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Donald E. Vandergriff: Put Everyone on the Line, By God!
Donald E. Vandergriff: Put Everyone on the Line, By God!

About the Author

Major Donald E. Vandergriff, USA, an armor officer, teaches military science at Georgetown University Army ROTC. Vandergriff began his military career with the United States Marine Corps, and has had extensive experience in the field with the Army. After he transferred from the Marine Corps to the Army National Guard, he initially served as a cavalry platoon leader in the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment (TNARNG). Upon entering active duty, he served in the Republic of Korea as a tank platoon, tank company executive officer and scout platoon leader for almost two years; at the National Training Center (serving both as an observer controller and in the OPFOR); and in the Middle East and Germany.

He has his undergraduate degree in education from the University of Tennessee, a graduate degree in military history from American Military University, and began his PhD studies in military history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Major Vandergriff has lectured extensively on military effectiveness and cultural impacts in the United States and Europe. He has also been the subject of several articles that deal with military effectiveness and military transformation, including features in the Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker Magazine, The National Journal, Government Executive Magazine, The Washington Monthly, Army Times, Stars and Stripes, Norfolk News-Gazette and Pittsburg Star.

He currently lives in Woodbridge, Virginia with his wife Lorraine, and their three dogs and one cat. Vandergriff has always been athletically competitive, playing Rugby at the University of Tennessee 1982-1984, at Fort Irwin 1987-1990, in Germany 1993-4, and in Northern Virginia 1996-97. Vandergriff also participated in Iron Man competitions from 1987-1990, and was an avid snow skier. His current hobbies include Tennessee college football, military wargaming, mountain biking, hiking and his dogs.

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September 15, 2003

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A counter argument to unit manning I hear is that unit manning will have one-third of units, brigades in this case, not ready for combat. Of course one can trace this to the attrition or industrial age mindset of the Army, "Where units would be constantly maintained on the line and fed by a stream of replacements to retain constant pressure on the enemy." Unit manning by the way, involves more than the rotation of units, it also involves building and sustaining of cohesive units - teams.

Hold that thought a minute. While not perfect, I like using football as an analogy to unit manning. Football is similar to an Army, an outdoor varsity team sport requiring mastering an array of individual and team skills.

The goal of every good football team - coaches that win - is to build stable teams placing the right people in the right positions, highlighting their strengths while negating their weaknesses. Good teams rotate players (the unit) in to and from play to keep a team (the Army) fresh. Tough practices, in the spring and summer before fall season, bond the team as they master complex play books. Great coaches seek to unify the team as early as possible, stabilize players in positions with solid back ups, who also understand the play book, team work and their positions as well. At any one series, good teams have 11 people on the field, and 40 or more on the sideline. If they do not win early, then a good team wants to dominate by the 4th quarter.

A college football team under the current Army personnel system would be different. It might lose a lot of games as well unless the Athletic Director is smart and plots out a schedule against weak opponents - who have no backups, some players play without helmets or pads, and practices are infrequent if they occur at all. The opponent may have a home field advantage, but no with one in the stands.

This football team would constantly rotate players, not just to one position, but it would make the quarterback for example, try other positions. Players would play both ways for intense, but very short periods of time. New players from outside the team, but within the league would be brought in as well and thrown into the game, not yet familiar with their team mates or the play book (high perstempo). Practices against new opponents would involve long intense sessions (high training tempo), a day or two prior to the actual game forcing players to try to adapt to the new opponent as quickly as possible.

How do we counter this problem that any good leader - officer or NCO - knows prevents the Army from having better units, stable soldiers and families, and allows the leaders and the led to get a breather, to build on their experiences, and recover their strengths-both mental and physical?

The Army is steeped in efficiency over effectiveness. This comes from the days of Secretary of War Elihu Root, another one of those that brought over efficiency or good business practices from "corporate America" in 1899. Since then, the tradition has become "hard wired" into the minds of our leaders with the thought, "by God we cannot have any brigades on the bench - everyone must be committed!"

I guess the Navy team is good at disguising the fact that they keep part of their carriers back for a breather - to refit and resupply the ships. People in the Army need the same rotation back as well. No one points to the Navy and says they are inefficient, or that "one-third of our precious few combat brigades will be unavailable at any given time."

The long-term benefits of a unit-manned Army far out weigh the short-term inconveniences to the personnel system and its managers. Let me summarize what it will do:
  • It will allow soldiers, particularly leaders, to regain their breath after months of serving in intense combat environments. But they would rotate out as a team, not as individuals. This would go a long way to sustain the vast experience we are building in the nonstop war on terror, instead of burning out the one-third of the force that exists in the TO&E side of the Army.
  • It will stabilize families for a longer period. With a unit manning system soldiers and families could forecast the future, plan and improve their lives. It would allow units - which include their families - to prepare for a rotation that has been scheduled.
  • It will also assist soldiers and families with the units returning from a combat zone, to home station. Unit manning creates unit cohesion, which provides soldiers the psychological strength to deal with going to, fighting in and returning from combat.
  • It will allow leaders and soldiers to finally see "what right looks like" to master complex unit skills, to sustain those skills, and to move beyond the basics.
  • Lastly, we will not always fight the Taliban with their flying carpet air force, or the Iraqis who had been beaten severely once, then suffered 13 years of sanctions and air bombardments. The Iraqis had more to fear to their rear than the American divisions to their front.
What if we fight someone soon that figures us out? What if we do not always have the money to throw at the system to offset high personnel tempo with high training tempo?

Let's be honest with ourselves. Those who resist unit manning, know it will provide the Army better, ready now units - but in the future. Remember, this is going to take a cultural change as well to make unit manning succeed. The implementation of unit manning itself will force a cultural change.

We all know this, but why has unit manning not become "hard wired" as well? Hell, opponents also say, it failed 11 times, it cannot work in the U.S. Army. It failed because it was always a smaller part of a larger personnel system focused on the individual. It failed because it was seen as inefficient, not using every unit on the line.

Mounds of evidence support unit manning. The real resistance is to the true transformation of the Army that must take place to allow unit manning to work.

The two main changes, which would cause many other second- and third-order effects, are first, getting rid of the destructive Individual Replacement System (IRS), tried and failed since World War I. The other would be getting rid of the Holy Grail of the personnel system, the "Up or Out" promotion system. Both personnel practices originated in 1912 and 1916 respectively. Someone remind me that it is 2003.

In summary, to transform the Army, you must first transform the personnel system. This is what has to happen starting now.

The Army is now moving toward stabilizing personnel in units for some period of time. With this move, the Army must give greater weight to unit readiness versus personnel development. At the same time this would reduce time away from home for individual training, professional education, details, etc.

As unit cohesion grows, leaders and led would see "what right looks like," with less demand on moving individuals to school houses to conceptualize what right may look like. Subordinating individual development to unit cohesion would give more freedom for the Army to rotate units to most temporary and permanent deployments, with all units having a home base in the United States.

While on the subject of personnel transformation, there are also longer-term issues to take into consideration. Many current personnel policies, surprisingly based on theories from the Progressive Era, will hinder the effectiveness that unit manning will bring to the 21st century Army.

The Army should lead the services to change the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980 (this Act is the son of the 1947 Officer Personnel Act or OPA). Such a bold, but necessary move would allow longer terms of service (medicine, physical and dietary advancements are different from 1947). It would reduce "up or out" pressure or what I call promotion anxiety.

At the same time, reforming DOPMA, particularly "up or out," would also make the most out of the use of our limited manpower by allowing greater specialization in Service or Joint jobs, and moderating joint duty requirements. Finally, if we really want to become effective, we must trust our soldiers by giving them more freedom to manage their own careers with the adherence to unit manning at the center.

So let's have moral courage and move the Army from the industrial age to the 21st century, so that we are prepared when a good team shows up to play.

Major Donald E. Vandergriff, an armor officer, is author of Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs. He can be reached at vandergriffdonald@usa.net

© 2003 Major Donald E. Vandergriff. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.



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