Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
10 Leadership Lessons from One Of Britain’s Greatest Soldiers
Field Marshal William Slim, who commanded a British field army in Burma during the Second World War, may not be one of Britain’s most famous warriors, but he was arguably one of its most effective. Slim turned a badly mauled British army into a formidable fighting machine, and routed a much larger Japanese army, marching victoriously into the port of Rangoon in 1945. Even more impressive is that Slim’s army operated on a shoestring budget; Burma was the least of Britain’s concerns during the war.
Slim’s war memoir, “Defeat Into Victory,” has become a staple in military reading lists. It stands in marked contrast to many of today’s war memoirs, often written by disgraced officials, hell-bent on settling old scores. In contrast, Slim has nary a harsh word for anyone, despite being saddled with intractable subordinates like “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell and Orde Wingate. Slim’s memoir is, in my opinion, one of the greatest books on military leadership ever written.
Here are 10 lessons you’ll learn from Slim’s memoirs, should you have the opportunity to read it:
1. Ruthlessly enforce standards. As if Slim didn’t have enough problems with the Japanese, he faced an even deadlier enemy: malaria. For every soldier evacuated for combat wounds, over 120 evacuated for various diseases. A battalion of 1,000 men might lose 12 soldiers to sickness each day. At that rate, an army could be decimated in a matter of weeks.
Though malaria treatment was still in its infancy, the British were still able to curb the disease through basic Army discipline. Slim banned shorts, and mandated that sleeves be rolled down after sunset to protect against mosquito bites.
Slim also rigorously enforced the regular use of mepracine, an early anti-malaria drug. Slim regularly inspected small units — if less than 95% of soldiers were taking their daily doses, he sacked the commander. After three such incidents, the rest of the British army got the message. By the end of the war, the British Army had reduced malaria within its ranks tenfold.
2. Beware of the Bad Idea Fairy. Spend a day inside the D.C. Beltway, and you’ll find yourself accosted by hucksters peddling silver-bullet snake oil for today’s national security problems. 1942 was little different. Slim could hardly turn a corner without being pestered by a junior staff officer with some harebrained scheme to win the war. Slim described these quacks as:
… persuasive young men interested in selling short cuts to victory…these ‘racketeers’, as I called them, were of two kinds, those whose acquaintance with war was confined to large non-fighting staffs where they had time to develop their theories, and tough, cheerful fellows who might be first-class landed on a beach at night to scupper a sentry-post, but whose experience was about the range of a tommy-gun…few of them had anything really new to say.
Though, in fairness, the only thing worse than a foolhardy new idea is a crack-pot old idea, disguised as something new.
3. Nothing happens without logistics. And logistics doesn’t happen without logisticians. For every rifleman on a remote combat outpost, there are probably a dozen logisticians, administrators, and cooks. Most troops in the field have a litany of pejorative terms for these soldiers — REMFs, FOBbits, and POGs. But derision aside, the modern rifleman wouldn’t last long without food, fuel, batteries, and medical care.
Slim knew that there are scores of unsung heroes in any large organization — the ones you never think about until they eventually fail in their jobs. Think of how quickly your workplace would break down without email, or how a modern army would grind to a halt without fuel and maintenance.
As Slim spoke to his soldiers, he likened an army to a clock, with each gear representing a soldier. Some gears may be larger than others, sure. But without every gear, a clock simply will not turn.
Indeed, throughout the war, Slim expressed nothing but admiration for the men who toiled behind the scenes to keep the British war machine functioning.
4. Every soldier is a rifleman. Respect must be earned, and Slim’s admiration for support troops came with a price.
During the retreat of 1942, Slim learned a grim lesson: In war, there are no non-combatants. Clerks and cooks in British army headquarters often found themselves fighting the Japanese tooth-and-nail to prevent their command posts from being overrun.
Realizing this, Slim took his headquarters staff on grueling road marches and made them qualify with every weapon in the British arsenal. Most importantly, he ensured his headquarters staff shared the same hardships as his troops in the field. Whenever Slim was forced to put his front-line troops on half rations, he did the same to his headquarters staff. Not only did this cause solidarity with the troops in the field, but as Slim wryly observed, it gave a sense of urgency for the more well-fed British staffers to double their efforts to deliver supplies to their comrades.
5. Planning is everything. And nothing. Successful military planners live up to Sun-Tzu’s maxim, “All battles are won before they are fought.” In late 1942, Slim was eager for a decisive victory over the Japanese Army, on his terms. After meticulous planning, he devised a plan to lure a Japanese field army into a trap on the Shwebo plain, where the British would enjoy superior defensive terrain, and a two-to-one numerical advantage. As the old cliché goes, all’s fair in war.
Of course, there’s another cliché: The enemy gets a vote.
The Japanese didn’t nibble at Slim’s bait. Slim later wrote, “It looked as if this battle, like so many of mine, was not going to start quite as I intended. It was time for me to use a little of that flexibility of mind that I had so often urged on my subordinates.”
6. Give up your best people for the good of the institution. Just as Slim was preparing for the final, and riskiest, phase of the Burma campaign, his Chief of Staff Steve Irwin was promoted to major general, and assigned as the commandant of the Staff College in Quetta (modern-day Pakistan).
Slim was crushed; Irwin had served as Slim’s right-hand man for nearly two years, during which he praised Irwin’s “loyalty, brilliance, and imperturbable common sense.”
Secretly, Slim was upset by Irwin’s loss, though the sentiment quickly passed. Slim received a new chief of staff, just as talented as his old one. Moreover, Major General Irwin was a perfect fit for the Staff College, where he produced brilliant staff officers. “No man could have served his country better,” Slim said of Irwin’s tenure.
7. Establish a “battle rhythm.” A one-year deployment is a long time, and over the course of the past 13 years, many veterans have done multiple deployments. Slim spent a continuous three-and-a-half years battling the Japanese in Burma, with some of his troops stuck in Southeast Asia even longer.
Life’s a marathon, not a sprint. Slim was hardly a slouch; his daily routine included plenty of time for the administrative business of running a field army. But he also allowed time for exercise, reading, and a decent night’s sleep. It’s a far cry from Napoleon, who was rumored to have worked 20 hours a day on the march, and even then, still woke several times throughout the night.
The secret? Slim groomed trusted subordinates who could handle anything short of a major crisis while he slept. Napoleon, on the other hand, constantly micromanaged his generals.
8. Commanders are cat wranglers. Slim spent much of the war wrestling with stubborn subordinates — among them, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell and the flamboyant commando leader, Orde Wingate. Neither were particularly happy to accept orders from Slim. Stilwell was perennially prickly, while Wingate claimed he answered only to the British prime minister himself. It was only after painstaking negotiation that Slim could convince, though not exactly order, Stilwell and Wingate into battle.
If you’ve ever been a headquarters company commander, you know how difficult it can be to “wrangle the cats” — managing the senior officers and NCOs, many of whom will inevitably outrank you. Ordering about subordinates is easy when you have court-martial authority over them. Take that away, and you’re forced to lead on persuasion, argument, and the strength of your ideas. As you move up in responsibility, it’ll happen more often than you’d think.
9. Keep it short and sweet. A modern army can dish out a deluge of digital drivel. As a battalion operations officers, I routinely handled 100-page operations-orders. Every week. For mundane garrison nonsense.
The result? Information overload.
As the enigmatic Doctrine Man explains in this “training film,” no one will bother to read a 100-page operation order. They will, however, bother to read a five-page mission order. Anything worth saying is worth saying briefly. In one of the book’s most oft-quoted passages, Slim highlights the importance of the shortest--albeit the most critical--portion of an operations order: the commander’s intent.
[The commander’s intent] is the one overriding expression of will by which everything in the order and every action by every commander and soldier in the army must be dominated. It should, therefore, be worded by the commander himself.
10. “Imitations are rarely masterpieces.” Finally, don’t take these 10 tips too seriously. Slim was well aware that, above all, commanders had to be authentic. Don’t try to be a Napoleon, or even a Slim. Just be yourself.
‘I made promises to the people that I lost’— How the Iraq war forged a Navy SEAL’s path to Harvard Medical School and NASA
Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.
However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:
New Vietnam War movie 'The Last Full Measure' takes some well-deserved shots at the military’s award process
Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.
On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.
In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.
Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.
The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.
After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.
There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.
At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects. Not surprising then that Pentagon bureaucrats and Washington political operators are regarded with skepticism throughout the movie.
When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.
Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)
As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.
In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.
"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.
"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."
The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.
There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.
The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.
With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.
"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The Defense Department just took a major step towards making the dream of a flying drone carrier a reality.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's air-launched and recoverable X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle finally conducted a maiden flight in November 2019, Gremlin contractor Dynetics announced on Friday.