Culture, Innovation, Victory, and Defeat

(Today being Trafalgar Day, it seems like a good time to rerun this post)

In 1797, a Spanish naval official named Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana, wrote a thoughtful document on the general subject “why do we keep losing to the British, and what can we do about it?”  His thoughts were inspired by his observations while with the Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent,  in a battle which was a significant defeat for Spain, and are relevant to a question which is very relevant to us today:

What attributes of an organization make it possible for that organization to accomplish its mission in an environment of uncertainty, rapid change, and high stress?

Here are de Grandallana’s key points:

An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.

Accordingly, both he and his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgement upon the spur of the moment, and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into battle with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such manoeures…

Thus they can never make up their minds to seize any favourable opportunity that may present itself. They are fettered by the strict rule to keep station which is enforced upon then in both navies, and the usual result is that in one place ten of their ships may be firing on four, while in another four of their comrades may be receiving the fire of ten of the enemy. Worst of all they are denied the confidence inspired by mutual support, which is as surely maintained by the English as it is neglected by us, who will not learn from them.

The quote is from Seize the Fire, by Adam Nicholson.


The various kinds of organizational behavior that de Grandallana identifies are still very much with us. In some organizations, people are “preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals.” In other organizations, they “fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgment upon the spur of the moment.” And in a few organizations, they act with the aforesaid zeal and judgment while also knowing that they will be supported by colleagues who are “bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.”

One could simply say “for best results, combine individual entrepreneurship with a high degree of teamwork.” But I think de Grandallana says it much better.

By the time of the battle of Trafalgar (1805), de Grandallana had become head of the naval secretariat in Madrid. Imagine his feelings when reading the reports from that engagement, which was a catastrophe for Spain and its ally, France. He had accurately diagnosed the key problems of his side, but had been unable to bring about the sweeping changes necessary to address them. Cassandra, in real life.

There was a very interesting article in The Washington Post on the increasing propensity of Americans to be driven by rules and procedures, rather than doing what makes sense. There are certainly trends in our society which, if not reversed, will make us increasinly similar to the (French / Spanish) Combined Fleet of 1805, rather than Nelson’s victorious fleet. And in case it’s not obvious, I’m talking about all aspects of our society, including education, business, government, the “nonprofit,” not only specifically about military matters.

For an example of this malign trend, see my 2012 post about bureaucratic obstacles to fighting a wildfire:  Sad and Disturbing, But Not Surprising.

I think Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana would feel a sad sense of recognition.

19 thoughts on “Culture, Innovation, Victory, and Defeat”

  1. Interesting. I read about study done by the US Army after WWII in which individual German soldiers who were captured by American soldiers were interviewed. This was a cross section of the German armed forces and included officers, NCOs and enlisted men from all relevant branches of service; many of those men were veterans of combat on the Eastern Front. As far as I know no similar studies were done using Japanese war veterans. It’s important to note that the men surveyed were not prisoners of war at the time; hostilities had ceased and they were simply veterans being questioned about their combat experiences.

    The German soldiers were pretty consistent in their observations, and this was especially significant with the cohort that fought against both the Russians and the Americans. In both cases the Germans were numerically and materially outmatched, but they noted that the Russians were somewhat predictable while the Americans were chaotic. The Russians went into battle with a plan and executed it ruthlessly with no regard for casualties; the Americans approached a battle with a tentative plan but then made things up as they went; there was no limit to their flexibility or the level at which it presented itself. An American platoon had as much if not more independence of action as a Russian regiment, something that bedeviled German commanders.

    We are losing a serious combat advantage by binding our soldiers to rulings made by lawyers living in a theoretical world, men who have never heard or fired a shot in battle….

  2. The claim “the Russians killed about 80% of all German soldiers killed in WW2” is pretty problematic. For one thing, it includes the Germans killed after being captured or surrendering– which is hard to estimate, but is at least a million and may be much higher. By contrast, on the Western front, prisoners were generally treated humanely– and they did surrender, in huge numbers (over 4 million). You might say that the policy of treating POWs well was one of the most effective tactical maneuvers the Allies had.

  3. For one thing, it includes the Germans killed after being captured or surrendering– which is hard to estimate, but is at least a million and may be much higher.

    My understanding is that Germans also killed a lot of Soviet POWs. FWIW, Wiki supports me, though I realize this is not the final word. Wiki:Prisoner of War.

    Percentage of POWs that Died
    Soviet POWs held by Germans 57.5%
    German POWs held by Yugoslavs 41.2%
    German POWs held by Soviets 35.8%
    American POWs held by Japanese 33.0%
    German POWs held by Eastern Europeans 32.9%
    British POWs held by Japanese 24.8%
    German POWs held by Czechoslovaks 5.0%
    British POWs held by Germans 3.5%
    German POWs held by French 2.58%
    German POWs held by Americans 0.15%
    German POWs held by British 0.03%

    Treatment of POWs by the Axis

    The source is Niall Ferguson, whom I would consider to be authoritative.

    On a train trip in Peru I sat across from a German girl whose father had been a POW in Germany. She said he was a prisoner for 7 years. Not surprisingly, she said that her mother said he wasn’t the same as before the war.

    Regarding considering the Soviets being heroes for taking so many casualties in WW2, my reply is that Hitler would not have invaded Poland if the Soviet Union had not signed the Nonagression Pact. My hometown had several refugees from Estonia who did not have fond memories of the Nonagression Pact.

  4. The claim “the Russians killed about 80% of all German soldiers killed in WW2” is pretty problematic.

    Additional reasons include the fact that Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 (whereas the Allied landings in France were not until 1944) and the sheer number of troops on the Eastern front (millions more than on the Western front.) (Do any Chicago Boyz have at their fingertips the actual numbers of divisions at the various fronts?)

    It’s odd, to put it kindly, that PenGun’s only comment is one of the old commie talking points about how many Nazi soldiers the Soviets killed. It’s as if PenGun completely missed the point that Soviet troop losses might have been much less if Russia had had a culture in which individual initiative were valued rather than severely punished. (But then, the Left which claims to value The People tends to be extremely careless of individual human beings.)

  5. “prisoners were generally treated humanely– and they did surrender, in huge numbers (over 4 million). You might say that the policy of treating POWs well was one of the most effective tactical maneuvers the Allies had.”

    American POWs were well treated once they got to the camps. I remember one friend of my cousin (both flew B 17s, the friend over Germany) who was shot down and spent a week in a railroad car before his femur fracture was treated. He walked with a limp after returning home.

    However , POWs held by the Germans also got better treatment of fractures as the Kuntscher Nail which has been standard treatment since it was adopted after the war. When I was in training in the 1960s most femur fractures were still being treated by traction but now almost none are.

  6. My Foreman, when I worked in a Copper mill when I was young, was a German SS sergeant, who was captured at Stalingrad.

    He became a friend and I used to catch a ride to and from work with him sometimes. He went into captivity with 1400 other German soldiers. About 400 were released in the 50s. The rest died in captivity. He said the survivors were the skinny guys who were kinda lower class prisoners. The first to die were the big confident guys, they could not take it.

  7. “the increasing propensity of Americans to be driven by rules and procedures, rather than doing what makes sense.”
    Heck, elementary school kids can’t even walk home from school alone in many places. Because of fear of the police arresting their parents.

    Try to question why car-seat laws literally mandate normal sized 10-11 year olds to sit in booster seats, and the response you’ll get is that it’s illegal, not anything to do with safety.

  8. Public education today is a collection of rules and policies. Only health care may be more highly regulated than public education. Policy and rules are set at the state and federal level by people who never taught children in their life.

    Generally today, administrators and teachers can get into trouble for not following policy rather than failing to use good judgment. “Following Policy” is a get out of jail free card.

    As a School Board member, “what’s the policy” is generally the first question asked involving discipline or legal dispute. Using my one board vote among nine, I seek to protect risk-takers in public education who use judgment over blind obedience to policy.
    Reminds me of a sign that can be found in any government office: “It doesn’t have to make sense, it’s just our policy.”

  9. I read this on some blog a while back, but an unable to re-find it. The writer had been talking to an officer who had just gone through the Army War College. One of the texts was a book on the French army 1918 to 1939. The book emphasized their rigid adherence to detailed plans, micromanagement, and the like. The officer reported that most of his class found it applicable to US forces today.

  10. John Cunningham…it may have been ‘France 1940’ by Andre Beaufre. As a young Captain on the French General Staff…

    “I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.”

    Entirely consistent with Beaufre’s observation was a interchange between the artists Picasso and Matisse which took place in the midst of the collapse of 1940:

    Matisse: But what about our generals, what are they doing?

    Picasso: Our generals? They’re the masters at the Ecole des Beaux Arts!

    …ie, men possessed by the same rote formulae and absence of observation and obsessive traditionalism as the academic artists.

  11. Correction: the actual title of Beaufre’s book is ‘1940: The Fall of France’

    It briefly covers WWI but focuses mostly on the inter-war years, including colonial warfare and Rhineland crisis, and on the debacle of 1940. Very well-written and worth reading.

    Following WWII, Beaufre became a general and led the French force in the Suez operation.

  12. “their rigid adherence to detailed plans, micromanagement, and the like. The officer reported that most of his class found it applicable to US forces today.”
    Where’s the incentive in the military right now to demonstrate flexibility and adaptability? When things seem to be working well for an organization, then all incentives are to stick to the established way of doing things. Deviating from the book is sticking your head out, and if your change doesn’t “work” then you’ll get the blame for doing something wrong. If you just do whatever the manual says, you personally can’t go wrong, whether it actually works or not. The US military is, among many other things, among the very largest bureaucracies in the history of the world, and isn’t immune to these principles.

  13. “And yet the Russians killed about 80% of all German soldiers killed in WW2.”

    And vice versa.

    I wonder how it would have turned out if we’d listened to this US senator:

    If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances. Neither of them thinks anything of their pledged word.
    Harry S. Truman, The New York Times, 24 June 1941

    Two of the most murderous socialist regimes destroying each other. What a boon for humanity.

  14. I see this effect exhibited in our two main offices.
    The mantra of our Houston office is “I don’t want to get into trouble.”.
    The Oslo office just does it.

  15. I don’t think I’d associate a Main Office in Houston with a prevailing “Texan outlook”. Likely a high number of immigrants (to Texas) and often times much more “Progressive” than the surrounding areas. Interesting that the Norwegian Office is a bit more frewheeling…

  16. I worked on a farm in Southern Colorado many years ago that had two potato cellars constructed by a couple of German POW’s. They were probably captured in North Africa. They were fondly remembered by those who were there at the time as cheerful and good workers. They were treated as other hands; ate with the family, slept in a bunk house and went to town on Saturday night for whatever entertainment was to be had in a mountain town of about 2,000 souls. When I lived in the Texas Panhandle, I passed by the remains of a camp for Italian POW’s from time to time. The only remaining structures were a concrete watch tower and a concrete chapel that had been built by the internees. There was also a small cemetery and memorial. I can’t remember if the remains had been repatriated or not. Most of the POW’s worked at farms in the area, one or two returned and settled after the war.

    The recent progress against ISIS compared to ponderous pace under Obama should be all the evidence required as to the advantages of on-the-spot leadership versus central control.

    The biggest danger I see in all of the “connected warrior” effort is that rear echelon types will see it as an opportunity to control infantry units like the drones piloted from Arizona.

    Brian: Did they see it as an instruction manual or a warning? Everything I’ve heard, especially the last 16 years, is that the Army draws a clear distinction between control and leadership. At the same time, I see plenty of evidence that the “War On Terror” isn’t enough of a war to weed out the dead wood, especially from the higher ranks.

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