Monday, 28 September 2015

Chief of Staff: The Principle Officers Behind History's Great Commanders Vol 1 - Edited by Maj Gen David T Zabecki

Title: Chief of Staff: The Principle Officers Behind History's Great Commanders Vol 1

Author: Edited by Maj Gen David T Zabecki
ISBN: 978-1-59114-990-3
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Year: 2008
Pages: 241
Photos: 14 

The role of the Chief of Staff within a military hierarchy is perhaps one of the most complex and nuanced of positions. Many references are made to it during staff courses and historical analysis but it is, in many respects, one of the least understood or properly utilized of positions; especially in the modern context as the Commander has a myriad of methods with which to both gather and disseminate the most minute of detail. Nevertheless, the role of the Chief of Staff was and remains critical to the effective planning and execution of operations. In this book, Zabecki and the contributors outline and analyze the chief of staff systems of four major powers (France, the UK, Prussia and Russia) and the effectiveness, via individual write-ups, of some of the more note-worthy soldiers employed in these billets during wartime from the Napoleonic Wars until the end of WW1. 

It is suggested in the narrative that this responsibility represents perhaps one of the most difficult positions that a staff officer may be placed in, as their success or failure will have profound implications for the operation within which they are involved; this is very true. It is also true, and borne out by the examples, that the relationship between the Commander and his COS is the basis of that effectiveness and that this relationship often times transcends a formal "orders driven" structure. Indeed the ideal COS is a multi-faceted creature for the Commander: psychologist, interpreter, priest, friend and motivator. They also hold the distinction, especially within the Prussian model, of having the absolute trust of the Commander and the ability to exercise command on his behalf without seeking approval first (in German this is called 'Vollmacht' and was usually granted in crisis situations). 

Zabecki provides a synopsis of the different staff systems followed by the major powers leading up to WW1. Each was unique in terms of structure and the expectations levied against the COS's. The most formal and professional was without doubt the Prussian/German model; however, as the author makes clear, it was also the most difficult to emulate entailing as it did a philosophy of command not inherent in the other nations. The authors explanations are clear and concise and provide an excellent lead-in to the individual evaluations. 

The chapters on the individual COS's are more a of a mixed bag. As each is written by a different individual the emphasis and approach is somewhat different. This is, in my opinion, a strength as the analysis is fresh and unique; however, there were a couple that placed too much attention on the individuals career rather than his role as a Chief of Staff. Nevertheless, they are, for the most part, extremely interesting and enlightening. Not all of the subjects were exceptional COS's, indeed some were quite mediocre; however, all served at critical points, were reflective of the national environment within which they developed and each is a lesson for future Chief's of Staff. 

A critical book that discusses in an accessible and engaging manner the key role that COS's play in the effectiveness of senior commanders. These are lessons that modern militaries ignore at their peril. The advent of technology has not diminished the importance of the COS, in fact, it is more important than ever as armies become larger and more technical in nature. Included is a comprehensive bibliography and endnote section. I highly recommend this book.

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