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Donald E. Vandergriff: Military Education - We Are Stuck in the Past
Donald E. Vandergriff: Military Education - We Are Stuck in the Past


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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Donald Vandergriff: Military Education - Tools exist now, just use them

Path to Victory: America's Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs

January 13, 2005

[Have an opinion about the views expressed in this commentary? Sound off in the Discussion Forum.]

Before we can move to an innovative way to educate, to challenge, to prepare our future leaders for the challenges we face in the 21st Century, I have to explain to you why. With a little insight into the evolution of the current program of instruction and how we develop leaders, you will immediately understand my argument that Transformation of our Army cannot go forward until we understand why today's method is out of date. If we continue to use it, we are doing the next generations, the Army we have now, and the American people a disservice. Sadly the evidence exists that the future is now, and it is time for drastic changes to the way we educate our cadets to become officers.

The old way of educating and teaching cadets, called for in Army program of instructions (POIs), evolved out the Industrial-age way of war (2nd Generation Warfare). They center on the rote memorization of process, or what is today called the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). MDMP evolved from a scientific way to organize thoughts in the preparation and execution of missions. It went so far to tell commanders and their staffs that certain decisions should be made through events and time on a matrix. Additionally, MDMP evolved into the way the U.S. Army prepares civilians to become officers. The Army's education system has centered on memorization of the process, or the "checklist approach" to warfighting.1

The MDMP was created by U.S. Army Major Eben Swift in 1897. At the time of the emergence of the philosophy of scientific management based on the theories of Frederick Taylor, Swifts methods were seen as the basis for a professional military education. The source of his process though has a twist of irony to it. Major Swift's approach was based on his examination of a French interpretation of a German book on tactical decision games by a Prussian officer Verdy Du Vernois.2

The irony was in the French misinterpretation of the how the Germans educated their officers. In turn Swift went further, bringing order through process to German military education. The French and Swift (and the U.S. officer corps) saw the means as more important than the end. They did not understand how the Germans stayed away from processes and checklists, so much a centerpiece of late 19th century corporations that dominated both French and U.S. societies. So the French organized Du Vernois's book of tactical decision games by structuring the games, their presentation, and even how they wanted students to answer the questions raised by the games.3

Swift went even further than the French in misinterpreting the German concept. Swift created a process for organizing the answers to the game into what we now call the 5-paragraph Operations Order.4 This timely creation also filled a void in professional military education that existed in the United States Army at the time. Swift took the method and institutionalized it at the Army's Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Over time, the Swift method evolved into our task, condition and standard approach to task training, and our crawl-walk-run approach to education and training systems that I will discuss shortly.5

The Prussians never intended to have their officers, or their NCOs (who served as cadre for the mobilization of their Army converting them into officers in wartime) to use process to solve problems in the field. Based on the reforms led by Gerhard Scharnhorst shortly after the destruction of their army at Jena in 1806, the Prussians did not have the resources to rely on technology as their solution to battlefield problems. Instead, they searched for ways to develop officers who could make rapid decisions in the chaos of the battlefield. The Prussian military education of their officer cadets was based on an education approach developed by a Swiss educator named Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.6

Pestalozzi developed his theories on education in the late 1700s. His theory was that students would learn faster on their own if students were allowed to "experience the thing before they tried to give it a name." More specifically, the Prussians used Pestalozzi methods to educate leaders on how to identify the core of a problem, and then deal with that centerpiece of the problem without "wasting time working their way to finding a solution."7

The new education system, along side other radical Scharnhorst reforms like strenuous selections of officers from a broad base of the population, gave the Prussians what they sought-a professional officer and NCO corps. In the center of Europe, surrounded by several potential enemies, the Prussians had to be able to mobilize very rapidly. Their officers had to "prepare hard in peacetime in order to be ready when war began." They began this process as early as possible. The Prussians put their cadets in tactical situations that were "above their pay-grade." The Tactical Decision Game (TDGs) were based on Pestalozzi's method. From the very beginning of a Prussian (later German) cadet's career, TDGs were used to sharpen the students' decision making skills and to provide a basis for evaluating them on their character.8

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