“The art of war owns certain elements and fixed principles. We must acquire that theory, and lodge it in our heads—otherwise, we will never get very far.”

— Frederick the Great, quoted in Field Manual 3-0, Operations

Principles help to establish a set of fundamental truths, shared by members of a community or organization. They institutionalize experiences from previous generations. They shape the foundational, organizational values. They provide a set of common base assumptions that all other things start with. Unsurprisingly, then, identifying principles to make sense of and navigate through the chaos and violence of war is a key component in the study of the profession of arms. Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, Antoine-Henri de Jomini, and other theorists throughout history have sought to do so. The United States Army continues to do so today, doctrinally acknowledging nine principles of war: objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. Eight of these nine principles share a common characteristic—they are things to be achieved. The other, unity of command, is an outlier. It is explicitly defined as something that achieves something else. Moreover, Army doctrine acknowledges that it is not always required, or even possible.

Given this, unity of command is a strange bedfellow among the other principles of war. That can be addressed by substituting it with something thematically similar but distinct: unity of effort. Unity of command, then, becomes the main tool—though, importantly, not only one—to achieve unity of effort. By examining how doctrine views both unity of command and unity of effort, and then reviewing historical examples of their interaction, it becomes clear why unity of effort is really the key to decentralized initiative.

Doctrine is full of statements on the criticality of establishing a unified command with one commander to lead an entire operation. The principles of war are listed in Annex A of Field Manual 3-0, Operations, which describes them as “comprehensive and fundamental rules” designed to “guide how an organization approaches and thinks about the conduct of operations.” Joint Publication 1 states that unity of command is central to unity of effort. Army Doctrine Publication 3-0 explains that unity of command is how an organization makes one commander responsible for ensuring unity of effort.

A deeper look at the doctrine, however, reveals that this fundamental imperative of unified command is actually not imperative at all. For instance, according to Field Manual 6-0, Commander and Staff Organization and Operations, unity of command may not even be possible. That publication describes scenarios in interagency or multinational operations where a unified command is simply unrealistic. It is tempting to ignore these examples because their scope extends beyond Army organizations, but there are examples internal to the Army where the expectation that two organizations always share the same command structure and will have common guidance is also unrealistic. The clearest such example is a unit boundary between two battalions that also forms the boundary between two corps or even field armies. To be sure, the two battalions probably share the same command at some level. Regardless, there is little requiring the two organizations to work together to succeed beyond a shared purpose and the understanding that working together is better than not working together.

The quintessential example of unity of effort without unity of command is Major General Ulysses Grant and Rear Admiral David Porter working together during the Vicksburg Campaign in 1862–1863. Operating two different services with two different chains of command, the two commanders realized they shared the same broader goal of clearing rebel forces from the Mississippi River area and winning the war. Grant sought to eliminate the Confederate stronghold as part of his land campaign, while Porter needed to open the Mississippi River to trade. Neither of them could order the other to do something, but by working together they could both accomplish the intent of defeating the garrison at Vicksburg. Grant’s forces needed to cross the river south of Vicksburg, but doing so required ships that were only available to the Navy and were north of Vicksburg. Together, Grant and Porter devised a plan for the ships to fight past the garrison, after which they could land troops south of the fort. After running the gauntlet of the Vicksburg artillery in April 1863, the fleet finally was south of Vicksburg and ready to ferry the troops across the river. Once across, Grant’s forces laid siege to Vicksburg, which capitulated in July of 1863. There was no unity of command, and yet success was achieved because of their unity of effort.

So, where does doctrine’s fixation on unity of command originate? Much of it likely stems from lessons learned in the world wars. During World War II, the Allied political and military leadership grappled with problems of deciding priorities for operations and resource allocation. One solution presented by General George Marshall, then Army chief of staff, was a combined chiefs of staff. This concept created a small staff that merged senior American and British leadership into one organization, forcing decisions to stem from one, unified command. This also reflected a lesson the Allies had learned through their experiences in World War I, when French, British, and American commanders struggled without a unified commander to direct operations and ensure unity of effort. Thus was born the position of the “Supreme Allied Commander.” It is easy to see a connection between these lessons learned and the emphasis in doctrine on unity of command, whereby all forces within an area are supposed to fall under a single commander.

And yet, again, just as doctrine emphasizes the importance of unity of command, it also reminds us that it is not always possible. But unity of effort is. Enshrining one or the other as a principle of war determines what core messages we are communicating across our formations. Emphasizing unity of command places the commander as the essential component for success in an operation. The commander establishes relationships between organizations. The commander gives clearly delineated responsibilities. This all makes things run smoothly. It makes things cleaner on the battlefield. It makes sense. The only problem is, as doctrine readily admits, unity of command is not essential. It makes things easier, but it is not something that is necessarily even critical to success.

By contrast, if unity of effort is substituted as a principle of war, then the message communicated is that all individuals, even those who are not commanders, can still understand the larger goal and find ways to help succeed. For members of a staff, for example, doctrine currently states that it is the commander’s responsibility to ensure that their efforts are coordinated with the other staff, adjacent units, and subordinate units. By making it the commander’s responsibility to ensure unity of effort, staff are not doctrinally obligated to coordinate with others without guidance from the commander. This risks creating staffs and organizations that hide behind the bureaucratic processes required to coordinate support. It fails to incentivize subordinates to try to help others because of potential or perceived impact to their own mission. No one wants (or should want) a staff in which individual sections focus only on things relevant to themselves and their success without consideration of how it impacts other sections or subordinate units. That approach ignores the concept of systems thinking central to Army Design Methodology. Additionally, every request or inquiry that must involve the commander is an increased workload on the commander.

This contradicts the very spirit of the Army’s concept of mission command, which reflects the fundamental understanding that war is chaotic. Mission command is based on the assumption that no one person can keep up with all the decisions and changes during operations to truly manage everything. It requires subordinate leaders to understand their purpose in the larger picture and find solutions to unforeseen problems that arise during operations. It requires organizations to find ways to work together to overcome obstacles and find success. It requires unity of effort when the best commanders fail. It requires unity of effort even when unity of command is not possible. This means individuals must be prepared to reach out to those around them and find ways that they can work together to solve problems, regardless of whether they have been explicitly told to do so or not. It is the difference between people proactively finding ways to solve problems and people reactively solving problems given to them by a boss.

The goal should be to encourage people to work together and be empathetic to solve problems and accomplish the mission. It should be to encourage people to actively search for shared goals with those around them and explore risks and benefits to their respective organizations to find mutual, and mutually compounding, success. It should be to create organizations that are less centrally controlled than one that receives all direction from the commander, but that develop subordinate leaders prepared to analyze problems and make decisions in complex environments. And it should be to form resilient organizations in which people are actively looking for ways to solve problems together instead of reacting to whichever problem is currently the most immediate. History shows us examples of occasions when unity of effort was essential to victory, even when unity of command was not possible. The Army released a new version of its capstone operations doctrine last year, updated to reflect new concepts and a new global operational environment. The next time it updates this doctrine, as long as it wants to truly instill mission command as a key component within its culture, it should revise its list of the principles of war. When unity of command is unrealistic, impractical, or unnecessary, unity of effort will remain essential to achieving operational success.

Major Garrett Chandler is the Support Operations Officer for the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade and a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies. He holds a master’s degree in supply chain management from Virginia Commonwealth University and a graduate certificate in business analytics from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Sgt. 1st Class Garrick W. Morgenweck, US Army