The Dance of the Headquarters

Individual units of large organizations and higher headquarters always misunderstand each other. Front line personnel feel like their leaders are detached and sometimes incompetent, while higher level leaders have pressures that small unit personnel do not understand. How do we bring them together?

In Iraq in late 2003 a draft recommendation came to the Task Force 1st Armored Division Headquarters from our higher headquarters, the Combined Joint Task Force Headquarters. It referenced tuberculosis in Iraq and proposed aggressive use of preventive measures against the disease, citing huge numbers of new cases per year. As the Task Force Preventive Medicine Officer and Deputy Division Surgeon, I was responsible to review all public health and other medical recommendations coming from outside. The math didn’t seem right and I went to the World Health Organization website to check the incidence and prevalence of tuberculosis in Iraq. Suddenly I realized that whoever had made the recommendation had badly overestimated the incidence of new tuberculosis cases. To our medical team it was just another example of trouble from our higher headquarters.

A few months later and still in Baghdad, our team visited the medical staff of one of our subordinate brigades. We asked questions of patients seen, quality of care, training plans, and changes in the rate of diseases we were seeing. Some of the leadership asked why we needed all of that information, and lamented that they were spending time generating reports that they could have spent taking care of patients. My team did our best to explain that these data were worthwhile and useful, but they seemed unconvinced. After all, we were from higher headquarters.

The relationship between superior and subordinate headquarters has been troubled since war began. Lower commands believe that higher ones have no idea what they can do and what they are facing, and higher commands complain that lower ones neither know nor care about the strategic situation and how their unit contributes to the mission as a whole. Sometimes lower commands are right, as when Rommel and his Afrika Korps disobeyed orders from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), the German high command. The OKW ordered Rommel to hold Libya, but he attacked and nearly swept the British out of Africa in 1942. Sometimes higher commands are right, as when Jeb Stuart led his cavalry on a pointless ride to the east of Meade’s army, leaving Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia without reconnaissance during the Gettysburg campaign in 1863.

Navy relations between lower and higher commands can be even frostier. Being alone on a ship hundreds of miles from the nearest friend, a captain and his crew have near complete autonomy, and near complete responsibility, for themselves and their mission. Even the admiral commanding the fleet has to ask permission to board a subordinate’s ship. A friend of mine once described the relationship by service, saying that Army units view higher headquarters with indifference, and Navy units view higher headquarters with indignation.

Against this backdrop, some on my staff have asked me to discuss the relationship between higher and lower headquarters. This paper intends to address this question.

Higher headquarters provide mission guidance, while lower headquarters direct units for mission accomplishment

Probably the single most important thing that higher headquarters do for their subordinates is to provide and clarify their mission – what they are supposed to do. The highest headquarters in the United States, the National Command Authority, sets the mission in its broadest terms in the National Security Strategy (NSS). The next level, the Department of Defense, interprets the NSS in military terms and so forms the National Military Strategy (NMS). Each service then produces subsidiary documents to interpret the NMS for their service. Subordinate commands, from geographic commands (i.e. European Command) to functional commands (i.e. Medical Command) do the same at their level and in their context. Eventually every rifle company, every frigate, every air squadron, and every hospital has a mission statement and strategy which describes how they will do their part to accomplish the NSS.

Each headquarters must not only identify its mission and strategy but must communicate it to headquarters above and below them. This task is vital and endless as the continual press of events makes it difficult for even the most dedicated unit to maintain its focus on the mission.

Higher headquarters provide resources, while lower headquarters direct the use of those resources to accomplish the mission.

It is impossible to accomplish tasks without resources, and higher headquarters are responsible to give lower ones whatever they need to fulfill their mission. This requires that they identify clearly what they want their subordinates to do and listen carefully when their subordinates describe what they need to do it. They must then provide their own analysis, discuss the results with the ones who will be executing the mission, and meet the need. Once the initial need is met, commands at all levels must keep watch over operations to ensure that resupply and refitting are done regularly and as needed. The mission is paramount.

No command ever felt like it had enough resources, and higher and lower commands have both made mistakes in this area as well. McClellan always overestimated the strength of Lee’s forces and chronically asked for reinforcements for the Army of the Potomac. As a result, he lost to a numerically inferior army in the Peninsular Campaign and failed to end the Civil War in 1862. On the other hand, the German Army Group South was tasked to provide food, fuel and ammunition to Von Paulus’ beleaguered and starving 6th Army at Stalingrad. What few aircraft got through the gauntlet of Soviet air and antiaircraft never had enough to sustain the troops. One shipment contained condoms instead of food or ammunition.

Higher headquarters provide information from equivalent and higher levels, and lower headquarters provide information from the front line.

Subordinate headquarters need to know more than just the mission. Most do not have intelligence shops and so rely on their higher headquarters to keep them abreast of what is going on around them. We may never know if Admiral Husband E Kimmel and General Walter C. Short could have anticipated the attack on Pearl Harbor had they been given all of the information that the US Government knew regarding an imminent Japanese attack. In 1999, Senator William V. Roth (R-DE) wrote that “they were denied vital intelligence that was available in Washington.” Whether this would have made a difference of not, the fact remains that one of the most important tasks of higher headquarters is to keep lower headquarters informed of all information they need to do their duty.
The converse is also true. During the German assault on Crete (20-31 May 1941), the British high command provided accurate and timely information to MG Bernard Freyberg’s Greek and British troops due to the decoded Enigma intercepts. However, commanders on the ground misunderstood and misused some of the information, allowing the Germans to capture the Maleme airfield, reinforce their position, and capture the island. In this case, poor communication between command elements played a decisive role.

Higher headquarters provide top cover, representing subordinate units at higher levels and shielding them from inappropriate tasks from outsiders.

Sir Douglas Haig (1861-1928) was the supreme commander of British forces in France during most of World War I. Millions of men had become casualties and the war had deadlocked in trench warfare since October of 1914. Despite the experience of the German and French at Verdun, who had suffered 700,000 dead, wounded and missing while gaining nothing in the battle of Verdun (February to December 1916), Haig planned and launched a major British offensive at the Somme in July. The British suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day, and over 600,000 by the time the battle ended in November 1916. Lieutenant Bernard Montgomery, who later became the senior British commander in World War II, wrote:

“The higher staffs were out of touch with the regimental officers and with the troops. The former lived in comfort, which became greater as the distance of their headquarters behind the lines increased. There was no harm in this provided there was touch and sympathy between the staff and the troops. This was often lacking. The frightful casualties appalled me. There is a story of Sir Douglas Haig’s Chief of Staff who was to return to England after the heavy fighting during the winter of 1917-18 on the Passchendaele front. Before leaving he said he would like to visit the Passchendaele Ridge and see the country. When he saw the mud and the ghastly conditions under which the soldiers had fought and died.” Apparently he was upset by what he saw and said: “Do you mean to tell me that the soldiers had to fight under such conditions? Why was I never told about this before?”

Haig was no different than most other European commanders at the time, and he ignored some of his subordinates when they told him before the bloodletting that the offensive was a bad idea. These commanders, who knew the obstacles far better than Haig did, tried to save their units from disaster, performing this function of higher headquarters, but were unable.

As a senior officer in the Joint Task Force National Capital Medicine (JTF Cap Med), I am routinely required to prioritize tasks that outside commands and other groups try to assign to our subordinate hospitals, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital. Sometimes I am successful in diverting unnecessary tasks, or necessary tasks that should actually be done by others, away from these already overworked units. Other times I am not. Either way, it is our duty in the higher headquarters to enable our subordinates to do their mission, and that sometimes means deflecting distracters to that mission.

Higher headquarters provide expertise

The way to become a commander or a staff officer at a higher headquarters is to succeed at a lower one, since those who are unsuccessful are not given greater responsibility. Therefore people serving in higher headquarters units should, and usually do, have training, skills and experience to assist people in subordinate units to accomplish key tasks. Higher headquarters does not do the work of lower headquarters, but helps them do it themselves.

Higher headquarters coordinate efforts between lower level units

It was 16 June 1815, and Napoleon had just returned to France from exile in Elba and formed a new army to fight the invading Allies. He marched into Belgium and was faced with the English Army to the north and the Prussians marching to attack from the east. Napoleon had no chance of beating the combined Allied Armies, but he could win if he could destroy them one at a time. An allied Dutch-Belgian infantry division had occupied the strategic crossroads at the Belgian hamlet of Quatre-Bras, and Napoleon ordered Marshal Ney, a French wing commander, to take it. Another wing commander, Marshall Grouchy, was told to fight the Prussians in the east.

Over the course of the day, Marshall Ney wasted six precious hours and failed to take Quatre-Bras, and his I Corps commander D’Erlon marched his troops repeatedly between Quatre-Bras and the Prussians at Ligny in the east, failing to influence either engagement. Napoleon and Grouchy were more successful against Blucher at Ligny, but failed to win a decisive victory. The failure of French arms on 16 June, largely due to a failure of communication and coordination, ended in the French disaster and the destruction of their empire at Waterloo, only two days hence.

Whether fighting historic battles, coordinating training exercises or taking care of patients, higher headquarters coordinate the activities of their subordinate commands. Last summer Walter Reed National Military Medical Center needed surgeons, operative nurses and other surgical staff to help them care for the crush of combat casualties arriving from Afghanistan. Other military hospitals in the national capital region (NCR), coordinated by the JTF Cap Med contributed those professionals, and the wounded received the care that they needed.


It is often difficult for young officers and soldiers to know how to relate to headquarters, higher and lower. Misunderstandings abound, and it is easy for misunderstandings to develop into hostility. Mission failure is an all-too-common result.

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