Don Vandergriff: Personnel Reform and Military Effectiveness

Ethics, Military
Don Vandergriff

The following piece was first published in August 2015 by POGO’s Center for Defense Information.

Warfare is first and foremost a human endeavor. Wars are fought by people using their minds; weapons are only tools to implement people’s ideas. It is people, and the ideas they wield, that make the difference between a sharp, decisive victory like Desert Storm and a slow, deadly slog like World War I. Fostering the right ideas requires a culture of Mission Command. But in today’s military, harmful personnel practices preclude such a culture.

Mission Command defines how a military organization approaches leadership in combat. The U.S. Army, for instance, defines it as “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of Unified Land Operations.”1 Mission-type orders simply means that a commander tells subordinate commanders what needs to be done, leaving it up to the subordinate to figure out how to do it. This gives the on-scene commander, who has the best understanding of the battlefield situation, wide latitude to design an operation. It also requires disciplined initiative on the part of adaptive leaders.

The opposite concept is the Methodical Battle, which calls for detailed orders with step-by-step instructions. The French developed that system and it was adopted by the United States in World War I. While no longer the official doctrine in the U.S. military, methodical battle practices continue. Units still issue long, detailed orders replete with execution checklists and synchronization matrices. Doing so is an attempt to reduce warfare to a science, when in reality it is an art. Unless the military is led by people who have mastered that art, we are likely to continue to see the tactics the United States employs further divorced from strategy. Think Iraq and Afghanistan.

Officers persist in using methodical battle practices for several reasons. First, it is simply part of the American military tradition. Second, most officers fear appearing to not be in complete control at all times. Third, and most importantly, most officers are unwilling to trust their subordinates to use their own on-scene judgement and risk anything going wrong.

But to be truly effective, trust of this kind must be ingrained in the corporate culture of the military. A higher commander should rarely, if ever, reproach a subordinate for demonstrating initiative. From their first day in the service, officers should be taught it is better to make a good decision immediately than to wait and make a better decision later, possibly missing a fleeting battlefield opportunity. An unforgivable mistake in Mission Command is inaction and waiting for perfect information.

What is needed is an officer corps filled with people who thrive in an environment in which great responsibility is suddenly thrust upon them. Rather than taking the safe route and waiting for orders, such people eagerly make decisions based on their commander’s stated intent. The Germans have a great word, Verantwortungs-freudigkeit, or joy in taking responsibility, to describe this
essential leadership quality.

Mission Command represents the highest form of the military art. It should be included in all education and training from the beginning of basic training. Even more importantly, it must be integrated into everything the military does, from so-called “garrison” life to the way the services retain and promote personnel. The cultural characteristic underpinning the entire system is trust. Trust must flow freely up and down the chain of command.

A personnel system capable of developing that level of trust is decentralized in all aspects. Senior leaders will focus only on retaining quality individuals, even at the risk of being understaffed. Currently, anonymous centralized promotion boards select who is to be promoted based on scant information in personnel files. This hardly paints a complete picture of an individual’s worth. Only those with intimate knowledge of the individuals are capable of making decisions of that nature. Achieving the level of trust necessary to allow commanders to make such decisions would have enormous benefits on the battlefield as well.

The disastrous experience in Vietnam prompted some within the defense establishment to reevaluate the way U.S. forces should fight. American military leaders recognized that the single-enemy focus of linear state-versus-state warfare would not be relevant in a non-state warfare world.2 Transformation to a more deployable, adaptive, and agile force began. Information dominance across the tactical and operational levels, enabled by technology, shaped the basic assumptions about how the United States would fight.

Enter Manœuvre Warfare, the doctrine adopted by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in the 1980s. As defined in the Marine Corps’ capstone doctrinal publication, Manœuvre Warfare “is a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.”3 The adoption of Manœuvre Warfare as the official doctrine signaled an attempt to shift away from what has come to be known as the “American Way of War”—a way that resulted in the kind of attrition battles characteristic of World War I. American forces have traditionally sought to physically destroy her enemies through sheer industrial might and numbers in head-on clashes, but with Manœuvre, the U.S. would defeat her enemies by rendering their forces ineffective through an indirect approach. An ideal Manœuvre campaign would see the enemy defeated without a battle. Yet the full potential of this doctrine has not been realized because the underlying culture of the military has not changed.

The models for designing, testing, and evaluating new concepts remain tied to mathematical and linear threat models used by General William DePuy, the first commander of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, to justify force development funding in the 1970s. This model requires definitive assumptions about how the military would fight that could be rationalized mathematically on the linear battlefield.4 These further dictate a training philosophy of precisely mapped out exercises that require little creativity on the part of those responsible for carrying them out. This is the task/condition/standards method of training familiar to all service members for the past 50 years.5

Even though the nature of military conflicts was changing, the assumptions about threat models used to create change were not. After 30 years and a decisive victory in Desert Storm, the military could not question those models without calling into question massive defense budgets required to fund a force with the size, composition, and capabilities desired by so many in the defense establishment. The evolving face of war—including non-state groups becoming more powerful, combined with technological advances on which the DoD was spending development funds—led many to conclude that the military would be able to “do more with less” training and education. Complicating all of this is the delusion that the United States will always be able to prevail with better military technology.

The military’s inability to reconcile the desire to operate in an efficient, businesslike manner with a world in which the objectives cannot be defined quantitatively persists. The DoD had firmly attached itself to a force development model in which doctrine is not “how we will fight” the nation’s wars, but “how we will justify acquiring and managing resources” on a macro-level. Doctrine no longer defines the force in terms of size and equipment, because the extensive bureaucratic systems built in the post-World War II world now holds doctrine captive to process. Doctrine became overly dogmatic, which defeated the entire concept!6

Conflicts of the last twenty years—such as our experiences against non-state actors in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo—have rendered much about the military’s traditional approaches to operating and training obsolete. Yet, the military persists in using training methods no longer suited to the current environment. Leaders raised under that philosophy chose not to question it. Tactical problems are viewed as either the failure of subordinates to understand doctrine, failure to develop detailed standard operating procedures, or political failures resulting in the improper use of military forces. They are certainly not seen as being indicative of a need to critically examine Army assumptions and traditions.7 Further this meant exhibiting professional behavior that had become increasingly less desirable by a military still celebrating the leaders and successes of Desert Storm.8

Another event, unrelated to warfighting, helped entrench organizational conservatism in the military. In the 1980s, internal military debates about how to fight and how to train that had accompanied evolving doctrine were supported indirectly by robust resources.9 But the dramatic drawdown and resource crises of the 1990s slowed and almost stopped doctrinal innovation. That drawdown shrank the Army by half and the other services to lesser degrees. This had the effect of instilling strong professional conservatism and group-think. The drawdowns also made it easier for the old guard to purge the ranks of those who questioned their way of doing business.

That the defense establishment is biased towards designing and building expensive weapons systems is an idea generally only challenged by those whose living is made through such means. So, when budgets conflicts arise, military personnel and training suffer long before any weapons program is cut. This should not be taken as a blanket call for perpetually high defense budgets, but rather for better prioritization by those involved in making decisions about national security. The priorities should always be people, ideas, and hardware, in that order. When defense dollars are limited, decision-makers should first consider spending cuts on weapons programs, not in personnel or training.

Training became increasingly centralized as commanders attempted to husband resources. Junior leaders were not allowed to squander limited resources learning their craft. Instead, most were taught “what right looks like” by their seniors, because there was too much risk in allowing junior officers and NCOs to develop professionally the same way their seniors did. Innovative free-play training methods were considered inappropriate for conventional forces. Junior leaders emulated the behaviors of their seniors, centralizing and directing the “task/condition/standards” method, and held strict adherence to accepted practices as an essential measure of leader competence.

In the Army and Marine Corps, achieving combat effectiveness through training ceased being the primary measure of leader competency. Careful stewardship of resources, and the satisfactory completion of resourced events, took precedence over the actual effectiveness of training. Training itself changed from experiential training (proficiency gained through realistic experiences) to event-driven training, following strategies determined by the service’s training commands.10

Central control of training determined the approved methods and allocated resources and external “trainers” for unit commanders. The Army’s Combat Training Centers (CTCs) changed from an environment in which leaders trained their units to fight to a place where outsiders told leaders to follow approved scripted events. The same occurred at the Marine Corps’ Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, CA. Leaders who survived the drawdown ended up following doctrinal
methods precisely and evaluating others by how well they followed the same methods.11

The Army Chief of Staff attempted to institute changes to both doctrine and training methods in 2003 not only to help win in Iraq and Afghanistan but also to prepare for future wars. But leaders found they were hamstrung by a generation of subordinate leaders in the institutional Army who survived and thrived by not changing any systems unless they were first given the approved answer. Army leaders—officers and NCOs—became victims of goal displacement. Faced with uncertainty and ambiguity, they transformed what their cultural experience told them they could do (and could not do) into what they believed they should do. It only became worse when the broader organizational and senior leader culture did the same. Many would simply check a box complete on a list of training events and claim their units had to be combat effective because they had followed all the steps
directed by a central authority.12

As a result, young leaders and soldiers are not forced to work things out for themselves or to learn to be individually responsible. Not understanding why tasks are performed a certain way, they often fail to adapt properly to changed circumstances. Fortunately, thousands of leaders at the officer, NCO, and retired levels have recognized the downfalls of today’s training and education doctrine and are moving from the bottom up to fix it, better preparing tomorrow’s military for the changing face of war.13

This is why personnel reform is so important. Without changing the way the military retains and promotes people, it will continue to produce the kind of career-minded officers who would never dare to question an order or take a risk, either on the training field or the battlefield. Those officers better able to navigate the bureaucracy and keep their bosses happy will be the ones who get promoted, while the innovators and mavericks leave in frustration or are forced out of the service.

Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno and Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey have endorsed a belief in Mission Command and Leader Development as their top priorities. To achieve these goals, their successors General Mark Milley and General Joseph Dunford must also boldly fight the personnel bureaucrats to achieve the necessary regulation reforms and work with Congress to change laws such as 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act to ensure the United States will develop the leaders necessary to win long into the future.

Major Donald Vandergriff (U.S. Army, Ret.) served for 24 years of active duty as an enlisted Marine and an Army officer. He has authored four and co-written five books, including Raising the Bar and Manning the Future Legions of the United States. Vandergriff serves on CDI’s Military Advisory Board.

Dan Grazier is the Jack Shanahan Fellow for POGO’s Center for Defense Information. He is a former Marine captain, having served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.


1. U.S. Army, Maneuver Self Study Program, “Mission Command.”
2. William S. Lind, “Understanding 4th Generation War,”
3. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting (MCDP1), Washington, DC: HQMC, June 20, 1997, p. 73.
4. John C. Tillson, Merle L. Roberson, and Stanley A. Horowitz, Alternative Approaches to Organizing, Training and Assessing Army and Marine Corps Units, Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analysis, November 1992, pg 23.
5. General Paul F. Gorman, The Secret of Future Victories, Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, June 18, 1979, pp. 56-57.
6. Robert A. Doughty, “The Evolution of U.S. Army Tactical Doctrine, 1946-1976,”
Leavenworth Papers 1, Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, August 1979.
7. Richard Gabriel and Paul L. Savage, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, New York: Hill and Wang, 1979. p. 58.
8. Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany Between the World Wars, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.
9. Robert W. Komer, “Strategy and Military Reform,” Defense Reform Debate, ed. Asa A. Clark IV and others, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, p. 14 (in footnote 1).
10. James G. Pierce, Is the Organizational Culture of the U.S. Army Congruent with the Professional Development of its Senior Level Officer Corps?, Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2010, p. iii.
11. Major Paul H. Herbert, “Deciding What Has to Be Done: General DePuy and the Creation of FM 100-5, Operations,” p. 23.
12. General Peter Schoomaker, “The Future of the United States Army.” Remarks given at the American Enterprise Symposium, “The Future of the United States Army,” April 11, 2005.
13. William M. Darwin, “Adaptability Learning Symposium,” Asymmetric Warfare Group, Fort Meade, VA: AWG, December 11, 2007, slide 3.


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