Adopting Mission Command

Reviewed by Maj Skip Crawley

ADOPTING MISSION COMMAND:  DEVELOPING LEADERS FOR A SUPERIOR COMMAND CULTURE.  By  Donald E. Vandergriff.  Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 2019.    ISBN: 9781682471043. 309 pp.  Hardcover $41.33.

      The thesis of Adopting Mission Command:  Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture by Maj Donald E. Vandergriff, former Marine and Major, U.S. Army (Ret.) is that   today’s complex operating environment requires leaders who are adaptable, professionally well-grounded and capable of executing mission command (more familiarly known to Marines as “mission orders”).  Vandergriff does an excellent job of providing a historical perspective on mission command; explaining the importance of institutionalizing mission command within the Army and offers some specific ideas as to how to achieve that objective.  But about halfway through Adopting Mission Command, I feel Vandergriff loses his way, discussing topics that are only tangentially related to his purpose.  This might be because a substantial portion of Adopting Mission Command is a “reprinting of parts or whole of previous articles into chapters or sections in this book”.  Vandergriff then finishes strong discussing how the current Army Reconnaissance Course “builds and evolves the traits of adaptability and independence demanded under a culture of Auftragstaktik” and discusses MG John S. “Tiger” Wood, the Commanding General of the 4th Armored Division under General George S. Patton in World War II, who utilized mission orders to great effect.  

Mission Command — Auftragstaktik

     Adopting Mission Command starts out with a short discussion of John Boyd and his well-known OODA Loop[1] which provides a launch pad for Vandergriff’s thesis that the institutionalization of Auftragstaktik (“‘mission-type orders’ or ‘mission command’”) in the US Army is imperative given the rapidly changing tactical and operational environment combat leaders find themselves in today.  Vandergriff devotes a considerable amount of discussion on how the Prussian/German Army of the 19th and 20th Centuries utilized mission command principles; the education and training of their officers; their institutionalization of mission command and how this increased the German Army’s combat effectiveness in war.  Interestingly, the German Army placed considerable importance on the concept of Verantwortungsfreudigkeit, “the joy of taking responsibility”:

Why is it important for an officer to enjoy responsibility?  Independence was what equipped an officer to handle uncertainty and still make independent decisions.  But when faced with the horrors of the battlefield an officer needs more than just independence to keep him vigorous.  When everything is difficult and everyone around him seems to have given up that is when the feeling of responsibility kicks in.  It is the feeling that it is up to him to decide the outcome of the engagement when everyone else has given up…” (Italics added by reviewer.)

     This rings true.  Small unit leaders must be ready to go the last mile in order to will their units to accomplish the mission when all their subordinates are tired.  On a much larger scale, generals in command of armies require the strength of character to make decisions that have the potential to result in thousands of deaths.  There were many differences between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.  Grant was “a man indistinguishable in a crowd even in uniform”; Lee was “patrician, scion of the First Families of Virginia”.[2]  The Union general was an excellent strategist; the Confederate general, an excellent tactician.  But both generals manifested an American version of Verantwortungsfreudigkeit.  Neither general hesitated to issues orders and take ultimate responsibility for the lives of tens of thousands of men. 

     Transitioning to the US Army, Vandergriff explores the historical background and institutional choices that have resulted in today’s personnel policies and other organizational attributes that are detrimental to mission command and offers suggestions to correct the problems.  Vandergriff makes the interesting observation that perhaps the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) has outlived its usefulness.  TRADOC was established in 1973 during “the Army’s transformation from a conscript to a volunteer (but not yet a professional) Army”:

 “General DePuy’s personal leadership philosophy became the institutional culture for how to train… [his] personal experiences with draftees and volunteers reinforced his beliefs about how such forces would have to be prepared to fight that war and win.  He believed that there was insufficient time and capacity to develop civilians into professional soldiers.  Therefore, the institution would have to be top-down and in centralized hierarchies able to “tell them what to do, tell them how to do it, and check that they did it right.”

     The DePuy[3] construct was adopted for the needs of a different time and a different Army.  Unfortunately, to a large extent this construct is still in place.  Vandergriff says “To their great credit, senior Army leaders are fully aware of this… [but] there has long been a disconnect between the intentions of the Army’s senior leaders and the execution to achieve those intentions by the organization itself”.  The solution Vandergriff advocates is that the Army adopt Outcomes-Based Training and Education (OBT&E); sometimes currently referred to as Adaptive Soldier Leader Training and Education (ASLT&E):

Simply put, OBT&E looks for results.  It puts a greater burden of professionalism (including accountability for prior knowledge and training) on the shoulder of the student, with guidance from the instructor.  OBT&E is best described as ‘developmental training,’ that is, development of the individual within the training of military tasks.

     Most of the balance of Adopting Mission Command is devoted to explaining how to implement OBT&E/ASLT&E.  Vandergriff’s recommendations about how to implement OBT&E/ASLT&E in Tactical Decision Games, force-on-force exercises and war gaming are excellent; but then he goes into detail as to how to conduct these evolutions.   However, Adopting Mission Command is not a training manual intended to provide a detailed explanation on how to conduct these evolutions, but to make “the case for advancing the Army culture toward Auftragstaktik”.  This detracts from an otherwise excellent book.         


     Adopting Mission Command finishes on a strong note.  Vandergriff discusses the Army Reconnaissance Course (ARC) at Fort Benning, GA, holding it up as an excellent example of OBT&E/ASLT&E training.  Lastly, Vandergriff holds up MG Wood, famed armored division commander, as an outstanding practitioner of maneuver warfare and Auftragstaktik.  Unlike most other US Army armored divisions in World War II, Wood constantly changed the mix of maneuver battalions under the combat commands every few days.[4]  I often wondered how Wood was able to do this and still have the teamwork and cohesion within his combat commands necessary for effective combat units.  Vandergriff explains:

“Constant maneuver training, in all conditions, enabled the commanders of companies, battalions, and the combat commands of the division to know each other as officers seldom do.”


“… Wood’s battalion commanders and the division command learned to recognize each other by voice [over the radio] — authentication by familiarization.”    

     I found Adopting Mission Command interesting, insightful and informative.  Highly recommended for anyone who wants a deeper understanding about mission command; aka, Auftragstaktik or mission orders, and the importance of institutionalizing it.

[1]Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action (OODA) Loop

[2] Jean Edward Smith, Grant, (New York:  Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2001)

[3] General William DePuy served in the 90th Infantry Division during World War II as a battalion commander and division operations officer.  Observing and experiencing the poor training and combat effectiveness of draftees, DePuy spent the rest of his career as one of the Army’s leading “trainers”; culminating in command of TRADOC, where he was able to implement his philosophy Army-wide.   

[4] The so-called “light” armored divisions the US Army fielded during World War II — of which the 4th Armored Division was one — had 3 combat commands (regimental-level organizations) and “nine [maneuver] battalions: three armor, three [armored] infantry, and three artillery” that most division commanders semi-permanently attached to the combat commands to facilitate teamwork and cohesion and minimize friction.