Photograph of Vandegrift and his staff consulting maps

U.S. Marine Corps. Via

Armies and navies cannot function without commanders who have the authority to command their men and who can be held responsible for their actions. This is not a responsibility that can be shared, but a commander is certain to be overwhelmed by the mass of detail associated with managing a large, modern military force and planning its operations. The ability to delegate authority to subordinate commanders is vital, but it is not sufficient to relieve the burden of management and planning.

Staff are military personnel who carry out most of the planning and management functions of a military command. They differ from subordinate commanders in that they do not command a distinct unit of their own and thus are not formally part of the chain of command. At the lowest command echelons of the U.S. Army, a lieutenant commanding a platoon was assisted by a sergeant first class, while a captain commanding a company had a lieutenant as executive officer and was assisted by a first sergeant, a mess sergeant, a supply sergeant and a company clerk. Field commanders were assisted by a staff of several officers led by the battalion or regimental executive officer. Each staff officer had a separate area of responsibility, such as operations, intelligence, logistics, and so forth. At division level or above, the chief of staff was usually an officer distinct from and subordinate to the deputy or assistant commander. In the U.S. Navy, the chief of staff was always an officer two ranks below that of the commanding officer, so that a vice admiral was entitled to a rear admiral (lower half) as his chief of staff.

Staff work required considerable professional military knowledge, and most services set up staff schools to train officers for these tasks. In the United States, the Command and General Staff School trained field-grade officers for battalion command or staff assignments at the battalion, regiment, or division level. Other services had similar training establishments, and in many services, completion of the staff school was considered a prerequisite for high command. Japanese staff officers (Army and Navy) proudly wore a gold aiguillette (shoulder cord) indicating their status.

United States. The principal staff positions in a U.S. Army division were the G-1 (personnel), G-2 (intelligence), G-3 (operations), and G-4 (logistics). The Marine Corps was slower to accept the need for a large staff at the higher echelons, but by the time of the Pacific War some of the more traditionally minded Marine officers were complaining about the large size of Marine Corps staffs.

Japan. A Japanese division staff numbered about 75 officers and men and consisted of a colonel as chief of staff; a G-1, who was a lieutenant colonel, responsible for operations, communications, and training; a G-2, who was a major, responsible for intelligence maps, censorship, and mobilization; and a G-3, who was a captain, responsible for rear services and logistics. There was also a lieutenant colonel as adjutant. Staff officers in the Japanese services had an extraordinary amount of influence compared with their Western counterparts, on the theory that "the person who actually handles an affair is best qualified to judge it... The great propelling force of a strong army emanates from its middle stratum" (quoted by Larrabbee 1987). These staff officers were known as bakuryo ("officers behind the curtains"). High level conferences were often little more than ritualistic readings of positions previously worked out by staff, and any unexpected subject was almost always deferred until it could be studied by staff. The most extreme expression of this attitude was  gekokujō (下克上 "loyal insubordination") which often left senior officers afraid to lose face before overly aggressive junior officers by acting cautiously when caution would have been prudent. An example was Cho Isamu, chief of staff of 32 Army at Okinawa, who bullied Ushijima into launching the disastrous 5 May 1945 counterattack rather than sticking with the less aggressive but highly effective shūgettsu ("bleeding strategy"). 

Goldman (2012) traces the roots of gekokujo to the great deference traditionally shown to the elderly in Japanese society. This meant that such men were put in high positions regardless of ability, and the real power lay of necessity with their subordinates. This "rule from beneath" was further amplified by the rapid industrialization of Japan, which put a premium on the technical skills of recent college and technical school graduates. Another factor was the kind of education officer candidates received. Officers at the military academy were indoctrinated in complex strategies more appropriate for the the division commanders they might become thirty years later than with the tactics suitable for leading a platoon. Officers attending the staff college likewise were given training suitable for command of an army rather than a brigade. The most promising young officers thus became accustomed to thinking about command responsibilities far beyond those commensurate with their rank. Finally, Japanese military tradition put heavy emphasis on spiritual power rather than numbers or firepower, which Japan lacked in any case. The result was that the most promising young staff officers were trained to think like senior officers, to put a premium on aggressiveness to the point of recklessness, and to independently exercise the authority which by right belonged to their commanders.

One of the most extreme proponents of gekokujo was Tsuji Masanobu, who was a near caricature of the typical Japanese staff officer. Tsuji was undoubtedly brilliant and posssessed of a reckless courage, but he repeatedly exceeded his authority (usually to the detriment of Japanese national strategy, as at Nomonhan) and was guilty both of astounding insensitivity to Japanese casualties and of perpetrating hideous war crimes on the enemy. Few Japanese staff officers displayed the psychopathology of a Tsuji, but too many combined brilliance and courage with recklessness, viciousness, and insubordination.

China. Commanders in the Chinese Army were greatly hampered by the lack of good staff officers, of whom only about 2000 had been trained by 1937. Most staff were little more than military secretaries, and staff officers were not authorized to pass along orders from their commanders unless they bore the commander's kwan-fang or official seal ("chop").  The lack of staff hindered both planning and flexible response to changing battlefield conditions.


Command and General Staff College (accessed 2011-10-29)
FM 7-5: Organization and Tactics of Infantry: The Rifle Battalion (1940; accessed 2011-10-29)
FM 7-10: Rifle Company, Rifle Regiment (1941-6-2; accessed 2011-10-29)
FM 101-5: The Staff and Combat Orders (1940-8-19;  accessed 2011-10-29)
"Handbook on Japanese Military Forces" (1944-9-15)
Hoffman (2001)
Hotta (2013)

Larrabee (1987)

Peattie et al. (2011)

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