Why the Pentagon would rather hire a jihadist like bin Laden than reformer Donald Vandergriff.

Summary:  Obama can take a bold step to begin reform of the DoD & so end our series of defeats at 4GW discussed James Fallows’ brilliant idea of appointing military reformer Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) to a key post at the Pentagon. Today’s two posts discuss why that would be important, and why it will not happen. Here’s the 1st.

F-35. The most expensive US weapons program ever. Perhaps the most useless.

Let’s start with an easy prediction: although perfect for the job, a potentially transformative leader for DoD, Donald Vandergriff will not get this or any other high post in the Pentagon. Our military’s leadership would rather appoint bin Laden (alive or dead).

Jihadist theology has zero ability to spread through the Pentagon. Vandergriff’s reformist ideas threaten the core values of our military-industrial-complex, where fears of war and war produce profits. Winning wars is incidental to doing the important business.

To understand our dysfunctional military apparatus requires a brief look at the evolution of modern warfare, the Pentagon’s brilliant response to it (“Pentagon” refers to the leadership of our military-industrial-complex), and why reformers like Vandergriff pose a threat to the Pentagon goes to the heart of our.

Who they are, how and why they fight

Military forces are above all about the people who fight it: how they are recruited, organized, trained, and led. America recruits highly motivated men and women in superb mental and physical condition, especially compared to those of past armies.

Our forces are also well-organized. A Roman legion operating modern equipment would get shredded easily by a modern army with its superior organization (broadly defined) — from large features (e.g., the staff system) to small powerful details (e.g., putting time and location on dispatches). By these criteria America has one of the finest forces ever fielded.

But the last two criteria are more problematic. Military forces are trained and led to fight specific kinds of wars, among the countless forms of the past and future. One schema for comparing those of the modern age is as “generations of war”. Here’s a simple description of the 4 generations:


  1. Napoleon: blocks of men fighting set-piece battles over small spaces, armies with a high teeth-to-tail ratio.
  2. WWI: armies engaged so that the fronts extend across continents, massive firepower, clash of entire economies for war, large military staffs with homeland responsibilities.
  3. WWII:  armies operating on a global scale, firepower on civilian areas (no fronts protecting rear areas), rapid maneuver, mobilization of entire societies for war, more tail than teeth.
  4. Today: blurring of civilian and combatant, mobilizing women and children for military service, the homeland is the front, a minority of troops experience combat, foes are often not States.
War, ancient & modern
War, ancient & modern

Each generation of war combines a new mixture of the ancient features of war, hence the silly rebuttal that “4GW is nothing new”. Just as nothing from a chef can be new, since the basic foods were discovered millennia ago. War is protean, as new technology and ideas drive re-mixing the unchanging human raw material.

Victory in each generation of war requires different forms of military forces. For example, the responsibilities of junior officers increases and broadens with each new generation of war — from the rigid obedience of Napoleon’s captains becomes the street-level strategists required by our wars.

Into the fourth generation

In the 4th generation war becomes more complex, so that many forms of 4GW no longer are “war” in a traditional sense (e.g, blurring into terrorism and organized crime, traditionally concerns of police and security services). The foes might be transnational gangs (e.g., the Latin American drug cartels), or  revolutionaries (e.g., motivated by nationalist, ethnic, ideological or religious loyalties).

Armies which master a new generation of war can crush equal or sometimes even superior forces. Napoleon crushed his opponents until they learned 1GW. The Wehrmacht conquered Europe until their foes learned Blitzkrieg. Mao brought 4GW to maturity, proving that a new form of citizen army that although lightly trained and poorly equipped could defeat the forces of a modern State. Scores of insurgent forces have repeated his success since then, improving on Mao’s insights.

Insurgents usually lose. But using the methods of 4GW greatly increases their odds of success (which was roughly zero until the modern age, tiny until the 20th century, but quite high after WWII).  Governments which called on major states for armed assistance found — to everybody’s surprise — that foreign armies almost always lose to local insurgents using 4GW. 4GW-equipped insurgencies swept away Europe’s colonial empires in one generation.

As Martin van Creveld describes the result in Chapter 6.2 of The Changing Face of War (2006), speaking for foreign armies fighting local insurgents:

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.

In Vietnam America too suffered humiliating defeat from a foe using 4GW methods, despite sending 2.7 million troops there and straining our economy to finance it. Our reputation, our wealth, our technology, our large military with its massed firepower — nothing worked. Fred Reed gives a fun and enlightening summary of our military’s dilemma in “Fred: A True Son of Tzu”.

This might have sparked a reformation, like that of the German army after its defeats in 1806 and 1918.

Our defense establishment responded to the challenge of 4GW with genius on a scale seldom seen in US history, much like that of our bankers to the deregulation of the financial system that begun in 1971. They found new goals and a better way to live. See part 2 for details.

Ideas faucet

Other posts in this series

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

(3) A step to getting an effective military. We might it need soon.

(4)  How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.

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.

Go here to see posts about 4GW, COIN, and other aspects of modern warfare.

How often do insurgents win?

  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



3 thoughts on “Why the Pentagon would rather hire a jihadist like bin Laden than reformer Donald Vandergriff.”

  1. This country is in a rapidly descending spiral because of the its monomaniacal concern for corporate profit. I’m too old to be optimistic about this country avoiding hitting a catastrophic bottom.

  2. Pingback: William Lind explains one reason our military can't win wars - Fabius Maximus website (blog) | Bible Prophecy In The Daily Headlines

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