New Part Three - January 23:
James Fallows
Robert Coram
Donald Vandergriff

Part Two - January 15:
James Fallows
Robert Coram
Donald Vandergriff

Part One - January 8:
James Fallows
Robert Coram
Donald Vandergriff

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

Previously in Fallows@large:

Inside Admissions (September 25, 2002)
A dialogue between James Fallows and Jacques Steinberg, the author of The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.

The Price of Wealth (July 3, 2002)
A dialogue between James Fallows and Kevin Phillips, the author of Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich.

Signals of Saturation (April 3, 2002)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Todd Gitlin, the author of Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives.

More by James Fallows

More on books

More on defense

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

Atlantic Unbound | January 23, 2003
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: James Fallows
To: Robert Coram and Donald Vandergriff
Subject: What's wrong with the military? - Part Three

Dear Don and Robert:

Thank you for these extensive and informative replies. My plan here is to sum up where I think these first two rounds have taken us, and then ask a few remaining questions about the military commitments the country is about to make.

Here is my take-home message of where the discussion now stands:

  • You both contend that the actual military achievements of the post-Vietnam era are less impressive than they seem—and that the sheer mass and technological might behind the U.S. armed forces, in America's era as unquestioned superpower, conceal a number of operational weaknesses. The comeback to this would be: "Who cares? There's no sign that we're losing our material advantage, so we're happy to win the same way the Union did in the Civil War, through mass." We can all imagine the rebuttals, in turn, to that point. For now my point is that you're both arguing that we have an under-performing force.

  • You both argue that much of the under-performance problem comes from a cultural contradiction. The tension is between the traits that have typified successful armies through the centuries—trust, agility, shared values, and so on—and the traits of modern bureaucratic-capitalist life. Don, your book focuses mainly on the industrial-organization aspect of those traits: that is, the "Taylorite" view of people as interchangeable productive units, rather than the military view of people as members of an organic whole. Robert, your book—and even more your postings here—have drawn out the problem of simple financial distortion and corruption. When so many idealistic, ambitious people know that the main way to get ahead is to promote the Pentagon's buying plans, there is an inevitable corrupting effect. (As there is in politics, because of the chronic need to raise money, and for similar reasons in other fields.) You both admire the individual members of the military and lament the impact of their culture.

  • You both place significant stress on the ironic role of "risk" in the military. Civilians naturally think of combat forces as the people in society who most deliberately face and embrace risk. And indeed when combat begins, they do what almost no one in civilian society is ever asked to do: deliberately risk their lives for the benefits of others. But you both say that in its normal daily operations, the career military has become perversely anti-risk. Officers who hope to climb up to flag rank know that a single "bad" review from a superior officer can end their hopes. Because of wild grade-inflation in these rankings, anything short of the equivalent of straight-A-pluses is a black mark. Silicon Valley, in its heyday, used to be proud of the fact that entrepreneurs could start a business, and fail, and come back with no penalty to try again—because everyone knew that startup ventures were risky. The tech economy may have pushed that view to an irresponsible extreme, but you show the institutional and personal costs of going the other way.

    In particular this is the theme of your book, Robert. John Boyd was just original and valuable enough—in his aerial tactics, in his energy-maneuverability studies, eventually in his large theory of combat—to force the system to tolerate him. But most people who observed his example would think: too dangerous for me!

  • You both suggest that it is hard to distinguish between "military" and "political" responsibility for the military problems the U.S. has had since Vietnam—from the inconclusive end to the Gulf War to the unfinished business at Tora Bora. What this suggests to me is that it's hard to draw any clear distinction: as you point out, Clausewitz was right when he said that war and politics were essentially the same thing.

  • Consistent with this last point, you both seem fearful that American "grand strategy" has gone awry as we prepare for battle in Iraq. None of us knows whether, how, or for how long U.S. forces may be engaged in Iraq. But you both seem to be suggesting that this is the wrong war against the wrong enemy in the wrong place.

    Now, the questions. I'll preface them by again urging audience members to buy and read both Boyd and Path to Victory. The books are complementary in the best sense: each improves the effect of the other, without any overlap. They are especially valuable with war at hand and with the certainty of discussions about the military budget ahead.

    First question: do you agree with this summary of your views? Any important dissents?

    Also, for both of you: any crucial theme of your books that we have failed to mention?

    For Robert Coram: You give vivid detail about Boyd and the cast of characters who surrounded him. I have known these people for years, and your account rings true. You also describe their antagonists within the Air Force—the generals who kept trying to fire Boyd, or squelch his findings, or overrule his ideas—but most of them are not identified. Because I've covered the military over the years, I know a few of the people you were talking about. I'm curious about your strategic choice in not naming more of them. Not worth the legal and fact-checking exposure? Did you think it would detract from the story of Boyd himself?

    Also for Robert: Dick Cheney is one of the surprise heroes of your book. He tries to protect John Boyd, and he seems to apply some of his lessons during the first Gulf War. Yet in the last few years, there has been little evidence of Boyd-type guerrilla thinking from Cheney. Do you think he is still a secret Sun Tzu-ist, looking for unexpected guerrilla tactics? Or has he changed? (I realize you may not know first hand; I'm asking for your reading of the evidence.)

    For Donald Vandergriff: Hidden in the military news of the last week has been a dramatic change in personnel policy. The Marine Corps, like all the rest of today's military, is a "volunteer" force—but as of last week, no one is allowed to resign or retire for the next year, as a way to keep the headcount up in a time of international conflict. The Reserves, the National Guard, and the Army have already been subject to variants of this "stop loss" policy. What does this kind of draft-by-another-name mean for the military now? Does it advance or retard the cause you're working for?

    Finally, for both of you, a question that I think is of mounting political importance: the draft. As a political matter, a return to the draft is inconceivable. If the American land mass were invaded—maybe. Otherwise, no politician would vote for it. As a matter of personnel management, it would also be complicated for the military to handle so many new people.

    Yet as a political and grand-strategic question, do you think the current situation is sustainable? We have a volunteer military making up well under one percent of the population. As we've often heard in the last few weeks, only one member of the Senate has a child in uniform. (This is said to be Senator Tim Johnson, of South Dakota.) The civilian population has had no extra duties in the last year—we've mainly been told to keep the economy going. But the military has been under nonstop operational stress—and now they can't even retire on schedule. It was this gap between the world's strongest military and the country it is meant to defend that Charles Rangel had in mind when introducing his obviously doomed bill to restore the draft.

    Robert, from your understanding of grand strategy, and Don, from your understanding of the human culture of the military, would the draft be the right approach? Is there a better way you could imagine America manning its military?

    Thanks for your time, effort, and thoughts, and especially for your books.

    Jim Fallows

    Previous Page | Robert Coram - January 23

    Donald Vandergriff - January 23

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