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In Praise of Don Vandergriff for the “Next Yoda” at ONA

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Don Vandergriff

Friend of ZP blog and expert on adaptive leadership training Don Vandergriff has thrown his hat into the ring to replace the much admired, should not have been retired, Andrew Marshall,  the long time (appointed originally by Richard Nixon) head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, affectionately known in DC circles as “Yoda”. Given the military’s badly broken personnel system and dire problem with “toxic leaders” and Vandergriff’s adamant philosophical emphasis upon ethical integrity, strategic thinking and honest intellectual inquiry, he would be a breath of fresh air and catalyst for change.

James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly gave Don a ringing endorsement:

Want to signal a change? My candidate, until someone has a better idea, is Donald Vandergriff, who has in fact applied for the job.

Vandergriff spent 24 years on active duty an enlisted member of the Marine Corps and an Army officer. When he retired ten years ago as a major, a relatively junior rank, he exemplified the tensions between an independent-thinking, irrepressible, let’s-rock-the-boat reformer and the “don’t make waves” normal promotion machine.

Because of his writings and advocacy, near the end of his active-duty tenure Vandergriff was described as “the most influential major in the U.S. Army.” I did an Atlantic-online discussion with him and Robert Coram, author of a popular biography of the late Air Force colonel John Boyd, a dozen years ago. He has written many well-received books about working fundamental change in the training and promotion of officers, including The Path to Victory; Spirit, Blood, and Treasure; and Raising the Bar. If you want an illustration of someone willing to take (and suffer) career risks in the cause of telling unpleasant but important organizational truths, he would be your man.

Yes he would.

Fabius Maximus blog weighs in as well:

….Donald Vandergriff (one of the authors on the FM website) has identified a powerful point of leverage to change our massive and dysfunctional military apparatus:  its personnel system, the process by which the Army recruits, trains, and promotes its officers. Change this and the effects ripple outward through the entire organization over time as the nature and behavior of its leaders evolve. The Army has begun the long slow evolution of its personnel policies, responding to the ideas of Vandergriff and others.

This success puts Vandergriff on the cutting edge of America’s sword. He, and others like him, are crafting a solution of the third kind (about people) to defeat our foes at 4GW.  We can win at 4GW. We must learn to do so, or the 21st century will be a harsh time for America.

There are many strategic and operational issues that the U.S. military and NatSec community would prefer to ignore because they do not play to our areas of strength where the United States enjoys overwhelming dominance relative to the rest of the world. Well, these problem areas will only grow in scope and importance because they are the points where our adversaries see hope of gaining leverage and comparative advantage over us. I am almost tempted to say “Duh” here because enemies hitting your weak points instead of running headlong into our strong points and being killed en mass is strategy 101, but strategy is less popular in some quarters these days than it should be. Don Vandergriff is the sort of man to highlight deficiencies so they can be remediated and, eventually, become new strengths.

Don Vandergriff….strongest recommendation.

Is 4GW Dead?: Point-Counterpoint and Commentary

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

4GW theory has always attracted overenthusiasts and  raging haters ever since the concept emerged way back in 1989, so debates about the merit of 4GW are nothing new; in fact, the arguments became so routine that they had largely gone sterile years ago.  After T.X. Hammes published his excellent  The Sling and the Stone and John Robb  went to the next level with Brave New War , it seemed that  little new was left to be said. In the late 2000’s, intellectual energies shifted to arguing the nuances and flaws of Pop-centric COINwhich proved in time to be even more bitter than those about 4GW.

Generations of War Theory Visualized by Chet Richards

What is different recently is that the person taking the affirmative on the question “Is 4GW dead?” was Dr. Chet Richards, who for years ran the premier but now defunct 4GW site, D-N-I.net, now archived here by the Project on Government Oversight.  Richards is no Clausewitzian true-believer or Big Army MBA with stars, but a former collaborator with John Boyd and a leading thinker of the 4GW school who had written several books with that strategic theme.

Therefore, not a critic to be dismissed lightly. Here’s Chet:

Is 4GW Dead? 

….The first thing to note is that 4GW is an evolution from 3GW, which they equate to maneuver warfare and the blitzkrieg as defined in MCDP 1 and Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict. These are styles of warfare conducted by state armies against other state armies, although the paper does invoke the notion of transnational terrorists near the end.

At some point in the late 1990s, the theory bifurcated. Bill Lind and Martin van Creveld began to emphasize the decline of the state and focus on transnational guerrilla organizations like al-Qa’ida. Tom Barnett called this the “road warrior” model. T. X. Hammes, on the other hand, characterized 4GW as “evolved insurgency” and envisioned the techniques described in the paragraphs above as also useful for state-vs-state conflicts.

….The 9/11 attacks, by a transnational guerrilla movement, seemed to confirm 4GW in both of its forms. In the last few years, however, everything has gone quiet. Transnational insurgencies, “global guerrillas” as John Robb terms them, have not become a significant factor in geopolitics. “Continuing irritation” might best describe them, whose primary function seems to be upholding national security budgets in frightened western democracies. The state system has not noticeably weakened. So it might be fair at this point to conclude that although 4GW was a legitimate theory, well supported by logic and data, the world simply didn’t develop along the lines it proposed.

A prominent critic of 4GW, Antulio J. Echevarria, may have been correct:

What we are really seeing in the war on terror, and the campaign in Iraq and elsewhere, is that the increased “dispersion and democratization of technology, information, and finance” brought about by globalization has given terrorist groups greater mobility and access worldwide. At this point, globalization seems to aid the nonstate actor more than the state, but states still play a central role in the support or defeat of terrorist groups or insurgencies.

Why? I’ll offer this hypothesis, that the primary reason warfare did not evolve a fourth generation is that it didn’t live long enough. The opening of Sir Rupert Smith’s 2005 treatise, The Utility of Force, states the case….

Chet’s post spurred a sharp rebuttal from William Lind, “the Father of Fourth Generation Warfare”:

4GW is Alive and Well 

So “the world simply didn’t develop along the lines it (4GW) proposed”? How do you say that in Syriac?

The basic error in Chet Richards’ piece of April 19, “Is 4GW dead?” is confusing the external and internal worlds. Internally, in the U.S. military and the larger defense and foreign policy establishment, 4GW is dead, as is maneuver warfare and increasingly any connection to the external world. The foreign policy types can only perceive a world of states, in which their job is to promote the Wilsonian nee Jacobin, follies of “democracy” and “universal human rights.” They are in fact, 4GW’s allies, in that their demand for “democracy” undermines states, opening the door for more 4GW.

In most of the world, democracy is not an option. The only real options are tyranny or anarchy, and when you work against tyranny, you are working for anarchy. The ghost of bin Laden sends his heartfelt thanks.

Third Generation doctrine has been abandoned, de facto, if not de jure, by the one service that embraced it, the U.S. Marine Corps. The others never gave it a glance. The U.S. military remains and will remain second generation until it disappears from sheer irrelevance coupled with high cost. That is coming much sooner than any of them think.

….In many of these cases, including Egypt and Pakistan, the only element strong enough to hold the state together is the army. But the “democracy” crowd in Washington immediately threatens aid cut-offs, sanctions, etc., if the army acts. Again, the children now running America’s foreign policy are 4GW’s best allies.

Fourth generation war includes far more than just Islamic “terrorism,” and we see it gaining strength in areas far from the Middle East. Gangs have grown so powerful in Mexico, right on our border, that I predict the state will soon have to make deals with them, as the PRI has done in the past. Invasion by immigrants who do not acculturate is a powerful form of 4GW, more powerful than any terrorism, and that is occurring on a north-south basis (except Australia) literally around the world. Remember, most of the barbarians did not invade the Roman Empire to destroy it. They just wanted to move in. In fact, most were invited in. Sound familiar?

What should concern us most is precisely the disconnect between the internal and external worlds. Externally, 4GW is flourishing, while internally, in the US government and military, it does not exist. This is the kind of chasm into which empires can disappear….

Fabius Maximus – who is a both a pseudonymous blogger and a group blog, also responded:

Update about one of the seldom-discussed trends shaping our world: 4GW 

One of the interesting aspects of recent history is the coincidence of

  1. the collapse of discussion about 4GW in US military and geopolitical circles,
  2. victories by insurgents using 4GW methods over foreign armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, &
  3. most important, the perhaps history-making victory by Bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

The second point is important to us, but the usual outcome since WW2 (after which 4GW became the dominate form of military conflict; see section C below).  The third point is the big one. Based on the available information, one of Bin Laden’s goals was to destabilize the US political regime. Massive increase in military spending (using borrowed funds). The bill of rights being shredded (note yesterday’s House vote to tear another strip from the 4th amendment). Our Courts holding show trials of terrorists — recruited, financed, supported by our security services. Torture and concentration camps.

….We — the Second American Republic — have engaged in a war with nationalistic, Islamic forces using 4GW.  So far we are losing.  For various reasons we are unable to even perceive the nature of the threat. In DoD the hot dot is again procurement of high-tech weapons — new ships, the F-35, the hypersonic cruise missile, etc.  All useless in the wars we’ve fought for the past 50 years, and probably in those of the next 50 years….. 

A few comments.

4GW has been heavily criticized – and accurately so – for making selective use of history, for unsupported maximal claims, for an excessively and ahistorically linear argument and for shifting or vaguely defined terms. Presented rigidly, it is relatively easy for critics to poke holes in it simply by playing “gotcha” (some of the criticism of 4GW did not get beyond ad hominem level garbage, but more intellectually serious detractors made very effective critiques of 4GW’s flaws).

That said, there were a number of useful elements or insights in the body of 4GW writings that retain their utility and I think are worth recalling:

  • Whatever one thinks of 4GW as a whole, the school drew attention to the threat of non-state irregular warfare, failed states and the decline of state vs. state warfare and did so long before it was Pentagon conventional wisdom or trendy Beltway talking head spiels on Sunday morning news programs.
  • While the state is not in decline everywhere in an absolute sense, it sure is failing in some places and has utterly collapsed elsewhere. Failed, failing and hollowed out states are nexus points for geopolitical problems and feature corruption, black globalization, insurgency, tribalism, terrorism, transnational criminal organizations and zones of humanitarian crisis. Whether we call these situations “irregular”, “hybrid”, “decentralized and polycentric”, “LIC”, “4GW” or everyone’s favorite, “complex” matters less than using force to achieve political aims becomes increasingly difficult as the interested parties and observers multiply. Some of the advice offered by the 4GW school regarding “the moral level of war”, de-escalation and the perils of fighting the weak in such a conflict environment are all to the good for reducing friction.
  • The emphasis of the 4GW school on the perspective of the irregular fighter and their motivations not always fitting neatly within state-centric realpolitik, Galula-ish “Maoist Model” insurgency, Clausewitzian best strategic practice or the Western intellectual tradition, were likewise ahead of their time and contrary to S.O.P. Even today, the effort to see the world through the eyes of our enemies is at best, anemic. Red teams are feared more than they are loved. Or utilized.
  • The bitter criticism the 4GW school lodged of the American political elite being allergic to strategic thinking and ignorant of strategy in general was apt; that American strategy since the end of the Cold War has been exceedingly inept in thought and execution is one of the few points on which the most rabid 4GW advocate and diehard Clausewitzian can find themselves in full agreement.

The lessons of 4GW will still be relevant wherever men fight in the rubble of broken societies, atomized communities and failed states.

Fabius Maximus on Sumida on Clausewitz

Saturday, June 16th, 2012

Fabius Maximus has a nice round-up on an important book – Decoding Clausewitz by Jon Sumida  

Is Clausewitz Still Relevant? 

1)  Review from the Marine Corps Gazette

Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War
by Jon Tetsuro Sumida (2008)

Reviewed by J. Alex Vohr. Originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette, March 2009. Republished here with their generous permission.


While primarily a naval historian, Dr. Sumidas decade-long foray into Clausewitz has resulted in a book uncovering issues significant to those whose professional interests involve either the formulation of our national military strategy or the professional education and development of military officers. Current prevailing wisdom holds that Clausewitz was concerned only with nation-state warfare, and modern military theorists like General Sir Rupert Smith, in his book, The Utility of Force (Vintage, 2008, reviewed in the August 2007 Gazette), have asserted that the Western world has seen the end of these types of conflicts. 

Professor Sumida is on my “to be read” list but I have not gotten to it yet. Readers who have are cordially invited to sound off in the comments.


Updates on COIN is Dead Debate

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

From Major Mike Few of SWJ and Fabius Maximus:

SWJ Blog (Few)  Rethinking Revolution and Do Two Wrongs Make a Right?

When is a revolution over, completed, fulfilled?  Traditionally, we prefer to quantify revolutions as ending in a win, loss, or negotiated settlement.[1]  While this framework is helpful for shaping theory, it neglects that reality is often much more complicated and messy.  As John Maynard Keynes said, “it is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique for thinking, which helps the possessor to draw correct conclusions.”  Simply put, it is only a guide towards understanding history and human nature.

….In his seminal work, Rethinking Insurgency, Steven Metz challenged our community to rethink the existing assumptions and relearn how to counter insurgencies.[5]  Moreover, over the past decade, scholars challenged the accepted military definition that an insurgency is “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict.”  

Yet, with all the evidence, scholarship, theories, and analysis, we continue to muddle through small wars.  Why?  Perhaps, we often choose mass over maneuver and speed over subtle influence in attempts to control the problem.  Small wars are wicked problems.  If we continue to plug and play the latest “new” idea to tame a problem, then we will just muddle along and only make the problem worse.

….Before we can hope to distill any lessons learned from this past bloody decade of war and rewrite the existing counterinsurgency manual[7][8] and find a suitable foreign policy for this new century, perhaps we should first seek to better understand the nature of revolution. 


Fabius Maximus – COIN- Now that we See it Failed…. and COIN, another difficulty…. 

As we walk away from the Iraq and Af-Pak Wars, we face many questions about the future.  Two of these are:

  • When we should directly fight local insurgencies (what strategy)?
  • When we must do so, how should we do so (what doctrine)?

Given the historical record, this series of posts suggest the answers are:

  • We go to fight local insurgencies only when necessary (IMO neither Af or Iraq were necessary after their governments were overthrown).
  • We lack reliable doctrine to fight local insurgencies abroad. The number of successes by foreign armies against local insurgencies is too few to draw firm conclusions (see section 3 in the previous post for details).

That does not mean that counter-insurgency is impossible for foreign armies.  It suggests that repeating failed doctrines (Vietnam, Iraq, Af-Pak) will not work.  As the old Alcoholics Anonymous saying goes, insanity is repeating the same actions but expecting a different result.

Update:  Not all foreign wars, or even all small foreign wars, are counter-insurgencies.




Two Links on Political Economy

Friday, August 19th, 2011

That are complementary:

Fabius MaximusOur fears are unwarranted. America is in fact well-governed.

….America is in better shape than Europe and Japan.  We have good demographics, sound fundamentals, relatively easily solved problems, and no powerful enemies.  Why the constant sense of crisis?  QE2, hyperinflation, climate armageddon, Obama the socialist, AIDS, alar on apples, jihadists, debt, swine flu – a constant drumroll of doom, explained by Peter Moore in “The Crisis Crisis” (Playboy, March 1987).   Answer:  elites govern a weak people by exploiting their fears.  For example, look at the “government is broke” panic.

  • The Federal government’s net debt is only 2/3 of GDP, well below the 100% of GDP “red line” (that Italy reached many years ago).
  • The short-term deficit is mostly the result of the recession.  The medium-term deficit results from the Bush tax cuts.
  • Social security’s funding gap is small vs. GDP and easily fixed.
  • The massive funding gap is mostly Medicare, easily fixed by adopting features from the mixed public-private systems in Europe.

Panic pushes Americans to allow cuts to popular social services plus increased and highly regressive taxes.  No matter who wins, after the 2012 election our representatives will implement the necessary policy changes:  raising taxes, cutting expenditures, rebuilding our infrastructure, and beginning the long process of reforming health care.  It will be another morning in America.  There is no crippling polarization, just distracting noise masking a consensus between both parties about the key points of economic and foreign policy.

We do not see this long-standing pattern (see the previous post for details) because our collective OODA loop is broken (see section 6 here).  That makes us easier to lead.  Relying on wealth-based elites to run the country has a cost.  They take a large share of the pie; we take a small slice….

Global Guerrillas –JOURNAL: Global Financial Cancer

….A couple of years ago, I wrote that the underlying structure of the global financial system was a “bow-tie.”  Here’s what I said (it’s worth going back and reading the entire article and this paper on bow-ties from John Doyle at Caltech):

If we look at this new global system from a distance, its architecture is something called a bow-tie. This is a universal control system architecture that underlies complex systems from the Internet to cell metabolism.


What is a Bow Tie?

The bow-tie is a very powerful approach to organizing a complex system (it’s a system design that is used by controls engineers.)  Visually, it starts with complex inputs (the left side of the bow-tie), boils them down into simple build blocks (the knot), which then allows the construction of complex outputs (the right side of the bow-tie….

….Unfortunately, as I mentioned in the earlier article, bow-ties are vulnerable to organisms that attach themselves to the knot at their center (like the way cancer uses the body’s metabolism system).  These organisms relentlessly use the bow-tie’s knot to for selfish ends (rapid growth).  The end result is typically death for the system.  My suggestion was that the instability we were seeing in the financial system was an indication that it had been co-opted by a malicious, self-serving organism.

Of course, at the time there wasn’t much data to support this systemic analysis.  That has been rectified with a new paper, The Network of Global Corporate Control by Vitali et. al. from ETH in Zurich.  This paper finds, through extensive network analysis, that a small group of tightly intertwined financial institutions control the bow of the global financial system.  It is in effect, the world’s first super-organism….

They are both right. Probably not perfectly, the American economy, even more the world’s, is too complex a subject, but right enough.

FM is right that the emerging class of people I have been calling “the Oligarchy” the past couple of years do not intend to deliberately implode the system that is working outrageously to their benefit. They are currently in the stage of trying to come up with an arsenal of tax-farming schemes that will pass political muster (i.e. – not provoke uncontrollable, “Arab Spring” street demonstrations or a successful populist electoral revolt  that would eject their sycophants from government en masse in a single election) and are quietly, methodically and strategically neutering the capacity of the populace to resist their rule over the long term. It is there that we see seemingly unrelated measures as the coordinated political attack on public education and university education, restrictions on the ability of citizens to get courts to review arbitrary actions of Federal agencies, imposition of laws to permit total surveillance of US citizens and acquisition of their personal information and so on.

The elite, who are not completely cohesive or formally organized, are supremely confident in their ability to manage the technocratic economy they are putting into place, or if bumps in the road appear, to squeeze sufficient new leverage from the populace through inflation, devaluation and other forms of expropriation. Unfortunately, I am not confident that these folks are nearly as competent as they imagine themselves to be. Nor am I sure that the global system that they have built, a high-performance, deeply complex, ultra-leveraged, financial sector dominant political economy isn’t as fragile and dangerously unstable as people like John Robb and Nassim Nicholas Taleb have maintained it is. The system might not just crash, it could crash to extreme depths with unprecedented speed with unforseen consequences (financial systems also ensure the reliable and continuous logistical flow of *food* and *power* to population centers).

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