The rise and fall and maybe rise of military reform

Two insiders of the “military reform movement” of the 1970s and ’80s have written what amounts to a tell-all: Who was in the movement, who supported it, and who claimed to support it but in the end betrayed it. The military reform movement, for those unfamiliar with the term, was a bi-partisan effort to try to get the Pentagon to buy weapon systems that worked, adopt doctrines that had proven to win, and create personnel and training programs to support the new doctrines, weapons, and tactics. All of these were opposed by the senior leadership of the Pentagon, with few exceptions, and after an initial wave of enthusiasm, by the key leaders of Congress.

Cover of Military ReformAnybody who wonders how and why large organizations successfully resist changes that would make them more effective should read the book, Military Reform, by Winslow Wheeler and Lawrence Korb. It’s not just the Pentagon. American business also suffers from this malaise: The Big 3 automakers, most of the airline industry, Sears, A&P (remember them?), the list goes on. Eventually, though, the immutable laws of economics and other forms of conflict catch up, and we witness the giants of industry overcome by poorly financed start-ups, and our largely non-reformed military struggling against rag-tag cells and militias.

I know practically all of the people mentioned in this book, at least the “good guys” who struggled for reform (Wheeler and Korb try to be objective, but …), and their portraits are both sympathetic and accurate.

It is always darkest before the dawn, and perhaps we are seeing in the Army and Marine Corps the first glimmerings of a new day on the horizon. Retired Army Major Don Vandergriff, for example, is having considerable success in helping the Army think through how to develop officers for 21st century conflict–much more success than he ever had while on active duty. Similarly, retired colonels Mike Wyly (USMC) and Doug Macgregor (Army) have become legendary names to many in their services.

There is also hope in such developments as the new emphasis on counterinsurgency theory. I personally don’t think that C/I is the solution to anything other than insurgency, not a way to suppress the natural desire of people to resist occupation. The officers trying to construct a new C/I doctrine, however, seem to realize that so much of what the military is doing today–that is, the legacy of those who defeated the first round of reformers–simply does not apply to the world the way it is. And that is the first requirement for reform.

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