Home/Articles/Generation Gap

Generation Gap

By William Lind | May 5, 2011

A central tenet of the Military Reform Movement of the 1970s and ’80s, of which I was a founder, was the need to move the American military from firepower/attrition warfare to maneuver warfare, which is to say from the Second Generation to the Third. That need is no less urgent today. Only one service, the Marine Corps, adopted maneuver warfare as doctrine, and the Marines have failed to institutionalize it.

Had they done so, one Marine Light Armored Vehicle task force could have wiped Gaddafi’s ground units from the board in a week, once we made the doubtful decision to intervene. Instead, we find ourselves still where we were in the 1960s, when President Lyndon B. Johnson supposedly said, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, that’s all my generals know how to do.”

In his February speech at West Point, where he warned against fighting another big land war, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who is the best man to fill that job in my memory, raised another reason to renew reform. According to the February 26 New York Times, Gates said, referring to our recent conflicts,

Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day reformatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever-expanding array of clerical duties. The consequences of this terrify me.

Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day reformatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever-expanding array of clerical duties. The consequences of this terrify me.

The Secretary went on to note that “officers of lower and lower rank were put in the position of making decisions of higher and higher degrees of consequence and complexity.”

That is how a Third Generation military works all the time, not just in combat.

Maneuver-warfare tactics require a unique military culture. The difference begins with outward instead of inward focus. In a Second Generation armed service, attention is focused inward, on orders, rules, processes, and procedures. In the Third Generation, the focus is outward, on the enemy, the situation, and the result the situation requires. Getting that result trumps everything else, including orders. In fact, an order does not tell the subordinate what to do. It tells him what result his superior at least two levels up is trying to obtain, the “commander’s intent,” and leaves him wide freedom of action as to how to accomplish his mission that is part of that intent.

A Second Generation military culture is centralized, prizes obedience over initiative—initiative disrupts “synchronization,” a Second Generation fetish—and rests on imposed discipline. A Third Generation culture is decentralized, values initiative over obedience, and relies on self-discipline. Only these cultural characteristics make fluid, time-competitive maneuver-warfare tactics and operations possible.

From these cultural requirements flow other characteristics of a Third Generation military. The officer corps is small: not a pyramid, but a mesa that tops out at the rank of battalion commander with only a tiny “spike” of general staff officers and senior commanders rising higher. Nothing drives centralization more powerfully than an officer surplus above the company grades.

TAC June 2011 issueThere is no “up or out” promotion system like that found today in the U.S. military, where an officer must constantly buck for promotion or leave the service. If someone wants to remain a sergeant or captain his entire career and is good at his job, he may. The poison of promotion politics is devastating to the strong character effective officers need. The military definition of strong character is eagerness to make decisions and act.

In his West Point speech, Secretary Gates offered a solution to the problem of submerging young officers who have made decisions in the stultifying culture of the Second Generation. He suggested giving them lots of breaks: graduate study, teaching positions, and fellowships outside the military.

There is a better answer. Let’s use the Third Generation characteristics these young leaders have acquired to move the whole U.S. military from the Second Generation into the Third. Don’t beat them back into an outdated and inferior mold. Call upon them to lead the cultural transformation our armed services desperately need. With young officers inside pushing for reform in combination with officials outside, including the secretary of defense, it could be accomplished.

Mr. Secretary, we know you plan to retire at the end of this year. Instead, please stay on to solve the problem you have so well identified by renewing military reform. Be our Scharnhorst.

The American Conservative needs the support of readers. Please subscribe or make a contribution today.

leave a comment

Latest Articles