On War #203
Raise the Bar or Cross It
By William S. Lind
Perhaps the most serious deficiency in the American armed forces is the fact that both of our ground forces, the U.S. Army and the United States Marine Corps, remain Second Generation military organizations (so do the Navy and the Air Force, but in the kinds of wars we are likely to fight, they don't much matter). The Marine Corps has at least attempted to move into the Third Generation (maneuver warfare), while the Army brontosaurus has kept its green head contentedly buried in the primeval ooze. To borrow from an old bon mot, the Marine Corps's situation is serious but not hopeless, while the Army's condition is hopeless but not serious.
We should all therefore greatly admire those few Army officers who have tried to wake their dinosaur up. None has done more than Major Don Vandergriff. Not only has he produced two excellent books that get at the heart of the Army's problem, its personnel system, he also led a highly successful reform of the Army's Georgetown University ROTC program. ROTC is, for the most part, a sad joke. Vandergriff's program was a highly demanding, creative exercise in building real leaders. Many of its graduates have gone on to outstanding performance as platoon and company commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Major Vandergriff (recently retired, which illustrates why the Army is hopeless) has turned his experiences at Georgetown into a new book, Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War. Unlike most reform books, his is a book of solutions, not just problems.
Top-down reform, like the Army's ongoing "Transformation" program, changes little but appearances. Vandergriff recognizes that real reform has to come primarily bottom-up. He writes:
At the heart of Vandergriff's reforms of Army education lies a shift away from teaching officers what to think and what to do—endless processes, recipes and formulas, learned by rote—to teaching how to think, through, as he writes:
I would add, and I think Vandergriff would agree, that private study means reading real books on war, not the wretched junk contained in most Army manuals.
Rightly, Vandergriff rejects the "crawl, walk, run" approach now favored in American military education, which in reality seldom gets beyond "crawl." He recommends instead what one German general called "the Hansel and Gretel approach: first you let the kids get lost in the woods."
The purpose, I would add, is not just to challenge them but to develop in them the habit of "looking up" and seeing their own situation in a larger context that is essential for mission-type orders to work.
Perhaps the single most powerful tool to develop Third Generation leaders is the free-play field exercise. Only free-play exercises can teach leadership in war; scripted exercises, which make up almost all of current Army training, are useful only to train an opera company. Vandergriff stresses the importance of free-play training, writing that such exercises should be "seen as a course's or unit's premier event.”
As with his recommendations for reform of the personnel system, Vandergriff's prescriptions for fixing Army education are right on the mark. How do we know? Because he didn't invent any of them. Everything he recommends was practiced in German officer education a hundred years ago and more. What worked for them then can work for us now.
And it might, except that the Army remains hopeless. I would like to think the Army's leadership would take Vandergriff's books, including Raising the Bar, turn to their subordinates and say, "Make it happen." But I know it won't happen. All that can happen is what the Army has seen a million times: the slogans and buzzwords change, but the organizational culture remains Second Generation, so everything else that is real does too. Faced with new ways of war demanding that it change or die, the Army will prefer to die, because it's easier.
Maybe Vandergriff should title his text book Crossing the Bar.
William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.
To interview Mr. Lind, please contact:
Mr. William S. Lind
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The Free Congress Foundation is a 28-year-old Washington, DC-based conservative educational foundation (think tank) that teaches people how to be effective in the political process, advocates judicial reform, promotes cultural conservatism, and works against the government encroachment of individual liberties.