Obama can take a bold step to begin reform of the DoD & so end our series of defeats at 4GW.

Summary: Our defeats since 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan again show the need to reforge the US military for a time when 4GW has become the dominant form of war. James Fallows proposes a bold step for Obama to start that process — appoint Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired; co-author on the FM website) to a key DoD post. Here’s why Obama should do so.  See the follow-up posts listed at the end.

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

Power Button
Let’s hit the power button for the US military.


A powerful and insightful article.


Please read this article by James Fallows at The Atlantic:

Today … a thought-experiment solution. In previous episodes, I’ve quoted present and former officers on the perils of group-think and risk-avoidance as aspirants make their way up the military promotion ranks. Suppose Barack Obama, still-SecDef Chuck Hagel, or his successor-designate Ashton Carter wanted to do something to shift this culture. There could be few clearer signs of an intention to shake things up than appointing Donald Vandergriff as the next Yoda.

… This very good review by Carlos Lozada in the Washington Post explains why the name has been attached to Andrew Marshall, who at age 93 is just now stepping down as director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment and all-purpose eminence grise in the military world. Now the Pentagon is advertising for his successor — literally, there’s a job description and application form online. Want to signal a change? My candidate, until someone has a better idea, is Donald Vandergriff, who has in fact applied for the job.

Vandergriff spent 24 years on active duty an enlisted member of the Marine Corps and an Army officer. When he retired ten years ago as a major, a relatively junior rank, he exemplified the tensions between an independent-thinking, irrepressible, let’s-rock-the-boat reformer and the “don’t make waves” normal promotion machine.

… such an appointment would be a sign that {Obama was} serious about changing an organization’s course, plus recognizing and rewarding those who had taken risks for the right reasons.

Color me skeptical that Obama or his appointees “want to shift this culture”. Their first term took Bush Jr’s innovations and embedded them in the fabric of the government bureaucracy at all levels — and into our legal system. Nevertheless the idea is, as usual for Fallows, brilliant. It shows us what real reform looks like. It’s been so long that many of us had forgotten.


Origami Pentagon
It’s a fortress, but it can be taken.


Why is Don’s work so important?

The people and organization of an army must correspond to the nature of the foes its fights and the tools it uses. A Napoleonic army (the era of first generation war) marched into battle in blocks to fight discrete battles over small areas. No matter how equipped, it could not use the tools of WWII’s maneuver war (third generation war). For example, 3GW (“blitzkrieg’) required intelligent initiative from junior officers and rapid close coordination among units, foreign concepts to a 1GW force.

Now we’ve entered the fourth generation of war against foes, such as those who have defeated us in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq despite the fantastic training, courage, and equipment of our troops. Our military remains locked in its 2GW roots, with partial adaptation to 3GW, and so unable to face even untrained and poorly equipped foes using 4GW methods on their home turf (the home court advantage is massive in war, and especially so in 4GW).

Fred Reed gives a fun and enlightening summary of the problem in “Fred: A True Son of Tzu”. Highly recommended!

Donald Vandergriff (one of the authors on the FM website) has identified a powerful point of leverage to change our massive and dysfunctional 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 puts Vandergriff on the cutting edge of America’s sword. He, and others like him, are crafting a solution of the third kind (about people) to defeat our foes at 4GW. We can win at 4GW. We must learn to do so, or the 21st century will be a harsh time for America.

Other posts in this series

  1. Why the Pentagon would rather hire a jihadist like bin Laden than Donald Vandergriff.
  2. A step to getting an effective military. We might it need soon.
  3. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.

About solutions to 4GW.

At the start of WWII America was almost totally unprepared for 3GW. By the end we had mastered it. Transformations to meet new needs are a core capability of Americans.
Fire of the Soul

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction
  2. Why We Lose at 4GW — About the two kinds of insurgencies
  3. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
  5. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW
  6. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!
  7. 4GW: A solution of the second kind
  8. 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Vandergriff is one of the few implementing real solutions.

Vandergriff’s work is vital for military reform because people are policy. For more about the importance of this see Martin van Creveld’s Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance.

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.
Donald Vandergriff
Two articles describing Don’s work:

  1. How bad is our bloat of generals? How does it compare with other armies?, 10 September 2012 — This goes to the heart of the problem.
  2. Don Vandergriff strikes sparks that might help reforge the US Army, 15 June 2014.

Some of his articles at the FM website about the US military:

  1. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”, 15 July 2010.
  2. Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions, 16 July 2010.
  3. Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force, 17 July 2010.
  4. Afghanistan war logs: Shattering the illusion of a bloodless victory, 28 July 2010.
  5. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century, 13 August 2010.
  6. Leadership in action: when resource constraints meet conspicuous consumption, we just ignore the problem, 17 September 2010.

For More Information


See all posts about the US military’s officer corps and training of its officers. Also see all the posts about the work of Donald Vandergriff and by Vandergriff.

The military-industrial complex is a monster. We can defeat it.


The military-industrial complex is a monster. We can defeat it. Image from Encyclopedia Mythica.
Image from Encyclopedia Mythica.



6 thoughts on “Obama can take a bold step to begin reform of the DoD & so end our series of defeats at 4GW.”

  1. Since Obama is wholly owned and controlled by the military-police-prison-surveillance-torture complex, like everyone else in Washington, he will do nothing to rock the boat. The gravy train of endless infinite money to the U.S. military/police/prison system must continue; the spice must flow. Anyone who gets in the way of the flow of the spice in the novel Dune gets taken out and crushed. Likewise, anyone who interferes with the money flow to the military/police/prisons in Washington gets steamrollered into a grease spot on the highway.

    The military/police/prison/surveillance/torture complex remains the single biggest constituency in Washington today. After the soft coup on 9/11 when the military/police/prison/surveillance/torture complex took over the control of U.S. domestic and foreign policy from the civilians, the constituency has only gotten bigger. At this point, the constituency is too big to disrupt. It’s bigger than the constituency for the home mortgage deduction — do you think anyone in Washington D.C. will try to eliminate the home mortgage deduction?

    If not, forget about changing the endless infinite money flow coming into the U.S. military and police and prison and surveillance infrastructure.

    Instead, the money flow will increase. Look for a huge upsurge in the number of endless unwinnable wars America fights abroad. Look for a huge uptick in the U.S. military/prison/surveillance budget.

    With Republican majorities now assured in both houses of Congress, Pentagon spending is likely to grow to cope with national security threats around the globe.

    The White House announced Friday that it would request $5.6 billion in additional funds from Congress for airstrikes and other operations against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria. The total includes $1.6 billion to develop and train Iraqi security forces, which were routed by the Sunni militants last summer.

    But that figure may be dwarfed if Republican hawks follow through on promises to roll back mandatory defense spending cuts imposed by a government-wide budget cut known as sequestration.

    Source: “Republican control of Congress could mean more military spending ,” The Los Angeles Times, 8 November 2014.

    FM is usually farsighted in his predictions. This time he’s blown a fuse. Military spending in America and the institutional corruption and degeneration of the American military is set to take off like a rocket. If you think the corruption and decay of the American military is breathtaking now, wait until president Hillary Clinton and the Republicans in congress get done…you won’t believe your eyes. If you think the money getting pissed away on worthless non-working superweapons and endless futile foreign wars is huge today, hold onto your hat — you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

    1. If, in the foreseeable future, there is no prospect for a genuine change of direction and if the political system is built to lock out all those attempting to push for serious reforms, then isn’t the cynical conclusion that the best course of action — to have a real chance of seeing one’s firm prosper, to further one’s personal career and skills, to get hold of real money or simply just to secure a reasonably stable job to sustain a family — is to make everything necessary to have a place at the MIC trough?

      I wonder how many people are capitulating and following that path.

      Of course, it is indispensable to keep a plan for a rapid exit towards some other sector of activity when the MIC comes crashing down, because it will.

      1. guest,

        (1) “there is no prospect for a genuine change of direction”
        There is always the potential for a change of direction, but never for people who see themselves as dots incapable of collective action. That’s our choice.

        (2) “if the political system is built to lock out all those attempting to push for serious reforms”
        Not true in America. The political machinery bequeathed to us by the Founders’ lies there, unused but ready.

        (3) then isn’t the cynical conclusion that the best course of action — to have a real chance of seeing one’s firm prosper, to further one’s personal career and skills, to get hold of real money or simply just to secure a reasonably stable job to sustain a family — is to make everything necessary to have a place at the MIC trough? ”

        Exactly so. That’s the subject of the next post.

  2. “The total includes $1.6 billion to develop and train Iraqi security forces, which were routed by the Sunni militants last summer.”

    But those routed forces were trained by the US. So I guess the $1.6 B is what is will cost to retrain and include the phrase – “don’t drop your weapons and run away.”

  3. America is all about punishment. We’re the empire of punishment, and we punish the Russians, and we punsh black people, and we punish Iranians, we punish protesters for pointing out black people are being endlessly punished, and we punish Arabs.. It’s that paternalistic ‘white Man’s Burden’ thing. We treat them like children, and we believe with punishment they’ll see the wrong of their ways, but really, it just doesn’t work. It makes people hate us — though to admit this in the USA is to be a radical, a ‘sympathizer.’ And those ‘sympathizers’, they all need punishment too.

    And what is the alternative to punishment? It’s very simple, it’s listening — having a little empathy. It’s hearing what people are saying in their own language, and understanding their culture. Getting what you want, but also finding the common ground too. But the USA? It’s the least empathic empire ever. We have endless discussions, bunch of white guys on TV talking about ‘Islamic extremists’ — and it’s all white people feelings and fears, and rarely does it ever in involve an actual Arab. We are 100% self-absorbed and little outside information comes into the dialog.

    But then, yeah, in spite of all this, it is possible that we’d just turn it around. That some kind of cultural awakening would come and we’d see the madness Ideally we could skip all the horror and slaughter and just jump straight to the end of the story where we wake up from this nightmare of brown-people punishment. But it’s a massive u-turn, and you know what I see now in my middle age — that some things can only be learned with painful experience. We’re going to lay out our punishment again and again, and our world will get a little smaller and smaller.

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