Iron Major Issues a Wake Up Call to Leadership

May 3, 2002

Comment#: 446

Discussion Thread - Comment #s - 367, 372, 396, 426, 434 (as well as thread references within each comment)

A large number of earlier blasters have discussed problems associated with a military leadership addicted to micro-management and techno-magic, a bloated officer corps, and a multi-layered organizational bureaucracy that puts a greater value on staff assignments and PowerPoint proficiency than on command in the field. The result has been an exodus of many of our best officers and non-commissioned officers and a stagnant Second Generation warfighting doctrine in a Fourth Generation world.

While these problems affect all the military services, no institution is more affected than the U. S. Army.

While the courtiers in Versailles on the Potomac debate secondary issues relating to gadgets and techno-revolutions, the Army is wallowing in a crisis of the soul.

The institutional response has been to buy off the discontent with pay raises and benefits while crucifying those officers who dare to suggest there are deeper problems. Curiously, the strategy to suppress free thinking among the defenders of freedom is having the opposite effect: a growing number of officers and NCOs and ex-officers and ex-NCOs are speaking out with thoughtful written analyses—officers like Colonel Douglas MacGregor [author of Breaking the Phalanx], Captain Bob Krumm [see Comment #434], ex-Captain Mark Lewis [see Comment #s 396 & 426], Lt Col John Sayen [a marine, see Comment #372], LTC John Tillson [a retired reservist with extensive combat in Vietnam, see Comment #367], and last but not least, Major Donald Vandergriff [the NCOs I know are especially vulnerable and will remain unmentioned.]

Vandergriff has just published one of the most important books ever written on this subject. The title is The Path to Victory : America's Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs (Presidio Press, May 2002), and it is now reaching the larger bookstores like Borders or Barnes and Noble. Here is the link to Amazon.

Buyer beware—Vandergriff is one of my closest friends. I have enormous respect for his intellect and his strength of character, all of which, I might add, are hidden in a big, ugly, albeit delightful redneck and twang from East Tennessee. Think of Vandergriff as a red-necked Francis Bacon—because he is an empiricist who assembles the facts before he comes up with answer. In short, he has the kind intellectual quality that horrifies the courtiers in Versailles, who prefer to start with the answers, which is why Vandergriff will retire without bitterness as a major, notwithstanding his outstanding record in the field as a troop commander.

But don't rely just on my praise for his book. Charlie Moskos, the renowned military sociologist at Northwestern University, says this on the back:

The tragedy of September 11 gives this book extraordinary timeliness. By telling us what changes must be made in the human element in military affairs, Vandergriff offers a vital corrective to the over reliance on technology in our nations' defense.

David Wood, one of the finest defense reporters in America says,

An armor officer, Donald Vandergriff thinks with the precision of a surgeon and writes with the blunt-spoken clarity of a sergeant. Here, he explains the internal weakness that saps America's combat prowess and shows in convincing detail how the military can ratchet up its performance to match its great talent.

Vandergriff's book so impressed George Wilson, the dean of America's defense reporters, he wrote a forward to Vandergriff's book. It is attached below and I urge you to read it.

Forward to Path to Victory
By George C. Wilson

[re-printed with permission]

As the 21st century opens, the biggest single threat to the United States Army as an institution is not enemy troops, missiles, tanks or planes. It is internal bleeding, a hemorrhaging of its talent. So many of its best and brightest captains are leaving the Army at their first opportunity, for example, that the viability of the officer corps is in doubt.

The Army that looked so brilliant racing across the sands of Iraq in the Left Hook of the Persian Gulf War just a decade ago is now an institution in crisis. It is not hollow in numbers, as was the case in the 1970s, but in spirit. So many of its best and brightest are leaving the Army that it cannot keep the edge that was the envy of the world during Desert Storm.

Major Donald E. Vandergriff is one of the thousands of Army officers who are saddened by this departure of talent. He himself is one of the best and brightest who made a name for himself as a troop leader and tactician, only to receive a blackmark by one superior for speaking the unpopular truth about a minor command requirement. Under today's promotion system, one such black mark is enough to doom an officer's career, as it did Vandergriff's.

Major Vandergriff could have cursed the dark that suddenly engulfed him but chose instead to light candles to throw light on the personnel policy and frozen culture that he believes are ruining the Army he loves. He spent four years looking into the dark corners before writing this valuable book. Hundreds of days, nights and weekends were devoted to interviewing people of all ranks. Vandergriff also read everything relevant to answering the key question of why the Army cannot seem to change for its own good. The resulting book lives up to its subtitle, "A Critical Analysis of the Military Personnel System and How it Undermines Readiness." It should be required reading for anyone interested in making our Army all it can be.

Vandergriff explains better than anyone has done to date how a World War II emergency gave birth to today's outmoded system for deciding who in the Army gets promoted and how is left to wither. We learn that George C. Marshall instituted the promotion system in response to a desperate situation that no longer exists. Although a series of Army leaders have decried the obsolescence of the existing system and vowed to revamp it, Vandergriff documents that their changes have really just been around the edges; that the now self-defeating course set by Marshall is still being followed, driving out the innovative men and women the Army needs the most.

"The problems are virtually all systemic in nature," Vandergriff concludes, "a complex mix of traditions, conditioned responses and institutional reactions to the contemporary world." The Army-and this is scary-is not "evolving into a force to fight in the 21st century," Vandergriff warns. "The most important priority for the Army in the 21st century is establishing a culture that nurtures a positive command climate and not a technological revolution." I know dozens of outstanding Army officers who would say a-men to that. Unfortunately, most of them have given up on their senior leaders every changing the existing "zero-defects" command climate and are getting out of the Army, meaning safe-playing bureaucrats will be running tomorrow's Army at a time the old molds need to be broken.

Vandergriff's book is a long needed wakeup call for civilian and military leaders resisting fundamental change and is therefore a great service to the Army and the nation.

[George C. Wilson is former military correspondent of The Washington Post and author of Army in Anguish and Mud Soldiers.]

The strength of any organization lies in its ability to examine its own performance critically and correct deficiencies before the environment does the job for it in a way that is usually very unpleasant. Men like Vandergriff, MacGregor, Sayen, Lewis, and Tillson, and many others are the military's crown jewels—they must be cherished and nurtured by the institutions they love, because they are the shapers of a salutary pathway into the future.

One of my greatest pleasures and privileges has been the opportunity to work with men like them. That is why I am proud to be biased.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]