Armies have trained and studied for centuries on how to develop unit cohesion or esprit d’corps. With proper unit cohesion, an army can accomplish any objective. But, how do we attain unit cohesion? In Afghanistan, we see a complete disintegration of an army. On paper, the Afghan army numbered 300,000 soldiers. But, we know in reality it was much less, perhaps only 50,000. Even so, they have surrendered several times within the last week, sometimes without a shot fired. An entire Afghan Corps headquarters surrendered last week. How big is a Corps staff? In the U.S. army, a corps staff would include upwards of 500 soldiers. However large it was, they surrendered without firing a round. Why?
The New York Times tells us that the Afghan soldiers were not supported by their chain of command. They generally surrendered because they lacked food and ammunition. One Afghan security force was given a box of slimy potatoes as their daily ration. A police officer yelled out, “These french fries are not going to hold these front lines!” just days before surrendering. Not stated is that it is likely the Afghan higher commanders did not visit their troops. Sometimes, we visit the subordinate troops just to “show the flag.” As a commander, you always need first-hand information about the soldiers’ welfare. Historians tell us that one problem with how the U.S. conducted the Viet Nam war was the lack of visits by field grade officers to company level troops. Field grade officers include colonels and majors, the mid-grade levels.
The Confederate soldiers endured this and worse. Many times, they would have been happy to have slimly potatoes as their daily ration. The Confederate army made their own shoes from rawhide. It was common for soldiers to wear trousers with only one leg. 300 members of the Texas Brigade returned from furlough in the Spring of 1864, knowing food and clothing would be scarce. See my prior post about the Texas Brigade here. In 1863, the Rebels were receiving only one-quarter pound of meat per day. During one two week period, one company received only one-quarter pound of flour, one-quarter pound bacon, three ounces of sugar. Tents and blankets were rare for an army that always slept outdoors. See my prior post here.
In 1864, the adjutant to Confederate Lt-Gen. William Hardee reported at the close of the Battle of Atlanta that his uniform included the following: a hat with no crown, socks with no feet, trousers with one large white patch on the seat, boots with no soles. This was W.L. Trask’s sole clothing for the prior four months. If that was what an officer wore, we can imagine what the enlisted men were wearing.
Yet, the Confederates did not disintegrate like today’s Afghan army. The Texas Brigade suffered from a 6% desertion rate, much lower than other Confederate units. But, the Texas Brigade also did not suffer from the sort of home problems other Confederate army units endured. The Yankee soldiers did not pillage and burn Texas homes as they did in other Southern states.
John Bell Hood Leadership
So, what did the Confederates do that the Afghan army did not? We find some clues in the experience of John Bell Hood. Then Col. Hood succeeded to command of the Texas Brigade after others had tried and failed. He succeeded because he talked to the enlisted men. He explained the “why” of an order. He respected them for their pre-war jobs, many of which were very respectable. When he imposed a rule, such as lights out by 10 p.m., he explained that keeping lanterns lighted would keep other men awake. He insisted that subordinate officers explain the necessity of particular rules.
We know that Gen. Lee practiced the same sort of leadership principles. Even though he was the most senior general in the army, Lee wore a modest uniform, without all the required marks of his rank. He did not erect the largest tent. In fact, Lee’s tent was no larger than any other officer’s tent. Lee rarely slept in a house. He almost always slept in a tent, just like his men. And, of course, we know that Gen. Lee three times tried to lead a charge himself and three times, his men turned him back. There is no better example than to assume the most dangerous position in an attack.
Jefferson Davis was roundly criticized throughout the war by Southerners and Southern newspapers. But, he often visited various communities and the troops. He heard their complaints. The president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, has rarely left the high blast walls of the presidential palace in Kabul. The Confederates simply practices excellent leadership. Of course, we call this “Confederate” leadership. But, they were actually practicing what they learned at West Point and in the U.S. Army. It takes work to lead men. It requires a leader to listen to his men. The Confederates practiced those principles of good leadership. It appears the Afghans did not.
Emory E. Thomas, “Robert E. Lee (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 226, 275, 330
Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 296, 351-352
New York Times, Aug. 14, 2021, p. 1, col. 6