The battle that mattered most to America: the Pentagon vs. Military Reformers. It’s over.

Summary:  Our defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan (failures to achieve any major national goals despite large expenditures of blood and money) accompanied an overwhelming victory invisible to the public. In fact, these defeats resulted from that victory — the Pentagon’s defeat of the military reform movement. The post-9/11 campaigns by defense intellectuals demonstrated their shallow roots in the Washington, just as the anti-war protests showed their shallow roots in our society. These twin defeats leave the National Security State triumphant and stronger than ever. Our defeats abroad matter not at all to its leaders.

This is another in a series of posts commemorating the 25th anniversary of the 25th anniversary of the Marine Corps Gazette article “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”, the high point of the military reform movement.

Defeat in boxing

To see how we go here let’s travel back two decades, to when military reformers were strong. They found an audience interested in deep reforms to a Pentagon flush with funds from the Reagan revolution. To hear a voice from that time see Senator Gary Hart’s (D-CO) op-ed in the New York Times: “An Agenda for More Military Reform“, 13 May 1986. It’s a summary of his 1986 book (coauthored with William Lind) America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform. Excerpt:

Five years ago, military reform was the province of a small band of iconoclasts in the Senate. Now the need for broad changes in the way we train, equip and deploy our conventional forces has become conventional wisdom. Congress and the American people must not, however, let satisfaction with early gains take the steam out of the reform movement before it achieves its fundamental goal – military forces that can win in combat.

Spurred by Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, reports of $600 toilet seats and an angry public’s realization that a 40% increase in defense spending has not bought real security, national leaders have begun to recognize that in defense, costlier is not always better. The Congressional Military Reform Caucus has grown to more than 130 lawmakers from both parties. And the Administration has endorsed – in word if not yet in deed – a wide-ranging package of reforms recommended by a Presidential commission headed by David Packard, president of Hewlett-Packard, which manufactures computer technology.

Their book gave specific recommendations, each well-supported by a large body of expert analysis.

  1. Shift the military from attrition warfare (2GW) to maneuver warfare (3GW);
  2. Buy systems based on their effectiveness in combat rather than seeking the most advanced (complex) technology;
  3. Boost unit cohesion by keeping personnel together for many years rather than rotating them as individuals;
  4. Make submarines the core capital ship of the Navy, not aircraft carriers;
  5. Reduce the number of senior officers
  6. Focus officer education on the art of war, not management “science”.

The result were some noteworthy reorganizations, which streamlined the Pentagon but (like the many previous reorganizations) changed its nature not at all. Unit rotation became the rule (#3). We built both submarines and aircraft carriers (#4). Military leaders strangled other proposals in their cribs. The reform engine steamed on with slowly diminishing impact but strong intellectual heft. A good example is Military Reform: A Reference Handbook, Winslow Wheeler and Larry Korb (2007). William Lind’s review gives a capsule summary of attempts to reform the monster President Eisenhower warned about in 1961. Lind explains…

Bruce Lee on Defeat

When the world was young and hope dared live in Washington, a small group of people put together something called the Military Reform Movement. Its purpose was to measure defense policies and programs by the standard of what works in combat rather than who benefits financially. Launched in the 1970s, it peaked in the early 1980s and was gone by 1990.

Why did it fail? Because in a contest between ideas and money, the money always wins.

… The book’s stronger chapters are those by Wheeler, who pulls no punches when discussing the ways various members of Congress betrayed the reform cause. The “Washington Game” is to create an image with the public that is a direct opposite to what the Senator or Congressman actually does behind closed doors, and the Caucus saw plenty of that game. Standouts were Senator Bill Cohen of Maine, who attended Caucus meetings while busily working with Senator John Tower to block any reform of the Navy (he went on to be perhaps the most ineffectual Secretary of Defense in the Department’s history); Newt Gingrich, who really “got” reform and played a big role in the early history of the Caucus, then did nothing to advance its ideas once he gained power; and Dick Cheney, who also used reform to generate an image and now, as Vice President, does nothing.

… What drew many members of Congress to the Reform Caucus was the opportunity it offered to get some good ink. When the wind started blowing the other way, those illustrious legislators blew with it.

… It may be that the Military Reform Movement remains nothing but a historical footnote, one of many vain attempts to rescue a decaying empire from its appointment with history’s dustbin. But as Winslow Wheeler makes clear … it was also the source of some important ideas on how to win wars and, for those of us who were involved in it, a hell of a ride.

That window of opportunity closed, so that the US military was gung ho for war after 9/11 — but completely unprepared for its 4GW foes. This became apparent to the Homeland only slowly, since public relations is a core competence of our senior officers. It was obvious to the remnant of the military reform community, who predicted the inevitable debacle — hoping to leverage this changes that would build a new and better military for America in the 21st Century.

Learn from mistakes

The resulting flood of analysis and recommendations looks in hindsight not just brilliant but prophetic. Perhaps the best record is Lind’s “On War” columns (online here; published here), from 1/2003 to 12/2009 (begun 8 months before mine). During the next few years John Robb published Brave New War. Chet Richards published his brilliant books Neither Shall the Sword and If We Can Keep It. Perhaps most important, Martin van Creveld published The Culture of War and The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq.

Websites arouse to aggregate these voices, such as

Other groups organized public opposition to the war, restarting the machinery dormant since Vietnam. Protests, articles in the mass media, organizing coalitions, and lobbying politicians.

By 2009 it was obvious to many that these wars were expensive and futile, based largely on lies. Their hollow foundation was revealed in the rare debates (the wars’ advocates were so strong they seldom bothered to debate), such as that run by Andrew Exum at the Center for a New American Security website. At this hawks’ nest they were unable to even stage a coherent defense.

The results proved worse than I imagined possible when I first wrote on these matters in 2003. The operational reforms (moving to 3GW or even 4GW) lost their only foothold in the USMC. The wars ran to exhaustion and our defeat. Mad dysfunctional weapons programs continue (e.g., the F-35, star wars, the X-51 hypersonic cruise missile). The space program has been largely militarized (e.g., the X-37b).

The future looks even darker.  The hawks appear to have rested, and now begun to build new fires on the corpses of the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and are doubling down on their failed methods (e.g., we didn’t kill enough, or with sufficient boldness). The Pentagon continues to expand in Africa, the new frontier for involving us in foreign civil wars. The new Congress will boost military funding, squash any talk of reforms to the out-of-control domestic surveillance agencies, and continue the militarization of the police.

The forces of reform have gotten crushed at every level. Most of the reformers have either given up (a rational response), retreated to trivial concerns (e.g., the fight to save the A-10 “Warthog”), or continued their failed tactics (AA: “insanity is repeating actions …”). There are exceptions, such as William Lind, Paul Pillar, and Andrew Bacevich. Outnumbered and outgunned.

Defeat is not he worst of failures


We must acknowledge defeat. Nothing can happen while we respond to failure with what Wolfgang Schievelbusch calls the “dreamland”.  That prevents learning. Prevents change. Closes the door to eventual victory.

Instead let’s understand what’s happened, assess why we lost, and develop new tactics for the future. The future remains open. Nothing is written.

Posts in this series about 4GW, reflecting on 25 years of 4GW defeats

  1. Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW.
  2. William Lind: thoughts about 4GW, why we lose, and how we can win in the future.
  3. “SAS kill up to 8 jihadis each day, as allies prepare to wipe IS off the map.” Bold words we’ve heard before.
  4. What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?
  5. The battle that mattered most to America: the Pentagon vs. Military Reformers. It’s over.
  6. What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?.
  7. Understanding 4GW, the first step to winning the Long War — #1 of GI’s series.
  8. DoD defends itself against dangerous new ideas about 4GW. — #2 of GI’s series.
  9. 4GW allows ISIS to fight and win against more powerful armies. Like ours. — #3 of GI’s series.
  10. Using 4GW might give the Islamic State a big future. — #4 of GI’s series.
Using 4GW, little fish can defeat big fish
Little fish can defeat big fish by using 4GW

For More Information

See all posts about…

  1. America’s military, and our national defense strategy
  2. Reforming America: steps to political change
  3. Military and strategic theory and practice


11 thoughts on “The battle that mattered most to America: the Pentagon vs. Military Reformers. It’s over.”

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  2. If you want to pretend that there will never be another major land war in human history, then go ahead: dissolve the armored corps and turn the aircraft carriers and big deck assault ships into scrap metal. If you think that there will never be another battle for air superiority, then go ahead: scrap all the fighter-interceptors and build bomb/missile delivery platforms instead.

    The motivation to rethink the military in the ’70s and ’80s came directly from the confusion and doubt raised by the way the Vietnam War turned out. One really good thing came out of that period of introspection and self-discovery: It is called the Powell Doctrine.

    As put forward by Colin Powell. America should maintain the capability of responding quickly, once the decision to wage war is made. Massive force must be deployed quickly into the battle area with the sole objective of destroying the enemy’s ability to wage war. Once the enemy’s military has been crippled, the US should withdraw its forces completely. There would be no civilian population control, no occupation, no nation-building, and no regime change.

    Desert Storm was a good example of the way the Powell Doctrine would be put into place with 2 obvious deficiencies: 1. It was not done quickly. It took 6 months before the ground war was launched, which took a little over 4 days to complete. 2. The decision was made to leave an armored brigade behind in Kuwait. The lessons learned from Desert Storm should have been the need to build a large fleet of C5-Galaxies, so that a full armored division could be deployed in about 3 days instead of 3 months.. And the active military should not require a single person or asset from the National Guard/Reserve system in order to wage war.

    4G is all about “small wars” Small wars implies long term occupations of distant lands, and control over local populations for extended periods of time. Colonial powers fight small wars against loosely-organized indigenous fighters. .Our war-mongers will have little incentive to ever leave these small wars, since each in itself, costs so little. But a military organized to fight small wars cannot reorganize itself to fight a big war, whereas a military organized as Powell saw it could scale down easily to deal Al-Shabab in Somalia or ISIS in Mesopotamia; and then….LEAVE!!

    1. Arthur,

      “If you want to pretend that there will never be another major land war in human history, then go ahead: dissolve the armored corps and turn the aircraft carriers and big deck assault ships into scrap metal. ”

      Delusional strawman much? What in the article says anything remotely like this? What suggests that distinguished military reformers would believe something so daft?

    2. Arthur,

      “4G is all about “small wars” Small wars implies long term occupations of distant lands, and control over local populations for extended periods of time. ”

      A common misconception, but one with no basis in the literature about 4GW. Like other forms of violent conflict, 4GW methods can be used in State-State conflicts, internal conflicts (civil wars), or conflicts between State and non-State entities (e.g., the loose alliance vs Al Qaeda, and now ISIS).

      See the references in this series about 4GW. I recommend starting with the original Marine Corps Gazette article.

    3. Mr Brina says, “If you want to pretend that there will never be another major land war in human history, then go ahead…”

      It’s also within the realm of possibility that the Yellowstone caldera will erupt into a supervolcano and cover the nation in a layer of ash.
      Does this mean we should be spending trillions of dollars ensuring our military is the best volcano-fighting force the world has ever seen?
      If you do not fully supporting our nation’s multi-trillion-dollar volcano-defense program, does that make you a squishy volcano-loving hippie, or does it just mean you’re someone who thinks practically and considers cost, benefit, and risk before jumping into a fight?

  3. Several years ago, I participated in an ongoing debate, sponsored by William Lind on the subject of 4G warfare. I don’t remember the website name unfortunately. We disagreed as you can imagine. But I think his theories are sound, and his essays were very informative and a pleasure to read.
    I can’t recall if I actually read the Marine Corps article at the time…I read so many, including one by Martin Creveld. So, I consider myself well-read on the subject. I also served in the Special Forces in Vietnam and participated in unconventional warfare operations of smaller size in 3 other countries during the 1970s.

    On that point, I was in Vietnam when the last US division was pulled out, which meant that I was there when the North Vietnamese invaded the South with 3 divisions. The patchwork of irregular light infantry forces that I was assigned to were absolutely useless in opposing the NVA battalion-size formations. The best we did was to just get in their way -and stay alive!!- as they pressed on toward the coastal cities. The ensuing battles at An Loc-Lai Khe, An Khe, and at Quang Tri – Cua Viet, which broke and turned back the NVA, had nothing to do with 4G.

    4G tactics lure us into envisioning unending wars, because they are not decisive. Pods of special operations forces can bust up a band of brigands. But, so what? To what end? Do we keep such forces spread out, deployed in navy ships or isolated airbases interminably? What could a band of 40 Seals -or even 400 Marines- do in Khobani or Fallujah?

    Hezbollah’s victory in 2006 is hailed as a victory of 4G over conventional tactics. The truth is, that the Israeli Army couldn’t take a punch. Rooting out Hezbollah would have required the same tactics that were used in Hue1968, employed with the same gritty determination and destruction. The Israelis would have done no better using 4G tactics. The Israelis did better in Gaza this past summer; but still recoiled from the prospects of taking the kinds of losses that fighting in built-up and fortified areas entail.

    If we had applied the Powell Doctrine in 2001 in Afghanistan, our war there would have been over in 3 months. The entire 82nd Airborne division would have been deployed in less than a week to secure Bagram and surrounding area. A couple of weeks later, reinforced by either of the heliborne Ist Cav or the 101st Abn divisions, an offensive would have been launched to sweep Taliban from major population centers, while Ranger/Special Forces would have parachuted into the Tora Bora to cut off and hunt down Al Qaeda. And then we could have left the Afghans to sort out their civil strife on their own after that.

    I just can’t imagine any scenario in which 4G tactics can actually win a war, especially one which actually ends with the withdrawal of our troops.

    1. Arthur,

      Apologists for conventional wars have uttered such boasts for decades, yet every foreign army facing 4gw forces has been defeated. Many studies show this, such as 2008 RAND.

      This is a commonplace military debate. True believers in armored Knights, cavalry charges, and lines of battleships proudly boasted about their power long after methods of war had moved on. They explained why past defeats were special cases, why they should have won, why they’d win in the future.

      So you are in good company.

      It’s not clear to me why you began you first comment with a foolish strawman. It is clear that you don’t understand what 4gw is (see my previous comment).

      Another detail: a basic difference, clear in post-WW2 wars, is between local forces fighting 4gw foes — and foreign armies fighting local foes. For reasons explained in the COIN field manual FM 3-24, legitimacy is one of the high grounds in 4gw. Foreigners don’t have it, a major factor in their defeat.

    2. Arthur,

      Since Mao brought 4GW to maturity everybody has a poor record as foreigners fighting local insurgents. As Martin van Creveld describes in Chapter 6.2 of The Changing Face of War (2006):

      What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

      Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.

      For more about the history of foreign armies fighting local insurgencies:

      1. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
      2. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
      3. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard. She examines the present and past analysis of counter-insurgency. This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
      4. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010
      5. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure., 7 August 2012
  4. First, I thank you for treating my comments seriously. I began my first comment with that “strawman” , as you call it, because I regard the idea that 4G tactics will win wars as a “dreamland” in itself. It is not so much that I do not understand 4G, as it is that I detest it as fundamentally evil and sadistic. To prevail over an enemy through sabotage, sedition, assassination, and disruption of the existing social order itself, should be deemed as unacceptable on moral grounds if nothing else.

    The “victories” of 4G fighters over other styles of combat are, in every instance that I can think of, are as much the result of resolve and determination of one side exceeding that of the other, as it is the successful decapitation of the leaders on one side by the other. Where you claim victories by 4g forces in every instance. I see failure to act forcefully and directly with sufficient forces by competent officers and NCOs, and the failure of their political leadership to identify and target the proper and achievable objective.

    Isis, Al Qaeda, Taliban, Boko Haram, Al Shaba…what are these but bands of murderous terrorists? CIA-directed renditions, indefinite detentions, torture, assassinations by drone or by commando raid…what are these but murderous acts of terror against who? sometimes they are against actual 4G fighters, and sometimes they are against sympathetic or even innocent bystanders. Is this what honorable men must do to achieve whatever ends their political leaders desire?

    Let us watch how the war in Eastern Ukraine unfolds and let the results determine the efficacy and effectiveness of 4G warfare.

    1. Arthur,

      As I said, the bright line in 4GW concerns who is fighting (e.g., foreign armies vs local insurgencies). The war in the Ukraine does not have a foreign army. The Russians are involved in a predominantly Russian-ethnic area. Despite the hysterics in the West, there is zero evidence the Russians plan to roll into Ukrainian-ethnic territory, or into Poland and France.

      “because I regard the idea that 4G tactics will win wars as a “dreamland” in itself.”

      That’s an astounding statement. They’ve won scores of wars since WW2. See the RAND study. Western military forces have been defeated, for example, in every major anti-colonial war. With the exceptions of when they agreed to free the colony, and supported one faction (usually the locals who cooperated in the colonial government).

      “as it is that I detest it as fundamentally evil and sadistic. … what are these but bands of murderous terrorists?”

      A commonplace of history. That’s what they said about crossbows. The people we’re killing with our drones and special ops assassins say bad things about us. This emotionalism prevents any clear view of the dynamics involved, and is one reason we keep on losing. Sacrificing the lives of our soldiers for nothing. We seem to enjoy doing so — we’re fighting evil! As someone who has spent time with our wounded vets, I consider that attitude to be {further comment omitted in the interest of civility}.

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