Notes and Quotes on Staff Duties

Style Rules

  1. Put the recommendation, conclusion, or reason for writing in the first or second paragraph.
  2. Use the active voice.
  3. Use short sentences (15 words or less).
  4. Use short words (three syllables or fewer).
  5. Write paragraphs no more than 1 inch deep.
  6. Use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  7. Use "I", "You", and "We" as subjects of sentences.

- The [US] Joint Staff Officer's Guide 1993, AFSC PUB 1

Orders, Instructions, Reports and Messages

As I have pointed out more than once, orders, instructions, reports and messages will have to abandon their many official frills and step out stark naked unto the reality of war. The object of an operation order is to impart information you cannot actually convey by voice. It may be the word "move," or "halt," or it may be a long rigamarole; in either case it is seldom necessary to turn it into a ritual so holy that it is considered almost sacrilegious not to begin an operation order with "information" ... "intention," and so on, etc., etc.

All order will have to be as brief as possible, and not as formal as possible. They should be based on a profound appreciation of possibilities and probabilities, which, as I have explained, will generally lead to a series of alternatives. Therefore an order should not be suited to one operation but to several possible phases of this operation. It should possess a central idea and several radii working out towards the final circumference -- victory to you and defeat to the other man.

If we wish to prepare ourselves for mechanized warfare, it is time we broke away from existing conventions, substituting common-sense for ritual. A methodical soldier may be able to find everything, like a tidy person. This is excellent, but what is infinitely better is being able to make use of things instantaneously -- anything, ground, tanks, infantry, broomsticks. What above all the fighting soldier requires is not a brain which works by rules, but a brain which rules by work -- that is, immediate action.

A great deal of this training in spontaneity of action will depend on our orders and instructions. In the future much more must be left to the initiative of the individual than in the past. Though the central idea must be maintained, actions should be as flexible as possible. Reports must be as brief as possible and should always, when possible, suggest actions. To state that the enemy is blowing his nose may be interesting, but to report that he is looking eastward and is open to a backside kick from the west is something of real importance. Messages should be in code, and when sent in clear between units in battle they should generally be in clear. Time, time, and the saving of it, should be the soul of every order and instruction, of every report and of every message. - Armoured Warfare; An Annotated Edition of Fifteen Lectures on Operations Between Mechanized Forces, by Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, 1943


Some Summary! - The following remarks were written by a senior officer on a multi-page report of a minor meeting, complete with many annexures and appendices: "Please note this excellently detailed report. Would you be kind enough to summarize on one sheet 8" x 11", leaving room for notes." - Contributed by Major G.T.J. Barrett, Surgeon General Staff, National Defence Headquarters.


Disconcerting Thought The following is the hand-written comment by a senior officer on an old military file: "This report is useless. The only thing to remember of it is the identity of the officer who wrote it!" - Contributed by Capt. G.T.J. Barrett, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps.

Miscellaneous quotes on Staff Duties

A perfect order should … fulfil the following conditions: (i) its meaning should be so clear as to leave no possible doubt in the mind of the recipient as to what is required; (ii) nothing should be included which the recipient already knows, i.e., there should be no unnecessary word; and (iii) nothing should be omitted which the recipient requires to know.

It all sounds very simple, but it is a matter which is full of difficulties. - Letters to An Adjutant, By "CIX", Army Quarterly, 1924

Orders, &c., should always be:-

i. Legible as possible.
ii. Clear in meaning.
iii. So worded that they will be quickly understood.
iv. Precise as regards place and time.
v. As brief as possible consistent with clearness.
- Field Service Pocket Book (1926), Amendments No 4, April, 1928

Messages and orders must use concise military verbiage. - George S. Patton, Jr., War as I Knew It, 1947

A staff officer, the Commandant observed, has to work very hard; he cannot be a five-day-a-week soldier. But on account of this it is all the more important for him to take his leave when his turn comes. A lazy commander, if he is brilliant, may succeed; but a lazy staff officer is a menace. - Address by Lt.-Col. Simonds, Commandant, Canadian Junior War Staff Course, 12 April 1941 (as related by Major C.P Stacey, Hisorical Officer, C.M.H.Q.)

During the Civil War, legend has it that General Robert E. Lee, in an effort to minimize confusion among subordinate commanders, required the soldier guarding his tent to read his written orders before they were issued. If the soldier didn't completely understand the instructions, Lee would rework them until the soldier fully grasped them.

Clarity, thoroughness, and comprehension are essential in combat orders. - Gil Dorland and John Dorland, Duty, Honor, Company; West Point Fundamentals for Business Success, 1992

To minimize the potential for confusion or misinterpretation of orders, the military has formulated specific guidelines for their preparation. Regardless of how they are communicated, orders should be presented as clearly as possible so that everyone within the organization, from the highest to the lowest level, will readily understand what is required of them. The Army's Staff Organization and Operations manual articulates many of the characteristics of a good combat order--which are the same characteristics of a sound business directive.

  1. Clarity. The order must be thoroughly understandable.
  2. Completeness. The order contains all the information and instructions necessary to coordinate and execute the operation. It must convey the purpose or intent of the commander so that subordinate commanders will be able to accomplish their mission without further instructions. An order also must include sufficient detail so that all subordinate commanders know what other units are doing.
  3. Brevity. Unnecessary detail is avoided. However, clarity and completeness are not sacrificed in the interest of brevity.
  4. Recognition of subordinate commander's prerogatives. The order should not infringe on the initiative of subordinate commanders by prescribing details of execution. Only under unusual circumstances, such as an operation requiring extremely close cooperation and timing, should a subordinate commander be told precisely how to perform an assigned task.
  5. Use of the affirmative form. In the interest of simplicity and clarity, the affirmative form of expression is used throughout all combat orders. Sentences using the word not should be avoided.
  6. Avoidance of qualified directives. Such expressions as "attack vigorously" weaken the force of subsequent directives in which a qualifying adverb does not appear. Such expressions as "try to hold" and "as far as possible" lessen responsibility.
  7. Authoritative expression. The order reflects the commander's intention and will. Indecisive, vague, and ambiguous language indicates indecision and leads to uncertainty and lack of confidence by subordinates. The commander tells his subordinates in direct and unmistakable terms exactly what he wants to do.
  8. Timeliness. Timely distribution of orders allows subordinate commanders sufficient time for planning and preparation. Concurrent planning saves time.

- Gil Dorland and John Dorland, Duty, Honor, Company; West Point Fundamentals for Business Success, 1992