The Best Defense

Life at NDU: Gen. Martin said to threaten to fire anyone who questions his plans

Army Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin, the president of the National Defense University, announced -- not proposed -- to his senior subordinates last Friday a series of abrupt and sweeping changes in the structure of the institution. To top it off, by some accounts, he then threatened to terminate anyone who even questioned the changes.

At the meeting, General Martin said that he was laying out the way forward. He then emphasized that everyone working at NDU needed to support his effort. He continued, according to some NDU insiders, to threaten to move to terminate anyone who did not "get on board."

In an e-mail to me last night, Martin neither confirmed nor denied making such statements. Nor did he seek to apologize for or retract them. Rather, he stated that his comments had been "misinterpreted by some."

The general wrote that, "it has come to my attention that some were concerned by my remarks on the importance of moving forward as one team on the curriculum revision. It was not my intent to cause concern for anyone's position at the University, but rather to build a team approach to this important transformational effort. I regret that my intent was misinterpreted by some."

But his comments seem pretty clear to me. Martin's frustration with NDU's faculty is evident, and somewhat understandable. Academics are naturally jealous of their turf, and resistant to most changes. And academics on the federal payroll sometimes combine the worst of both worlds -- academic snobbery swaddled in bureaucratic civil service rules. Most of all, I support anything that improves the academic rigor of NDU, and I am not sure that entrenched-for-life faculty members are naturally on the side of the angels in this fight. Sometimes they resemble Japanese holdouts on Guam, determined to fight to the last paycheck.

That said, Martin's my-way-or-the-highway approach doesn't strike me as the way to go about it either, especially in an institution that purports to teach strategic leadership. This is not a commander taking a hill in combat, nor even a college football coach preparing his players for the big game. The note below from one person at NDU about the top-down changes being imposed alleges that Martin's remarks amounted to "an unlawful threat." I'm no lawyers, so I'll leave that issue to the DoD IG.

I also suspect that the general's intimidating stance may be seen as impinging on academic freedom. You'd think the leadership of NDU would have some concern with that, having only recently gotten relief from the "warning letter" issued in 2012 by its academic credentialing overseers. That statement of its accreditation being in jeopardy was lifted last November, according to the credentialing group's website. All this will no doubt interest the Senate Armed Services Committee staffers who have been sniffing around NDU lately.

On Monday afternoon I sent an e-mail asking General Martin and the spokesman for NDU for comment. He wrote back Tuesday evening. FWIW, here is his entire note to me, which reads like it was written by a committee:

Dear Tom,

Almost exactly two years ago (Feb 6, 2012), GEN Martin Dempsey, 18th CJCS, gave NDU its refined Mission Statement, renewing our focus on our core area of education and leader development by providing rigorous JPME to members of the U.S. Armed Forces and select others. In his recently released 2nd Term Strategic Direction to the Joint Force, the CJCS also said, "Education will serve as a hedge against surprise, much as it has during previous interwar periods. Professional Military Education should adapt to meet those dynamic needs. As we continue to advance "One University" initiatives at National Defense University, we will update joint PME curriculum across the force to emphasize key leader attributes. We will also explore how best to adapt our learning institutions to serve a global Joint Force, evaluating degree accreditation and distance learning delivery methods."

As a result of this guidance converging with the current fiscal reality, it is quite clear that business as usual is no longer sustainable. Thus, the Academic Affairs Department, led by our Provost, has put forward an innovative concept -- still in its 'vision' or 'commander's intent' phase.

There are three working groups led and populated by the faculty, exploring implementation considerations to more effectively and efficiently leverage and focus all of NDU's resources in a "Whole of NDU" application to our core Mission, enabled by a common academic calendar. This will allow teaching, research, and outreach across NDU to be more mutually supportive. It dedicates more time for professional development and scholarship by the faculty. It concentrates college resources on college-specific missions, so they can maintain and deepen their comparative expertise. And, perhaps most important to the crucial role of educating and developing the future leaders of Joint Force 2020, it is student-centric with greater attention to student needs, professional interests, and learning objectives.

Finally, it has come to my attention that some were concerned by my remarks on the importance of moving forward as one team on the curriculum revision. It was not my intent to cause concern for anyone's position at the University, but rather to build a team approach to this important transformational effort. I regret that my intent was misinterpreted by some.

In line with NDU's policy of academic freedom and its promotion of critical thinking, I enthusiastically invite and welcome all NDU employees to engage and ask those tough questions about the direction the University is moving -- it is through this open and dynamic exchange of ideas that we all learn and get smarter.

I extend my personal invitation to you to come visit NDU and engage with us on this vitally important endeavor.

Wishing you all the best!


Gregg F. Martin, Ph.D.
Major General, U.S. Army
14th President

Tom again: Meanwhile, here, below, is the note that set me off looking into this. I am told that technically the deans and commandants (and there is a raftload of them) may not have opposed the revisions -- because they actually weren't asked for their opinions.

I work at the National Defense University.

Over the past several weeks it has become clear that we are facing a crisis at the University.

In opposition to ALL of his Deans and Commandants, the President of NDU, MG Martin, has decided to implement a dramatic revision of the curriculum across all the War Colleges and degree programs.

The "reforms" are not well-conceived. But worse is the process. It is top-down and rushed. Components are going to be required to restructure their curriculum in fundamental ways in a matter of weeks. Even if there were support for these reforms -- and there is not -- there is not enough time to do it properly.

Realizing the flaws in the process, MG Martin has issued a directive that anyone who raises concerns about the changes -- even within the chain of command, that is to the CJCS or J7 -- will be immediately terminated.

Many of us believe this is an unlawful threat.

Furthermore, it seems clear that the imposition of massive curriculum changes from the top down, in the face of opposition from Deans, Commandants, and Faculty violates standards set by our accrediting bodies and, if made public, would surely result in the loss of accreditation for NDU.

Finally, it is not clear to me that MG has the statutory authority to impose these changes which have the effect of de-establishing the Eisenhower School and National War College as independent entities.


The Best Defense

68 TTPs too many! Or, why lists like that won't help improve our junior officers

By Captain Jordan Blashek, USMC
Best Defense guest respondent

Captain Jesse Sladek is the type of leader I would want as a commanding officer. ‘Just giving a damn' goes a long way in leadership, and Captain Sladek clearly does. The learning curve for a new infantry officer is steep, and there is no substitute for a good company commander to mentor him through the first few months.

That said, I don't find Sladek's "69 TTPs" particularly useful. They range from insightful (#61: Often commanders ... are not tracking the same reality as you), to obvious (#51: Lead from the front), to uselessly vague (#57: Be aggressive). The majority are lessons every infantry officer should have taken away from the schoolhouse.

The real problem though is that they were written as a list without explanations for why each one is important. To give the simplest example, #2 says to "wake up before 0500 five out of seven days a week." Why? What does that have to do with leadership? The answer might be that a good leader should be the first to arrive and the last to leave every day because it demonstrates dedication and earns loyalty. Or perhaps, if your subordinates consistently see you arriving after them, they will assume you were sleeping while they were working. But waking up at 0500 just for the sake of getting up early is senseless.

Here's a more serious example: TTP #65 says, "70% now is better than 100% an hour from now." But is this always true? The reason it might be true is that in combat there is a trade-off between time and certainty. When making decisions, platoon leaders will never have the amount of certainty they want due to the fog of war. There is risk in acting without enough information, but there is also risk in waiting too long because the enemy is maneuvering too. Since the enemy operates in the same environment of uncertainty, we can gain an advantage by acting more quickly than him if we have enough information. New platoon leaders should think about how they will know when 70 percent is enough. This requires critical thought, a nuanced mind, and the ability to ask the right questions to the right people both in training and in combat.

I appreciate Captain Sladek's effort to pass on good information. I just would prefer fewer TTPs with better explanations for why they are good practices. Just like in a mission statement, the intent -- or the reason why -- is always the most important part of any task. Lists are great for not forgetting things, but they're less effective when it comes to learning valuable lessons or thinking critically. In fact, the military already has far too many lists that feed the uncritical bureaucratic mentality that Major Matthew Cavanaugh so eloquently decries in his inaugural post on

So rather than trying to remember 69 different TTPs, I would suggest that 2nd lieutenants focus on just one: "Think deeply about your job and figure out the why behind everything." Everything else is secondary. The best infantry officers are those who possess a certain mindset developed by thinking deeply about their job, their leadership style, and the challenges they will face in combat. Adopting hundreds of tried TTPs will help you as you develop, but it's the ability to face the confusion of the modern battlefield that matters in the end. That requires a nuanced mind capable of critical thought and the humility to ask the right questions. Such character and maturity required for this can't be assembled from a checklist of TTPs.

Captain Jordan Blashek is an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served as a weapons platoon commander and company executive officer in 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, deploying in 2011 to Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa on the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. In 2013, he deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as an advisor to the Afghan National Army's 215 Corps. He graduated from Princeton University in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in international affairs.

U.S. Army/Flickr