My name is Ilja Varha and I am an officer in the Finnish Defence Forces, a freelance game journalist and a game developer of Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865). I recently had a conversation with Luke about Burden of Command, an ambitious game project with unique focus on the challenges of commanding a company. I was very impressed with the game mechanics as described in the other dev blogs for BoC. Having commanded a company, Luke asked me to share some of my experiences in a form of a short essay, as they underline quite well how Burden of Command has grasped the reality of a company commander.
An Infantry Company is a unique unit in the order of battle, as described in a sociological study by Knut Pipping.
My experiences fully agree with Mr. Pipping. In my experience, being a company commander, with around 100-200 subordinates, give or take, is the most demanding job for any young officer, and a true ordeal by fire for his leadership.
First of all, you (should!) know all the guys personally. And you are in the same shit with them 24 hours a day.
The company will form its own society, unlike the more abstract, from the point of view of the grunts, battalion. As the commander, there’s no escaping the needs of your men.
Second of all, you are already high enough in the hierarchy that you also start to feel the, sometimes unrealistic, expectations of your higher ups.
I like to describe the company commander being located in the narrowest point in an hourglass: below you got the troops and their needs, and overhead there is the pressure from battalion to accomplish the mission. Remembering that the sand flows only one way at a time! A bit like when you bow toward something, you are presenting your ass to something else, even if you don’t think it that way yourself. I could easily describe the situation as “burden of command”, and for this reason I really liked the game’s name and scope!
In Finland we have a conscript army, which means every officer, regardless of rank, will experience the life of a simple soldier during his conscription period. This is quite different to many professional armies, including most western ones. During my year in service I trained as a Jaeger Platoon (Finnish light infantry) leader. Later, after 4 years in Defence University and some training, I became a company commander in a mechanized brigade.
As a young platoon leader you have the company commander around to support you, or to kick you and your men forward, if needed. That’s because of the size of the company: you will still see the whole company with only small movement, and you are close enough to move to the platoon commander and support him face-to-face. Except in the new swarming doctrine, but that does not affect us in armor/mechanized branch.
When you go to battalion, things are very different again. Because of the size and number of men, you cannot be everywhere, and the responsibility to get stuff actually done, is with – surprise, surprise – the company commanders!
So at higher level, it’s more important to train the company commanders and give them good orders. You simply cannot supervise and support them all. And even if you have a better picture of the overall situation, you cannot push the same knowledge into the head of a company commander, as he will understand your orders and instructions according to what he sees at the grass level.
This became apparent when I was deployed with a company of Jaegers abroad, as a part of a multinational battalion. We were the boots on the ground, like always, and the higher ups were mostly tied to the camps, headquarters and other facilities. This meant that while I was thinking more about hills, roads, single people in towns in my Area of Responsibility and of course the threats to my soldiers, the guys giving me the orders were looking at tidy maps. And those two worlds seldom shook hands neatly.
The common experience, which is written in many books and films (Generation Kill), is that you are happy only with your own actions and maybe of those of your men, and the rest, especially above you, seem like a bunch of incompetent idiots running around aimlessly. This is because the different worlds are not shaking hands, and you feel as though you can reside only in one of them.
After a few months, I realized my job as the CO was very much in the narrow part of the hourglass. One of the most important things I had to do was to soften and filter the information and orders, and the occasional brainfarts, flowing through the organization from top down. Mostly so it would not hit the troops too hard – and therefore keep up their motivation. To be able to command the company I needed to live and breathe the single soldier’s life, so I could understand their needs and challenges in the mission better.
My responsibility was to be on the side of my men at the big tables, and to be out in the field at least as often as my Jaegers were. This was to teach the guys, to observe their actions and to make sure every soldier was doing things like I needed them to be done. I didn’t lead the patrols and small ops, but rather participated as a single soldier to see how my platoon commanders were doing things, and how the squad leaders managed. Then I talked to these guys in private about how they were doing, trying to boost their trust in themselves and in the mission. Of course, if something more serious happened, I would switch to CO mode and establish an ad-hoc command post to coordinate the overall situation.
That was a big learning experience to me: how to gain and build trust with the platoon commanders all the way down to single troops. This is something the player will be doing in Burden of Command. It’s very often I see, especially abroad, that the highest-ranking officer is present for even the most trivial details. I did not see it that way, but instead let my individual jaegers take charge of things and then supported them in the background. This noticeably helped their self-esteem and professional growth. And it also helped me learn to trust them – it’s a two-way street.
Another interesting detail, for me, was how to keep up the interest of guys, trained mainly in high intensity warfare, in a mission that was dull as hell, though with risks. How to keep them from getting passive in the “unbearable routine”? From their point of view, it was boring and nothing much happened on a daily basis. But when something did happen, you had to be able to anticipate the signs of the threat, and to react without delay.
The stunning tactical stunts, like the ones you are supposed to pull off in most computer games, are only a small part of being a leader. You are also a leader outside the “battlefield”. Another Finnish research from WW2 tells, that during the counter-attack phase of 1941, when basically the whole Finnish Army was taking back lost territories from Winter War, it was calculated that even the front-line soldier from the foremost fighting unit spent over 90% of the time without enemy contact. The troops are not just assets to accomplish your mission, like in games, but these are people you know. And if you do your job well, they trust your judgement when the time comes to carry out the orders with an uncertain outcome.
One interesting thing about the training I did with my mechanized company had to do with “leading from front, leading from further back” -problematics, or -mechanics, as implemented in Burden of Command -game. Let me give another metaphor I’ve grown fond of: “you cannot push with a rope“. This was something an older soldier taught me, after his experience of being hit by a VBIED and then getting his rattled troops to secure the area.
You can, and therefore must, pull! In Finland our contemporary military tradition is based greatly on the WW1 era German tradition. That’s where the rebellious Finns were trained before our country’s independence in 1917. And those same soldiers formed the corps of the higher command in WW2, and hence the spirit for the training we give today, as Finland remained independent after the war.
The tradition is to lead from the front. You don’t say “Go, move out!” Instead you are taught from the very beginning to say “Let’s go, follow me!” Some officers I’ve worked with have had hard time figuring out their physical location when commanding their troops. Usually commanders of today play the “better overall situational awareness” -card by staying back, eyes glued to the screens of their battlefield management systems and ears tuned to the radios. But when the attack stops, pushing will not work.
What I learned was if you do this for long enough, you will completely alienate yourself from the men and their reality, and gain a certain, not so flattering, reputation. You’re on your way to becoming Captain America in Generation Kill, or Captain Sobel in Band of Brothers.
Here’s a clip from a 1955 Finnish war movie called “The Unknown Soldier”, (there are now three movie based on the book with the same title, second most sold in Finland, after The Bible). It shows something beautiful about leadership. The troops are in their first contact with a live enemy in 1941. They are all green except for the company commander (you will know him instantly) and one platoon commander (in charge of the MGs, and later the satchel charge).
Though it does not end well for everyone, the job gets done. That’s how I see the “burden of command”.
I learned from experience not to push with the rope. I noticed that commanders that coordinated movement from farther back, giving orders only by radio and coordinates on the map or BMS, were less likely to get their troops to maneuvers as intended. And why would they? The recipient of the order views the world between straws of hay while the sender has a digitized map-based perception of lines, symbols and arrows.
For me personally, the answer was to direct the men into combat with me, and when comfortably in contact at right place and time, I would step back a bit to observe the overall situation and to think of the next move. That meant showing the young lieutenants exactly where and how to go, face-to-face, and giving an example. By doing so, I would see every single soldier in my unit. And they would see me. The commander’s presence among the troops is more valuable than gold in many cases in regards to boosting morale. But the flip-side is the possibility of getting pinned down and be unable to lead – just like Burden of Command in question.
But the key is in training. The training never ends. No-one is ever completely ready. After a while I could ease up a bit, as I was certain they would execute any order I gave. This in my opinion is the key to “Auftragstaktik” or ‘Mission-type tactics’ as described by the Germans. Even if the commander is taken out, or out of reach, the unit would complete the mission according to commander’s will on its own.
As you can see, I am really hyped about Burden of Command, as it does so many things right, in a way not yet done in any computer wargames. I hope the best for the project, and also that many like-minded will find it and enjoy it once ready!
Burden of Command is currently in development by GreenTreeGames and slated for release in late 2019. You can follow its development through the following online resources (especially the dev blog):
Ilja Varha is an officer in Finnish Defence Forces, a freelance game journalist and a game developer of Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865).
Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865) is a real time strategy game combining a strategic campaign with tactical battle game play. Run your nation, muster, manage and support great armies, and maneuver them to defeat the enemy. Once the opposing armies meet, command your troops to victory in battles fought on historical battlefields.