New Part Three - January 23:
Part Two - January 15:
Part One - January 8:
Robert Coram is the author of three acclaimed nonfiction books and seven novels. Twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he has also been featured in The New Yorker and numerous other magazines. He is a commercial-rated pilot and one of the few civilians to have flown both the F-100 and the F-15.
Donald Vandergriff is an active duty army officer currently serving as deputy director of Army ROTC at Georgetown University. He was editor of Spirit, Blood, and Treasure: The American Cost of Battle in the 21st Century. He is the author of around twenty-five articles on military affairs.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit jamesfallows.com.
Atlantic Unbound | January 23, 2003
Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Robert Coram
To: James Fallows
Subject: What's wrong with the military? - Part Three
First, thanks for inviting me to participate in this conversation. I'm delighted to work with you and The Atlantic, especially since you paired me with Major Don Vandergriff, a man whose work would have pleased John Boyd immensely.
Since I have been a bit verbose in the earlier exchanges, I'm going to get out of this one quickly.
I think your summary of what has been presented thus far is on point. No important dissents from this quarter. But I would like to pause briefly on one theme that you and several reviewers have mentioned. You wonder why I did not identify many of the generals referred to in the book. It was not for legal reasons as one reviewer speculated, nor was it the fact-checking exposure. (I much prefer to be exposed pre-publication rather than post-publication.)
You nailed it when you asked if naming these men might detract from the story of Boyd himself. I think it would have. Some of these officers are still alive, some are well-known, and to identify them would be tangential to the thrust of the book. I have no desire to embarrass these men over things that happened decades ago. It would serve no purpose.
Let me give you an example. One officer was having a telephone conversation with Boyd and became so upset that he began frothing at the mouth and fell out of his chair. This later became known as the "air-to-rug maneuver." A number of people have asked for the name of that officer. But his name is not the point. The point is that Boyd was such a dynamic and overpowering personality that he could have an extraordinary effect on people. To name the officer would only bring attention to him and perhaps lose sight of what I consider the primary reason for that anecdote.
Your question about Dick Cheney is a good one and certainly relevant given the fact that we are about to go to war with the same adversary that Cheney, as secretary of defense, faced more than a decade ago. It has been documented in several instances that Cheney knew enough about strategy to toss out Schwarzkopf's initial invasion plans and develop his own plan, a plan influenced by John Boyd. Now, does Dick Cheney remain a secret Sun Tzu? Will he implement unexpected guerilla tactics in Gulf War II? Or has he changed?
I don't know. And I don't think the answer will be known until after the war.
What I can tell you is that Cheney, a sitting vice president, gave me a half-hour to talk about Boyd. His best quotes came not in response to questions, but when he voluntarily elaborated on Boyd's significance.
Perhaps I can indirectly answer your question by continuing with the story of the Cheney interview. This is naive, but my mental picture of Mr. Cheney comes entirely from seeing him on television, where he seems very low-key and very much in control. When he talked to me about Boyd he was warm and enthusiastic and forthcoming; not at all what I expected. His memories of Boyd are sharp and important. He gave me ten minutes more than had been agreed upon. It was clear to me that he has great respect for Boyd and—now I'm guessing—is still influenced by their association.
How great that influence is and how great Mr. Cheney's influence is in the war councils—here allow me to coin a phrase—we'll have to wait and see.
To me, a related and fascinating idea concerns the Army and the Marine Corps. The
Army boasts that it practices maneuver warfare, which, by definition, means a high operational tempo, tactics that cause disruption and confusion, putting strength against weakness, placing trust in subordinates, and an implicit contract between commander and subordinate in which the commander expresses his goals and gives his subordinates great latitude in achieving those goals. But the Army also practices synchronization, a creaky concept that means the Army moves at the speed of its slowest unit, a concept that is the very antithesis of maneuver warfare. Syncronization means the Army sees its various units as part of one gigantic fist used to pummel the adversary. Syncronization proves the Army does not, in fact, practice maneuver warfare, but still hews to the old idea of a high-diddle-diddle-straight-up-the-middle slugfest. So I predict that in Gulf War II the Army will demonstrate its historical mindset and revert to attrition warfare.
The Marine Corps is the big question mark. Back in the 1980s the Marines embraced Boyd's ideas on maneuver warfare. And Boyd was one of the forces behind "FMFM-1 Warfighting," the Marine Corps handbook on warfare that remains in use today. But will the Marines use maneuver warfare in Gulf War II as they did so brilliantly in Gulf War I, or will they, too, revert to attrition warfare? These to me are crucial questions and the answers will reveal volumes, both about the Marine Corps and about the lasting effect of Boyd's ideas.
I'm going to pass on the draft question. My biography of Boyd is historical, and I have no knowledge or expertise that would give me the standing to answer this.
Thanks again. I hope my contribution to this forum has been worthwhile.
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