A path to desperately needed reform of the US military

by Fabius Maximus

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 ScharnhorstGneisenauBoyenGrolmanand 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.