Author Archives: don

About don

Military Historian, author of four books and 60 articles on military affairs, leadership, maneuver warfare, and the generations of war. Currently a day time employee of L-3 Communications in support of Army TRADOC, and on the side I run Maverick leadership

Petraeus’s Baby

Summary:  Even the war’s supporters paint a gloomy picture of the current situation.  Post by Don Vandergriff. 

Obama’s presidency is now being defined by four intractable problems:

  1. Persistent High Unemployment due to the intractable Great Recession
  2. a Financial Giveaway that protected rich Wall Street bankers at the expense of the masses who are suffering economically from the Great Recession the bankers triggered
  3. A BP Environmental Disaster that reveals the feckless incompetence of the Federal Gov’t — i.e., Obama’s Katrina Moment
  4. His enthusiastic embrace and expansion of the Afghan War into the AFPAK Quagmire.

Ahmed Rashid, one of the most knowledgeable observers of the AFPAK scene (and, ironically, a proponent of the AFPAK intervention) paints a thoroughly depressing picture the nature of the AFPAK quagmire in the attached blog carried by the New York Review of Books:  “Petraeus’s Baby“,  Ahmed Rashid, 14 July 2010 — Opening:

The surprising and speedy crash of General Stanley McCrystal has been seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the wider region as just one more sign of the mess that the US and its NATO allies face in what is looking increasingly like an unwinnable conflict.

The Afghan Taliban are describing the general’s sacking as a military victory—coming as it does at the height of their summer offensive; the most hurtful rumor going around Kabul and Islamabad is that McChrystal wanted to be removed because he didn’t want to have to take responsibility for a losing war. The Taliban claimed another victory when Britain announced a week later that its troops would withdraw from Sangin, a remote and ever more deadly region of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan—although they will be replaced by US marines. Out of a deployment of 9,000 troops, Britain has lost 312 soldiers in Helmand since 2005—of which some 100 have been killed in Sangin alone.

All of which has heightened anxieties that the US commitment to Afghanistan is rapidly flagging. In Kabul, there is a sense of growing panic about President Obama’s looming deadline for the start of a US withdrawal — now less than a year away. Pakistan, meanwhile, is contending with the increasingly real possibility of a gradual meltdown of its own, with the army and the political elite unable to challenge the rising power of the Pakistani Taliban or protect the civilian population. …

FM note

For Ahmed Rashid’s view of the Af-Pak war one year ago see Pakistan on the BrinkThe New York Review of Books, 11 June 2009.  Many of his assertions were contradicted by other experts on the subject.

Afterword and contact info

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Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force

Summary:  This is the fifth in a series of articles about Donald Vandergriff, explaining why changing the Army’s methods of recruiting, training, motivating, and retaining people are the key structural changes to make it better fitted for warfare in the 21st century.


Today we have an excerpt from Don Vandergriff’s book Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions (2008).  He describes the problem, then gives solutions — some of which he and others have pushed into motion.  Posted here with permission of the author.

Chapter six:  Training (and Educating) Tomorrow’s Soldiers and Leaders

There is no standardized entry test for U.S. Army commissioning.

  • 10%-15% of officer cadets come through the United States Military Academy at West Point. Here, academic excellence takes priority over military proficiency and many of the places are allocated on the basis of Congressional patronage.
  • Most of the rest of cadets (future officers) join through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) located at 270 schools throughout the US and its territories.
  • A small, but growing, percentage comes through the 16-week Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA. This course has been frequented more by former noncommissioned officers (NCOs) than by those who have met the minimum entrance standard with a degree and only basic training prior to attending, which is good for the Army if those former NCOs are not tied to the old way of doing things.  (See “OCS expanding to turn out more officers“, Army Logistics News, Nov-Dec 2000)

The standards across these three entrance pathways are mixed, the newly established Basic Officer Leaders Course (BOLC) II at Forts Sill and Benning aims to level the playing field. As will be discussed later in this chapter, BOLC II is also employing a new learning and development approach for these new officers, but at six weeks, remains short of what many consider necessary for young officers to be prepared for 4GW.  (See “Basic Officer Leadership Course Gets Green Light“, Army News Service, 25 February 205)

There are few training opportunities at battalion and company level.

  • All individual and most squad-level training is directed by NCOs, to standards set by the Sergeant Majors and NCO academies, which have a chain of command almost independent of the officer corps.
  • Young officers are principally responsible only for the moral component of the troops under their command. Their involvement in training is limited to authorizing exercise and safety standards, not for the conduct or the standard of the training itself, which are mainly the purview of the NCOs.
  • This tends to produce repetitive, unimaginative, and risk-averse training, heavily tied to formatted training objectives, as well as further limiting opportunities for company officers to develop their own training and leadership skills.

There is no tradition of unit or subunit organized Tactical Exercise without Troops or adventure training, both of which encourage junior leaders to develop self-confidence and independence of judgment.   (This comes with discussions with 47 junior and middle grade officers from June 2005 to December 2007 who talk about more centralization of training management, as well as the pressure on field grades to do everything right when they are in their critical branch qualifying jobs as majors.)

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Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions

Summary:  This is the fourth in a series of articles about Donald Vandergriff, explaining why changing the Army’s methods of recruiting, training, motivating, and retaining people are the key structural changes to make it better fitted for warfare in the 21st century.


Today’s we have a excerpt from the Preface to Don Vandergriff’s book Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions (2008).  Posted here with permission of the author.

“People, ideas and hardware, in that order!”
— John Boyd (Colonel, USAF, 1927-1997), “A Discourse on Winning and Losing”, unpublished briefing,  August 1987, p. 5-7.


Like the United States today, Rome faced multiple challenges in 107 B.C., and was hard pressed to field adequate forces; the number of men who were qualified to serve, who could equip themselves was running out. The Jurgurthine War in North Africa had been going on far too long for the liking of the Roman Senate, a task that counsul (general) Gaius Marius took upon himself to resolve. German tribes had already defeated several Roman armies and threatened Gaul (southern France) as well as Italy.

Marius was a man of vision and acted upon the need to secure Roman provinces with the resources at hand. He did not have a technological revolution at his disposal to solve his strategic problem.  Marius turned to an intangible solution, the way the Roman Army was manned, structured and fought its legions as the solution.

The first thing he did was address how the legions were manned (later referred to in this book as recruiting, trained and retained), and he admitted men of the lower classes.

  • They were recruited to serve long term obligations as much as twenty years or more.
  • Then, they were trained, armed, fed, housed, paid and offered the opportunity of spoils of war.
  • More importantly, for reasons of retention, they were given a pension for those who survived the long years of arduous service.

Given the alternatives these men faced, this was the best they could expect from life. Yet, an even larger personnel change was the ability to promote men from the ranks, who through performance in combat, into leadership positions leading others throughout the legion. Through these unprecedented actions, Marius gave Rome what was needed most, a professional army that would expand its borders and provide internal security for centuries to come.  (or more about this see the Roman Army page at The Illustrated Roman Empire website)

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About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”

Summary:  It’s Vandergriff week on the FM website.  Today we have the third article in this series, an excerpt from “Theirs Is to Reason Why“, Proceedings of the US Naval Institute, February 2010.  It’s about building an army for the 21st century, where the right training might prove more decisive than the right high-tech vehicles and weapons.  Posted here with permission of the author.


Outcome-based training teaches the art in a manner that encourages retention while fostering independent and creative means of obtaining the end goal.

War is an art and as such is not susceptible of explanation by fixed formulae. Yet, from the earliest time there has been an unending effort to subject it’s complex and emotional structure to dissection, to enunciate rules for it’s waging, to make tangible it’s intangibility. One might as well strive to isolate the soul by the dissection of the cadaver as to seek the essence of war by the analysis of it’s records.
— “The Secret of Victory” by General George S. Patton Jr.  (1926)


The challenge the Army faces today is not one of over-thinking situations, rather it is the failure to think clearly in situations that require sound judgment at junior levels, and leadership’s hesitation to believe that juniors can or will think clearly. Soldiers and junior leaders who are trained or conditioned to look at the situation — to assess, exercise judgment, and make a decision — are more decisive, deliberate, and correct in their actions.

This is particularly important in the complex environment of full-spectrum operations. The most important capability needed for the future Army of 2030 and beyond are thinking Soldiers and junior leaders who seek the “why” of a situation, task, or directive. They are interested in this primarily to understand and make better use of the purpose behind it. But the future is now.

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More about charisma, by Don Vandergriff…(#2 in the “getting ready for Obama” series)

Summary:  Since we are about to elect a President largely on the basis of his charisma, the FM blog is running a few articles on this topic.  Know it before you buy it!

Here is a comment by Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) about the opening salvo in the series, Does America need a charismatic President?:  We must be careful with the word “charisma”, in the case of people who act as leaders. I talk about the cheerleading effect in my forthcoming book Military Recruiting: Finding and Preparing Future Soldiers.  Here is an excerpt describing what has occurred in our culture.”  (His book hits the shelves October 2008)

Publicly admitting that there are major problems that demand action and possible public sacrifice are also likely the same reason not one presidential contender, except for Congressman Ron Paul, has addressed how he or she is going to fix Social Security or Medicare, for which the costs are spiraling out of control. Telling the truth will only get politicians in trouble and not elected — the people will punish them for telling the “inconvenient truth.”

Over time, nations or large organizations such as an Army take one of two evolutionary routes: continue to adapt with changing environmental conditions in order to sustain their core beliefs or become complacent, resting on one’s laurels. If it is the latter, it is because its very success has led to its isolation from a changing environment. Decisions based on facts and assumptions that led to success become dated. In turn, the organization or nation should demand that its leaders conduct critical analysis in order to propose courses of action to meet goals.

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Recommended reading: transforming the Army, the hard way

ARMY magazine has posted part two of Donald Vandergriff’s (Major, US Army, retired) article about the Adaptive Leaders Course.  This describes one path to organizational transformation.  The difficult way, building from the foundation up — building something that outlasts all the hot intellectual fads, and can evolve over generations.  The senior Army leadership’s attention to Vandergriff is important good news.

People, Ideas, and Hardware. “In that order!” the late Col John R. Boyd, USAF, would thunder at his audiences.

What historical transformations resemble that needed to adapt the US military for an age in which 4GW is the dominate form of war?  The early 19th century Prussian Army experience, of course.  Perhaps the re-casting of the US Army into a French mold during WWI.  Or we can look back to the beginning.  The founders of the American army (Washington, Lafayette, Steuben, et al) built almost from scratch.  They drew on two models…

  • frontier militia, fighting against the French and American Indians,
  • conventional European armies, mercenary soldiers with aristocratic officers.

From this they built something quite different.  For a well-written account of this for a general audience, see “Washington & Lafayette” in the September 2007 issue of Smithsonian magazine.  Their experience might hold lessons for us, facing a similar challenge — building an American Army to defend against new enemies, learning new ways to fight in a post-Constitutional era.

For more on these topics

To see Vandergriff’s other works, including links to his many online articles:  The Essential 4GW reading list: Chapter Two, Donald Vandergriff.

To help understand the nature of the Army’s difficulty in retaining its best people, see The Army’s greatest crisis.

For an overview of the various solutions to 4GW, see