William Lind: a voice from the past explains our broken army

Summary: We applaud the heroism and sacrifices of our troops, but remain blind to the incapacity of our army. Here William Lind explains our military’s core problem and how to fix it. Only our intervention will make this possible (excerpt through crushing defeat, as happened to Prussia).

“The spirit of the army is the spirit of its officers.”
— Attributed to Prussian General Ernst von Rüchel (1754-1823).

Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1666).
Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1666). The National Gallery.


A Voice From the Past

By William S. Lind

From traditionalRIGHT
25 August 2015

Here with their generous permission


Last year, friends gave me a splendid Christmas present in the form of all ten volumes of The Diary of Samuel Pepys covering the years 1660-1670. (As if that were insufficient, they accompanied it with a richly decorated chamber pot for the Imperial Library). Pepys, a civilian, was primarily responsible for developing the first modern naval administration, which turned a collection of ships into the Royal Navy.

The diary’s entry for July 4, 1663, touches on a broader matter. After visiting a general muster of the King’s Guards, Pepys wrote,

Where a goodly sight to see so many fine horse and officers, and the King, Duke (of York) and others come by a-horseback . . . (I) did stand to see the horse and foot march by and discharge their guns, to show a French Marquesse (for whom this muster was caused) the goodness of our firemen; which endeed was very good . . . yet methought all these gay men are not soldiers that must do the King’s business, it being such as these that lost the old King (Charles I) all he had and were beat by the most ordinary fellows that could be.

Pepys’ theme, the defeat of parade-ground armies by “most ordinary fellows”, is an old one. It appears to be unknown to our own military, or, more likely, they know it but cannot conceive it applies to them.

But it does. With all their vastly expensive equipment, they can put on a wonderful show, shows such as Gulf War I and the initial phase of Gulf War II. But once they no longer face another king’s Royal Guards and come up against those ordinary fellows, they lose. The U.S. Marines, who put on a show all the time, and a very convincing one, are now 0-4 against guys in bathrobes and flip-flops armed with rusty AKs. Pepys’ age-old theme repeats itself.

Reform button

This faces us with two problems, one difficult, the other impossible. The first is how to turn a parade ground military into one that can fight war as it is, not as they want it to be, and win. We know the basic answers:

  • Reduce the number of officers above the company grades to a fraction of their present number,fire the contractors, get rid of up-or-out {promotion policy}, adopt a regimental system and a true general staff, and change the type of people we promote.
  • Do the intellectual work necessary to understand Fourth Generation war, and revise doctrine and training accordingly.
  • Dump the hi-tech weapons useful only for parades. Most challengingly, get rid of the U.S. military’s 2GW culture with its inward focus and adopt the Third Generation’s outward-focused culture.

All that would be hard enough. But before we can attempt any of it, we must confront the impossible problem: finding national political leadership willing to put enough chips on military reform to make it happen.

Happy dwarfs

If we survey the current crop of presidential candidates, we find not a one who even knows what military reform means. Most of the Republicans just howl for yet more spending on the Pentagon, to make the parade ground military even bigger. The Democrats, as usual, know nothing about defense and could not care less about it.

Three candidates might–might–listen to someone who does know what military reform means: Trump, Sanders, and Rand Paul. The only reason to think they might have an interest is that they are anti-Establishment. The mice who are the remaining candidates squeak and twitter with fear at the notion of changing anything. A hint they might do so would be enough to endanger their Establishment membership.

When Trump says the problem is that our current politicians are dumb, he is half right. Most show intelligence at only one task, promoting themselves. But the other half of the problem is that they are cowards. They will risk nothing for the good of the country.

The reason Trump and Sanders are surging is that both have shown not only some sign of a brain, but also guts. The American people know something is drastically wrong with our country’s direction, and they are desperate to find a leader who will change our course. Most of our soldiers and Marines know the same about business as usual in their service. Where are real military leaders, men with brains and courage, to come from? Nowhere, so long as the politicians who choose our senior commanders and service chiefs remain mice.


William S. Lind
William S. Lind

About the author

William S. Lind s director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. He has a Master’s Degree in History from Princeton University in 1971. He worked as a legislative aide for armed services for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio from 1973 through 1976 and held a similar position with Senator Gary Hart of Colorado from 1977 through 1986. See his bio at Wikipedia

Mr. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook (1985), co-author with Gary Hart of America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform (1986), and co-author with William H. Marshner of Cultural Conservatism: Toward a New National Agenda (1987).

In April 1995 Lind published “Militant musings: From nightmare 1995 to my utopian 2050” in The Washington Post. He speculated about a future in which multiculturalism had broken apart the USA: a second civil war, followed by a recovery of our traditional Christian culture led by a new country: Victoria (i.e., it adopted Victorian values). He’s expanded this into a book: Victoria: A Novel of 4th Generation War, published under the pseudonym “Thomas Hobbes” (the theorist of the nation-state; author of Leviathan.

He’s perhaps best known for his articles about the long war, now published as On War: The Collected Columns of William S. Lind 2003-2009. See his other articles about a broad range of subjects…

  1. Posts at TraditionalRight.
  2. His articles about geopolitics at The American Conservative.
  3. His articles about transportation at The American Conservative.

For More Information

Recommended:  for more about the problems of the US military see “Seventy Years of Military Mediocrity” by William J. Astore (Lt. Colonel, US Army, retired) — “The Shared Failings of America’s Military Academies and Senior Officers”.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts by William Lind, about military reform, and especially these…

  1. A step to getting an effective military. We might need it soon.
  2. Overhauling The Officer Corps to build a military that can win wars.
  3. Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done.
  4. When will our military learn modern warfare, & overcome the attritionist tendency?
  5. We don’t need a new army to fight modern wars, we need a smart one.

William Lind’s books

"Victoria" by William Lind
Available at Amazon.
On War" by William Lind
Available at Amazon.

15 thoughts on “William Lind: a voice from the past explains our broken army”

  1. An example of effective, voluntary military reform would be the British Navy’s response to the Action of 8 April 1740. In this action, during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, three British 70-gun ships managed to overcome one Spanish 70-gun ship, the Princessa, with only the greatest difficulty.

    This episode demonstrated to the alarmed navy that continental ships (The Princessa was built according to French design) were vastly superior to their nominally equal British counterparts. Therefore, the apparent British advantage of greater total number of ships was being offset by French/Spanish advantage of individual ship quality.

    Actually dating from our friend, Pepys, the navy had been standardized according to various “rates” of 60, 70, 80, 90, and 100 guns, thereby streamlining the production, repair, and equipping of those ships. But by 1740, these establishments were in danger of being leapfrogged.

    The navy responded by studying the Princessa and other captured ships to revamp its design, the epitome of which was the famous 74-gun ship of the line, the centerpiece of Nelson’s navy, Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brien novels, and many other tales.

    This response did not require any defeat of the British navy. The Princessa itself, after all, finally had been subdued. British naval superiority would reign so supreme during the 18th century that, actually, a British admiral of a 10 ship fleet who failed to engage a 20 ship French fleet would be court martialed.

    1. To supplement this.
      If today’s Pentagon had been in charge of England’s 18th century navy, it would be asserting that the “surge” of three ships against the Princessa “worked,” so no reform would have been necessary.,

  2. “If we survey the current crop of presidential candidates, we find not a one who even knows what military reform means. Most of the Republicans just howl for yet more spending on the Pentagon, to make the parade ground military even bigger.”

    What matters more is which advisors and potential secretary of defense etc. are in their camps or at least endorsing the man.
    The simplistic “budget size = power” thinking is too widespread, and this thinking has infected all of NATO. Germany had its last, weak, military theory revival (“Freie Operationen”) pushed for by the head of the army (a Liddell-Hart fan) back in the mid-90’s. In parallel they had rackets such as the impractical “air mechanization”, which was used as a support to get new choppers (the defective NH90 and Tiger designs) into service despite the end of the Cold War.

  3. An interesting and thought provoking article, that brings up many good points on the challenges America is faced with in a time when fundamental transitions may be necessary to keep “the ship” sailing.

    In the matter of military reform and whether it is necessary or not one must consider Americas projected place in a world full of chaos. Are we to continue being a world police force or is it in our best interests to step out of that arena and pay closer attention to matters at home; leaving the world to deal with it’s self?

    As far as presidential candidates worthy of holding that office, I would tend to agree that so far, despite the many contenders, few seem capable of doing the job justice. It would seem that Americans often forget that the presidents primary goal is not creating legislation that allows or opposes gay marriage, abortion or economic growth and development; but rather stands as the Commander and Chief of the worlds most powerful military force. Not standing at a place of high vantage point in this area, I may be stepping out of line a bit to think that with this position comes information that is not typically released to the general public? With that said, we begin to verge on the question of whether or not there is a need to rethink the entire electoral process to ensure that the leader of the most powerful military force on the planet is capable of the job. Something that many recent presidents have perhaps not done well at, which leads to another question; is this due to cowardice or just a lack of leadership capabilities? We in America are very put upon in that every four to eight years we are asked to replace a current “great leader” with a new “great leader”, it has been my experience that they are not that commonplace.

    1. “continue being a world police force ”

      You didn’t notice yet that “America” is the schoolyard bully, not the community cop???
      No other country post-WW2 did so many wars of aggression, only the Soviet Union/Russia rivals the U.S. in NNPT violations, no other country routinely threatens and bombs others (which is both illegal under the Charter of the United Nations, article 1).

      1. SO,

        “not the community cop???”

        I’ve never understood the claim that we’re the world’s cop. Cops enforce laws on members of a political group, who pay for it in some form of taxes. That’s not remotely like the US military hegemony.

        Can you imagine if the US proposed that the US approve our role as global cop — and demanded that others pay for our “protection”? They’d laugh at our stupidity and arrogance. Many nations would pay to defend against US military intervention. Not just in the Middle East. How many in Latin America would pay to keep the CIA and Marines out of their borders?

  4. FM, Willian S. Lind, Chuck Spinney, the late Chalmers Johnson, Don Van de Graf and many others have warned us for decades now about our “broken army.” Yet nothing serious seems to happen each time America loses and retreats from our endless unwinnable wars. Does this weaken the message? Or am I missing something here?
    Lind also neglects to mention the vital role our fumbling bumbling stumbling bungling civilian leaders play in orchestrating our non-stop series of military defeats. When civilian leaders demand impossible goals (“win the hearts and minds of the people” in Vietnam; turn “Iraq into a beacon of Western democracy in the Middle East), no military machine on earth — including the Roman Empire at its height, or Great Britain at its zenith or the Mongol hordes at their most fearsome — could possibly fulfill such Alice-in-Wonderland goals.
    Behind the absurd delusions of our civilian leaders, we espy the absurd delusions of the American people, who seem to want to turn every society on earth into a replica of Boise, Idaho, circa 1956, and think that if only we teach the silly brown natives English and supply them with sanitary napkins, Cheetohs, and Pizza Hut franchises, we can accomplish our aims.
    Such escapades do not end well.

    1. Thomas,

      “Yet nothing serious seems to happen each time America loses and retreats from our endless unwinnable wars. Does this weaken the message? Or am I missing something here?”

      Yes. The point is that we lose, at great sacrifice of money and blood. That might not bother you, but it does many of us.

      And the day might come when we need effective military forces in a critical war.

      “Neglects to mention”

      I would like to see essays by the many people who give this criticism, to see if they mention every factor. It is an absurd thing to say. Lind discusses one thing, which is all that anyone can do in a thousand words or so. To attempt to cover many things brings the criticism of being superficial.

  5. If today’s Pentagon had been in charge of England’s 18th century navy, it would be asserting that the “surge” of three ships against the Princessa “worked,” so no reform would have been necessary.

    Actually, if today’s Pentagon has been in charge of England’s 18th century navy, it would have dismissed the need for reform and concentrated all its funds on developing an Advanced Military Technology 10,000-cannon frigate — which would be to heavy to float and still be under construction after bankrupting the British treasury, even as the Spanish navy sailed down the Thames and bombarded Parliament into rubble.

  6. Oh my. Bill Lind is one of my personal heros. The things he wrote and logially explaned put into perspective all my anaysis and reading of current miltary operations and history as well. One of the great thinkers. I will ads the (in)famaous War Nerd too who in his own unique way echoed what Lind said.

    Lind’s weakness is to be too US cenetric and never abosrbed the lessons of such things as (eg) WW2, where the US Army did perfom real well…under the (repeated) leadership of Montgomery. Why did one man make such a difference in perfomance? When under US leadership (Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton) they did so badly?

    The answer is that (on that argument) was Monty became an expert at leading a ‘flawed system’ and instaled a ‘virtual 3GW’ type of management on it. Rommel and all the German Genrals had an easy job in that they inherited a 3GW military system which they then ultilised, based on that work had been done decades before.

    Monty had the harder job taking a colonial war fighting,, 2GW, class ridden military system and turnng around to meet a proper (and apart from limited air power at the time) better led, mission caimmand based 3GW and better equipped military force. That experience served him welll and he worked out, with an inferior system, how to beat the Wehrmacht…over and over again. That was a lesson that never occured, except to Ike in a panic when he failed yet again…and again.

    Post WW2, and re-writing military history (many times) the US military has gone on and on to ever more greater disasters. It will not change, it is far easier to re-write history than change…so the same old, same old will be done…with the same old same old results. The modern US being the the modern US, some people will make heaps of taxpayers money out of it.

    Geo-poltically the neo-conservatives dominate, so more failed wars. Miliatry incompetence, money dominated procurement, neo-cons in charge …what coukd possibly go wrong?

  7. Sanders has guts?
    Out of fear of offending the power centers of Official Washington, Democrats won’t or can’t formulate a coherent foreign policy. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders says the solution to Mideast chaos is more Saudi intervention when Saudi intervention in support of Sunni extremists is the heart of the problem, writes Sam Husseini.
    By Sam Husseini
    There’s an old joke about two elderly men at a Catskill resort. One complains: “The food here is horrible.” The other vigorously agrees: “Yeah, I know — and the portions are so damn small!” Along those lines, several writers have noted that Sen. Bernie Sanders has been scant in terms of his foreign policy — small portions. But there’s also the question of quality.
    A problem with Sanders’s limited articulation of a foreign policy is that his most passionately stated position is extremely regressive and incredibly dangerous. Sanders has actually pushed for the repressive Saudi Arabian regime to engage in more intervention in the Mideast.


    Sanders’s Screwy Mideast Strategy

  8. War is a racket. It always has been.
    It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.
    A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.
    (..) The [First] World War, rather our brief participation in it, has cost the United States some $52,000,000,000. Figure it out. That means $400 to every American man, woman, and child. And we haven’t paid the debt yet. We are paying it, our children will pay it, and our children’s children probably still will be paying the cost of that war.
    The normal profits of a business concern in the United States are six, eight, ten, and sometimes twelve percent. But war-time profits — ah! that is another matter — twenty, sixty, one hundred, three hundred, and even eighteen hundred per cent — the sky is the limit. All that traffic will bear. Uncle Sam has the money. Let’s get it.
    Of course, it isn’t put that crudely in war time. It is dressed into speeches about patriotism, love of country, and “we must all put our shoulders to the wheel,” but the profits jump and leap and skyrocket — and are safely pocketed. Let’s just take a few examples:
    Take our friends the du Ponts, the powder people — didn’t one of them testify before a Senate committee recently that their powder won the war? Or saved the world for democracy? Or something? How did they do in the war? They were a patriotic corporation. Well, the average earnings of the du Ponts for the period 1910 to 1914 were $6,000,000 a year. It wasn’t much, but the du Ponts managed to get along on it. Now let’s look at their average yearly profit during the war years, 1914 to 1918. Fifty-eight million dollars a year profit we find! Nearly ten times that of normal times, and the profits of normal times were pretty good. An increase in profits of more than 950 per cent.
    Take one of our little steel companies that patriotically shunted aside the making of rails and girders and bridges to manufacture war materials. Well, their 1910-1914 yearly earnings averaged $6,000,000. Then came the war. And, like loyal citizens, Bethlehem Steel promptly turned to munitions making. Did their profits jump — or did they let Uncle Sam in for a bargain? Well, their 1914-1918 average was $49,000,000 a year!
    Or, let’s take United States Steel. The normal earnings during the five-year period prior to the war were $105,000,000 a year. Not bad. Then along came the war and up went the profits. The average yearly profit for the period 1914-1918 was $240,000,000.
    The ships of our navy…should be specifically limited, by law, to within 200 miles of our coastline. (..) Two hundred miles is ample, in the opinion of experts, for defense purposes. Our nation cannot start an offensive war if its ships can’t go further than 200 miles from the coastline. Planes might be permitted to go as far as 500 miles from the coast for purposes of reconnaissance. And the army should never leave the territorial limits of our nation.
    To summarize: Three steps must be taken to smash the war racket.
    * We must take the profit out of war.
    * We must permit the youth of the land who would bear arms to decide whether or not there should be war.
    * We must limit our military forces to home defense purposes.

    Source: “War is a Racket,” 1930, brigadier general Smedley Butler of the U.S. Marine Corps

    1. Thomas,

      “Always” and “never” statements are seldom correct. Butler lived to see a different kind of war then in his book, as fascist nations overran less well-prepared nations.

      I have never seen record of Butler’s thoughts about WW2. He died in 1940.

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