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

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


I see your summary as high praise, and I appreciate it. You showed how my book considers the cultural impact that the industrial-age personnel system, with its Progressive-era personnel policies, had on the Army. One must remember, though, that the personnel system only lays the foundation for the culture.

Your readers must understand that the Army's culture comes not only from personnel policies that can be traced to the Progressive era, but from a force structure that is based on an outdated mobilization doctrine that has several layers of command. Colonel Doug MacGregor, the author of Breaking the Phalanx, has a briefing slide that compares the layers of command from 1945 to those of the 1991 Gulf War and today. There are no changes, even though we are now in an information age, and the population we draw from is better educated. Additionally, and most importantly, we are now fighting decentralized opponents that have a faster decision cycle than our second-generation military is equipped to handle.

I'd like to give a quick history lesson here.

Layers of command and a fighting doctrine reflect the larger society and its technological advances. One would surmise that a better-educated society requires fewer layers of command (less oversight) and could execute an advanced doctrine (say maneuver warfare with decentralized control, or faster OODA loop, instead of attrition warfare with its centralized control, or slower OODA loop). Couple this with technological advances, and one would think that layers could be removed as commanders at lower levels became more experienced and educated.

In the age of Napoleon, many layers of command were required because the only way to relay orders was through couriers (who were often shot) or by voice (personally being on the spot) or by bugle call (which oftentimes could not be heard above the din of battle). Additionally, only a small percentage of the population was educated, thus offering a small pool from which to draw officers who could read and interpret drill manuals—the art and science aspect of war. Because of this it was necessary to weld several layers of command that ensured the execution of orders, the integrated movements of massed formations, the discipline and supplying of units, and loyalty toward the "cause."

Also from the Napoleonic age comes a sign of the professionalism and agility of the military in how it employs technology, especially through firepower. As Napoleon's armies fought longer in Europe, casualties continued to climb and the quality of his infantry declined. In response to this, Napoleon added more and heavier artillery to his units to substitute for quality infantry. The Russians in World War II did the same thing—compensating firepower for tactical and operational skills.

During World War I the armies continued to maintain many of these layers of command, though this time they planned to communicate by field phone. But the wire lines were always broken by artillery fire, and armies continued to rely on runners, which led to some of the bloody massacres that occurred on the Western Front. Commanders were far removed from the frontline but sent hours-old orders forward. And the culture was one that demanded obedience from subordinates. While the Allies continually sought to overcome the trench, wire, and machine gun with techno-material might (the systematic application of firepower through methodical planning), the Germans decided, as I mentioned earlier, to use an idea-based solution to break the deadlock. They decentralized and pushed decision-making down to specialized assault groups at the squad level (for an excellent reference on this cultural evolution one should read Bruce I. Gudmundsson's concise and well written Storm Troop Tactics: German Innovation between 1914-1918).

It is now 2003 and the same layers of command exist as they did in the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and Gulf War I.

Today, as I mentioned before, information technology is combined with a top-down hierarchy which creates the demand for constant control. This slows a military's decision cycle and breeds mistrust between leaders and soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Leonard, whom I mentioned in part two, makes a valid point that when a superior up the chain of command makes a suggestion—with his ability to view everything through information technology—it usually is translated by the subordinate as an order in today's zero defects military culture.

U.S. commanders are trying to train for war and sustain units while balancing against individual replacements and an array of socialization programs. Their actions are well intended, but they run counter to the way effective militaries are run. One way of looking at how U.S. commanders train for war is to use the analogy of a college football team. Any good football coach—pro or college—strives to build cohesion as early as possible (I will use the college level because, with the limited number of years a coach has his players, it is closer to the dilemma in which our personnel system places our commanders). What a coach works under in college football is individual replacements on four-, sometimes three-year cohort cycles (sometimes they "Redshirt" a freshman or sophomore in order to extend the life cycle another year and give them a free year to learn the team's "system"). So a good coach wants to get as many talented players as he can recruit and hopefully start them as early in the cycle as possible to build experience and team cohesion.

The coach realizes, especially among "skilled positions," that when he starts a player early he should keep the plays relatively simple. This method is called "protecting your quarterback," if it pertains to that position. What the coach wants to do is build up his player's confidence and the team's experience. Early on, the coach (or offensive coordinator) will call most, if not all, of the plays. When this occurs, the variables the team can throw at an opponent are limited. The coach's goal is to create a quarterback who can read the field, call a play in the huddle, and if need be—with an audible or change of play at the line of scrimmage—adapt to the defense with little or no guidance from the sideline.

Of course, the rest of the team must also be able to adapt to the change. This is called agility, and only experience and team cohesion (the product of mutual trust) allow for this to happen. (By the way, the same applies to defensive football.) This translates into the desire of seeking longevity—but not at the cost of quality—in each position as long as possible. This is referred to as a meritocracy. Also, the coach wants good back ups (reserves) that can fill any gap caused by injuries, etc. This is called depth. In the end, the coach plans that his offense or defense will maximize its strengths against the weaknesses of the opponent (this is why hours are spent studying game tapes of future opponents) and set the tempo of the game.

Based on this quick lesson on college football coaching, let's translate this to war and how the United States "football team" plays its games.

The U.S. team fields quality players, with the best equipment in the world, and each player is well coached in the basics of blocking and tackling. But the U.S. team uses the same strategy over and over. It runs the ball up the middle to smash the other side with its large offensive line and large backs. It may try a "Lombardi power sweep" around one end of the line—such as occurred during the 1991 Gulf War—but the aim is to wear out the opponent through relentless pressure with one or two of the same plays, with the only variance being in what "hole" in the line the back hits. During the game, players are constantly substituted—even moving to different positions from where they started. Plays are called from the "press box" and sent through the coaches to the field. The second half wears out the U.S. team opponents who lack depth, and several players lack helmets and pads. The U.S. normally wins by 40 or more points with scores of 59 to 14, or something like that.

But opponents still do score on the U.S., usually during the first or second quarter. If they can hold out until the half with a reasonable score, opponents see this as a victory against such a Goliath. More importantly, the opponent learns something each time and will go back to the practice field to try to find a way to counter the U.S. playbook.

The U.S. game procedures are also very costly in terms of money, and if you take into account the amount that our opponents spend, the outcome is usually less than decisive.

You ask if there are any crucial themes in my book that you neglected to mention. I would not consider this remiss on your part, but I would add that Path to Victory offers solutions to the problems I laid out. My proposals move the second-generation Army to a third-generation Army in order to understand and at least attempt to counter fourth-generation threats. Once we have a third-generation Army, decision makers will have more options open to them, and will be able to conduct rapid, forced entry operations from the moment they are given the order to go ahead. If the reader recalls, President Bush talked about preemptive operations at West Point last June. While that deals with the strategic level, I am talking about operational and tactical preemptive capability.

You also ask me about last week's announcement that no one in the Marines can retire or resign during the next year. "What does this kind of draft-by-another-name mean for the military now?" In personnel circles this is called "stop loss." It is a stop-gap measure to ensure that a certain level of experience and some cohesion is sustained, if it ever existed in the first place, among units and staffs. But if the military shaped its policies around building and sustaining units, then "stop loss" would not be necessary. It is important to go back and see why we use those policies and to ask what the military would really be like if we did not have to use stop loss in the first place.

Imagine if the military, particularly the Army and Marines, were unit manned instead of individual manned, and led by commanders at all levels who had far more time to gain experience in their positions than they do now (as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has spoken in support of in his recent speech to the Reserve Officers Association). First of all, the military could practice maneuver warfare as doctrine and under a culture that demanded trust and professionalism. This alone would increase strategic and operational options. A while back there was a quick strike option touted in the major papers, where a force of 30,000 men would strike Baghdad quickly and catch Saddam "napping" before he could flee and hide. Within days of getting the order to "GO!," U.S. forces would be manning major critical points with little or no resistance from the demoralized enemy.

What kind of military would it take to perform this fantasy operation? It would be the best of what Colonel MacGregor recommends in Breaking the Phalanx and I recommend in Path to Victory. Lay on top of this what people should take away and expect from Robert Coram's Boyd in terms of the conduct of our officers. The U.S. Army would have low overhead, operate under a doctrine of maneuver warfare that emphasizes mission orders, with units that are built and sustained under a unit-manning system. Equipment would be rugged but reliable, and technology would be used to simplify, not intensify, logistics. There would be units—both heavy and light—at the height of readiness that could be deployed at a moment's notice, moving from the United States to link up with prepositioned equipment. Other units would be getting ready or drawing down—in some sort of life cycle—occupying many of the stateside garrison tasks that tie down today's units. If the decision is not given early to "go," then units at a high state of readiness can be rotated in to replace units already in the theater of war, maintaining constant pressure on an opponent.

To finish answering this question, let me apply to the 1991 Gulf War personnel lessons learned from Path to Victory.

Up to the beginning of the deployments of army units to Saudi Arabia, the training tempo of combat units was high, but proficiency and cohesion at the collective level was not, due to the constant turnover of personnel.

The United States could not maintain constant political and military pressure on Iraq, due to its inability to rotate entire units in and out of the Middle East. (And without being able to rotate units in and out, not enough units would get acclimated.)

If the U.S. Army had been required to maintain units in the region for an indefinite period, it could not have kept them at a proficient level of combat readiness, because of having to rotate large numbers of individuals to and from units in Vietnam and Korea.

Does this draft by another name, you ask, advance or retard the cause I'm working toward? "Ignorance is bliss," I say. Here lies the great irony: if there is a war and it is highly successful (and I hope and pray for our soldiers that it is), then any reform proposal can be easily forgotten in the glow of victory, like they were after World War I and World War II. But any victory should be attributed more to the inherent weakness of our enemy than to our strengths (remember earlier, why did they score at all?).

In your last question you ask, essentially, Is there a better way you could imagine America manning its military?

Yes, just read chapter 8, "Parallel Evolution," in Path to Victory. Suggested alternatives by "think tanks," in contrast to mine, are projected in terms of mathematics when it comes to personnel systems. Their suggested alternatives are specific in terms of promotions, retirement systems, and tenure rules. They demonstrate thorough, rigorous analysis—that would make any Operations Research System Analyst jump for joy—but they make no real recommendations at all and just tamper with the system. And until recently, internal studies done by the personnel system include PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide focused on process and timelines, but project nothing bold in the form of revolutionary ideas executed as an evolution. Studies both externally and internally fail to do two things. First, they fail to align the personnel system with the evolving face of war (as I mentioned earlier this is called "Parallel Evolution"). I sat on the Hart-Rudman National Security panel for personnel reform in the summer of 2000. The first question we asked was, "What do future threats look like—how do they fight and in what kind of environment?" Which led to the second question: "What kind of force do we want in the future and how does the personnel system build and sustain this?" Second, the personnel system has been focusing on itself for entirely too long. The goal of any personnel-management system should be to optimize the effectiveness of the organization as a whole, not just of the personnel management system. Army effectiveness is a function of units and organizations, from squads through corps—not individuals, as the Army has believed since the Progressive era. What the Army and its think tanks should be asking is how a new officer military personnel system for the twenty-first century can help to improve the effectiveness of the Army—how can it make it effective against third-generation and fourth-generation threats?

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