Looking Back, December 2023
By Mark Albertson
Philosophy of Command
By Brigadier General George P. Seneff, Jr.
General George P. Seneff, page 38, Army Aviation, January 31, 1999 issue.
The following was written by Brigadier General George P. Seneff, Jr. in 1966, while he was commanding the 1st Aviation Brigade in Vietnam.
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A World War I division commander whom I knew fairly well, and who was a great gentleman and fine commander, said to me one evening in 1945, “I have finally come to realize that the only way to be a good commander in wartime is to be a first-class SOB.”
I have thought this statement over many times in the past 20 years because it has had very special lessons for me. I know, thanks to excellent hindsight, that he was voicing his disappointment with others whom he had led—and who were not as high principled and devoted to duty as he was—had let him down, and unnecessary cost in life and with damage to the furtherance of the effort.
Nicholas Monsarrat, in his superb accounting of human relationships on wartime, “The Cruel Sea,” traces the development of the same philosophy in the words of a British corvette command: “At the beginning, there was time for all sorts of things–making allowances for people like sensitive human beings, and wondering whether they were happy, whether they liked you or not—but now—the war has squeezed out everything except the essentials. You can’t make any allowances now, you can’t forgive a mistake. The price may be too high. It’s too serious now for anything except a 100 percent effort—a 100 percent toughness.”
This is a point in the philosophy of leadership with which successful combat leaders have always had to come to grips: You can’t afford to be a ‘nice guy’ if this means letting standards of training and performance slip, because in a combat situation slippage means death.
Now the point of all this, as far as we aviators are concerned, is that we are always in a combat situation—because we are always fighting the sky; which with great impartiality as we all know, can be intensely beautiful and serene one moment, but which can kill you (and the people you’re responsible for) deader than a mackerel the next.
I’ve personally investigated a lot of accidents in the past few years and I’ve read the reports on a lot of others. In 90 percent of the really nasty ones I’ve seen—where people were killed or maimed or burned—regardless of the immediate cause of the accident, command supervision had a lot to do with allowing it to become a nasty one as opposed in just resulting in bent equipment. The guy’s emergency procedures weren’t good enough, or he tied it up, or he just wasn’t sufficiently well trained to cope with the situation that confronted him.
Practice Often Avoided
There is a tremendous tendency in this business to avoid practicing the hairier aspects of our operations, such as short-field work, night-and-day formation work, night confined area operations and living at low altitude. This is a natural tendency because, in itself, practicing means exposure can lead to what we are trying to avoid. It can build up accident rates which, when they become high, reflect poorly upon command.
Nonetheless, it is only through diligent and unceasing practice of these aspects of the game that our people become good enough at them to perform them safely, or at least with minimum risk. Good aviation organizations, just like good organizations of any other sort, have proven time and again that they can do it safely and effectively. They gained this capability by increasingly diligent practice and training.
Intelligent Planning Needed
I must emphasize that they didn’t get this way overnight, nor did they start off tackling the most difficult facets of operations on a large scale on the first day. They built up to it gradually by making sure first that their people as individuals were trained and standardized and that they knew what they were doing, leading them very gradually up the stairs of difficulty, in balance with demonstrated capability.
For example, you teach people how to avoid wires by having them fly low and learning to recognize the signatures that indicate wires, but you don’t let them leap into this without looking. You work your way into it gradually by having an experienced instructor pilot aboard, by working down to low altitude from a somewhat higher altitude (say 50 to 100 feet), by the use of carefully surveyed courses which the IP has taken the precaution to fly at reasonable altitude on any given morning before taking students out, to insure that some knucklehead hasn’t strung new wire up between a couple of trees during the night. In short, you teach this by taking an intelligently planned approach.
But the big thing is that you make the approach, and you make your people do it and you make them practice. You drill them on emergency procedures and teach them all the tricks that your older hands can give you until you can tell yourself truthfully that your people are trained and are capable of coping with any situation that is likely to confront them. On emergency procedures, a good tip an Air Force friend passed to me was that of having the approved emergency procedure for one of the likely emergencies for the aircraft owned by the unit thoroughly reviewed by a different member of the organization every morning at the preflight briefing.
The challenge lies with you. If, after an accident, you can tell yourself, “I have done everything within my power in training, in maintenance and in discipline to prevent this,” then you are a good commander. If you can’t, you aren’t. One word about who is a commander—we all are. We have battalion commanders, platoon leaders, and section and team leaders. We also have aircraft commanders. If you are the lowest-ranking guy in this business, you are still, if you’re commanding an aircraft, responsible for the airplane and the lives of other people who might happen to be aboard.
Finally, a word about the first paragraph of this dissertation: Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you really have to be an SOB in order to accomplish the desired results. You have to lead—preferably by example. Precisely how you do it is a matter of your personality, the organization and the situation. Some of the best leaders I have known have been very pleasant people, but they very pleasantly insisted on extremely high standards. How you achieve them is secondary. Just make sure you do—you are preparing your people for combat in a dangerous game.
Source: See pages 38 and 39, Army Aviation, Army Aviation Publications, Inc., Westport, Ct., January 31, 1999.
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An Alternative View on the Philosophy of Command
There is more than just a single philosophy of command. General Seneff’s is the result of his being a product of American society, typically Middle Class, with a different perspective towards war. But then again, what type of war. This can most certainly make a difference. And that leads us to the perspective of a gentleman named, T.E. Lawrence or the famous Lawrence of Arabia.
T.E. Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain image.
He led a revolt, an Arab revolt. For he joined battle not merely to defeat Ottoman forces in league with the Triple Alliance, Imperial Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, but for the rise, perhaps, of an Arab nation, as perceived with the Damascus Protocol. Arguably Lawrence was one of the last of the romantic warriors in the modern era.
Below is T.E. Lawrence, from, The Evolution of a Revolt:
“My own personal duty was to command, and I began to unravel command and analyze it, both from the point of view of strategy, the aim in war, the synoptic regard which sees everything by the standard of the whole, and from the point of view called tactics, the means towards the strategic end, the steps of its staircase.
“In each I found the same elements, one algebraical, one biological, a third psychological. The first seemed a pure science, subject to the law of mathematics, without humanity. It dealt with known invariables, fixed conditions, space and time, inorganic things like hills and climates and railways, with mankind in type—masses too great for individual variety, with all artificial aids, and the extensions given to our faculties by mechanical intervention. It was essentially formulable. . . .
“The second factor was biological, the breaking-point, life and death, or better, wear and tear. Bionomics seemed a good name for it. The war-philosophers had properly made it an art, and had elevated one item in it, ‘effusion of blood,’ to the height of a principle. It became humanity in battle, an art touching every side of our corporal being, and very warm. There was a line of variability (man) running through all its estimates. Its components were sensitive and illogical, and generals guarded themselves by the device of a reserve, the significant medium of their art. . . .
“Nine-tenths of tactics are certain and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals. It can only be ensued by instinct, sharpened by thought practicing the stroke so often that at the crisis it is as natural as a reflex. . . .
“The third factor in command seemed to be psychological, that science (Xenophon called it diathetic) of which our propaganda is a strained and ignoble part. . . . The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander, and we, being amateurs in the art of command, began our war in the atmosphere of the twentieth century, and thought of our weapons without prejudice, not distinguishing one from another socially. The regular officer has the tradition of forty generations of serving soldiers behind him, and to him the old weapons are the most honored. We had seldom to concern ourselves with what our men did, but much with what they thought, and to us the diathetic was more than half command. In Europe it was set a little aside and entrusted to men outside the General Staff. In Asia we were so weak physically that we could not let the metaphysical weapon rust unused. We had won a province when we had taught the civilians in it to die for our ideal freedom: the presence or absence of the enemy was a secondary matter. . . .
“Napoleon had said it was rare to find generals willing to fight battles. The curse of this war was that so few could do anything else. Napoleon had spoken in angry reaction against the excessive finesse of the eighteenth century, when men almost forgot that war gave them license to murder. We had been swinging out on his dictum for a hundred years and it was time to get back a bit again. . . . Our cards were speed and time, not hitting power, and these gave us strategical rather than tactical strength. Range is more to strategy than force. The invention of bully-beef has modified land-war more profoundly than the invention of gun-powder.
“My chiefs did not follow all these arguments, but gave me leave to try my hand after my own fashion. We went off first to Akaba, and took it easily. Then we took Tafilah and the Dead Sea: then Azrak and Deraa, and finally Damascus, all in successive stages worked out consciously on these sick-bed theories. . . .
“In character these operations were more like warfare than ordinary land operations, in their mobility, their ubiquity, their independence of bases and communications, their lack of ground features, of strategic areas, of fixed directions, of fixed points. ‘He who commands the sea is at great liberty, and may take as much or as little of the war as he will’: he who commands the desert is equally fortunate.”
Source: See pages 285 and 286, “T.E. Lawrence: From: ‘The Evolution of a Revolt,’” The Sword and the Pen: Selections from the World’s Greatest Military Writings, by Sir Basil Liddell Hart, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1976. Edited by Adrian Liddell Hart.