Complex Military Environment

By 2ndLt Jacob W Foster

There is dissonance between Marine Corps theory of maneuver warfare versus the linearity of our institution’s centralized systems approach to training. The Marine Corps identifies maneuver warfare as the keystone philosophy for defeating our enemies. However, a top-down systems approach to training and education curbs the flexibility of critical thought required of every Marine in the development of their decision-making abilities, which is inherently required for the application of maneuver warfare. The solution requires more focus on improving the decision-making capabilities of the individual Marine rather than checklist-style evaluation of proficiency.

MCDP 1 Warfighting identifies war as a “violent struggle between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills” and states that “success is derived from our ability to exploit critical vulnerabilities and attack the enemy’s centers of gravity.”1 To do this, we must identify enemy surfaces (or strengths), avoid them, and exploit gaps (or weaknesses) to generate the most decisive effect upon the enemy at the least possible cost to ourselves. To this end, the Marine Corps focuses on developing, studying, and implementing maneuver warfighting capabilities. The Basic School (TBS) in particular sets the institution apart from its counterparts in attempting to build a framework for newly minted junior MAGTF officers that are capable of executing the MAGTF mission and are competent decision-making students of the doctrine of maneuver warfare.

In the era of fourth generation warfare as outlined by William Lind in 1989 where modern challenges and technology adds friction and we are faced with a violent non-state threat, the ability of subordinates “who can manage the challenge of minimal or no supervision in a rapidly changing environment” is paramount.2 The result, as Gen Charles C. Krulak states in “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three-Block War,” is that there is an inherent need for not only commissioned officers but also NCOs who are trained and evaluated in their exercise of judgment and decision-making abilities.3 The product is that individual Marine’s ability to achieve a decision echoes the concepts of MCDP 1, Warfighting and MCDP 3, Tactics and is permeated through all elements of the warfighting unit down to the fire team level. Or in other words, Marines must understand not only the procedures of their profession but must also understand how the tactics they employ work to execute tasks based on commander’s intent to accomplish the mission. This symmetry of intent between commander and subordinate must be a part of the robust system of command and control.

MCDP 6, Command and Control highlights the human dimension of warfare, “Where the command and control system is that of a complex one governed by the human element.”4 Ultimately, systems are either complex or complicated, two similar but different concepts. For the most part, we as human beings like to believe that most things are complicated, which means that they are composed of a system that is ultimately knowable or understandable. A good example of this is a vehicle engine. If you are driving down the road and your vehicle stops working, you can conduct a root cause analysis and determine why the engine ultimately failed. However, most systems in regard to social phenomena (economic, political, etc.) are not complicated, they are complex. Meaning no matter how much we delve into the root of the problem or the system, it remains ultimately unknowable. We may be able to familiarize ourselves with certain trends we see in each system and thus act according to the probability of those trends recurring based on historical data. However, one can never accurately predict human behavior. To relate a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” No retrospective look into historical events can prove why or when a dozen Islamic extremists would board three commercial airliners in September 2001 or at the time predict the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Additionally, there are events that provide a catalyst for change in the system. These events can either be considered as static (often recurring at a high degree of certainty and a slow to change over time), or dynamic (events that do not occur very often but have a high impact on the relative system around them). A good example of a dynamic event would be the events that triggered the First World War: an assassination in Sarajevo served as a catalyst for a multinational conflict. For us, in our line of work with a countless number of uncertainties (“the fog of war”), warfare is fundamentally complex and dynamic. This leaves us to work in the least desired situation or rather the most difficult in which to achieve success.

Why does this matter? As an institution, we use a standards-based systems approach to training to validate the proficiency of our Marines to Congress and the tax-paying citizens of the United States. All Marines are trained to that standard for which government funding is allocated and verified. However, the method we train to this standard is with training and readiness (T&R) manuals from which performance evaluation checklists can be developed. For example, the collective task for an infantry squad to conduct a ground attack against an enemy objective is found in the T&R manual under the event code “INF-MAN-4001: Conduct a ground attack.” In the manual, the condition by which the unit will achieve the standard is written: given a unit, attachments, an order, while motorized, mechanized, or dismounted, and operating in a full range of environmental conditions, during daylight, and limited visibility. The standard is also listed: to accomplish the mission and meet the commander’s intent. Below this is listed the event components or performance steps which are a list of steps that will be evaluated to determine how well the unit is achieving the standard. Another example would be the specified enabling and terminal learning objectives of every concept taught in the Marine Corps. These are specific learning outcomes of a course of instruction that identify the material to be covered and have an associated amount of time allotted for covering each topic regardless of the difficulty of the topic and the time actually required to study the topic in depth. The problem with this process, especially in the collective skills series, is that it presents warfare as complicated and not complex. It does not train Marines to act in uncertainty, react to random events, or even emphasize critical thinking and achieve a decision, all of which are invaluable in combat.

Current Marine Corps training regimes are inadequate for the modern exigencies of maneuver warfare. As Michael Wyly makes clear in “Teaching Maneuver Warfare,” “Warfare is not an exercise of calculated and orderly response. Warfare is action. Decisive action. The student’s mind must be trained to act.”5 Yet, too often these systematic and orderly approaches to training are utilized in evaluating Marines to a standard for combat readiness. This effort focuses on verifying specific training events rather than the employment of outside-the-box critical decision making that is required of today’s small unit leaders. Evaluation is specifically myopic in observing Marines readiness. MCDP 6, Command and Control summarizes:

The essence of war is a clash of human wills, and any concept of command and control is not to eliminate or lessen the role of people or to make people act like robots, but rather to help them perform better. Human beings from the senior commander framing a strategic concept to a lance corporal calling in a situation report are integral components of the command and control system, not merely users of it.6

The question then is how can we improve the training and evaluation of Marines to employ the flexibility of commander’s intent to accomplish required tasks? First and foremost, it is up to the platoon commander to impart his knowledge to subordinates through training and education. There still exists a dilemma in how we share this knowledge and how training events are validated and verified to Congress.

Marine Corps training methods can and should be improved. We must ensure training is not limited to a check-in-the-box mentality and develop the means for allowing and demanding more critical thought and an understanding of how maneuver warfare is applied to training in the dynamic and complex system of war. Recommendations for the future would be to build Marines’ critical thinking ability, force Marines into situations with simulated randomness, and load the situation with uncertainty so that he must adapt and improvise to meet the standard (accomplish the mission and meet commander’s intent). We must engage in more force-on-force exercises where free play scenarios are the norm and not presented with an opposition force that has been designed to be defeated. Expressions of critical thought should be encouraged to all junior Marines who often have brilliant solutions and the ability to identify key problems. One means of doing this would be to encourage Marines to write and issue an award from a dedicated Gazette column as an outlet. Congressional evaluations must still be verified, but instead of simply checking boxes, the implementation of a board of experts can serve as a secondary means of evaluation. For example, the implementation of a battalion-training cadre whose primary purpose is to ensure readiness and proficiency in technical skill is met in addition to the Marines’ cognitive skill sets being employed tactically. In such a system, the use of judgment can be exercised and mission accomplishment can be achieved with or without checking every box.

The bottom line is that we must continue to hold each other accountable. As leaders, we are accountable for our Marines’ training—their successes and their failures. In addition, we are accountable to the American people. As leaders, we must ask ourselves: if our current means of satisfying our validations to Congress are limiting the development of Marines’ capabilities, are we really achieving this? We need to train for war as it exists today. Nation states no longer have a monopoly on warfare and chaos in the littorals can erupt into crisis at any moment. It will be the sons or daughters of America, the junior Marine, and the strategic corporal who is there to achieve a decision, not put a check in a box, and act in the time of crisis to accomplish the mission.


1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1 War fighting, (Washington, DC: 1997).

2. William S. Lind, et al., “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: 1989), 22–26.

3. Gen Charles C. Krulak, “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three-Block War,” Marines Magazine, (Washington, DC: 1999).

4. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 6 Command and Control, (Washington, DC: 1996).

5. Michael Duncan Wyly, “Teaching Maneuver Warfare,” article from Richard Hooker, Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology, (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993), 263.

6. MCDP 6.