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 8, 2003
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Donald Vandergriff
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: What's wrong with the military?

I gladly take on the burden, Jim, thanks for your great insights and compliments not only on Path to Victory but also on Robert's fine book on Boyd. Anyway, to answer, or really to reply again to the same question that I am asked over and over again by my audiences: "Can things be as bad as you suggest?" After all, you point out, "Here is the American military, as seen by the public on what feels like the eve of war: the military is bigger and certainly stronger than any opposing force anywhere on earth. It is probably stronger than any other force in history."

I do not believe that we have demonstrated military prowess in Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, or Afghanistan. You did mention the trouble we had in Somalia, a conflict that demonstrates how bad things can get when we face a resolute enemy. Somalia, as I point out in my book, is an example of what happens when there's a conflict between what is written and what is reality. Here we have well-trained troops (the Rangers and Special Operations, or Delta), with all the technology, who win tactically but lose strategically. Why?

From the archives:

"Fourth-generation Warfare" (December 2001)
Pentagon mavericks have been trying for decades to reorient military strategy toward a new kind of threat—the kind we're suddenly facing in the war on terrorism. Now that we've got the war they predicted, will we get the reforms they've been pushing for? By Jason Vest
These well-trained and good soldiers did not understand fourth-generation warfare. They came from a second-generation culture. That is the real basis for all of my arguments, that the military culture dilutes our true capabilities. In Somalia you had conflicting chains of command (officer bloat), officer competition, risk aversion, and the application of methodical planning to a non-methodical environment.

Likewise, I argue that the "lessons of success" learned in the Balkans, Desert Storm, and Afghanistan need some realistic perspective.

What we have demonstrated is that because we have a lot of money—resources and firepower—we can overcome an enemy that does not fight on a second-generation level as we do. But I believe that, should we face a resolute enemy in open combat, the results would be catastrophic (Bunker Hill, Bull Run, Kasserine Pass, Task Force Smith, Vietnam, Somalia). Our inability to wage fourth-generation warfare (non-conventional, non-linear) prevents decisive victories or creates stalemates, such as what occurred in Desert Storm, when 65 percent of the Republican Guard got away (to put down revolts weeks later). Or we get what occurred in Kosovo, when the Serbian Army defied the might of NATO. One simply has to look at the cultural conditions that NATO operated under—extreme centralization and incredible casualty aversion—to understand why. (Part of it was also that the Serbian Army was decentralized and very well trained.)

Jim, you are right, people don't understand that there is a problem; the politicians don't address anything but money and weapons. Why? Because it is hard to understand the intangibles of effective military cultures—leadership, trust, cohesion—and the ingredients required to create such cultures. It takes an understanding of military history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics, to name a few of the subjects necessary to grasp this military culture concept. This holds especially true when I talk about transitioning the U.S. Army from a second-generation force to a third-generation force so it can deal with fourth-generation threats. When it comes down to it, it is easier to just pour more money into the black hole without ever making anything better.

Unfortunately, the recent war in Afghanistan demonstrates again the thesis in my book. Tora Bora was not the result of political decisions but of a second-generation military—in this case CENTCOM (Central Command, or the headquarters that controls the Central Asia/Middle East region) unable to plan on the move or adapt to the collapse of the Taliban and/or al Qaeda. There was simply no mental process in place to deal with the fast-moving environment that existed after all the "targets" melted away or created a new front. A third-generation military, based on trust, professionalism (in the true sense of that overused word), and unit cohesion takes pride in being able "to plan on the fly" and make things happen without relying on centralized planning tools that create orders days behind reality. This takes a well-educated (in the classical sense) mind that possesses experience dealing with such environments. Today's military bureaucratic culture does a bad job at nurturing this type of leader.

Why do we—not just the U.S. Army but the rest of the military, too—have this problem? The book answers the question, but I'll give a summary here. Except for brief periods following what were perceived as total victories, like after World War I and World War II, the military has never had the credibility, or at least it didn't think it did, to evolve into a third-generation culture. What would the transformation to a third-generation culture have meant? First of all, the officer corps would have been allowed to transform itself into a true profession based on tough accession (entrance) requirements. These tough accession requirements would have given the officer corps the autonomy to study the art of war as it has evolved (similar to the high standards for other professions, like medicine, law, and engineering, where the "cut line" up front allows the individual to focus on the profession and not have to be continually trained) and to create an effective military to cope with that evolution (unit manning is one example of this). To have tough accessions, you have to have a civilian population that is willing to serve in peacetime (as with the Germans in the 1800s and early 1900s), offering a large pool of candidates to choose from. Until recently, the U.S. never had a large pool to pick from. It made officers out of who it could get (for example in 1890 Congress passed an act that only officers who passed a professional examination could get promoted. So few passed it that even those who failed got promoted).

Now hold that thought for a moment regarding officers.

The U.S., because it is protected by two of the largest moats in the world—the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans—and because it has friendly neighbors to the north and south, could rely (and still does despite the changing face of war) on a mobilization doctrine. This means that when you need an army you build it, train it, equip it, and use it; when it is done, you cast it away. I am being blunt, but this has happened throughout our history. Plus, we did not have the threat of armies burning our crops, destroying our cities, and killing our populations—our wars were generally away somewhere else. Our geography, centered as it was on untapped natural resources, allowed for unheard of economic prosperity. The result, given time and allies that would hold and bleed while we prepared, was the creation of the "American Way of War" (to borrow the phrase from Dr. Russell F. Weigley). This way of war had a distinct culture—centrally controlled massive firepower planned through methodical processes.

It is an approach to war where doctrine is kept at the basic level so large masses can be easily prepared, and it is backed by incredible resources. Lessons learned after each war are easily dismissed, especially since we won all of our wars—didn't we? So, those who lead and plan our battles, campaigns, and wars are always starting over. Traditionally, since the officer corps did not possess a distinctive professional air about it, it tended to copy whatever was going on in the American civilian sector (this also made the public and politicians comfortable). Thus, at the turn of the century, when Secretary of War Elihu Root made his great reforms, he adapted the bureaucratic and corporate models of the period (along with the Progressives' theories on personnel management, which evolved into today's Individual Replacement System), and the officer corps went along with this out of ignorance (and a misinterpretation of the German military culture). This approach to war works fine when the enemy reacts as your templates predict, but does not work when the enemy is more flexible, thinks faster than you do, does not play by the "rules"—is not bound to a big centralized overhead.

After World War II—with the threat of the Soviet Union—we discovered that we needed a large standing Army, but we still decided to compromise and use the mobilization doctrine and all its shortcomings to sustain it. To this day, because we have the resources to bury every problem and every enemy, we maintain this American way of war. Today, we still mass-produce officers (we train 148 percent of the officers we need), which in turn undermines experience. ROTC is still treated like a club or extra-curricular activity. The evolution toward a glut of officers naturally pushed decisions up the chain of command and led to increasing centralization as officers on staffs found it more and more difficult to justify their existence. Couple that with mobilization-centric personnel policies like the up-or-out promotion system, and you have the ingredients for a risk averse, ticket punching, careerist culture, where self interest takes precedence over organizational purpose.

In a nutshell, the problem is that most Army officers serve on staffs and very few actually command anything. Several studies, surveys, and news articles have already documented the frustration that many young officers feel about being denied the opportunity to lead or command troops (other than for very brief and infrequent periods) with some latitude of autonomy.

These officers have to spend most their time as glorified clerks on somebody's staff, performing non-military "busy work" (such as building "PowerPoint" slides). They know they are stagnating and feel that the real rewards of being an Army officer are passing them by. Furthermore, the problem is getting steadily worse. Even while the number of operating units is decreasing, the number and size of the different staffs (and the size of those staffs) that command them are increasing. The Army regards service on these staffs as so important that it is even drafting newly minted lieutenants into them while frequently leaving the command of tactical platoons to sergeants. But the modern face of war is going to require officers and NCOs with even more experience to cope with the problems that arise on the battlefield.

What you get when you lay today's information technology on top of yesteryear's Napoleonic force structure, industrial-age personnel system, and bureaucratic environment is an Army (or military) that will always be behind the decision cycle of third- and fourth-generation opponents.

My question back to you (the audience), then, is what happens when we cannot afford to send million-dollar missiles to destroy mud huts or Yugo cars? What happens when the enemy deceives our high technology with decentralization, and the people at the front must make a decision that can change the course of a battle—a decision they are not capable of making due to years of micromanagement and risk aversion? Can the United States continue the luxury of hollow victories, leaving the problem for another day?

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