Leadership explains the differences in the performance of nearly all armies at all times

Thursday, September 28th, 2023

The Battle of Kasserine Pass occupies a special place in the mythology of American wars, Bevin Alexander explains (in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II):

It was the most staggering and unequivocal defeat in American history, with the exception of the Union debacle at Chancellorsville in the Civil War. But at Chancellorsville Americans were fighting themselves. Analysts of that battle focused on the incompetence of Union General Joe Hooker compared to the brilliance of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. They didn’t raise questions about the quality of the American fighting man. After Kasserine, however, a crisis of confidence shook the Allied military. American morale plummeted, and doubts arose about the quality of American soldiers, especially among the British.

Actually the failure at Kasserine could be traced, as at Chancellorsville, to the quality of leadership they received. Leadership explains the differences in the performance of nearly all armies at all times. At Kasserine a Hooker-level incompetent named Lloyd R. Fredendall had the misfortune to come up against Erwin Rommel, the one true military genius to emerge in World War II.

Chancellorsville and Kasserine demonstrate that the outcome of battles depends upon leadership. But laying full responsibility on the commander is difficult for human beings to accept. Most people assume that groups arrive at decisions by the interaction of their members. This leads many to attribute a defeat (or victory) to the alleged inherent nature of the soldiers or their nation, not the leaders.

After Kasserine British officers and men condemned Americans as “our Italians,” implying Americans were inferior soldiers, as they felt the Italians were. The Italians did perform poorly, but the British forgot that the failures were not due to the soldiers but to their leaders, who sent Italian armies into battle with grossly inferior equipment and under incredibly poor commanders. In the few cases where Italians had good leadership they performed well, sometimes in spite of their atrocious weapons.

Kasserine taught a lesson all wars teach: a military organization must make life-and-death choices. It does not arrive at these choices by consensus. Seeking consensus leads first to debate, then to disintegration, since some will accept hard choices, while others will not. Military forces work only when decisions are made by commanders. If commanders are wrong, the units will likely fail. If they are right, they may succeed.

Kasserine taught another lesson: envious or blind officers on one’s own side can nullify the insight of a great general and prevent him from achieving a decisive victory.


General Fredendall had played into Rommel’s hand. Although Eisenhower had instructed him to set up a mobile reserve behind a screen of reconnaissance forces and light delaying elements, Fredendall had lumped his infantry on isolated djebels, or hills, along the line and scattered his reserves in bits and pieces.


To assist 21st Panzer, Rommel asked Arnim to send down 10th Panzer Division, with 110 tanks, plus a dozen Tiger tanks. But Arnim envied Rommel’s fame and did not want to help him gain more. He provided only one tank battalion and four Tigers, and withdrew these shortly afterward for an attack he was planning farther north.


Rommel’s whole operation killed or wounded 3,000 Americans and netted more than 4,000 prisoners and 200 destroyed Allied tanks, against fewer than a thousand Axis casualties and far lower tank losses. But, if Arnim had cooperated and the Comando Supremo had shown any vision, the Axis gains could have been immensely greater.


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    A relevant book is America’s First Battles: 1776–1965, edited by C.E. Heller & W.A. Stofft.

    Kasserine Pass was typical. America’s military lost most of its first battles, from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. The initial loss was often followed by big changes in equipment, training, and leadership — sometimes turning initial defeat into eventual victory.

    It has often been noted that the kind of smooth political operator who rises to command in a peacetime force is generally not the kind of person who can fight battles. Today’s US military is a good example of that.

  2. Michael van der Riet says:

    [citation needed, I know] I have read that in WW2 in all theatres of operation at all stages of the war, the Wehrmacht inflicted casualties at a rate of twice casualties received. I also believe that Von Manstein was Rommel’s equal. But generals apart, I think that the typical Soldat was more professional, more plucky and highly inured to hardship. (Putting this out there for flaming.)

  3. Jim says:

    This is also true of corporations.

  4. Bob Sykes says:

    Guderian was Germany’s best general, and one of the inventors of combined arms warfare. Rommel was sent to Africa, because he could be spared. Guderian, who had led the charge across France, was needed on the Eastern Front.

    Re the Wehrmacht: In both World Wars it outperformed the Allies at every level. But it was simply overwhelmed by raw numbers of men and materiel. Initiative at lower levels of command was expected and rewarded.

    Re victory in WW II: Germany’s fate was sealed when it launched Operation Barbarossa. Defeat on the Eastern Front was inevitable, even without the participation of the US.

  5. Isegoria says:

    According to Fehrenbach, “Erwin Rommel had written that he had never seen any troops so inept at first as Americans in battle — or any who learned the hard lessons more quickly once the chips were down.”

  6. Isegoria says:

    Without knowing much more than Rommel’s reputation from World War II, you could guess that he was a successful World War I officer, too — but that would be an underestimate.

  7. VXXC says:

    “America’s military lost most of its first battles, from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. ”

    You might want to have a look at Mark Moyar’s very well researched history of the Vietnam war, we weren’t actually “losing” until the American Embassy orchestrated the coup and murder of Diem. This would be Triumph Forsaken by Moyar.

    Ap Bac wasn’t a major setback nor of any strategic importance, except to the Saigon NYT crew and one John Paul Vann.

    I’m unaware of the American military main forces losing then winning in Vietnam, what battles in Vietnam are you referring to?

    For that matter we were winning hard in 1775-1776 then reversed in 1777-1778 when the British main force arrived and Washington foolishly if valiantly tried to defend New York City [look at a map, it's a trap then and now unless you have Sea Supremacy, NYC is very much a group of islands on the coast]. But America wasn’t losing at the start of the Revolution.

    Nor Vietnam. What defeats we suffered never rose above Battalion, nor Tet [a disaster for the Viet Cong] and in the end we abandoned our allies in 1973 to be swept by 22 mechanized NV divisions in 1975.

    When America or any nation does the preparation and work ahead of time it does well in war, just as in anything else. That wasn’t WW2 or Korea.

    In WW1 we actually did do well off the bat. We also did well in Desert Storm, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq — that we were then given Mission Impossible [make them White Suburbanites] can’t quite be laid at the military leadership.

    The idea that a General makes the difference is quite simplistic and romantic. An army needs an entire culture of leadership down to the squad/section level, the Germans built such a culture from 1810 to 1945. The American military now is still on the fumes of that culture, perhaps the last fumes. It’s certainly not our Generals, who are managerial class personified.

  8. Isegoria says:

    In Understanding War: History and Theory of Combat, Dupuy argued that the combat power of an army could be represented as a product of three quantities:

    The first one is force strength, which is basically the number of troops, but modified by the quality and quantity of their equipment. Generally speaking, a horseman has an advantage over an infantryman. A heavy tank with thick armor and a large gun has an advantage over a light tank.

    Turchin continues his summary of Dupuy’s findings (in War and Peace and War):

    The results are striking. The Germans consistently outperformed the Allies in the ability to wage combat. If we assign 1 to the average combat efficiency of the British, the American efficiency was 1.1 and German 1.45.

  9. Ezra says:

    145/100 was only for the Hermann Goering Division.

    120/100 was a more usual figure.

    120 American or British troops to defeat 100 Germans. But only at brigade strength or greater.

  10. Aisurgen says:

    And if I remember right, speaking of those miraculous Soldaten somebody mentioned here, Dupuy’s analysis of the Kursk battle showed that for Russians-vs-Germans the ratio was closer to 3.5:1. No wonder the bastards have failed so spectacularly in Ukraine!

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