At the Forefront of Tactical Thought

by Col Michael D. Wyly, USMC(Ret)

It is well that two articles appearing in the October 1993 Gazette (“Revise FMFM-1, Warfighting,” by Maj Philip E. Knobel, and “Dysfunctional Doctrine,” by Maj Robert S. Trout) recognize the need to change FMFM-1, bring it up to date, and keep it relevant, useful, and at the forefront. For even as we worked on it in 1989, we feared that, like previous doctrine, FMFM-1 would become ensconced as sacred and beyond criticism or modification. The omnipresent danger of doctrine is that it will inhibit needed change. Every new structure begins the process of erosion and decay the moment it is formed.

The benefit of FMFM-1, as originally written, was that it added four important new dimensions to our fighting style: (1) action by subordinates without waiting for orders; (2) dependence on judgment instead of methodology; (3) emphasis on speed more than control and on substance more than form; and (4) focusing outwardly on the enemy (and the entire surrounding situation, including civilian populace) more than inwardly on our own organization These new concepts were alien to our Marine Corps culture when I entered commissioned service in 1962. They remained so until we were well into the 1980s. But now that FMFM-1 has made them doctrine and they have been assimilated by a large number of Marines, we have gained tremendously in terms of fighting power.

So long as our equipment keeps pace with technological development, our new tactical concepts enable us to keep ahead of any enemy whose soldiers are less able to think independently than our own. This ought to mean all of the Third World. Our new tactical concepts uniquely equip us to overpower swift-moving, elusive guerrillas, as well as conventional forces with the latest technology and weapons.

Majs Knobel and Trout’s October articles are encouraging because officers are thinking, but discouraging because the thought appears only as entries in the Chase Essay Contest, a contest that rewards “boldness and daring.” That is, thoughts about changing doctrine are categorized as radical thoughts, just as they were in the days of the pre-1989 doctrine. Thoughts on changing doctrine continually ought to be the mainstream priority at Headquarters Marine Corps and Quantico, as well as in the Fleet Marine Force. Even before FMFM-1 was signed, I had a file of proposed changes in process. Where is the file now, I wonder?

I would take issue with the notion expressed in one of the two October articles, where its author contend that we should modify our doctrine to conform to the latest U.S. Navy and Joint Chiefs of Staff doctrine. To predicate Marine Corps tactics on another Service’s methodology, “senior Service” notwithstanding, would drive us back to the habits of the pre-Vietnam years, the very habits that slowed our ability to deal with the new kind of war that faced us. That is, the internal focus, or the lining up of one of our own organizations with another. The outward focus, to which FMFM-1 introduced us, predicates our actions on the situation that we are faced with. That is, our tactics would be dictated by awareness: awareness of the enemy, our surroundings, and unpredictable new faces of war.

As stated on page 69 of FMFM-1, Warfighting:

We should base our decisions on awareness rather than on mechanical habit. That is, we act on a keen appreciation for the essential factors that make each situation unique instead of from conditioned responses.

Another questionable feature of one of the articles in the October issue is the suggestion of a return to the principles of war, for whose rote memory the acronym MOOSE-MUSS was invented, toward what useful purpose no one has ever articulated. One need only look to the principles’ origin, as told by their originator, to appreciate the absurdity of their having dominated our doctrine for so long. It was 1919 when the British Army first took note of the work that J.F.C. Fuller had begun on his own in 1915, developing the list of “principles.” No sooner did the British Army incorporate the list into doctrine than the U.S. Army and Marine Corps followed suit. Fuller continued to work on and change his list over the years, based on his continuing study of war. His list had grown from six principles he authored in 1912 to nine, which the Army incorporated. Eventually it reached a height of 19 principles before descending again, down to 3, then to “economy of force” alone; and, at last, by 1929, to zero.

Fuller finally concluded that his “principles” were not principles at all, and rejected the whole idea, regretting that he had caused the entire British Army to forsake professional study to memorize his list unthinkingly, as if it were a ritualistic prayer. Meanwhile, we see military bureaucratic behavior at its worst. Ensconced into “concrete,” the principles remained in U.S. doctrine for 64 years, even after the British had abandoned them by 1980.

When I was on active duty the list of “principles” that were not principles served only to stymie thought. Can a list of words that speaks of “mass” but omits “dispersion” be principles? Is “speed” on the same level of importance as “economy of force” and “unity of command,” when speed alone enables us to shift from mass to dispersion and back again when the changing situation demands?

And herein lies one of the flaws in FMFM-1 that needs to be fixed. “Concentration and speed,” it says on page 31, “are two concepts of such significance and universality that we can advance them as principles.” Yet, speed seems decidedly more important, certainly for successful maneuver. And why should concentration be elevated above dispersion? Perhaps it ought to have been in Clausewitz’ time-and the “concentration and speed” idea came from Clausewitz’ On War when it was written into FMFM-1. The Brown Bess musket and its contemporaries, after all, had to be massed, or concentrated, to be effective. Many modern weapons do not.

I have to assume a certain amount of personal responsibility for Clausewitz’ concentration and speed being in FMFM-1, as they are. However, to take them out again, I remember, was first in my file of proposed changes for revision.

FMFM-1 needs to be revised in order to move beyond Clausewitz and his era. It needs to reflect the requirements of situations like Somalia, where the main excuse given for the defeat of American infantry was, pathetically, “We didn’t have the tanks.” Tanks were hardly the solution; better intelligence and better tactics were.

Action without orders, dependence on judgment, emphasis on speed and an outward force can be clarified well beyond FMFM-1’s expository. They can be expressed differently, revised, or added to. In the process of writing this article, I have done a synthesis of my own in order to extract what, after 4 years, seems to me to be the essence of the changes of 1989. These four ideas, however, more than any others, are what brought us out of a long period of tactical stagnation. To hold to FMFM-1 as if it were Holy Writ, would be to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors. Yet, to crawl back to the trenches of the nine “principles,” or to start all over from scratch, would demonstrate a real fragility in Marines’ confidence in their own contribution to the art of war.