SOCRATES AND THE FREE PLAY OF CIVIC MILITARISM
William Lind at DNI had an excellent article up today dedicated to the “free play” military educational program of Major Don Vandergriff. Like most things rooted in good principles, the program has broader application than where it was begun by Vandergriff. Lind writes:
“We should all therefore greatly admire those few Army officers who have tried to wake their dinosaur up. None has done more than Major Don Vandergriff. Not only has he produced two excellent books that get at the heart of the Army’s problem, its personnel system, he also led a highly successful reform of the Army’s Georgetown University ROTC program. ROTC is, for the most part, a sad joke. Vandergriff’s program was a highly demanding, creative exercise in building real leaders. Many of its graduates have gone on to outstanding performance as platoon and company commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Major Vandergriff (recently retired, which illustrates why the Army is hopeless) has turned his experiences at Georgetown into a new book, Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War. Unlike most reform books, his is a book of solutions, not just problems.
Top-down reform, like the Army’s ongoing “Transformation” program, changes little but appearances. Vandergriff recognizes that real reform has to come primarily bottom-up. He writes:
After long study and analysis of the Army’s existing system, it is clear that focusing efforts on people who already have had their character defined and shaped by the antiquated personnel system, or what I refer to as today’s leadership paradigm, will be ineffective. Rather, the effective transformation of the Army requires the cultivation of a very different military mindset, starting at the cadet, or pre-commissioning, level. As one former ROTC cadet—now a captain serving with the Special Forces—recently observed: “Why not begin the reform where it all begins?”
At the heart of Vandergriff’s reforms of Army education lies a shift away from teaching officers what to think and what to do—endless processes, recipes and formulas, learned by rote—to teaching how to think, through, as he writes:
1) a case study learning method; 2) tactical decision games; 3) free play force-on-force exercises; and 4) feedback. . The academic methods employed in support of the pillars include: small group lectures, small group training exercises, exercise simulations, staff rides and private study.
…Rightly, Vandergriff rejects the “crawl, walk, run” approach now favored in American military education, which in reality seldom gets beyond “crawl.” He recommends instead what one German general called “the Hansel and Gretel approach: first you let the kids get lost in the woods.”
The POI (Program Of Instruction) begins the development of adaptability through exposure to scenario-based problems as early as possible. The POI should put students in tactical and non-tactical situations that are “above their pay grade” in order to challenge them.
The purpose, I would add, is not just to challenge them but to develop in them the habit of “looking up” and seeing their own situation in a larger context that is essential for mission-type orders to work.”
Those who read Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling And The Stone, may recall Hammes’ endorsement of free play training as a tool for creating an officer corps capable of handling 4GW opponents.
These sort of exercises are very powerful teaching tools because they stress a fluid combination of imaginative speculation, analysis, methodical problem-solving and drawing upon existing knowledge – and does so under the crucible of situational pressure. Some of you readers were fortunate enough to be taught in a classroom that relied heavily upon the Socratic method, which incorporates some of the same aspects, to a lesser degree, in a classroom setting (if you weren’t, then think of the Professor Kingsfield character in the movie, The Paper Chase).
Vandergriff would have the Army teach its officers a mode of thinking that ought to have been inculcated in public school so that every citizen, civilian or soldier, can think critically, independently and creatively. This is not cognitive training for war but for life.