa and finishes in action in the European theatre on D-Day. He describes the unique culture resident within a fighting organisation: ‘the Battalion thinks’, ‘the Battalion feels.’ Sydney Jary, an officer in the British Army, offers a similar style of book focussing on his experience as a platoon commander in North West Europe in 1944-45. Likewise, in All day long the Noise of Battle Gerrard Windsor follows C Company, 7 RAR during the Tet Offensive, where he accurately describes the importance of the relationship of Platoon Commanders and their platoons. Mark Moloney’s actions as a Platoon Commander in contact, so vividly described by Windsor, are well worth studying. In Crossfire, Dogs Kearney outlines what it is like to be a part of a small unit in Vietnam - the front cover depicts the epitome of junior leadership: Mike Von Berg MC the Platoon commander in contact. Andrew Faulkner’s Stone Cold, covers the military career of Len Opie, an uncompromising soldier who always spoke his mind. The book covers Opie’s service in World War Two, Korea and Vietnam. Len Opie's DCM in Korea is comparable to Diver Derrick’s VC in New Guinea and is arguably the most deserving action of the Korean War. One of the best books on junior leadership in a mechanised unit is The Heights of Courage, which ably describes the confusion, immediacy of action in war, and the team work required to operate an AFV in conflict. For a modern novel on junior combat leadership, Rain by Barney Campbell is exceptional and should be on the reading list of every troop and platoon commander.
Senior Officers and their Early Experiences
Books that cover longer careers can often provide context for tactical experiences. All of the following officers went on to the most senior ranks in their service. Unofficial History is perhaps not as well-known as Slim’s seminal book on his command in the Second World War, Defeat into Victory, but it carries many of the same Slim traits: an understanding of soldiering and a willingness to accept responsibility and learn from his mistakes. Uniquely, each chapter covers an action at a different level of command, from platoon right through to division. Rommel’s famous Infantry Attacks covers all the tactical lessons learnt by the Field Marshal in the First World War. Details matter in this account, as does aggressive actions and use of terrain. Brute covers the history of the Marine Raiders in the Pacific during the Second World War. Brute Krulak was revolutionary in thought and was a key figure in many of USMC’s most important post-war work. It is little wonder the US Marine Corp’s Centre for Innovation and Creativity is named after him. Thunderbolt covers the career of Creighton Abrams, an aggressive Tank Commander of whom Patton once said, 'I'm supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one peer – Abe Abrams. He's the world champion.' Meanwhile, General James Gavin’s style is epitomised in this quote from his autobiography On to Berlin, ‘If you want a decision go to the Point of Danger’.
Important Lessons to be Learnt
'Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.'
– T.R. Fehrenbach
The books in this section highlight the fact that you often don’t get to pick the war you fight and therefore must be prepared for the worst case scenario. The Seeds of Disaster highlights the folly of focussing on the last fight, and the assumption that your enemy will fight in a manner that you wish. The Forgotten Soldier highlights the brutality of war like no other and vividly describes war on the Eastern Front, including how soldiers must overcome not only the enemy but also the elements. This Kind of War points to the folly of not fully preparing for war, and the expectation that in the future there will be no need to fight physical encounters. Meanwhile, The SADF in the Border Wars highlights the adage you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want. To win, you need to innovate and continually evolve tactics to meet your enemy.
Visualisation of the Battlefield
General Sir John Hackett is the father of this genre, and his style of writing in The Third World War is credited by Max Brooks as being his inspiration for World War Z. More recently Harold Coyle and John Antal’s books covering combat teaming in combined arms teams, and Pete Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet are written in a similar style and explore possible conflicts in the future.
Junior commanders do not need to limit themselves to reading. There are some great training videos out there that offer many valuable lessons. While a little dated, the British Army Troop Platoon Tactics video is an excellent primer for tactical manoeuvre at troop level. The US Army’s Urban Combat video offers an excellent demonstration of small unit tactics and the breaking down of a tactical objective. Exercise Diamond Run shows an excellent visualisation tool of Combined Arms in action.
Longer Historical Learning
If you have some spare time and want to develop you knowledge base a little deeper, these brief YouTube offerings are worth fitting in between Tiger King episodes on Netflix.
- Israel’s War (BBC Documentary) – Israel's War (BBC Documentary) - YouTube
- The Falklands: The untold Story – https://youtu.be/V887sYcmIAc
- Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Waterloo 1815 – https://youtu.be/nDZGL1xsqzs
- Gettysburg Animated Battle Map – https://youtu.be/DUXpCfcJ7Ng
For those more senior reading this, and for those junior officers that remain interested, the books and articles below highlight the relevance of effective mentoring. As Scott Winter highlights, it is ‘better to have to reign in a stallion than to flog a donkey,’ and without Fox Connor’s mentoring, General George Marshal’s career may have been finished as a Captain after his first run in with General Pershing in France. In Callsign Choas, Mattis highlights the importance of giving commander’s intent and freedom of action while Prodigal Soldiers describes the influence individuals can have in improving the organisation.
As you continue to lead, remember do your best, be tactically proficient, don’t cut corners, show moral courage, take responsibility, don’t be afraid to ask, and continue to read about your profession - the profession of arms. I am always on the look-out to read more, so please comment with your suggested books and articles.