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Subject: Generals and fighting in the field rss

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I'm reading about Hannibal and how he personally led his army through the alps and led them in the field himself against the Romans.

Seems like a lot (most?) of the generals of "yore" would actually lead their troops in person.

I was thinking how different it is for today's Generals that command far from the front lines.
What are people's thoughts on why?

Communication must be one, right? Advances in communication make remote commands easier.

From reading about ancient battlefields, the generals were taking quite a risk so it can't be much of the "danger" issue.

It must've been a huge morale boost to have your general actually fighting in-person alongside you.
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Wendell
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Part of it is size. Battles in Hannibal's day were spread out over a much smaller area than generals in the 20th or 21st century face.

Part is technology. Nowadays, generals can be back from the battlefield and still communicate with subordinates. Hannibal could only communicate as far as he could yell.
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Philip Bolger
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Depends on the general and the war in question, even in modernity.

The current US Army is not without fighting generals. LTG Caslen, the current Superintendent of West Point, regularly went out on patrol as a 2-Star, as did several other Division Commanders.

Part of it, as well, is the higher investment of theater-level commanders. Today's CENTCOM or US Forces Korea commander is going to be much more distant than his equivalent in World War II, due in no small part to the communications idea previously identified in this thread.

You may find this useful:
It's a list of General Officers killed in war from WWII onwards.
http://warontherocks.com/2014/08/general-and-flag-officers-k...

Now, it's not just KIAs here-- illness, accidents, etc. also play a role. But the important thing to note is that most general officers are not as far from the front as it might seem, though it's difficult to argue that they're as up close as Hannibal was!
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Tyler Harris
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Even in WWI, which has quite the reputation as a war where distant generals sipped brandy while ordering millions to their deaths, there was an alarmingly high number of generals KIA -- perhaps giving some indications that that perception isn't entirely reflective of reality.

Part of the issue might be that troops no longer fight in line of battle, where a commander can literally stand in front of his men with sword raised and lead them forward. In modern war, the front is not only wider than it used to be, but deeper. A modern general need not be sitting atop a horse with no one but the enemy in front of him to be exposing himself to every bit as much danger as his men.

I think casualty figures reflect this, but it still intuitively seems like generals are more remote now. The image of a guy in khakis on the phone in a tent somewhere is somehow significantly less romantic and inspiring, even if he is in significant danger.
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Carl Fung
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Obviously many reasons but here's a few:

Modern armies have a rigid hierarchy. Squad to platoon to company all the way up to divisions to corps to armies each with their own pecking order of commanders and orders going up and down the chain.

A general (from brigade to army) leading a squad by example only inspires that squad and suffer from myopia and missing the whole battle forest from the skirmish tree. That's an issue of micromanagement which in today's US Army (and the German WWII army) is a no no - just don't tell that to Rommel who felt any unit he was with was his for the using.

Also for the hierarchy bit, some soldiers would not want their general on the frontline, whether they like him or not. In the Wilderness, the Texas Brigade would not advance until Lee safely returned to the rear but wouldn't blink an eye if their own Brigade commander General Gregg was leading them at the front.

Modern Generals (let's arbitrarily say from WWI onward) can and do still lead from the front. Whether they actually fight is a different matter. General Gavin of the 82nd Airborne in WWII carried an M1 Garand with him. Did he actually use it? If you watch A Bridge Too Far he does. It's not his job though to get stuck in the weeds. It's great PR though. General Ridgway likewise hung grenades on his shoulder straps. I doubt he used them but what awesome props.

Modern generals do and should go to the frontlines but there's plenty of anecdotes of a general disappearing at the front and causing command chaos or paralysis as a bad situation develops and no one knows if the general is dead or temporarily away. No one wants to replace the general and contradict his orders until he's verified to be out of action (see General Urquhart at Market Garden).

In ancient armies, you had large bodies of relatively untrained men who fought as mass formations. You needed a central figure to direct because the battle was usually within visual and shouting range. Being on horseback helped too. And as Wendell said, ancient armies are tiny with respect to modern armies (and now much more spread out).


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Jason Sadler
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We are doing a lot more fighting at the Colonel level and below in the brush wars we have been fighting lately. In all my deployments, the big formation was the Regimental Combat Team. Most of the top brass needed to be in a CoC somewhere because their subordinate units were spread all over the place within the area of operations. Particularly in Afghanistan, mobility was limited (and dangerous as hell) and the forces so dispersed that is wasn't practical.

The Generals I remember seeing were all theater commanders and we only saw them at pep talks and big briefings either CONUS or at the huge FOBs.

That said, it was not uncommon for the Colonels running the show to show up out in Indian Country, particularly if something interesting was likely to happen.

I think the scope has changed and now we have "fighting Colonels" the way bigger conflicts had "fighting Generals".

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Rich M
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BeatPosse wrote:
We are doing a lot more fighting at the Colonel level and below in the brush wars we have been fighting lately. In all my deployments, the big formation was the Regimental Combat Team. Most of the top brass needed to be in a CoC somewhere because their subordinate units were spread all over the place within the area of operations. Particularly in Afghanistan, mobility was limited (and dangerous as hell) and the forces so dispersed that is wasn't practical.

The Generals I remember seeing were all theater commanders and we only saw them at pep talks and big briefings either CONUS or at the huge FOBs.

That said, it was not uncommon for the Colonels running the show to show up out in Indian Country, particularly if something interesting was likely to happen.

I think the scope has changed and now we have "fighting Colonels" the way bigger conflicts had "fighting Generals".


I think a lot of it also has to do with unit cohesion and morale. We are fighting atypical wars/combat operations that to be frank are really the typical fighting operations anymore. When your company commanders and nco's know that upper command from a battalion will be doing spot inspections, field information gathering trips along with talking to enlisted soldiers it helps bring a sense of not being forgotten while on combat operations in some god forsaken place in country. Just my observation.
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Alan Sutton
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A little digression which is sort of related to this thread.

George II was the last British monarch to lead his army in battle. At the battle of Dettingen in 1743.

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J.D. Hall
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Another issue is the complexity of the modern battlefield. It's no longer pikemen, musketeers, and cavalry with smooth-bore cannons 500 feet from the front line. Infantry now carry shoulder-fired missiles and ride to combat in APCs or AFVs. Tanks and LAVs fill the cavalry role, but it's the artillery that is truly changed. MLRS systems, cannon that can reach 20 or more miles.

But wait, there's more. Transport, attack, and scout helicopters. Air Force jets flying close support. Maybe an AWACs up there coordinating things in the sky. Then there's electronic warfare, chemical warfare, nuclear warfare.

And unlike the old days, where an army lived off the land except for gunpowder, logistics is a bewildering array of munitions, fuels, food, water, medical supplies, electronics, etc. etc. etc.

I can only speak for the US Army -- generals haven't been supposed to be on the front lines in a combat role since the Civil War. Doesn't mean they don't go up there, but it's the lower officer ranks that are supposed to get shot.
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Nick West
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Moruya23 wrote:

A little digression which is sort of related to this thread.

George II was the last British monarch to lead his army in battle. At the battle of Dettingen in 1743.



Digressing a wee bit more...

The last British monarch to die on the field of battle was King James IV, who was killed at the Battle of Flodden on 9 September 1513.

The Scottish king crossed the border with an army of about 30,000 men in order to honour his alliance with France, and divert troops from the main English army which was in France under Henry VIII.
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David Patraeus regularly went on patrols against his senior staff's advice. The feeling was he needed to model the shift in tactics in 2007 for troops who were struggling with the transition. However, he was seen as the authoritative face of the surge and change in tactics so his death potentially could empower insurgent forces.
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Alan Sutton
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notquitekarpov wrote:
Moruya23 wrote:

A little digression which is sort of related to this thread.

George II was the last British monarch to lead his army in battle. At the battle of Dettingen in 1743.



Digressing a wee bit more...

The last British monarch to die on the field of battle was King James IV, who was killed at the Battle of Flodden on 9 September 1513.

The Scottish king crossed the border with an army of about 30,000 men in order to honour his alliance with France, and divert troops from the main English army which was in France under Henry VIII.


Yes, I think the cut off for Kings to actually participate in battles was the early modern era. While George II might have been present as overall leader, James IV was probably more at the "front" of things. The intervening 230 years had changed things quite a bit.

Since then no overall commanders have come anywhere the sharp end of things. In previous eras armies would not have fought if their leaders had not led them personally. But, as war becomes less personal and individual that expectation has lessened, along with the growth in the size of armies.

 
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