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 15, 2003
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Donald Vandergriff
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: What's wrong with the military? - Part Two

For Jim Fallows: I have answered the questions about the operational impact of my argument and about grand strategy as well. Here they are:

You asked me, "Could you briefly recap the distinctions among the 'generations' of warfare—and what difference the concepts make?" The history of warfare can be defined in four overlapping evolutionary generations. Generation warfare, though, is not confined to a specific historic period. All four can be seen somewhere in the world today and are driven by specific cultural attributes. First-generation warfare covered the close-quarter, linear fighting of the Greeks, Romans, etc., through the Middle Ages and up to the age of Napoleon. It was driven by ideas and an aristocratic culture, culminating in the French "nation-of-arms." The tactics of this generation consisted of the column and line—regularity driven by culture and technology. Campaigns of this period were intuitive; for example, Napoleon used time and space to set-up decisive battles. Officers of this period were from the aristocratic class, possessed little or no professional training, and operated under one individual making all or most of the tactical and operational decisions. The French Revolution spurred the transformation from first- to second-generation warfare.

Second-generation warfare is essentially an industrial war of attrition, characterized by Materialschlacht (German for material might). This period spans most of the post-Napoleonic wars, the American Civil War up through World War II, and Vietnam (exceptions in U.S. military history involve battles led by Ulysses S. Grant, George Patton, John Shirley Wood, and David Hackworth). Second-generation warfare involves a linear doctrine. It advocates the use of massive firepower, calling for a strictly controlled battlefield outlined by detailed graphics. Both the divisional and corps graphics in Desert Storm and the checklists and lock-step industrial-based education at Army branch schools and combat-training centers illustrate this tendency. Despite the Revolution in Military Affairs that occurred during World War I with the introduction of third-generation warfare, the United States decided to remain with second-generation warfare. It has remained obsessed with maintaining a small regular Army supported by a strategy of mobilization, built upon a force of amateurs, and sustained by an industrial-age personnel system. Unfortunately, second-generation warfare—which is based on a culture that promotes centralized decisions and which often now relies on information technology—tends to stifle subordinate independence and autonomy.

Third-generation warfare evolved during World War I as a German bottom-up, idea-based, and technologically supported reaction to the Allies' material superiority. It relies on groups of highly trained units led by well-educated and well-trained leaders trusted to make on the spot decisions to bypass enemy strengths and attack his vulnerabilities, such as headquarters, supply depots, and artillery units. The key to third-generation warfare's success was that the Germans already possessed a culture that emphasized decentralization and rapid decision-making by its officer corps and NCOs. On the battlefield this involves nonlinear tactics, such as making penetrations based on awareness of surfaces and gaps, reconnaissance pull (where scouts find weaknesses and larger forces follow their success), and multiple thrusts. It includes Auftragstatik (mission tactics), which are decentralized but harmonized by the ideas of commander's intent and Schwerpunkt (focus of effort). At the operational level of war its focus is to dismember and collapse an adversary by penetrating his mind-time-space frame of reference (i.e., penetrate his observation-orientation-decision-action, or OODA, loops). Third-generation requires the utmost in thought and agility from its officers, leaders, and units.

Fourth-generation warfare is an extension of third-generation warfare, with no limits to its depth, no front lines, and targets beyond the traditional military ones. The concept was introduced in a now famous article published in the October, 1989 issue of Marine Corps Gazette called "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation" by William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR). Unfortunately, this article is only now gaining attention here, but it has been cited by al Qaeda as a way to counter U.S. might. Colonel G. I. Wilson is an authority on fourth-generation warfare and through his prolific writings on the subject he is introducing it to many police departments in this country as well as to junior leaders. The military bureaucracy has once again shown its true face by forcing Col. Wilson to retire instead of promoting him and encouraging him to use his expertise to help the U.S. military evolve into a force that can deal with this new and dangerous threat.

Fourth-generation warfare involves irregular warfighting skills/capabilities in close-quarters combat and small unit operations among state/non-state participants. In contrast to the U.S. Army's current second-generation-focused doctrine, fourth-generation warfare calls for a decreased reliance on firepower/attrition in ground combat. It also decreases the reliance on deep strike/strategic bombardment in air warfare. The officer corps that operates in a fourth-generation-warfare environment must be expert in fast-transient littoral penetration operations, information war operations, Special Forces operations, political-military operations, counter-drug/anti-terrorist/anti-nuclear operations, and combat. It is the third and fourth generations of warfare that present a challenge to the current Army culture.

The difficulty for the U.S. Army in dealing with the evolving face of war is a cultural one. Current and potential opponents of the U.S. are turning toward fourth-generation warfare. In terms of potential opponents, Army planners tend to focus on China because of its economic size and conventional and nuclear threats. When the Army planners do think of other threats, they focus on "targets" for weapons systems to take out. Yet, reality suggests that many potential opponents exist within "rogue" states or "states of concern" such as North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Serbia, and Afghanistan. What makes the threat of warfare more likely is if these countries harness their potential with an understanding of fourth-generation warfare. For the U.S. the crucial question becomes, How does the Army transition from a second-generation-warfare-based force to a force that can fight fourth-generation opponents? For more education on this problematical subject please refer to, or Defense and National Interest.

You also asked me to explain what, if anything, the terms "transformation" and "RMA" mean? "How should readers interpret them and their significance when they see them in newspaper and magazine articles?" The Revolution in Military Affairs as seen through the lenses in "the Beltway" means evolution in technological affairs (ETA) or the modern "American Way of War" with a fancy twist—nothing new here. The disciples of RMA believe that the advocacy and bankrolling of technology will mean future wars can be fought at a distance with no blood sacrifices from our side (meaning politically safe as the scale of risk aversion grows). There is no true revolution here, but just a continual belief that weapons systems can provide some type of "silver bullet" that will enable decision makers to avoid facing the reality of war—that war is dirty, vicious, and must be fought and won by the people on the ground using their minds and character. I don't endorse RMA in my book because a true revolution causes cultural, not technological, changes. Technology is just a small ingredient. Col. John Boyd would point his finger and say to the Pentagon bureaucrats, "Machines don't fight wars. People do, and they use their minds." Boyd would go on to emphasize that a professional military would focus on "people, ideas, and hardware," in that order.

My fear with RMA is that as technology continues to evolve, especially in the avenues of information warfare, it will lead to increased oversight by each level of command. Lay this technology over our current force structure, with its many layers of command managed by people who have risen through a personnel system that has strong ties to the industrial/Progressive era, and the result will be that our military ends up even more centralized with a slower OODA loop (slow decision making cycle). This was demonstrated during NATO's war with Serbia, and again in Afghanistan, though I must attest to the superior performance of the Special Forces teams on the ground, who were making real-time decisions based on the enemy, not on out-of-date directives made back in the States. At least some people in the Army are recognizing this conflict between the outdated way it manages people and the ongoing technological evolution.

You also asked me about my struggle to change the military personnel system and how the prospect of war with Iraq may affect those efforts. This question ties in well with the ending to the last answer. The Army, of all the services I see (through the "lenses" or "telescopes" of many friends in the other services), is the only one now looking at true "cultural transformation." (Note: when I define "Army" this includes all ranks, not just senior leaders.) The Army is now tackling the question of how it needs to change in order to perform in the information age and against emerging threats. This entails a lot, and going to one of the numerous "task force" Web pages the Army has recently established will attest to the effort now taking place to study the impact the evolving face of war will have on the future Army. It remains to be seen whether what is now being written will turn into reality.

Many in the Army have recently recognized what has been known for centuries by military leaders and historians—that groups of soldiers and leaders that are kept together through challenging training and real life experiences bond, as a "Band of brothers," into competent, agile units. This is far more effective than what the Army is doing now, which is manning its units through an Individual Replacement System or IRS. Fortunately, the Army is going to begin using a unit manning system. In layman's terms what this means is that groups of soldiers and leaders will be kept together for a "life cycle" of a few years, maybe three years, and as a result, their readiness level will rise dramatically. If unit manning is allowed to flourish and evolve, this in itself will "culturally transform" the Army over a generation. I think it will last and grow, because a few leaders at the top of the Army believe in the power of cohesion. More importantly, there are a few at the top level, plus a lot of current mid-level leaders—captains, majors, lieutenant colonels, and a few colonels— who believe in it, who understand that you cannot have a technological evolution without a personnel revolution, or your organization regresses over time (as is occurring now). I am meeting officers and NCOs almost daily—through personal contact, phone calls, and e-mails—who follow not only my work but also cite the work of Colonel Doug MacGregor, who wrote the brilliant Breaking the Phalanx, and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Leonard, who wrote three good books on how the Army should fight in the future. This upsurge from the bottom ranks is being felt and is trickling up to the top echelons. The key now is continuing, through education, to expand this trickle into a stream and finally into an unstoppable river.

But there is still much work to be done. I continue to meet officers who feel there are no problems—that the discontent they hear is a distant voice in some shadow that can be ignored, because it is the voice of a malcontent who has been passed over by a good system. I've conducted over thirty lectures and briefs since Path to Victory came out in May 2002, and I continue to be amazed at how disconnected some leaders are from the force. When I hear a leader say things like, "They are not as dedicated" (referring to why junior officers are getting out), or "Those surveys don't mean anything" (referring to the numerous surveys and studies done in the last four years citing problems with the Army culture), I know he does not have a good sense of what's really going on in the Army.

The last part of this question deals with the ongoing Iraq crisis. You could say the crisis is slowing the personnel transformation that is starting in the Army. But that is natural. What is the number one concern of senior leaders right now? It is preparing and manning their forces for a potential ground war with Iraq. War or the potential of war tends to distract people from their everyday duties.

But that is no excuse to stop the ongoing efforts. In World War I, the Germans transformed and continued to evolve their culture. What they did was transform to a third-generation-warfare culture. As I pointed out in the first round of this exchange, the Germans applied an "idea-based solution" to the dilemma of the trenches and stalemate. It is important that your readers get a brief explanation of what happened, so they can compare and contrast our efforts with the RMA.

At this point, many readers are likely to start wondering "why" at any suggestion that we emulate anything the German army might have done. I get a common response from my audiences, particularly senior officers, of "They lost two world wars, didn't they?" Or they say, "What kind of example is that other than a bad one?" In sum, many people show ignorance regarding military effectiveness when they look at World War I and II and say, "Our [U.S.] organization and methods must be better because we beat them twice."

First of all it must be said that the German army's defeat was not primarily the work of U.S. forces. We won World War I because of the British and French armies, and because of the starvation of the German people due to a British naval blockade. At the same time, the fact that the Russians kept German armies tied up in Russia until 1918 was also a far more significant contribution to Allied victory than anything done by the American Expeditionary Force.

In World War II, it was mainly the "Red" army that defeated the German army. All the efforts of the British, American, and other non-Soviet allied armies (including the much-overrated Yugoslav partisans) amounted to little more than a sideshow that tied up perhaps 10-12 percent of the German army's men and resources. Also, it is easy to explain Germany's World War II defeat in terms of the Allies' sheer numbers and amount of materiel. Germany was fighting a coalition that (even when German allies are included) had four times the population and more than twice the industrial resources as the Axis powers.

The biggest reason why the Germans were able to achieve such a high degree of tactical and operational effectiveness was the quality of their officer and NCO corps. The secret to their officer corps' superior quality lay in the fact that the Germans were willing to trade numbers for quality. If one is willing to have fewer officers, then more time and resources can be expended in the selection, education, and training of the ones you have. Officer candidates who prove themselves unsuitable can be rejected. The objections from some I have lectured to is that this system is "elitist" and "unfair," (serious objections in our "one size fits all" society). They also argue that the German system offers fewer redundancies and fewer points of failure. In other words, if there are only a few officers, the failure of any one of them will have a greater effect, because each bears a much larger share of the total responsibility. In addition, a small officer corps should be much harder to expand in wartime.

Those counters to my work are easy to refute, especially when it comes to the "it worked before, it will work again" arguments. In reference to a smaller officer corps, it is much easier to get to know the individual members personally and thus be able to determine who is likely to succeed or fail at a particular job or combat task. Also, the inferior mobilization potential of a smaller officer corps should not be much of a consideration in the post-Cold War era, when national military mobilization on a World War II scale is so unlikely, and when the U.S. already has standing reserves. Even in 1938-40, the Germans achieved a very dramatic expansion of their officer corps without a great decline in quality. But the most important counter to the existing mobilization underpinning for maintaining a larger than necessary officer corps and the "militia" approach to officer accessions is the changing face of war. As explained earlier, third- and fourth-generation warfare demand the most from our officer (as well as the NCO) corps. Sacrificing the professionalism of the officer corps to fears of elitism and heeding those in the academic and political elite who say that the profession of arms does not rank alongside the professions of medicine, engineering, and law is turning a blind eye to reality and living in the past.

Let's compare how we think about the work of a surgeon versus a captain's work of planning and executing a company-sized attack against a thinking enemy. The surgeon controls the scalpel in his hand while his patient lies still, offering no resistance. The soldiers under the command of the captain control the scalpel while the enemy (at least most of the time) does not lie still under anesthesia while the captain is performing his complex task. If he fails, the surgeon could lose his patient, or he could be sued, while the captain faces the possibility of mass casualties, of sending his soldiers to their deaths, and of the world looking over his shoulders through CNN. But the disturbing thing about this analogy is how much preparation each has before the first incision or attack is made. The surgeon has eight years of education and is strenuously selected prior to ever performing his first surgery. Does the same apply to the captain, given the fact that the first time he is exposed to such an operation may be when it actually takes place?

You then asked me how my own ROTC students respond to my critiques of the U.S. military culture. "How do they respond when their own instructor tells them that the culture they will soon enter is deeply flawed?" First of all, I don't point out that the culture is deeply flawed in class (though I give good and poor leadership examples). The students can read that for themselves (as many of them do). I talk very little about my book or work to my cadets unless they ask me (as many of them do when they come to my office). I am proud to be an Army officer, and hopefully I project that to my cadets. I do not discourage them at all from entering the Army—I even encourage them to seek "combat arms." I want them to look at the profession of arms as their calling, to make the Army better (as well as the larger culture). I do give many of them John Boyd's speech on careerism, its evils and their obligation to duty. On the academic side, I am always tinkering with the curriculum, trying to find ways to mentally challenge my students, to provide them with a broader exposure to the complex tasks that lie before them. We (I am surrounded by a very competent cadre) try to provide them with a solid foundation for their profession. I do present the different generations of war and historical examples of how different cultures make armies either effective or ineffective. The students take it from there, and this generates a lot of good discussion—turning them into thinkers.

While I have been critical—due to the fact that since the end of the Cold War the Army has had an opportunity to create a renaissance and has not—I also see hope. Again, there is a lot of intellectual ferment going on within the Army, and I point this out to my cadets.

Finally, you asked me what my hope is "for a grand strategy in approaching the general problem of terrorism and the specific challenges in Iraq and North Korea." We must revert back to what Sun Tzu and John Boyd suggest—retain the moral high ground, isolate your enemy, and win the war without fighting if at all possible.

Previous Page | Next Page: James Fallows - Part Three

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on defense in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.