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— John Boyd (Colonel, USAF, 1927-1997), “A Discourse on Winning and Losing”, unpublished briefing,  August 1987, p. 5-7.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)

Marius then addressed the force structure (how one is organized) of the Roman Army. The existing system in which a legion of 4,200 men, most of whom supplied their own weapons and armor and were formed into maniples of 120, was completely overhauled. The new century contained 80 men, and was commanded by a centurion; six centuries formed a cohort, 480 men. The new legion was made up of 6,000 men—nine cohorts of the standard size and one of 800, as well as mounted messengers, cooks, doctors, siege engineers and other non-combatants. The exact numbers varied over time, but this basic composition was Marius’ notion of the structure of a professional army.  {Adrian Goldsworthy, The Complete Roman Army, 2003, p. 42-60.}

Continuing the focus on non-technological solutions, Marius focused on cohesion and pride. To promote duty and honor, every cohort had its own military standard, and each legion carried a silver eagle, symbolizing Rome. “The soldiers gave devotions to their Eagle standard which symbolized their collective spirit…it not only worked to increase the loyalty and devotion of soldiers to the unit and commander; but, it is also reflective of the merging of the old class divisions within the army facilitated by the increased use of the cohort.” Slow and cumbersome baggage trains were abandoned each soldier carried his own equipment, which gave rise to the expression, “Marius’ Mules.”

The one technological change of note was an alteration to the pilum (spear), whereby a wooden rivet was fitted, which caused the spear to break on impact, and could no longer be thrown back at the attacking Romans.

These unprecedented changes did not occur overnight, and in the interim, Rome suffered a devastating defeat at Arauiso, in 105 B.C. There, the Germans faced an army led by two incompetent consuls and inflicted upon them the worst military disaster Rome had experienced in a century. But then, the Germans turned to Spain, rather than strike the Italian homeland, and this strategic decision gave Marius the time needed to prepare his new army.

Marius struck in 102 B.C., first crushing the Teutones at Aquae Sextiae, employing an unexpected attack upon the German’s rear. Before the campaign was over, 90,000 Teutones were killed, 20,000 captured, including their king, Teutobad. This was followed up the next year with a confrontation against the Cimbri in Northern Italy; the casualties suffered there ended the German threat for the time being, 140,000 slain and 60,000 captured, including women and children. Marius’ new army had proven itself convincingly, the pattern was set for centuries to come.

Gaius Marius changed the structure of the legion from top to bottom, defying tradition, and created the juggernaut that would build a vast empire which paid tribute to Rome. He changed the face of warfare with this introduction of a professional army through Parallel Evolution, or the changes to several institutions which compose an army simultaneously over time in reaction to evolving enemies. If the Marius Reforms had not taken place, the Romans might have been viewed by history as just another European people who struggled to survive against the threats of their rivals. This, in my opinion was the first true Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), or what I call a Revolution in Human Affairs (RHA).

Like the reforms of the Roman Legion by Gaius Marius, this book looks beyond what we term as recruiting.  It is a holistic view of today’s Army and addresses that in order to effectively recruit the Soldiers and leaders of the future, the nation needs to take the Army — its personnel management system and structure (how it is organized) — from the Industrial age into the information age prepared to fight and win 3rd and 4th Generation wars.

Simply recruiting the right people, and then having them step into an antiquated organization means that many of these people will not stay (called retention) as they come into conflict with the premise of responsibility with authority, but instead their ability to contribute and develop is limited by the nature of a top down, centralized industrial-age and hierarchal organization.  Today, recruiting and retention data bear this out.

In terms of demographics, pure numbers, the Army should have no problem in recruiting and manning its future legions.  The same goes for finding and retaining its officers.

…  it is essential to understand that the very way the Army recruits, trains and retains—both enlisted and officer—its people is outdated. To the credit of the Army, it is now acknowledging this and appears to beginning movement to fix it; but, it is going to take time to evolve its culture. The current culture — its personnel system, which shapes the culture, is based on an organizational model adopted between 1899 and 1904, and an officer personnel system which evolved from the need for rapid mobilization in order to fight the Soviets on the plains of Europe—needs to change dramatically to be prepared to confront the challenges of the future.  (see Samual P. Hays, “Introduction,” in Jerry Isrel, editor, Building the Organizational Society, 1971, p. 3).

About the author

Donald Vandergriff retired in 2005 at the rank of Major after 24 years of active duty as an enlisted Marine and Army officer.  He now works as a consultant to the Army and corporations.

For a description of his work and links to his publications see The Essential 4GW reading list: Donald Vandergriff.



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