A Manœuvre Renaissance

By Capt Daniel R Grazier

An eccentric retired Air Force colonel accepted an invitation to speak to the students of Amphibious Warfare School class of 1979 only after the staff grudgingly agreed to his demand for a five-hour block of time.1 From this slightly awkward beginning, the Marine Corps’ doctrine of manœuvre warfare sprouted and grew. The shift from attrition to manœuvre hardly occurred overnight. It took the efforts of many intelligent and dedicated officers and civilians years to create a critical mass of manœuvreists within the officer corps to bring about this momentous shift.

Now more than three decades later, almost everyone in the Marine Corps can identify that Air Force colonel as John Boyd and say he “invented” the OODA (observation, orientation, decision, action) loop. But few people appear to understand the real significance of Col Boyd’s work anymore. This becomes readily apparent any time a staff creates a synchronization matrix or a battalion attacks straight into an enemy defense during an integrated training exercise. We are doomed to backslide completely into old attritionist habits without a reexamination of our way of doing business. To prevent this, a manœuvre renaissance is necessary to move forward as we transition away from the long war and prepare to confront a future fourth generation adversary.2

Several factors are to blame for the current lack of appreciation of John Boyd and manœuvre. First, the bulk of intellectual energy over the past decade plus has been expended studying counterinsurgency theory and practice. This, combined with constant deployment preparation and theater-specific training, hardly fosters the proper study and understanding of manœuvre. Secondly, we are now a generation removed from those early revolutionaries of the post-Vietnam military reform movement. Most people take manœuvre for granted now, not realizing just what an all-encompassing concept it really is.

The greatest challenge to overcome, however, is the U.S. military’s natural tendency toward attrition. That style of warfare fits within our existing military culture of perfect alignment, ruler straightness, and impeccable grooming. It is a holdover from the first generation of warfare. An attrition-based plan covers every base, eliminates every threat, and leaves nothing to chance. This is the style best suited for a hierarchical organization. It is the embodiment of the American military ideal that seeks to remove all friendly friction. Control in such a situation is retained at the highest level possible with little room for individual initiative at the bottom.

Our corporate culture is the lasting legacy of Napoleon, still alive and well in the United States military. The Napoleonic system was transported to this country by Sylvanus Thayer, “Father of West Point,” who incorporated French methods at the Military Academy during his tenure as superintendent (1830–1871). This mindset was further ingrained by Dennis Hart Mahan, professor of military science at West Point (1830–1871). He idealized Napoleon and taught his methods almost exclusively. He personally taught nearly every important Civil War general while they were cadets. Mahan’s influence can be detected in nearly every battle of that conflict.3

Professor Mahan’s legacy continues to the present day. Improved weapons tend to drive tactical changes in order to take advantage of new capabilities. However, the underlying mindset, the corporate culture, does not change so easily. So, the Mahan ideal of victory by capturing enemy territory remains the driving force behind all operations.4 Pivoting the focus away from objective terrain-based or enemy-based operations to the subjective systems-based operations requires abandoning nearly 200 years of deeply ingrained military thought. This is a feat not easily accomplished.

Words Mean Things

“Words mean things” is a mantra battered into the skulls of everyone in the military. Operational terms are very precise and serve to facilitate exacting communications within the ranks. Marine Corps Reference Publication 5-2A, Operational Terms and Graphics (Washington, DC: HQMC, September 1997) lists more than 1,600 terms in its glossary, many with multiple meanings. The entry for maneuver includes four variations. In its most pedestrian forms, the term refers to the physical movement of a vehicle or a tactical exercise. The more broader and relevant definition is stated as the “employment of forces on the battlefield through movement in combination with fire, or fire potential, to achieve a position of advantage in respect to the enemy in order to accomplish the mission.” The official reference publication defines maneuver as nothing more than spatial movements on the battlefield. This definition speaks to tactical maneuver and fails completely to encapsulate the much broader meaning when referring to manœuvre as a warfighting philosophy.

Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting (MCDP 1) (Washington, DC: HQMC, 1989) provides a much better definition. It states, “Maneuver warfare is a war fighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.” Notice how nothing in this definition refers to a physical movement. “Shatter the enemy’s cohesion” is the key to understanding. Manœuvre warfare is much more than simply achieving a position of advantage over the enemy in physical space. The goal is to collapse his entire system. This process begins first in the enemy’s mind. Far too many officers have been conditioned to understand manœuvre as a matter of pinning the enemy down with fire with one element while “maneuvering” with another to close with and complete his destruction. Such thinking betrays a basic lack of understanding.

Savvy readers should by now know why I have chosen to use the British spelling manœuvre when writing of the warfighting philosophy. There is a fundamental difference between tactical maneuver, which is really nothing more than tactical common sense, and manœuvre as a warfighting philosophy. Admittedly, this is more than a little gimmicky, but it does help to illustrate the wide difference between the two definitions. I have chosen this method in no small part because B.H. Liddell Hart wrote of the far superior “manœuvre form” of warfare in his monumental study of strategy.5

Parsing this single word helps to illustrate the point of how far we have strayed from the hard fought advances made by genuine American military theorists like John Boyd, William Lind, Gen Alfred M. Gray, and BG Huba Wass de Czege, USA. Far too many officers confuse tactical maneuver with manœuvre. A simple method to differentiate these two entirely separate concepts is to use the alternate spelling when referring to the philosophy. Future editions of official publications could incorporate this change to reinforce the difference and to foster the correct mindset.

Re-emphasizing Education

Minor edits in publications would be merely the beginning of more broad reforms necessary to recapture the spirit of the manœuvre revolution. Improving education is even more fundamental but is a far more daunting task. The first necessary change is to ensure the right instructors are chosen to teach this most basic tenant of Marine Corps’ doctrine. Instructors must be intimately familiar with not only the doctrine but also the history of its evolution. It is not enough to simply read slides reiterating MCDP 1. They must be familiar with the work of the manœuvre pioneers including Sun Tzu, Hart, Boyd, Lind, and others. They should know historical examples and be able to teach using them. Above all, they should have a deep knowledge of the primary source material and encourage students to read them as well.

Manœuvre is an interdisciplinary field. To study and truly understand it, one must look beyond military texts. A complete discussion of manœuvre encompasses broad fields of study to include history, psychology, physiology, engineering, sociology, and many others. Any instructor assigned to teach this subject should be widely read in more than just the official reference materials. Historical examples, psychological studies, and even cultural references should be interwoven into their lessons. Providing such texture would serve to elevate the study of manœuvre beyond the mere rudiments of machinegun employment and engagement area development.

It is virtually impossible to properly understand a concept without knowledge of the basics. This is no less true of manœuvre than of any other subject. System theory is perhaps the most fundamental element of manœuvre. The most widely regarded pioneer in this field was a biologist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Any discussion of manœuvre without a mention Bertalanffy’s work is lacking. His book, General System Theory (New York: George Braziller Inc., Penguin University Books, 1969) should be a primary source for any period of instruction. As the goal of manœuvre is to collapse systems, understanding how they work is obviously important.

An illustration of the vast nature of the study of manœuvre is to peruse the references of a key scholar. The list of sources John Boyd used preparing his presentation, “Patterns of Conflict” numbered 225 in the 1986 edition. His vast research spanned titles from James Gleick’s Exploring the Labyrinth of the Mind to Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare.6 In this, Col Boyd was merely following in the footsteps of earlier military education innovators. Gerhard von Scharnhorst, an early proponent of military education in the Prussian Army and mentor of Carl von Clausewitz, recognized, “Only a broad, liberal education in the arts and sciences, to include ‘a general spiritual culture,’ could develop leaders capable of waging war as an art.”7

This instruction should not be geared simply toward the relevant quiz. An understanding of manœuvre goes much beyond a simple regurgitation on a short answer or multiple choice quiz. The only way to truly evaluate a student’s understanding is to observe their decisions and actions in practice. Evaluators should observe a student’s ability to generate unexpected actions and to find ways to collapse the enemy systems confronting him.

The USMC Professional Reading Program is an excellent tool for reinforcing and expanding the education of Marines throughout their careers. Rather than being a constantly evolving list incorporating numerous titles of contemporary subjects and parochial heroes, however, it should be an enduring canon of essential works related to manœuvre. Though rich in our own history and traditions, many of the current titles serve more to teach Marines what to do, rather than how to think. Education, teaching people how to think, is far more important than training, teaching people what to do. The more the manœuvre mindset is reinforced, the better oriented Marines will be. As John Boyd always believed, the orientation aspect of the OODA loop is the most important.

An Offered Solution

The purpose of this article is not to merely highlight the shortcomings of the Marine Corps’ current collective mindset. It is certainly not an indictment of anyone in particular. Having spent several years researching this topic, I know how difficult it is to teach manœuvre. I have no intention of simply pointing out a problem without also offering a solution. I have prepared a period of instruction that I believe to be an improvement on the instruction currently offered. I have created a recorded version of the class. The presentation is available for all to view on YouTube.8 I believe it gives a good overview of the key components of manœuvre. At the very least, it should spark an interest in viewers to take it upon themselves to learn more.

Ultimately, the work of John Boyd and the other military reformers is not something that can simply be taught. The best possible outcome of instruction is an introduction of Boyd’s work. With encouragement, many will be inspired to then take control of their professional development to embark on their own journey of enlightenment. A real understanding requires individual study and reflection. This is a matter of intellectual evolution, a process that unfolds over years. There is no quick or easy solution for this challenge. But it is one that must be addressed properly as we reset the force if we are to be successful in future conflicts.


1. Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 2002), 378.

2. William Lind breaks down the four generations as: first generation–column and line formations of uniformed soldiers governed by a state; second generation–industrial firepower/attrition warfare with success measured by comparative body counts; third generation–manœuvre warfare involving mission-type orders and individual initiative; and fourth generation–the end of the state’s monopoly on war.

3. Stephen E. Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point, (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966), 100.

4. Ibid., 102.

5. B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy: The Indirect Approach, (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 1967).

6. John Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” (unpublished manuscript), 190.

7. Charles Edward White, The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militghtened Gesellschaft in Berlin 18011805, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1989).

8. Available at www.youtube.com/user/DisruptiveEnterprise.