Command in War by Martin van Creveld

Van Creveld tells the history of command, which has the following components:

  1. formal communications between the people in the field and the chain of command
  2. training of people in the field to cope with communications failure and to start acting autonomously
  3. people in command need a "directed telescope" allowing them to zoom in on any element in their command to verify its status/location/plans
  4. an informal communications system allowing people to work around failures in the formal communications system
War's uncertainty in operations and use of new technology create a field of havoc that any Command must grapple with; systems that allow for failures work well, even better are systems that know in advance how they will fail and take advantage of this knowledge.

The enemy always seemed to have three alternatives open to him, and he usually chose the fourth
-- Moltke the elder, Chapter 1, The Nature of Command
By far the most successful of these solutions (to command), the only one that consistently produced victory over a period of centuries and almost regardless of the commander's personality, was the Roman one: that is, a command system, not based on any real technical superiority, that relied on standardized formations, proper organization at the lowest level, a fixed repertoire of tactical movements, and the diffusion of authority throughout the army in order to greatly reduce the need for detailed control.
-- Chapter 2, Conclusion: Mars Shackled
Reading these (Napoleon's) letters, and appreciating the enormous powers of concentration and of memory behind them, is to experience at first hand the most competent human being who ever lived.
-- Chapter 3, "The God of War"
Ideally, the regular reporting system should tell the commander which questions to ask, and the directed telescope should enable him to answer those questions. It was the two systems together, cutting across each other and wielded by Napoleon's masterful hand, which made the revolution in command possible.
-- Chapter 3, Inside Imperial Headquarters
The use of such improvised means by Napoleon's army, in many ways the best organized that history had seen until then, is a telling comment not only on that army but on the entire history of command prior to his time.
-- Chapter 3, Inside Imperial Headquarters
A point to be noted about all these orders, and one that certainly helps explain the "secret" of Napoleonic warfare, is the speed at which they were carried out... Although the orders themselves were communicated at an average speed of five and a half miles an hour, a speed that had hardly changed for millenia, the promptness with which they were carried out -- less than two hours on the average between reception and execution -- is remarkable indeed, and shows the point onot merely of having a flat-topped organization with a correspondingly large span of control but also of dividing the army into manageable, properly organized strategic units with their own permanent general staffs and messengers services, units that did not need mutual coordination to swing into action.
-- Chapter 3, 1806: The Campaign
Battles dependent on mutual understanding -- as had been the case during the Stone Age of command -- were not for him (Napoleon); instead he aimed at first pushing his opponent into a corner from which there was no escape, then battering him to pieces.
-- Chapter 3, 1806: The Battle
As Napoleon is said to have remarked, every general tends to see the important point of a battle or campaign where he himself is situated.
-- Chapter 3, 1806: The Battle
In sending forth the stream (of commands) the emperor (Napoleon) did not always distinguish between operational command and attention to detail; had he done so, he would have been able to concentrate on the former and leave more of the latter to subordinates, especially Berthier and Dejean.
-- Chapter 3, Mars Unshackled
To know what one can do on the basis of the available means, and to do it; to know what one cannot do, and refrain from trying; and to distinguish between the two -- that, after all, is the very definition of military greatness, as it is of human genius in general.
-- Chapter 3, Mars Unshackled
we should make no bones about the fact that our worst error consisted in the inability of senior headquarters to make its influence felt on its subordinates. As soon as the divisions or brigades came near the enemy all direction from above often came to an end. Mutual cooperation among the arms was a rare phenomenon, and usually we only witnessed individual battalions, or companies, belonging to entirely different regiments, which on their own initiative carried out the most wonderful deeds of war.
-- Moltke the elder, Chapter 4, The Battle of Koeniggraetz (which he won)
Since the Railway Department, owing to the role that it played in mobilization and deployment, had become the most important branch of every General Staff, its mentality (fixed schedules) came to govern the planning of war as a whole. The climax of this inflexibility in planning was reached on 1 August 1914. Asked by his imperial master to put German mobilization into reverse and deploy against Russia rather than against France, the chief of the General Staff, Helmut von Moltke the younger, threw up his hands in despair and swore that such a thing was impossible.
-- Chapter 5, The Modern Alexander
Averaging five miles behind the front, the corps commanders had little idea of what was happening, however, and even the situation of divisional commanders in their fortified command posts close behind the gun line was little better. Brigade commanders were somewhat better informed; best of all (among those who did not take part in the initial attack) was the position of those battalion commanders, one or two per brigade, who had been left behind in order to lead the second wave and who were therefore able to watch their comrades in front being scythed down by the German machineguns' fire.
-- Chapter 5, Disaster at the Somme
there is nothing in Haig's (field commander) or Rawlinson's (field general) diary to indicate that they had an inkling of having at their hands one of the worst catastrophes to befall any army in the entire history of war.
-- Chapter 5, Disaster at the Somme
German staffs too fell victim to telephonitis, a tendency by higher headquarters to interfere in every small detail simply because it was so easily done. And a growing mountain of paperwork appeared, endless forms and correspondence that allegedly had to be processed by the troops if Germany's limited resources were to be efficiently husbanded. It was known as der Papierkrieg, the paper war.
-- Chapter 5, The Emperor's Battle
In 1973 the quality of Israel's junior officer corps was still very high, possibly even better than it had been in 1967; mutual trust, however, was lacking at Southern Command because of very bad personal relations among the senior commanders.
-- Chapter 6, Conclusions: Reverse Optional Control
If complexity is one standard by which to judge whether any given armed force is up to date, the organization through which the United States attempted to run the war in Vietnam certainly came up to the mark.
-- Chapter 7, How Much Is Enough?
In general, each period may be said to possess its own favorite instruments for looking at, and making sense of, the external world. To employ a simple analogy, so long as God was believed to rule mankind directly, insanity had to be regarded as his special handiwork and was accordingly treated by means of prayer and exorcism. Once the seventeenth-century scientific revolution had dethroned God in favor of the Newtonian clockwork universe, mechanical causes such as a blow on the head took His place as an explanation for lunacy, the cure being sought, appropriately enough, in other mechanical devices, such as cold baths or centrifuges for whirling the patients about. Freud's employment of dreams, hypnosis, and free association as lenses through whch to investigate mental phenomena led directly to his discovery of the unconscious as the root of madness and to attempts to manipulate it. In turn, the invention of unprecedently sensitive measuring instruments made possible the present-day preoccupation with the body's biochemistry and electronics, causing the unconscious to be put on the back burner; instead, the very same phenomena -- depression, for example, or schizophrenia -- are now treated with electric shocks and drugs.

With strategy, as with lunacy, each place and period has sought to understand it by using its own favorite instruments.

-- Chapter 7, The Misdirected Telescope
To study command as it operated in Vietnam is, indeed, almost enough to make one despair of human reason; we have seen the future and it does not work.
-- Chapter 7, Conclusions: The Pathology Of Information