Doug Macgregor explains how our military reached its current state, so only desperate reform can save us

Summary:  Douglas A. Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired) looks at military history, and sees how our military came to its current state.  Military power with little wit, bought at great expense in terms of national wealth and the blood of our brave troops.


  1. Experience in combat:  essential, valuable, or just nice to have?
  2. Some history
  3. How we got to where we are today
  4. A Look at our military, today
  5. About Doug Macgregor
  6. For more information about paths to reform for our military

(1)  Experience in combat:  essential, valuable, or just nice to have?

Like most things, experience in uniform is a double edged sword. It can inform or obstruct our understanding, particularly when former military men see the future through the lens of their narrow experience, respective service or the promise of self-enrichment in “After Market” jobs as GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired) likes to call it. That said, there is little substitute for being shot at without result. At least, there is an appreciation for the life and death character of warfare, something that is often missing from today’s senior defense ranks, civilian and military.

It can be hazardous for armies when their senior leaders have no personal experience of combat. Most of our senior military leaders on the ground in WW II were “Chateau generals.” Very few operated as Patton, Harmon or Wood did. It’s one of the key reasons why Marshall acted swiftly to replace people who were not effective – 39 division and corps commanders in less than 34 months after March 1942.

The pressure from the American people to end the war was enormous and as Marshall told Eisenhower after the Bulge in January 1945, we had fielded all the forces we could afford to field. He would get no more.

As Admiral Nimitz pointed out after WW II, neither he nor his peers had any idea of the enormous, war-winning power of the submarine. Sadly, by then, it was too late to make the point that America’s submarine force could have starved Japan into submission faster and at far lower cost than the expensive and time consuming island hopping campaign across the Pacific.

On the other hand, the German Military that had practically no warfighting experience between 1871 and 1914, or between 1918 and 1939, yet it turned out to be infinitely more capable in action than any of its contemporaries, most of which had lots of experience in “small wars.” The Battle of Jutland is particularly informative in this connection. Clearly, the Germans demonstrated that experience shrinks to insignificance next to technology, organization, training, leadership, and education when the underpinning national military culture that supports it cultivates the right attributes.

In terms of the combat ‘seasoning’ the generals claim for today’s troops, it’s very much open to question. The way we now “do” war is to get together in a very comfortable conference room with plasma screens on every wall, high speed computers, and impressive graphics programs. There we plan operations knowing the enemy is so weak, he’s almost irrelevant to the planning process. In most cases, the “Islamist enemy” in Iraq was only able to plant IEDs, surprise us 2 or 3 times a month with 1 to 3 rounds of mortars or rockets fired with the precision of “that way”, or a few rounds of sniper fire.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban fighters are so poor in the few instances when they attack our bases (e.g., FOB Monti in the Kunar), all they can do is launch a few mortars and then take us under machine gun fire that is beyond the max effective range, against our dug-in positions. Most of the time our combat soldiers and marines are so happy to experience fire they cut loose with their own heavy machine guns (which aren’t out of range), TOW missiles, mortars (with precision warheads), 105mm howitzers, and then AH64 gunships and F16 fighter-bombers. All against perhaps 6 or 8 Taliban fighters! In fact, we’ve not experienced an enemy attack stronger than us since 1950-52, or discovered suddenly that the enemy we attacked was actually much larger than we anticipated.

The point is simple: experience demonstrates that depending on the quality of the enemy, “combat experience” is frequently overrated.  Unfortunately, the ability to think beyond the boundaries of what is conventionally acceptable is always scarce and, sadly, seldom in demand — unless it aligns with the thinking desired in the ranks of the ruling bureaucracy, civilian appointees and influential politicians.

(2)  Some history

In the years after WW II, America’s “civilian leaders” became the repository for most military thinking on the strategic and operational levels (Brodie, the Rostows, Shilling) as senior officers who demonstrated the ability to think, men like James Gavin, were sidelined in favor shameless sycophants like Maxwell Taylor and Earl Wheeler. (Admiral Hyman Rickover was a rare exception for his time.) These affable and obliging sycophants in uniform were only too ready to subordinate themselves and their thinking to the destructive influence of ideologues like McNamara and Bundy in ways similar to the senior officers of the last 20 years to ideologues like Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, Deutsch, Wolfowitz and Cheney.

Of course, there are success stories. John Clerk’s important work entitled “Essay on Naval Tactics,” written in 1779 and published in 1790, fundamentally changed naval tactics and was decisive in the hands of Nelson at Trafalgar. Clerk had never been to sea, but he understood geometry and the technology of gunfire.

As Gian Gentile has pointed out, Hans Delbrueck, (one of those who inspired me to write Breaking the Phalanx) was another who had little personal experience in uniform, but he could think. Billy Mitchell’s case is well known. He lost the first battle (court-martialed in 1925), but as George Marshall pointed out much later, he definitely won the war for airpower. Fortunately, people in and out of uniform did listen to these men; something that rarely happens these days.

(3)  How we got to where we are today

Today, the tendency is to look for and find evidence for a desired policy or capability through the use of single-factor analysis.

In the United States, it’s popular to focus on technology to the exclusion of all else. The Service bureaucracies are comfortable with this approach because it models “gadgets against gadgets” in simulation. This approach treats the anachronistic organizational status quo as irrelevant and unchangeable. The possibility that command structures, organization for combat and human understanding could be at least if not more decisive is not even considered.

It’s the victory of what Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) attributes to the destructive impact of Frederick Taylor’s industrial age model. Those who dismiss criticality of how we organize our forces and equipment, how we train and educate to fight miss the point that organization in particular reflects cultural patterns that shape thinking and behavior or how we interact with the technology of war and events in action, (an argument Delbrueck made). Ultimately, organization tells you how we think about warfare. If the organizational paradigm never changes, it tells you the thinking, policies and culture have not changed either.

These points notwithstanding, change is not always possible. In 1973, the Egyptian Army’s rigid, top-heavy command structure stifled fresh ideas, tactical flexibility, and honest communication from lower levels. After successfully crossing the Suez in a carefully planned and well-rehearsed operation this military culture contributed decisively to Egypt’s defeat at the hands of the Israel Defense Force. However, in practice, Egypt’s leaders knew Arab culture demanded that every action be scripted from the top down to the individual soldier. The point is: Egyptian national military and political leadership had little choice in the matters of organization, leadership and tactics, let alone operational art. What they did was all that they could do.

A similar dilemma confronted the Soviet military leadership during WW II. The Stavka had to organize and move tens of millions of illiterate, and largely unwilling Slavic and Mongol-Turkic soldiers into battle against a highly educated, competently led German Army. (Ivan’s War is a recent work informed by the NKVD archives now closed, and worth reading on this point). As I was told during an official visit to the Russian General Staff Academy in November 2001, unavoidable tactical rigidity together with the brutal subjugation of millions who did not want to defend Stalin’s Russia produced at least 40 million Soviet dead, twice what the Soviets publicly admitted, but the communists were always great liars.

Contrary to popular belief in the West, this condition did not change as much as many contended in the years after WW II. As Bill Odom routinely reminded me as a cadet at West Point and later as a commissioned officer, Jeep Driver was and remained a high tech job inside the Soviet Army of the 1970s.

Since the Prussian-German leadership in both World Wars understood that technology would never produce perfect situational awareness, the military leadership entrusted tactical commanders with broad autonomy inside a known mission framework to seize opportunities. (Robert Citino’s brilliant book, The German Way of War is worth reading in this connection). Even in the opening years of WW II, Prussian-German battlefield opportunism created success that rested on the foundation of the German soldier’s superior education, physical fitness and cultural capacity for initiative. When Hitler suppressed these attributes in favor of unquestioning obedience to dumb ideas, he provided the Soviets with an enemy they could defeat – a rigid, inflexible force that was inured to human and materiel losses, a force fought for every inch of ground exactly like the Red Army.

Since the 1960s, we in the United States and the West have enjoyed most of the advantages the Prussian-Germans enjoyed plus a few more the small regional German power never had: scientific-industrial capacity and production. However, we do not cultivate professional competence in uniform. As was made clear to me by the NEOCONs in power when I was still on active duty in 2002, we don’t care about character, competence or intelligence in uniform because it does not matter. Anything we did against the Arabs would work or so they contended in 2002-2003.

In their desire to be egalitarian, Americans are comfortable with the illusion that anybody can do anything, thus frequently ensuring the elevation of mediocrities to high rank. (Joerg Muth’s book Command Culture along with van Crefeld’s Fighting Power are instructive.)

In much the same way, Americans blundered through the 20th Century entering the worst wars in human history, WW I and WW II, when they were in their final phases. The outcomes were far from perfect as we subsequently discovered, but our lateness kept our casualties low, at least in comparison with our allies. Our economy benefited over the long term and being on the “winning side” created the illusion of effectiveness at home that in many cases was never justified.

(4)  A Look at our military, today

Today, the problem is worse. Just listen to the men in uniform, primarily Army and Marine flag officers, talk about the strategic disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. You would think we just crossed the Rhine and marched into Berlin after defeating a capable adversary. It’s frighteningly reminiscent of the public statements of Soviet leaders issued in the aftermath of intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Afghanistan in the 1980s. The general officers do so because this behavior got them where they are; the young officers who aspire to replace them are not oblivious to this reality. Unless successive generations see evidence for fundamental change in leadership, civilian and military, they will follow the model too.

Today, Chuck Spinney, Mike Sparks, along with others seeking to reform America’s military culture, all confront this old American problem in newer and more challenging forms. Sometimes it is too frustrating for words when you consider that the vast majority of American citizens are not interested in the military, at least not in much beyond the superficial gruel provided by the Military Channel.

What is clear is the disposition after January 2013 to just cut defense spending, with little attention to how we do it. If we were Germans, Japanese or Israelis we might ask how we can extract more capability for the money through reform, reorganization and a changed acquisition paradigm, but I am not sure we will ask these questions, at least not initially.

Normally, two things can change this condition either in isolation or combination: economic crisis or serious military defeat. Given the world’s disinterest in waging for just now, I am betting on an economic crisis.

(5)  About Doug Macgregor

From his Wikipedia entry:

Douglas A. Macgregor PhD. (Colonel, US Army, retired) is widely recognized as one of the most influential military thinkers of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.

… Macgregor’s seminal work, Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century (1997) was the first book by an Active Duty military author since Brigadier General William Mitchell, U.S. Army Air Corps, to challenge the status quo and set forth detailed proposals for the radical reform and reorganization of U.S. Army ground forces. His follow-on work, Transformation under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights (2003) expands on the concepts and ideas for reform and includes a foreword by a former British four-star general, Sir Rupert Smith.

… Macgregor is now an Executive VP with Burke-Macgregor Group LLC.

… Macgregor’s newest book is Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting (2009). In it Macgregor explains how the failure to finish the battle with the Republican Guard in 1991 led to Iraq’s second major confrontation with the United States in 2003 resulting in two hollow military “victories” and the tragic blood-letting that continues today in Iraq.

Other articles by or about the work of Douglas Macgregor on the FM website:

  1. Colonel Macgregor sums up the state of the Iraq War, 2 July 2008
  2. Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars, 7 April 2009
  3. Powerful and insightful new articles by Macgregor, 10 October 2009
  4. Macgregor sketches out the global geopolitical picture for us, 18 May 2010 — Includes links to many of his articles.
  5. Important new articles about reforming our military, a key to balancing the Federal budget, 29 April 2011
  6. Reconfiguring the US military for life after The Long War, 27 September 2011
  7. What does the future hold for the US Army – and America?, 29 APril 2012

(6)  For more information about paths to reform for our military

(a)  For more articles about ways to reform our military, see the FM Reference Page America’s military, and our national defense strategy.

(b)  For more information about the skill and integrity of our senior military leaders:

  1. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders, 27 May 2007
  2. The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it, 3 July 2008
  3. Obama vs. the Generals, 1 October 2010
  4. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired), 2 May 2011
  5. Rolling Stone releases Colonel Davis’ blockbuster report about Afghanistan – and our senior generals!, 12 February 2012

16 thoughts on “Doug Macgregor explains how our military reached its current state, so only desperate reform can save us”

  1. Of course, part of the reason why our military is in the mess it’s in is because of the Military Industrial Complex…because when so many private-sector businesses become dependent on the military, the greater the temptation becomes to find a reason to go to war because we make bullets than to make bullets because we’re going to war.

    When the draft was eliminated in favor of an all-volunteer military force, it meant that the armed services were left with fewer people available to do all the jobs that needed to be done (such as KP duty). This created an opportunity for private-sector subcontractors (and subcontractors to the subcontractors, etc.) The longer the supply chain becomes — whether for supplies or personnel — the higher the price becomes because everyone in the supply chain expects to carve off a certain percentage of the profit for themselves. And this is even before you throw no-bid contracts into the equation!

    This is one of the reasons why the US Department of Defense is one of the world’s largest employers and why the defense budget has become so bloated that this country spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined — it’s one of the reasons why simple things like a hammer or cans of soda become ten times more expensive (or more) when bought by the Pentagon than they would be if you simply went to the store and got it. It’s become so extreme that it’s estimated there were at least two private contractors serving in Iraq and Afghanistan for every member of the military posted there.

  2. Fabius, how do you think the “cultification” and glorification of the military in the United States has affected its ability to adapt? If it is taboo to say anything other than our military is the best in the world, and the men the bravest, how can they adopt new tactics to confront 4GW? Does that mean the change has to come from inside the military?

    Also, how can you move away from the technology–equipment driven comparison which the author believes calcifies military strategy when the military industrial complex needs that to keep the dollars rolling in and military figures have a vested interest in that (for future employment)?

    1. (1) “how do you think the “cultification” and glorification of the military in the United States has affected its ability to adapt?”

      IMO that’s the question of the age for America, and understated. Look at the graphic from “In Nothing We Trust“, National Journal, 19 April 2012 — “Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great.” This single graph might determine the fate of the Republic.

      From the since 1999 to the 2011 survey, the change in confidence in our two most trusted institutions (small businesses are not an institution):

      • Military: our most trusted institution, trust up 10%
      • Police: our next most trusted, down 1%

      These are not surprising results for a frightened people (as our reaction to 9-11 proved) who have lost the capacity for self-government. People with low confidence in their political institutions, who will they turn to in troubled times?

      For more information:

      (2) “how can you move away from the technology–equipment driven comparison which the author believes calcifies military strategy”

      Another five star question! It’s been discussed a lot, by people (civilian, academic, military) with extensive experience and broad knowledge. Nobody has a likely solution.

      My guess: a combination of factors will force military reform: the need to cut Federal spending and conserve foreign exchange (the key factor forcing the Brits to retreat from their foreign bases, andrecognition that our wars have done nothing for America.

      For more about this see the posts listed on the FM Reference Page America’s military, and our national defense strategy.

  3. The degeneration and collapse of the U.S. military seems part and parcel of the general degeneration and collapse of the rest of America’s basic institutions. As Thomas Frank notes in his recent essay “Too Smart To Fail: Notes On An Age of Folly,” Thomas Frank, The Baffler, No. 19, April 2012.

    But what happens when the experts are fools? What happens when their professions are corrupted, their jargon has become a shield against outside scrutiny, their process of peer review has been transformed into a device by which a professional faction can commandeer the discipline, excommunicate rivals, and give members of the “us” group endless pardons for their endless failures?

    The economist James K. Galbraith, who was right about many of the disasters of our age but who is neither “mainstream” nor “Wall Street,” once wrote that something very much like this had happened to his discipline:

    “Leading active members of today’s economics profession … have formed themselves into a kind of Politburo for correct economic thinking. As a general rule—as one might generally expect from a gentleman’s club—this has placed them on the wrong side of every important policy issue, and not just recently but for decades. They predict disaster where none occurs. They deny the possibility of events that then happen. … No one loses face, in this club, for having been wrong. No one is dis-invited from presenting papers at later annual meetings. And still less is anyone from the outside invited in.”

    … A second lesson: if economists—and journalists, and bankers, and bond analysts, and accountants—don’t pay some price for egregious and repeated misrepresentations of reality, then markets aren’t efficient after all. Either the gentlemen of the consensus must go, or their cherished hypothesis must be abandoned. The world isn’t gullible enough to believe both of them any longer.

    Or maybe it is. Maybe this state of affairs can go on for years. As you watch the anointed men of the Washington consensus shuttle through the CNN green room or relax comfortably at the $10,000 Halloween party the neighbors are throwing for their third grader, you begin to wonder what kind of blunder it will take to shatter this city’s epic complacency, its dazzling confidence in its own stupidity.

    We will assuredly find out soon. And when we do, we can be just as assured that the fools who let it happen will walk away once again without feeling any consequences.

    As William Lind (one of the most astute observers of military matters today) puts it in “That Old Romanov Feeling“, The American Conservative, 9 April 2012:

    In 1914 the Houses of Hapsburg and Romanov sat transfixed, mesmerized by the central question: which would win this latest round in their old quarrel? But the paradigm had changed and both would lose, while the winners would be a distant American republic and a guy named Ulyanov sitting in a café in Zurich.

    States, all states, now find themselves in a similar situation. The rise of Fourth Generation war, war waged outside the state framework, puts the state system itself in jeopardy. When one state fights another, the most likely outcome is that the loser disintegrates into another stateless region. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya offer painful examples.

    But the governments of states don’t get it. They continue to act within the old paradigm of state vs. state even as doing so feeds the new post-state order. As Martin van Creveld—whose books The Transformation of War and The Rise and Decline of the State define the new paradigm—said to me, `Everyone can see it except the people in the capital cities.’

    As the saying goes: “Good sense is treason in the empire of folly.” There is no sign that the Pentagon’s funding will decrease in the foreseeable future. Indeed, since the global financial collapse of 2008, there has been no actual decrease in American military spending — rather, the rate of growth of military spending has been cut.

    The `cuts’ being bruited about for the military, that Samuelson has his panties in a twist over, are actually not direct military-defense cuts but ancillary cuts such as to VA funding including pensions, benefits, TSA support, and other security…..but not paring back on massive Pentagon boondoggles like the F-35 (estimated at $0.3 billion each) which provide jobs in mainly repup districts. The same `cuts,’ as numerous real world economists (e.g. Paul Krugman) have noted, do NOTHING to contain the GROWTH of Defense-Pentagon spending they only SLOW it!
    — Source: “Robert Samuelson’s dishonest economics,” BraneSpace blog, 4 March 2012

    Chuck Spinney again (“An Obscene Value System: Hardware Over People at the Pentagon (Again),” 21 April 2012):

    …[G]o on the Internet and google articles describing the current round of service downsizing plans (which means pushing people out the door) to make room for high cost cold-war inspired turkeys like the Joint Strike Fighter, nuclear submarines, ballistic missile defense systems, etc., simply because the rate of growth in the defense budget is being cut back. And the next time you hear someone in the MICC waving the flag and saying the MICC’s top priority is supporting the grunts, slugging it out in mud and dust of war … follow the money.

  4. I’d rather cite Vandergrif or Meyers instead of Sparks. Few people take Sparks seriously because he lacks the self-critical thinking process to weed out stupid ideas and only publish promising ones.

    By the way; I found both books of MacGregor thoroughly underhwelming, and am always amazed when people call them” radical”. I could also say something not really flattering about Macgregor, but I guess that should be kept private. I need to give my e-mail address to comment, so I guess FM you can contact me by e-mail if interested to learn what I am writing about.

    The U.S. military appears to be incapable of meaningful reform in part because of the incapability of its reformers.

    1. “The U.S. military appears to be incapable of meaningful reform in part because of the incapability of its reformers.”

      Don’t set the bar too high or we’ll not have any. The prime requirements to be a military reformer are courage and integrity, since it’s career suicide. See “To be or to do” at Defense and the National Interest, 1 July 2007 — Opening:

      Of all the things Boyd wrote or said, we probably get the most requests for his “To be or to do?” invitation. Although Boyd associated with many junior officers during his Air Force career, there were a few, perhaps half a dozen, that he had such respect for that he invited them to join him on his quest for change. Each one would be offered the choice: Be someone – be recognized by the system and promoted – or do something that would last for the Air Force and the country. It was unfortunate, and says something about the state of American’s armed forces, that it was rarely possible to do both.

      Boyd’s biographer, Robert Coram, collected the invitation from an officer who got it and selected the “to do” option. Here it is: …

    2. One thing I will not miss about the Military is the “more elite than though” talk, to include the discrediting of someone for what they did once. The man made some good points, that’s all anyone need be concerned with.

  5. Rantly McTirade

    “…the blood of our brave troops.”

    We’re not going to solve anything until idiotic crap that that line gets hooted down with the contempt it deserves. The Hessians(er, sorry, ‘troops’) who’ve signed on as just another variant of public sector employee made their choice and, if they’ve signed on, or,especially, resigned on, in the past 8 years they’re a-ok with their idiot mission of being expendable stooges for globalism and empire. As long as those government paychecks keep coming, shut up and don’t expect anything more from the taxpayers who fund those checks(and we’d prefer to keep our money), especially enabling stupid lies about how ‘our freedom depends on their sacrifice’, yadda, yadda.

    1. I like your name, Mr. McTirade, but I think you’re despicable. I hope you choke to death on your granola.

  6. Excellent article. Well written. Your emphasis on the “thought” process rather than mindless group behavior is very clearly developed. Thank you.

  7. I think there is a discrepancy between the text and the chart, in the FM reply to Zemtar.

    Text reads-Military: our most trusted institution, trust up 10%
    Police: our next most trusted, down 1%

    Chart shows: military -1%, and police -3%.
    Chart is from 2002 through 2011 rather than 1999 through 2011.

    I am reading chart as meaning down 1% for trust of military, and down 3% for trust of police, as sourced from Gallup poll results.

  8. Just a general comment about site format. Do take a look at the Project Syndicate Beta site. The site allows for “pinning” specific paragraphs for comments. It does help when content is complex. These articles on FM are extremely complex and thought specific. Having that option to post comments by specific paragraph may be a positive for the FM site.

  9. Pingback: Military Might/Power Projection | Caribbean Interest

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