Home | BGAV Blog | Beating a Dead Horse

Beating a Dead Horse

By Adam Tyler

Major General John K. Herr was the last Chief of Cavalry in the US Army, and a staunch proponent of the horse in warfare.
Major General John K. Herr was the last Chief of Cavalry in the US Army, and a staunch proponent of the horse in warfare.

On March 26, 1938, Major General John K. Herr assumed the position of Chief of Cavalry, US Army. A dedicated and talented horseman, General Herr became an ardent defender of the mounted trooper over changes in organization. Herr spent the last years before the US entry into WWII arguing that the mission of the cavalry could only be successfully attempted using horses, and he opposed any effort to modernize this branch of the US military.

Events, however, would soon leave him behind; recognizing the devastating effect of tanks and mechanized infantry on the modern battlefield, the US Army created the Armored Force in 1940 while phasing out the cavalry. Major General Herr was the last Chief of Cavalry.

General Herr unfortunately could not adapt to a changing world. One of his former subordinates, General Lucian Truscott, concluded “It was General Herr’s misfortune that he would not recognize that the missions of mechanized and armored elements were cavalry missions and that the office of the chief of cavalry should have been in the forefront of the organization and development of such units.”

Major General Herr in his element.
Major General Herr in his element.

Truscott, like many other cavalrymen (including George Patton), did recognize that their job was to accomplish the mission. It was a mission traditionally done by horse-mounted cavalry, including reconnaissance, breakthroughs, and raids on enemy supply lines, yet the mission continued after technological advances rendered the horse generally ineffective on the battlefield.

Truscott, Patton, and others would become highly successful combat leaders in WWII because they could accomplish that mission using new methods and tools, while General Herr made no contribution to Allied victory, retiring in 1942. Even in 1953, two years before his death, General Herr wrote articles and a book that argued that the horse-mounted cavalry was still vital to the US Army, even as mechanized infantry divisions fought in Korea and the armed forces began to experiment with helicopter-borne troops.

General Lucian Truscott made the cover of Life magazine after successful commands at Anzio and the invasion of Southern France.
General Lucian Truscott made the cover of Life magazine after successful commands at Anzio and the invasion of Southern France.

What did General Truscott and the others have that General Herr did not? They had the ability to remember that the mission was the point, not the methods. Given a task, General Truscott sought to accomplish it in any way possible. He became one of the masterminds behind the first Army Rangers, he utilized new technologies and concepts like airborne infantrymen with skill, and he recruited staff officers who were capable, not those who had a certain background in the peacetime Army.

General Truscott was not afraid to do something new or different, if it might bring victory – and at times, he even used old methods in new ways. Faced with rugged terrain in Sicily that his vehicle-equipped troops could not traverse, Truscott used a lesson learned in his cavalry days: “The general formed a provisional pack train and a provisional mounted troop.”

 Major General Herr evaluating an Army "combat car" as Chief of Cavalry.

Major General Herr evaluating an Army “combat car” as Chief of Cavalry.

When the old methods could accomplish the mission, Truscott would use them as readily as any new-fangled concept or technology. Because he did, General Truscott was able to lead his troops on to victory in some of the toughest battles of the war.

All too often, leaders in the church are faced with the choice to follow in the footsteps of General Herr or General Truscott. Methods that worked in the past, often in a highly effective way, become outmoded. Church structures that promoted discipleship then become hindrances to discipleship now. Leadership styles that connected with people in the past turn people off to the church, and even to God, in the present.

Good leaders become ineffective, not because they aren’t gifted, but because they lose sight of the mission…

Good leaders become ineffective, not because they aren’t gifted, but because they lose sight of the mission; they are wedded so closely to their tried-and-true methods that they are unable to adapt. And ultimately, the church that God has called to advance his kingdom mission becomes mired in irrelevancy and navel-gazing.

Pastors, staff, and lay leaders in today’s church have the same opportunity General Herr had: to see change coming and adapt to it. God has blessed us with talents and resources, people and energy to do great, kingdom-based things. To do so, though, requires adaptation and innovation, because the world does not stand still…and God expects us to move in response to it.

Jesus said as much in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). When God evaluates how we have sought his kingdom mission, do we want him to say “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master”?

To hear that response, we must keep our eye on the mission, not the methods…and adapt to a changing world for the sake of the kingdom of God. Will we keep beating a dead horse? Or will we try to accomplish our mission using whatever methods work?

Dr. Adam Tyler is pastor of Grace Hills Baptist Church, Appomattox and serves on the Executive Board of the BGAV.