Author Archives: don

About don

Military Historian, author of four books and 60 articles on military affairs, leadership, maneuver warfare, and the generations of war. Currently a day time employee of L-3 Communications in support of Army TRADOC, and on the side I run Maverick leadership

Afghanistan war logs: Shattering the illusion of a bloodless victory

Summary:  Don Vandergriff looks at the significance of the Wikileaks documents about the Af-Pak War, borrowing the title from the Guardian article.

It is not as if the disaster described below, in the Afghan war logs released by Wikileaks to the Guardian, the New York Times , and der Spiegel, was not foreseeable.   For example, my close friend and mentor Chuck Spinney wrote an Op-ed for Defense Week in April 2001 “What Revolution in Military Affairs?”, well before we began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

I also told comrades about the disasters that would await us if we tried to occupy and convert Afghanistan into a democracy (trillions and years later, still no progress), and later when we invaded Iraq (and I describe in my 2002 book Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs (Presidio Press)) regarding the failure of occupations by foreign armies. I prescribe to the doctrine of 3-3-3, described by William S. Lind in “An Operational Doctrine for Intervention“, Parameters, Summer 1995.

And I was hardly alone or invisible.  Readers familiar with the work of reformers Colonel John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, Colonel James Burton, Colonel Mike Wylie, Colonel GI Wilson, Colonel Bob Dilger, Bill Lind and Tom Christie, among others, will know that they have been highly visible canaries in the high-tech coal mine since the late 1960s.  For those unfamiliar with their critical analyses, I refer you to  James Fallows’ National Defense (Random House 1981), and Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Little Brown, 2002), or The Winds of Reform, Time (7 March 1983).

The Wikileaks about the Af-Pak War

Continue reading

Another example of our nation’s leadership crisis: Tim Geithner’s Ninth Political Life

Summary:  To prosper — perhaps even to survive — the 21st century we must have adequate leadership.  In this post by Don Vandergriff, we look at our leaders, both as a class and one in particular.  It’s not a pretty picture.

My post a couple of months ago about William Deresiewcz’s fantastic article fits here:  “Solitude and Leadership“, The American Scholar, Spring 2010 — “If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.”  Excerpt, about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

Note the adjectives: commonplace, ordinary, usual, common. There is nothing distinguished about this person. About the 10th time I read that passage, I realized it was a perfect description of the kind of person who tends to prosper in the bureaucratic environment. And the only reason I did is because it suddenly struck me that it was a perfect description of the head of the bureaucracy that I was part of, the chairman of my academic department — who had that exact same smile, like a shark, and that exact same ability to make you uneasy, like you were doing something wrong, only she wasn’t ever going to tell you what.

Like the manager — and I’m sorry to say this, but like so many people you will meet as you negotiate the bureaucracy of the Army or for that matter of whatever institution you end up giving your talents to after the Army, whether it’s Microsoft or the World Bank or whatever—the head of my department had no genius for organizing or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going, and beyond that, as Marlow says, her position had come to her — why?

That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things — the leaders — are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.

We are in a leadership crisis in this country.  As shown by “Tim Geithner’s Ninth Political Life“, Simon Johnson, The Baseline Scenario,15  July 2010 — Excerpt:

Continue reading

Petraeus’s Baby

Summary:  Even the war’s supporters paint a gloomy picture of the current situation.  Post by Don Vandergriff. 

Obama’s presidency is now being defined by four intractable problems:

  1. Persistent High Unemployment due to the intractable Great Recession
  2. a Financial Giveaway that protected rich Wall Street bankers at the expense of the masses who are suffering economically from the Great Recession the bankers triggered
  3. A BP Environmental Disaster that reveals the feckless incompetence of the Federal Gov’t — i.e., Obama’s Katrina Moment
  4. His enthusiastic embrace and expansion of the Afghan War into the AFPAK Quagmire.

Ahmed Rashid, one of the most knowledgeable observers of the AFPAK scene (and, ironically, a proponent of the AFPAK intervention) paints a thoroughly depressing picture the nature of the AFPAK quagmire in the attached blog carried by the New York Review of Books:  “Petraeus’s Baby“,  Ahmed Rashid, 14 July 2010 — Opening:

The surprising and speedy crash of General Stanley McCrystal has been seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the wider region as just one more sign of the mess that the US and its NATO allies face in what is looking increasingly like an unwinnable conflict.

The Afghan Taliban are describing the general’s sacking as a military victory—coming as it does at the height of their summer offensive; the most hurtful rumor going around Kabul and Islamabad is that McChrystal wanted to be removed because he didn’t want to have to take responsibility for a losing war. The Taliban claimed another victory when Britain announced a week later that its troops would withdraw from Sangin, a remote and ever more deadly region of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan—although they will be replaced by US marines. Out of a deployment of 9,000 troops, Britain has lost 312 soldiers in Helmand since 2005—of which some 100 have been killed in Sangin alone.

All of which has heightened anxieties that the US commitment to Afghanistan is rapidly flagging. In Kabul, there is a sense of growing panic about President Obama’s looming deadline for the start of a US withdrawal — now less than a year away. Pakistan, meanwhile, is contending with the increasingly real possibility of a gradual meltdown of its own, with the army and the political elite unable to challenge the rising power of the Pakistani Taliban or protect the civilian population. …

FM note

For Ahmed Rashid’s view of the Af-Pak war one year ago see Pakistan on the BrinkThe New York Review of Books, 11 June 2009.  Many of his assertions were contradicted by other experts on the subject.

Afterword and contact info

Continue reading

Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force

Summary:  This is the fifth in a series of articles about Donald Vandergriff, explaining why changing the Army’s methods of recruiting, training, motivating, and retaining people are the key structural changes to make it better fitted for warfare in the 21st century.


Today we have an excerpt from Don Vandergriff’s book Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions (2008).  He describes the problem, then gives solutions — some of which he and others have pushed into motion.  Posted here with permission of the author.

Chapter six:  Training (and Educating) Tomorrow’s Soldiers and Leaders

There is no standardized entry test for U.S. Army commissioning.

  • 10%-15% of officer cadets come through the United States Military Academy at West Point. Here, academic excellence takes priority over military proficiency and many of the places are allocated on the basis of Congressional patronage.
  • Most of the rest of cadets (future officers) join through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) located at 270 schools throughout the US and its territories.
  • A small, but growing, percentage comes through the 16-week Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA. This course has been frequented more by former noncommissioned officers (NCOs) than by those who have met the minimum entrance standard with a degree and only basic training prior to attending, which is good for the Army if those former NCOs are not tied to the old way of doing things.  (See “OCS expanding to turn out more officers“, Army Logistics News, Nov-Dec 2000)

The standards across these three entrance pathways are mixed, the newly established Basic Officer Leaders Course (BOLC) II at Forts Sill and Benning aims to level the playing field. As will be discussed later in this chapter, BOLC II is also employing a new learning and development approach for these new officers, but at six weeks, remains short of what many consider necessary for young officers to be prepared for 4GW.  (See “Basic Officer Leadership Course Gets Green Light“, Army News Service, 25 February 205)

There are few training opportunities at battalion and company level.

  • All individual and most squad-level training is directed by NCOs, to standards set by the Sergeant Majors and NCO academies, which have a chain of command almost independent of the officer corps.
  • Young officers are principally responsible only for the moral component of the troops under their command. Their involvement in training is limited to authorizing exercise and safety standards, not for the conduct or the standard of the training itself, which are mainly the purview of the NCOs.
  • This tends to produce repetitive, unimaginative, and risk-averse training, heavily tied to formatted training objectives, as well as further limiting opportunities for company officers to develop their own training and leadership skills.

There is no tradition of unit or subunit organized Tactical Exercise without Troops or adventure training, both of which encourage junior leaders to develop self-confidence and independence of judgment.   (This comes with discussions with 47 junior and middle grade officers from June 2005 to December 2007 who talk about more centralization of training management, as well as the pressure on field grades to do everything right when they are in their critical branch qualifying jobs as majors.)

Continue reading

Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions

Summary:  This is the fourth in a series of articles about Donald Vandergriff, explaining why changing the Army’s methods of recruiting, training, motivating, and retaining people are the key structural changes to make it better fitted for warfare in the 21st century.


Today’s we have a excerpt from the Preface to Don Vandergriff’s book Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions (2008).  Posted here with permission of the author.

“People, ideas and hardware, in that order!”
— John Boyd (Colonel, USAF, 1927-1997), “A Discourse on Winning and Losing”, unpublished briefing,  August 1987, p. 5-7.


Like the United States today, Rome faced multiple challenges in 107 B.C., and was hard pressed to field adequate forces; the number of men who were qualified to serve, who could equip themselves was running out. The Jurgurthine War in North Africa had been going on far too long for the liking of the Roman Senate, a task that counsul (general) Gaius Marius took upon himself to resolve. German tribes had already defeated several Roman armies and threatened Gaul (southern France) as well as Italy.

Marius was a man of vision and acted upon the need to secure Roman provinces with the resources at hand. He did not have a technological revolution at his disposal to solve his strategic problem.  Marius turned to an intangible solution, the way the Roman Army was manned, structured and fought its legions as the solution.

The first thing he did was address how the legions were manned (later referred to in this book as recruiting, trained and retained), and he admitted men of the lower classes.

  • They were recruited to serve long term obligations as much as twenty years or more.
  • Then, they were trained, armed, fed, housed, paid and offered the opportunity of spoils of war.
  • More importantly, for reasons of retention, they were given a pension for those who survived the long years of arduous service.

Given the alternatives these men faced, this was the best they could expect from life. Yet, an even larger personnel change was the ability to promote men from the ranks, who through performance in combat, into leadership positions leading others throughout the legion. Through these unprecedented actions, Marius gave Rome what was needed most, a professional army that would expand its borders and provide internal security for centuries to come.  (or more about this see the Roman Army page at The Illustrated Roman Empire website)

Continue reading