Don Vandergriff strikes sparks that might help reforge the US Army

Summary: Yesterday’s post continued a long series describing problems facing our military. Today we look at solutions, given in a new book by Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired — a co-author on the FM website). He strikes at the very heart of the Army’s power and traditions to make it a stronger instrument for America.

The Path To Victory

“People, ideas and hardware, in that order!”
— the late John R. Boyd (Colonel, USAF), quoted in Chet Richard’s Certain to Win



  1. Vandergriff strikes at the heart of the fire
  2. Solutions for the core problem facing the US Army
  3. A review by a pro
  4. About Don Vandergriff
  5. For More Information


(1)  Vandergriff strikes at the heart of the fire

Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) has identified a powerful point of leverage to change our massive military apparatus:  its personnel system, the process by which the Army recruits, trains, and promotes its officers. Change this and the effects ripple outward through the entire organization over time, as the nature and behavior of its leaders evolve. The Army has begun the long slow evolution of its personnel policies, responding to the ideas of Vandergriff and others. This success means that Vandergriff is on the cutting edge of America’s 4GW sword.

He, and others like him, are crafting A solution of the third kind (the real kind) to defeat our foes who use the tactics of fourth generation warfare (4GW).

(2)  Solutions for the core problem facing the US Army

Don Vandergriff has released the second — expanded and updated — edition of his critical analysis of the Army’s officer corps, The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs. You can find it on in at Amazon.

The book explains why and how the Army’s leadership has designed itself for both bureaucratic success and leadership failure in battle. It is important reading, I believe, for any who want to understand of one of the most important problems that decays America’s armed forces from within — and from the top.

The new second edition is revised and with a new foreword from leading reform advocate Douglas MacGregor (PhD and Colonel, US Army, retired).

Few books in the history of the U.S. Army have made a more convincing argument for change than Don Vandergriff’s new book. It is a privilege to offer some thoughts on the re-release of this important work.

When Don’s book appeared in 2002 it was not simply a detailed account of the Army’s personnel management system, its promotion policies and unit manning practices. It was also a critical examination of the Army as an institution and its extraordinary resistance to change in the way it identifies, develops and employs human talent. Most important, the book stipulated recommended changes informed by the ageless understanding that really great military success can be achieved only when leadership, technology and organization work hand in hand.

If leadership were truly recognized inside and outside of the American military as a vital component of national military power, most of Don’s Vandergriff’s recommendations would have been embraced and implemented long ago.

In the Preface, Vandergriff explains why he updated his book while serving in Afghanistan. In 2002 the Secretary of the Army, Thomas White, stated it would be the blueprint for the future Army. Unfortunately for Don and the Army, Secretary White was fired in April 2003. In 2013, Don wrote:


As I sit in Afghanistan in June 2013, I reflect on what has happened since the first edition of Path to Victory was published in May 2002. Unfortunately, there was not much beyond debate. The flawed personnel system and culture of the U.S. Army has proven amazingly resilient even during two major campaigns (the actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are not separate wars, they are campaigns under the umbrella of the so-called “War on Terror”) that lasted over 12 years and cost thousands of lives and 30,000 plus wounded— both mental and physical, and which have gravely diminished the strategic and moral prestige of the United States.

As a prominent author once noted, the Army is more concerned about preserving the status quo of the personnel system than adapting it to the demands of war. “War was seen as an aberration to the personnel system.

(3)  A review by a pro

The prominent Ralph Peters (Lt Colonel, US Army, retired), frequent commentator on news channels and author of several books on warfare, gave Don’s book an outstanding review:

Raising the Bar

Donald Vandergriff is one of those rare men who live their beliefs. Now, he has written a fine, clear-thinking, heartfelt book detailing the deep flaws in the Army’s (and our military’s) personnel system.

But the book is much broader than that. Although he does not use quite these terms, the text constitutes a demand for a sensible post-modern personnel system that rewards the core military virtues, in place of our current, long-outdated, poorly-performing industrial-age system, a legacy of both Henry Ford’s assembly line mentality, in which all parts, even the human ones, are interchangeable, and a bizarre, inchoate conviction within the Army that, really, it’s still 1944 and the draft will supply the needed talent to replace that which is squandered.

Even now, in 2002, there is a bizarre belief among the Army’s hierarchy that every officer (and soldier) is easily replaceable, if not perfectly interchangeable. Tell that to corporate America, or the scientific community, or to the arts community. America has achieved its paramount position because we recognize and reward the unique talents of the individual — but our military resists excellence whenever it can (what passes for excellence is a polished conformity to superficial forms).

Our broken-down, morally-bankrupt personnel system may be well-suited for the ten-million-man military with which we ended WWII, but it is a travesty when it comes to developing the right Army for the 21st century. Critics may respond that the military is not about individual excellence, but about teamwork — but teamwork based upon excellence is far more impressive than group-think and timid acquiescence based upon lowest-common-denominator professional values. There is not inherent tension between building a team and rewarding talent honestly employed; on the contrary, men and women crave leaders who earn their respect through performance, rather than through currying favor (or simply being born a general’s son, the surest path there is to a general’s stars).

At the very least, we should recognize that a post-modern military does have some different demands placed upon it — a greater requirement for individual initiative and battlefield autonomy — than did our earlier armies of massed infantry divisions. We still need courage and clarity, but the recognition and exploitation of the unique worth of the individual officer may be our greatest potential combat multiplier.

Of course, it is easy to be too pessimistic. We still have the finest Army — and military — in the world. Not all dissent is suppressed, fine ideas, such as Major Vandergriff’s, still emerge, despite institutional resistance (more a matter of defensiveness and mental sloth than of maliciousness), and not every officer promoted is a shallow careerist (indeed, in some military specialties the trends are encouraging). In the end, it is not that we are doing so badly, but that we could do far better. For all our might and virtues, our personnel system remains less than the sum of its often remarkable parts. Major Vandergriff has laid out a worthy road map for building the Army of the future, instead of clinging to the Army of the past. We may not wish to drive down every lane he recommends, but he certainly has signposted the main highway with accuracy and clarity.

In my own military career, I slowly came to the realization that, if I could control the personnel system, I could change any organization, but that if I controlled everything but the personnel system, all meaningful change could still by stymied by the bureaucracy (and our military is, above all, a vast bureaucracy). Donald Vandergriff understands this profoundly. This is a worthy, even heroic book by an officer genuinely dedicated to selfless service. We Americans should be proud that such men remain committed to serving our country in uniform.

I strongly recommend this book to military men and women, but also to policy-makers and to the business community, for which it has especially relevant lessons in these days of Worldcom, Enron and Put-on.

This is the work of an officer with whom any soldier would be honored to serve.

Manning the Future Legions

(4)  About Don Vandergriff

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.

I recommend this as a great place to start: see his PowerPoint presentation: Officer Manning: Armies of the Past

Other posts by Don:

  1. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”, 15 July 2010.
  2. More about charisma (#2 in the “getting ready for Obama” series), 16 July 2010.
  3. Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions, 16 July 2010.
  4. Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force, 17 July 2010.
  5. Petraeus’s Baby, 21 July 2010.
  6. Another example of our nation’s leadership crisis: Tim Geithner’s Ninth Political Life, 22 July 2010.
  7. Afghanistan war logs: Shattering the illusion of a bloodless victory, 28 July 2010.
  8. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century, 13 August 2010.
  9. Leadership in action: when resource constraints meet conspicuous consumption, we just ignore the problem, 17 September 2010.
  10. A Thanksgiving Day note, 25 November 2010.

Spirit, Blood, and Treasure

(5)  For More Information.


Recommended: “Fred: A True Son of Tzu” by Fred Reed, a different perspective on the US Military.

(b)  See the Reference Page listing posts about:

  1. America’s military, and our national defense strategy.
  2. An Army near the Breaking Point – an archive of links.
  3. Our military.

(c)  Posts about the US Army:

  1. US Army – the antidote to US civil disorder, 3 January 2009.
  2. Recommended reading: transforming the Army, the hard way, 15 January 2008.
  3. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009.
  4. What does the future hold for the US Army – and America?, 29 April 2012 — By Doug Macgregor.
  5. Our Army, under attack on many fronts, fights to maintain its integrity and cohesion, 29 October 2012.
  6. The US army under attack by internal foes, but responds quickly, 31 October 2012.
  7. A look at the Army’s plans to adapt to the 21st century, 2 November 2012.
  8. As our 9-11 wars end, new problems appear for the US Army, 14 June 2014.

(d)  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.



5 thoughts on “Don Vandergriff strikes sparks that might help reforge the US Army”

    1. M Simon,

      David Evans has an excellent academic background, but no peer-reviewed publications in climate. That he publishes his findings on his wife’s website is interesting, but reminds me of how Carl Sagan et al announced the discovery of “Nuclear Winter” in Parade magazine.

      I’ll wait until Evan’s “notch” is published in a more formal setting before getting excited.

  1. If there ever is major HR reform, then Don Vandergriff will probably be remember as one of the thought leaders that helped change the thinking.

    I hope that he’s still pushing his ideas in Washington. Personnel reform will not come from HRC- they are too busy in the routine tasks of running the Army. It will have to come from from the Pentagon or externally from Congress.

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