Relationship of Command

By Adam Elkus

Over at War on the Rocks, I have a column that mixes complexity theory and recent counterterrorism analysis on problems analyzing al-Qaeda’s political-military command structure. I was struck when writing it, though, about how much the repeated application of “decentralized” to al-Qaeda is the result of a systematic selection bias in strategic studies regarding command and organization.

When we think about what the “right” style of command is, we assume a pyramid-like structure with a commander and successive building blocks of subordinate structures that execute orders with varying degrees of automaticity. What degree of autonomy subordinates may expect is often determined by context. Because of the historical difficulties of naval communication and the way naval technology and organization inherently leads to federation, a naval command system is inherently different from a ground-pounder command system. But the assumption of the system being coherent is often presumed by the idea that “unity of command” is a principle of war.

However, unity of command often assumes that the subordinate is at least theoretically obligated to accept and obey orders. If the subordinate, for example, is a noble with control over his own finances and his own pool of manpower, he must be incentivized in some shape or form to obey. Defection of entire fighting units is a realistic risk. In the Chinese novel Romance of Three Kingdoms, a commander that felt emotionally slighted could defect with his entire formation. This is not a historical problem. The Afghan Taliban rapidly collapsed in 2001 when it became clear that the US and the Northern Alliance possessed a preponderance of power. Unity of command is a collective action problem, and the coherence of any political-military organization is in theory stochastic.

At the most individual level, it is also not rational to fight as a soldier to begin with. You risk your life, and often receive no special payoff. In military history, the coherence of military organizations on the most atomic level is often a function of altruistic punishment or social and material rewards. One of the most famous examples of the former is the Victorian novel The Four Feathers, in which a British imperial soldier who refrains from deploying to the Sudan is shamed by his bride-to-be and compatriots.

In the quantitative civil war field, these considerations are not unusual. But they ought to be applied more widely to the study of strategic theory and history.

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