A path to desperately needed reform of the US military

Summary: the US military has a trillion-dollar budget, 3.2 million employees, and is deeply dysfunctional. Reforming the US military is considered almost impossible by experts. How might reform happen? Who can do it and how – hopefully before we need an effective defense? Here is a solution, or a sketch of one.

“Where there is no will, there is no way.”
— From George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman.

American Soldier with Flag and Bible - Dreamstime-109632626
ID 109632626 © Olena Yakobchuk | Dreamstime.

We have a wealth of ideas for military reform

“Pouring water on a wet rock does not make it wetter.”
— Ancient Eastern wisdom.

Our military is decaying, as are so many American institutions. We have an almost unlimited supply of solutions to the problem. To paraphrase Martin van Creveld, America can bomb any foe into submission by dropping on it all papers, articles, and books about military reform. All for naught.

Liebig’s Law of the Minimum says that growth is limited by the necessary input that is scarcest. A wet plant needing phosphorus is not helped by more water. Similarly, we do not need even more exciting ideas about military reform. We need ideas about ways to implement them, converting them from dreams to fact.

Here are three common beliefs about paths to reform for the US military. We live in ClownWorld, so they are all quite mad.

Solution #1: We need Lone Ranger reformers!

One of the best-known anecdotes about the late great John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) describes how he recruited fellow officers to help reform the military. Robert Coram describes it in Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002). It is told as an upbeat story, but it is either gallows humor or madness

John R. Boyd (Colonel, USAF)

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road. And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.

“Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.

To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

Choose wisely, the red pill or the blue pill.

Boyd didn’t reveal how many took the red pill. I’ll bet few did because most officers are sensible. Perhaps he would have gotten more volunteers for glorious lonely defeat if he had given this speech to samurai.

Even if Boyd occasionally succeeded, a few Lone Rangers can never reform the Department of Defense, with its trillion-dollar budget and 3.2 million people. But Boyd’s idea serves as a marker: we will know that reforms have succeeded when young officers need not make the stark choice Boyd offered between career success and pursuing reform.

Man on a Horse

Solution #2: We need a Leader to ride up and save us!

Many in the military hope for civilian leaders to impose reform on the military. That is possible if we get an Administration willing to commit massive political capital to reforms which, if successful, will benefit only future Administrations.

I cannot remember any past Presidents willing to do so. Presidents always have higher priority political goals and face more urgent crises. For example, the State department broke in the 1950s during the “who lost China” hysteria. Subsequent Presidents improvised alternative arrangements using the military and the National Security Council. So it remains broken today, severely distorting US foreign policy.

The odds are even smaller of Congress rousing itself to originate and press through such a large and complex reform project. The odds are microscopic of civilians outside the government being able to make fundamental changes to our fabulously insular military. Reform must begin from inside the military, finding support from civilians inside and outside the government.

Defeat in boxing

Solution #3: We need a catastrophic defeat to force reform!

Officers, both serving and retired, often say defat is the cure for the military. I find this excuse for passivity quite terrifying. It verges on dereliction of duty: “death for our soldiers before attempting reform.”

The model for this scenario is the Napoleonic Wars. The Little Emperor kicked the Prussians’ asses at Jena-Auerstedt in 1806. Prussia lost half its territory and paid massive tribute to France. In response, a group of senior Prussian officers – including ScharnhorstGneisenauBoyenGrolman and Clausewitz –implemented deep reforms to the army. Subsequent generations built on them, eventually leading to their great victories in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Perhaps America will, like Prussia, suffer a severe miliary defeat that forces the reform of our armed forces. It is the most expensive path to reform. This is a version of the doomster genre popular on both the Left and Right. A cataclysm brings forth a remnant that builds a new and better world. Larry Burkett’s Solar Flare is an extreme example of the genre. He describes an event that kills billions, but brings forth a “better” world. He writes as if that price is acceptable to him. It is not acceptable to me.

Another form of defeatism popular among politically conservative officers is “only the coming economic collapse from debt can save us.” Few know much about economics, so they easily accept right-wing myths that provide such a convenient excuse.

Let’s not take this path to reform.

Blameless Forever!

The long, difficult path to reform.

These “solutions” show the reason we have not had reform in the military, despite the widespread belief by its officers that reforms are desperately needed. In the past, the spirit of our military was “Can Do!” and “No excuses.” The spirit of modern America, civilian and military, is that the problems are “Not my fault” and “Not my job to fix.” Even distinguished and brave officers are infected with these beliefs. Officers often explain their inaction by saying that they can do nothing alone, which is (of course) true – and equally true of combat.

This shows the complexity of people’s psychology, how they balance individual responsibility, institutional loyalty, professional obligations, and patriotism. It shows what beliefs people deploy to avoid unpleasant actions.

The reform of an institution does not begin ex nihilo. It begins when a few like-minded people band together and work together towards a common goal. Reform begins when a few people assume responsibility for the institution. This does not happen today in the US military because most officers have preemptively surrendered, accepting the military as it is – a service that works well for those who make it a career, but has been unable to win wars since WWII (except against microscopic foes).

There are reformers in the military (there are always reformers). But they are just motes now, working individually or in small groups. Too small to be effective.

What is the alternative to reform from Lone Rangers, civilian leaders, or following a disastrous defeat? Let’s look to Western history for ideas. Reform is a team sport. Successful reform movements used collective action, people organizing to pursue shared goals as leaders and followers. The tools they use are simple: networking, mutual support, exchange of ideas, and commitment. These methods have produced great results in the past, and can again.

Samuel Adams and his fellow activists in 1764 Boston reacted to local problems by taking collective action: organizing the first of the Committees of Correspondence. They reached out to like-minded people in other colonies. Eleven colonies had Committees by February 1774. These groups steadily gained experience on a local and then State scale. They formed the nucleus of shadow governments, which later formed the basis of revolutionary governments.

In 1787 William Wilberforce began his crusade in Parliament against slavery in the UK, he drew upon support from groups such as the Quakers’ antislavery societies and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, plus informal groups like the Testonites. Full victory came in 1833.

Benjamin Franklin helped organize America’s first Abolitionist Society at Pennsylvania in 1785. These spread across the nation. Victory came in 1865.

The first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls NY in 1848. The first National Women’s Rights Conventions was held in Worcester, MA in October 1850. The 19th Amendment became law in August 1920 when ratified by the 36th State.

Flash forward to our civil rights movement. Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience in 1955 was a staged event, brilliantly developed into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Greensboro sit-in in 1960 was unorganized, but used a technique developed during the previous 20 years by civil rights groups. The movement was an intelligently run loose alliance of groups such as the NAACPCongress of Racial Equality, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference — plus others formed from the energy released by these early protests, such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

The context is, of course, different for reform movements in the military, but the principles are the same. Networking among like-minded people, proselytizing, and carefully building links with civilian experts and organizations, etc. Slow and low-profile growth are the keys to success. Reform might come from pressure over years from field-grade officers – or over decades from junior officers (some of whom eventually become field-grade officers and generals). They will find support among the public, especially after our two decades of failed wars.

There are a thousand and one ways to do this. Reformers in the military can circulate new ideas and powerful perspectives as levers to gain supporters both inside and among civilian experts. There are even more powerful tools, “nuclear” weapons in DoD politics – to be used carefully. For example, it would be effective to admit the failure of procurement programs such as the F-35 fighter, the Littoral Combat Ship and the quite mad billion-dollar frigate. Most importantly, it is vital to acknowledge the near-total failure since WWII of foreign armies fighting local insurgencies (details here).

Admitting failures is dark knowledge. It is impossible to stop this knowledge circulating once launched. These insights are often irrefutable, and can change the course of nations.

Examples of successful reform programs

The mantra that Motion Is Impossible that large-scale military reform is impossible is the excuse I hear most frequently. That is, of course, false.

Military reform in the US has been impossible since Vietnam since it has not been realistically pursued. The tools exist. There are people willing to try. The missing ingredient is the knowledge about the methodology of organizing and running reform movements.

We can learn from successful military reform programs in history. For example, the Marian reforms to the army of the Roman Republic in 107 BC, the creation of the New Model Army in the English Civil War, the Prussian Army reforms by The Great Elector and Frederick the Great, reforms to the Russian military by Peter the Great, reforms to the Prussian army after defeat by Napoleon, and the reforms to the British army by Prince Albert. None of these models closely fit our needs. All have relevant lessons for us about how to reform our military.

The successful large-scale military reform most similar to our needs was the Cardwell Reforms to the British Army (1868-1874, see Wikipedia). Further reforms were pushed through by Secretary of State for War Hugh Childers in 1881, followed by a third wave of reforms in 1906–1912 by Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane. These created the British Army that fought so well during WWI.

One of the largest successful reform programs to the US military since WWII was the Goldwater–Nichols Act of 1986 – forcing the services to play together on the global battlefield. It mandated structural changes were intended as immediate improvements. It mandated joint service posts in officers’ career paths to give them exposure to other services and encourage joint operations. Its architects hoped that this gradually would change DoD’s culture. It worked well, although not as well as expected by proponents.

G-N shows how effective reform can happen. First, by finding the leverage points in the armed services. That was done by the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management (1985). Reform advocates supported its recommendations, which Congress mandated in 1986. Unfortunately, there was insufficient support within the services for this to achieve its larger goals. It was a good first step, but with no follow-through.

What might successful solutions look like?

Twelve years ago I first wrote about three ways to win modern wars – fourth-generation wars, the kind of wars we have fought since Korea.

  • Solutions of the first kind are new things (i.e., robots, autonomous flying vehicles, software to help us understand and manipulate foreign societies)..
  • Solutions of the second kind are new ideas about tactics and strategy.
  • Solutions of the third kind are new ways to shape our institutions – aka politics — usually by altering how they recruit, train, and promote people.

America’s military has invested much in solutions of the first kind, with little to show for it. There has been some discussion, and less action, on solutions of the second kind. There has been almost no effort in solutions of the third kind. Donald Vandergriff (see below) is one of the few pioneers in this area. Only solutions of the third kind will produce substantial and enduring change.

Road To The Future

Signals of success

Defining their victory conditions is a key step for any movement. Success at military reform might mean winning our wars, mostly counter-insurgencies. It might mean fighting fewer ones. I suggest initially targeting easier performance criteria, and afterwards pursuing larger goals (shooting for a gold medal at the Clausewitz military Olympics).

People who actually know something about the military can devise a more useful list of goals and a map to achieve them. It begins with choice – and the will to act.

Victory Is The Goal

For More Information

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, about ways to reform the military, and especially these about our officer corps …

  1. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders – A horrific insight.
  2. Overhauling The Officer Corps to build a military that can win wars – by David Evans (Lieutenant Colonel, USMC, retired).
  3. Admiral Rickover’s gift to us: showing that we can reform America’s military.
  4. Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done – by Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).
  5. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military – by G. I. Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  6. How the US Army decayed. Does anyone want to fix it? – by Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired).

Essential reading for those who want a better military

See these books by Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired). See his Wikipedia entry. See his posts, all well-worth reading by those who want to better understand our military and our wars.

The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs (2002).

Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War (2006).

Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions (2008).

Coming in September: Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture.

Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War
Available at Amazon.
Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow's Centurions
Available at Amazon.


19 thoughts on “A path to desperately needed reform of the US military”

  1. Very interesting. Personally I’m glad the US military is somewhat incompetent, although it doesn’t seem to matter to the Neocons. For them Chaos is a success. They are happy to sell lots of armaments and equipment. It never matters if these never see action. Let them rot. It’s a pity the oceans insulate the USA from an army of refugees they created. Europe is not so lucky.

    1. John,

      “It’s a pity the oceans insulate the USA from an army of refugees they created. Europe is not so lucky.”

      (1) One of the big sources of “refugees” streaming into Europe is Libya, whose revolution was an EU-led project. The US played a small role in it. Also, many EU nations were enthusiastic supporters of the invasion of Iraq – which helped destabilize the region.

      (2) Many or most of the refugees are moving to seek more stable and prosperous places to live. They’re not “refugees.” Labeling all migrants as that is one of the many great propaganda successes of the Left.

      1. Not sure I agree with Libya being a “small US role”. but certainly it wasn’t all USA. In any event much of the destabilisation of the MENA nations can be sheeted home to the USA. Gadaffi’s demise was a personal result of Clinton’s “We came we saw He died” Libya is more a transit point for refugees, than a source. Whatever their reason they are refugees. They seek refuge and often from the chaos stirred up by the West. Nothing to do with Left ideology, which practically hardly exists any more, Just a few hints here and there.

      2. John,

        “They seek refuge and often from the chaos stirred up by the West”

        What is your evidence that they are not driven by economic motives? Also, a large fraction are from nations with purely internal problems. SE Europe (Albania, Serbia, Kosovo), NE Africa (Gambia to Nigeria), Etria

      3. The USA is known to have interfered in c.200 nations. A lot of those internal problems are due to the way the US structures its interventions [“Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” by John Perkins] The IMF and World bank are arms of US policy and Woe betide any attempt to sidestep the petrodollar. You can find out more detail from Michael Hudson. It’s no secret that ISIS, Daesh, were funded from people in the USA. We are lied to every day , swamping our bullshit detector.

      4. Haven’t you read up on all the crimes the “indispensable nation” gets up to? Chile in ’73 was just one evil event from out of Washington. Today they are hell bent on Regime change in Venezuela. Fortunately that one is resisting. Honduras is a basket case, Iran another, but resistant. Syria managed to survive, thanks to Russia.
        The uSA will not join any international forums it cannot control. They always say that they will never accept a verdict from organisations such as the ICC.
        You mention God, but it’s much more the Devil.

      5. John,

        So I guess everyone will be petitioning Russia to become the hegemon. Or perhaps the Brits (everybody loved the famines they engineered!). Or perhaps to rebuilt the Spanish and Portuguese Empires! My fav would be Belgium. People in the Congo still talk about the good old days when they were treated like slaves!

        I don’t know what is your standard of comparison, but it seems pretty daft. The US is the fairest despot the world has ever seen. To mention just one factor: it is the only one that has a trade deficit – no treasure ships returning with spoils extracted from abroad.

      6. Larry, My standard of comparison doesn’t exclude Belgium or other powers who behaved badly.. The USA got off to a fast start with the Indian wars and graduated to the mess we see today. I think America excels in its use of propaganda.Telling one thing to the people and behaving very differently. Also known as hypocrisy, GradeA. Funny you mention the trade deficit. Deficits are good and surpluses are bad [mostly] The USA gets to use resources and services of exporting nations and in exchange gives them – what? Numbers in accounts,.which it has in abundance. Who benefits? the USA!. Treasure ships are so passė!

  2. Larry: I think you meant trillion-dollar budget. And that’s part of the the problem. We’re throwing money at the military, so why shouldn’t they spend it? And unwisely? We need to downsize the mission and downsize the money as well.

    “Global reach, global power” has led only to global chaos as our budgetary deficits have surged. (Perhaps the only successful “surge” is in our huge deficits.)

    Let’s return to national defense, not open-ended missions in never-ending wars. Sanity, please!

  3. Larry,

    I think you’re neglecting something important here. There have been a number of reform efforts that have gotten off the ground and impacted performance and the military in the past two decades; they just haven’t improved performance at war-fighting. Americans don’t care right now about effective war-fighting.
    -Some Americans care about fighting terrorists in caves
    -Some Americans care about the military reflecting the diversity of the nation
    -Some Americans care about celebrating the military
    -Some Americans care about not celebrating the military
    The handful of Americans that care about war-fighting performance should be horrified. This problem requires courage and not entertainment, so a good question for you is how do you foster courage in an entertained people?


    1. Generals,

      “here have been a number of reform efforts that have gotten off the ground”

      I don’t know what that means. What is a reform effort that “doesn’t get off the ground”?

      “Americans don’t care right now about effective war-fighting.”

      Quite false. I’ve talked to many people “on the street” and often find dissatisfaction with the results of our post-9/11 wars. But people feel – correctly – that they have little influence on internal military matters, and perhaps shouldn’t have.

      “This problem requires courage”

      What does that mean? Courage in whom, about what?

    1. Chad,

      As the father of a Marine, I have some (a little) insight into that problem. These days the USMC has difficulty recruiting the best and brightest. It will only get worse as Special Ops solidifies its rep as the elite soldiers, replacing the USMC.

      1. “Special Ops solidifies it rep as elite soldiers” might be a bit hyperbole there with all of the fraggings


        and unauthorized murders


        and mistakes


        Elite soldiers


        Promises promises

        ““It is incumbent upon our leadership down to the team-room level to intensify our emphasis on [Army special operations forces] values and character,” Lt. Gen. Francis Beaudette wrote. “Service is a privilege, and this privilege is grounded in a culture of accountability and professionalism that extends far beyond program compliance.””

      2. Der Maiden,

        I assume you are kidding, and are aware of that the incidence of such behavior is lower in spec ops than regular troops. Neither group consists of angels.

        And it is lower in active duty and vets than in the civilian population when adjusted for socioeconomic status (ie, the military population differs from the civilian pop in key factors).

  4. I’d go to the field, staff grade officers and senior NCOs and make them the driving force behind reform. Is it realistic? Nope. Too much redundancy in the force. Go to a unified structure and turn it into a giant marine corps with ships. Canada is a good example. Get rid of saluting and other nonsense except for ceremony, the flag, President or someone wearing the CMH. A position centric rank structure vs the current rank centric system.

    As far as budget goes it may take a financial meltdown before real changes come about because we won’t have the money (we don’t now), but this time we really won’t have it. All these illegals coming in are gonna stay and they are gonna vote and they are gonna bleed us dry. We will end up like the UK suffering white man’s burden, bankrupt, and the majority of our tax revenue going to pay for social programs. But that isn’t all bad because it should keep us from doing stupid things.

    I’d make Douglas Macgregor the sec def.

    Sorry. Kind Of convoluted post. Just threw the ideas down swirling in my noggin.

    1. Gute,

      “I’d go to the field, staff grade officers and senior NCOs and make them …”

      When I said we need ideas about how to reform the military, I meant operationally useful ideas. Not “if I were king” solutions.

      “As far as budget goes it may take a financial meltdown before real changes come”

      Thank you, I forgot to add that popular doomster scenario in mad Solution #3. It’s just another form of defeatism.

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