Our army’s bloat of officers is one reason it can’t win wars

Summary: Since Korea, our military has proven itself unable to win wars. We cannot win even against foes with little training and less equipment. We cannot win even when the US fields large armies fueled with almost unlimited funds against foes having neither. As we walk on the verge of war with Iran, we must ask “why?” There are a thousand and one answers. But we should look first at our leaders, often the difference between victory and defeat.

Photo of US military officer's ribbons from Government Executive.
Photo from Government Executive.

To understand why our military consistently fails to win, a fun place to start is one of the best books by one of the greatest science fiction’s authors: Starship Troopers by Robert Heinline (Lt, US Navy, retired – Annapolis 1929, ranked fifth in his class academically). It describes the “Mobile Infantry” (MI), an ideal version of the Army. In it, he describes the challenge of developing leaders for a fighting force.

Starship Troopers
Available at Amazon.

“To fill each necessary combat billet, one job to one officer, would call for a 5% ratio of officers – but 3% is all we’ve got.

“In place of that optimax of 5% that the M. I. never can reach, many armies in the past commissioned 10% of their number, or even 15% – and sometimes a preposterous 20%! This sounds like a fairy tale but it was a fact, especially during the XXth century. What kind of an army has more “officers” than corporals? (And more non-coms than privates!) An army organized to lose wars – if history means anything. An army that is mostly organization, red tape, and overhead, most of whose “soldiers” never fight. …

“{T}he M. I . never commissions a man simply to fill vacancy. In the long run, each boot regiment must supply its own share of officers and the percentage can’t be raised without lowering the standards.”

Heinlein accurately describes a key structural feature distinguishing effective from ineffective armies. For an expert’s analysis coming to the same conclusion, see the presentation below by Donald Vandergriff. In it, he compares our Army with others – past and present, effective and ineffective. Here is the grim bottom line. Officers comprised 3.0% of the 1940 German army and 6.0% of the 1967 Israeli Army. These are armies that won battles, often against high odds, by operational excellence.

Compare those numbers with those of the US Army, where officers were 9.4% during WWII. 14.9% during Vietnam – and are 18.9% now (roughly). See this ugly trend in a graph from “Star Creep: The Costs of a Top-Heavy Military” by Ben Freeman.

The Number of Officers Per 100 Enlisted Personnel from 1901-2013.

The Number of Officers Per 100 Enlisted Personnel from 1901-2013

The bloat is worse at the higher ranks. There are an incredible 1.5 three- and four-star generals and flag officers for every 10,000 troops. Since the Cold War ended (~1991), no DoD personnel group has grown at a faster rate. For more about this problem, see The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military by Ben Freeman (Project on Government Oversight).

For those interested in military reform, the path to America again winning wars, Don’s presentation is essential reading. See his bio below and, at the end of the post, information about his newest book.

Officer Manning: Armies of the past.

By Donald E. Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).


Donald Vandergriff

About Donald 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. GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired) gives the bottom line to Don’s career.

“Vandergriff battles to improve DoD’s leadership and decision making. He challenges its senior leadership in order to bring meaningful change and accountability to DOD. Like others with his experience, he sees that DOD’s senior leadership (both uniforms and suits) today appears most concerned with their perks and the revolving door opportunities created by boosting profits for defense contractors. They lack the moral courage to serve the people they lead.

“Vandergriff offers creative and rational personnel and leadership solutions that enhance national security. He gives top priority to DoD’s people, ideas, operational creativity, and lastly hardware. Without more people like him in the Pentagon, our national security will continue to be at great peril.”

Posts by Don, providing valuable insights about our mad wars and broken Army.

  1. About the importance of charisma for leaders.
  2. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”
  3. Petraeus’s Baby.
  4. Another example of our nation’s leadership crisis: Tim Geithner’s Ninth Political Life.
  5. Afghanistan war logs: Shattering the illusion of a bloodless victory.
  6. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century.
  7. Leadership in action: when resource constraints meet conspicuous consumption, we just ignore the problem.
  8. A Thanksgiving Day note.
  9. How bad is our bloat of generals? How does it compare with other armies? — The heart of the problem.
  10. How did the US Army’s leadership problem grow so bad?
  11. Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done.

Posts about Don’s work.

  1. 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Vandergriff is one of the few implementing real solutions.
  2. Why Vandergriff’s work is a vital contribution to preparing America for 21st-century warfare
  3. Don Vandergriff strikes sparks that might help reforge the US Army.
  4. Obama can take a bold step to begin reform of the DoD & so end our series of defeats at 4GW – James Fallows proposes putting a reformer – Don – in a key role at DoD.
  5. A step to getting an effective military. We might it need soon. – Why we need to listen to Don.

Here are two excerpts from Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions.

  1. Preface – understanding the problem is the key to finding solutions..
  2. Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force.

For a description of his work and links to his publications see The Essential 4GW reading list: Donald Vandergriff. For an example of his contributions, see this about his Adaptive Leaders Course. Most importantly, see his books at the end of this post.

For More Information

Important – For another perspective on why our military no longer wins wars, see Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our generals, about our officer corps, and about ways to reform the military.

Vandergriff shows that we can reform the US military

Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture
Available at Amazon.

These books by Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) explain how we can do it. It won’t be easy.

He takes this work to the next level in his new book, Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture. It draws on his decades of work with US Army officers and experience in our wars, proposing ways to build better leaders. From the publisher …

“In September 2010, James G. Pierce, a retired U.S. Army colonel with the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, published a study on Army organizational culture. Pierce postulated that “the ability of a professional organization to develop future leaders in a manner that perpetuates readiness to cope with future environmental and internal uncertainty depends on organizational culture.” He found that today’s U.S. Army leadership “may be inadequately prepared to lead the profession toward future success.”

“The need to prepare for future success dovetails with the use of the concepts of mission command. This book offers up a set of recommendations, based on those mission command concepts, for adopting a superior command culture through education and training. Donald E. Vandergriff believes by implementing these recommendations across the Army, that other necessary and long-awaited reforms will take place.”

23 thoughts on “Our army’s bloat of officers is one reason it can’t win wars”

  1. The comments on the milnet boards to yesterday’s and today’s posts have been typical, and show one reason that military reform has proven so difficult despite repeated failed wars: so many of the Army’s people (active and retired) are still in the denial stage. There is no problem. We don’t lose. It’s the politicans’ fault, or the American people’s fault. If only the military had been given more money and time.

    My favorite response: “our wars since Korea have not been “real wars.” (Vietnam was a large war, as such things go; our wars after Korea have been typical of wars since WWII).

    This is like Alcoholics Anonymous. Reform is not possible until the afflicted acknowledges that they have a problem. Worse, AA believes that reform is not possible until the afflicted “hits bottom.” Having lost everything. While that’s obviously false, it is sometimes true. And might be so for the US military.

  2. Pingback: Our army’s bloat of officers is one reason it can’t win wars - Fabius Maximus website | Bible Prophecy In The Daily Headlines

  3. I notice that the German army of 1940 is viewed as “an army that won battles.” Yet, winning the war is something altogether differently. I’d rather be an army that won wars. Thanks for the post. –lost-former Army grunt.

    1. Lost Researchers,

      That’s missing the point, big-time. This is about the skill of armies. Wars are started by national leaders. In the case of WWII, the German military’s leaders strongly opposed starting the war – for what proved to be excellent reasons.

      The German army’s skill was proven by its fantastic successes until the volume of opponents overwhelmed it.

  4. Great article. I call it administrative bloat and mission creep.

    My opinion is the military doesn’t exist to fight wars anymore, it exists to expand its budget, but will fight wars if they have to.

    The same thing has happened in academia. University are adding staff like diversity officers. Aaron Cleary did a post on this. U of MI has something like 10 senior level diversity officers making 6 figures for a program that isn’t needed.

  5. Reminded me of Parkinson’s law:

    “The 2,000 Admiralty officials of 1914 had become the 3,569 of 1928; and that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work. The Navy during that period had diminished, in point of fact, by a third in men and two-thirds in ships. Nor, from 1922 onwards, was its strength even expected to increase, for its total of ships (unlike its total of officials) was limited by the Washington Naval Agreement of that year. Yet in these circumstances we had a 78.45 percent increase in Admiralty officials over a period of fourteen years”;

    The article is pointed and amusing. Well worth reading in its entirety.

    The USA appears to be following in its predecessor world power’s footsteps.

  6. Here again, we have a nonsensical premise based on emotionalism. Korea and Vietnam were not wars but rather mere battles in the Cold War against Communism, which we won. We wisely choose not to try to win them in the way that would please emotional schoolboys who watched too many John Wayne movies, which would mean getting bogged down in forever wars against Chinese troops. Instead, we devastated both countries from the air, demonstrated our resolve, and choose to let Communism fail on its own, as it did. America’s strategic patience is a great strength. The US and its military exist to facilitate business interests on a global scale and not to entertain schoolboys who believe every battle must end like the movie ‘Patton.’

    1. glouconx,

      “Korea and Vietnam were not wars”

      I stopped at that, as it is too stupid to reply to. I suggest looking up the meaning of “war.”

      If you look at the links (you won’t), you’d see a large literature about this by civilian and military experts. The presentation is by Don Vandergriff, probably by the best known military reform expert in the US. Nowhere in this literature will you see anyone say that Korea and Vietnam – both quite large as wars go – were not “wars.”

      1. You stopped because you prefer trivia over looking at the long term strategic view that are wise nations follow. America learned that it didn’t need to fight costly land battles in Asia to its global war against Communism. It wouldn’t have beaten China whether the officer ratio was 1:1 or 1:1000. It wisely became patient, knowing that capitism itself would win the propaganda war.

      2. glouconx,

        “you prefer trivia over looking at the long term strategic view”

        I’m citing actual experts.

        I suggest reading what actual experts say about our military’s inability to win wars. Here is a small sample of this literature, by a wide range of experts (military, academics, etc).

        Enough of your misinformation and ignorance. I’m moderating further comments by you. Anything citing actual information or expert analysis will be posted.

  7. While I totally agree with Don Vandergrif’s analysis, I can’t resist point out that since Korea, the US government has chosen to get the military involved in conflicts where local political skill increasingly trumps (no pun intended) technology and tactical skill. This negates the US military’s remaining large advantages and puts US troops into situations were no amount of military skill can generate anything that a reasonable person might call victory.

    I cannot help but wonder if the US military leadership have noted this (could they have failed to notice?) and wonder what their unvarnished responses are to fix the situation. Just about anything they could suggest would probably sound a lot like mutiny to the people above them who keep putting them in these impossible positions.

    Please let me know if I’m causing problems and I will save my curiosity and speculation for more appropriate times.

    1. Pluto,

      “US government has chosen to get the military involved in conflicts where local political skill increasingly trumps (no pun intended) technology and tactical skill.”

      I don’t believe that is true. Hegemons have dealt with these kinds of wars for eons. They win, and seldom concern themselves with local politics, except after military force has made the other parties willing to negotiate. Look at the Brish history.

      On the other hand, the US military’s conduct of our wars since Korea has displayed remarkable incompetence.

      By now there is a large literature about our inability to win. See samples of it here (with links). As your comment indicates, most Americans are unaware of it. The news media seldom mentions it, filled with rah rah about our latest strategy and gee whiz tech.

    2. B. H. Liddell Hart, famous historian and theorist, made a couple of points in Strategy, second revised edition, London: Faber and Faber, 1954, 1967.

      Two of the most successful organizations, and successful despite loss of men/officers were the Mongols and the Viet Cong.

      USA had a string of victories in war prior to WWII with indigenous peoples, using tactics similar to the Brits. Hart examines the changing moral nature of modern war. Technology plays a large part of success, but similar to Sun Tzu, concludes ascendancy in one area does not guarantee victory.

      1. John,

        That was a prescient observation for 1967, but we’ve learned a lot since then. Much by experience. Since Mao brought 4th generation warfare to maturity after WWII, foreign armies have a near-zero rate of success against local insurgents. As Martin van Creveld explained in 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 this, see A lesson about counterinsurgency that could change America’s future. It describes the 2 kinds of insurgencies. For other posts about 4GW, see the reference page Military: strategic theory & practice.

  8. I find it fascinating that among the German 6th Army’s defeated who were captured at Stalingrad after “Marshall” von Paulus’s surrender, numbering between 95,000 and 100,000 in total, were 24 Generals. TWENTY-FOUR. Even when that army was at peak strength during the battle at around 200,000 men (not including the allied Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian forces), that was a staggering number of Generals for a force of that size.

    This is especially true when considering that the total number of German officers below the rank of General taken captive out of the total number of all captives was only about 6,000. Assuming that, on the conservative side, an equal number had been killed in battle, leaving an original force of about 12,000 non-flag-rank officers for a force of 200,000, that’s an officer corps comprising “only” six percent of the total force.

    One has to wonder if a top-heavy command in the field, and the inevitable bureaucracy that this causes, to say nothing of personality conflicts leading to leadership and command and control issues, wasn’t a serious secondary factor in that army’s defeat.

    1. feeriker,

      The German army’s 24 generals for 200,000 thousand men is 1.2 per 10 thousand. At the end of WWII, the US military had almost 2 generals and flag officers per 10 thousand. As of 2010, the US military had 7 per 10 thousand.

  9. The Man Who Laughs

    I believe David Hackworth pointed out in an article he wrote that got reprinted in one of his books that in Somalia we had one General in the theater for every rifle company deployed. I recall reading a book called Hunting Al Qaeda written by an Army Reserve Special Forces team that was Afghanistan early on, and one thing you picked up on pretty quickly (They didn’t say it explicitly, but it was there) that forward progress stopped as soon as the place was deemed safe enough for a three star General and the circus that traipses around with one. Vandegriff isn’t the first knowledgeable person to write about this, he’s just the latest, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s spot on. Edward N Luttwak has covered this same ground. And for decades, I guess, it has all fallen on deaf ears.

    In Starship Troopers, Heinlein asked the right questions, although even he would probably admit that his answers were pushing a theoretical extreme. But the Mobile Infantry couldn’t afford a luxuriant tail of support troops and staff, and frankly, neither can the US military. But we seem to have one, and we can’t get rid of it. (or haven’t yet)

    In the end, it comes down to whether the military is there primarily to win or to act as an employment bureau for senior officers who have punched the right tickets. I’m reminded of General Sir John Hackett’s remark that “What a society gets from its military is what it asks for, no more and no less. What it asks for tends to be a function of what it is. When a society looks at its fighting forces it is looking in a mirror, and the image it sees reflected back will be a true one.” if this is so, then our overofficered, overmanaged military is a reflection of the society that produced it.

    (The Hackett quote is from memory, it may not be word for word correct.)

  10. An odd observation: as our communication becomes better and faster, we get more governor class rather than less. Not just military officers to organize and “lead” troops, but elected officials. Do we do more ir just talk more, create more PowerPoint presentations? Spend more time or less getting everyone needed or just everyone (CYA) on-board?

    We have an incredible system of careerist leadership. Because appearing to do things or capable of doing things rather than doing things (think corporate worlds, Tesla, the public companies).

    Senators, Congressmen: in the 21st century when the populace is divided into interest groups, do we really need as many as exist? As for mikitary officers, how many do yoy need to plan and organize an operation wirh all the coms we have?

    You always need more officers in peacetime than in war (%) to ramp up operations quickly, but still …

    Reading SEAL stories, I am shocked at how often operations are delayed, late going or cancelled at the last minute. It seems to me that much blame is in too many officers are involved in tweaking and “improving” and approving.

    Leadership by committee: and when did you last see a committee reduce the numbers on it? Or stop everyone on it from having their say until nothing gets done? (IPCC?)

  11. Great post.

    It is the issue of most organisations, managers in Education, Health and so on just writing e-mails and arse covering with nothing productive being done.

    Too many graduates, with admin grad roles, doing nothing productive. It is Marxs ever growing Superstructure living off an ever smaller productive base. My eldest son would say more officers than Corporals, like his work, more admin staff than skilled technical staff and the joke is the production staff and the sales staff that sell the product are treated like the dumb ones by the admin graduate that e-mail arse covering emails all day.

    Not sure how you stop than when 50% go to University.

  12. It’s called Parkinson’s law. A good example was the Royal Navy; In 1945 it had 100,000 seamen and 10,000 bureaucrats. by 1965 when the book came out there were 100,000 in Admiralty House and 10,000 active seamen. It will only have gotten worse.

  13. Pingback: Bankrupt and Irrelevant: the Presidential Debates and Four Recent Studies on Pentagon Spending - CounterPunch.org

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