Damn the Torpedoes

by Maj Jacob H. Wilde

In reading LtCol G. Stephen Lauers article “Damn the Torpedoes,” (MCG, Febl9) I struggled to understand how it was possible for a retired Marine infantry officer and current School of Advanced Military Studies professor to write an article supporting the basic tenets of attrition warfare. Such an article would have been completely at home in the Gazette during the mid-1980s with the debates surrounding the Marine Corps’ adoption of maneuver warfare doctrine, but that such antiquated thinking and assumptions about the character of war still exist in the mind of any military professional-to say nothing of one entrusted with the development of our future strategic thinkers-is both baffling and troubling.

LtCol Lauer states that the purpose of his article is to “demonstrate the extraordinary departure of the current Marine Corps Operating Concept from the traditional assumptions of amphibious operations.”1 Missing from this purpose is a recognition that in an ever-changing operational environment, military thinkers must continually question and reassess those traditional assumptions, and accept that they may no longer be valid. Throughout history, various developments periodically conspired to force a complete shift in the manner in which wars were fought. Whether one calls them “military revolutions,” “generations of war,” or some other label for classification, the fact remains that each brought a paradigm shift in the baseline assumptions and conceptualization of war. Those organizations willing and able to adapt to the new paradigm won and survived. Those unable or unwilling to adapt did not. The recognition that the character of war is in the midst of another paradigm shift is absolutely necessary if the United States is to retain its place in the world and succeed in its future engagements.

To defend his position, LtCol Lauer builds his argument on several indefensible assumptions. In the exposition of his first point, he argues that the British failed at Gallipoli because “the landing force lacked the land superiority to win decisively against numerically superior military forces of the Ottoman Empire.”2 A careful study of the failures at Gallipoli reveals that the relative lack of combat power was far from the decisive factor in the failed contest for Gallipoli. In fact, Lieutenant General Stop ford enjoyed a ten-to-one local numerical superiority for two full days at Suvla Bay.3 Had he attacked aggressively with the force he had, there is little question that he could have cut the peninsula in two and established a foothold to expand the lodgment ashore. Rather than an underwhelming force strength, it was weak and unimaginative leadership and a failure to press the attack inland that brought the Gallipoli campaign to its disastrous end.

The author derides the Ellis Group’s emphasis on expanding the concept of combined arms integration to include information and cyber warfare, calling it a

turn from decisive maneuver to a multi-domain and philosophical view of warfare that elevates the ephemeral over the tangible, the cognitive over the physical, disruption over destruction.^

Certainly, the author is aware that the Marine Corps’ foundational doctrine, MCDP 1, Warfighting, repeatedly refers to both itself and maneuver warfare as philosophies. Further, a significant number of notable military commanders and theorists have noted and extolled the relevance of the intangible arenas of war as being decisive. LtGen A. A. Vandegrift stated, “Positions are seldom lost because they have been destroyed, but almost invariably because the leader has decided in his own mind that the position cannot be heldV Similarly, Napoleon’s oft-quoted belief that “Moral is to the physical as three is to one,” further attests to the decisive nature of seeking victory in the moral and mental realms of human conflict-using every capability available-to destroy the enemy’s will to fight.

Regarding his assertion that the Marine Corps departed from a doctrine of air, sea, and land superiority and turned toward an emphasis on positional advantage to destroy or disrupt the enemy’s cohesion as late as 2014, indicates a complete ignorance of the development of the Marine Corps’ post-Vietnam doctrine.6 In his book, A New Conception of War, Maj Ian Brown explores the debates surrounding the adoption of maneuver warfare, which initially centered on how the Marine Corps could contribute to a NATO fight against the Soviet Union.7 In such a fight it was assumed that as an amphibious force, the Marine Corps would be outnumbered, out-gunned, and out-armored. The solution to this mismatch rested on a concept of mobility, maneuver, and high operating tempo in order to disrupt or destroy the enemy force’s ability to operate as a cohesive whole and enable its piecemeal destruction or incite its surrender. To suggest that this doctrinal concept did not emerge until 2014 is simply incorrect.

The idea that “the infantry is the Marine Corps” demonstrates an apparent misunderstanding of the true strength of the MAGTF and the fundamental purpose of combined arms integration.8 It further demonstrates a failure to recognize the changing character of war and that a more nuanced view of combined arms integration is absolutely necessary for success. Capabilities such as information, cyber, legal, and economic warfare can certainly be employed with significant effect to undermine or destroy an opponent’s center of gravity and erode his ability and will to fight. Nowhere in his article does the author address the possibility that the weapons and capabilities available to America’s near-peer opponents might prevent a landing force from even arriving at the operational area intact and retaining some modicum of surprise. The author’s conclusion that, “The Marine Corps has acquiesced into the sliding loss of its naval character and the irrelevance of any naval roots,” when the MOCclearly identifies the integration of the naval force as one of its five critical tasks is also baffling.9

Lastly, the author fails to clarify the conditions under which a massive amphibious operation might be employed as he describes. What strategic objective would it seek to accomplish? What use is a massed ground combat force against an enemy whose warfighting ethos is based in Sun Tzu and Mao Zedong-a lesson the U.S. failed to learn in Vietnam? Would the U.S. potentially seek the complete overthrow of a near-peer state, or is it more likely that the amphibious force might be used for more limited objectives, such as deterring or countering actions that threaten regional stability or the interests of the U.S. and regional partners? Without ties to strategic assumptions or objectives, such a concept exists solely for its own benefit-a product of what Chuck Spinney refers to as “incestuous ampliThe fi cation”-and is dangerously detached from reality.10

What LtCol Lauer essentially advocates is a return to the ‘”‘glory days” of World War II: The days when large forces of aggressive and disciplined Marines and Soldiers charged the beaches and wrestled terrain from the enemy by raw mass and firepower-and died by the thousands doing so. At a time when 71 percent of American youth are ineligible for military service of any kind, the prospect of wasting the lives of the narrow band of young people that are both willing and able to serve is unconscionable and self-defeating.11 Furthermore, the assumption of fighting on enemy soil far from home automatically limits the U.S.’ ability to introduce a numerically superior force ashore, particularly in an environment of contested sea and air control. The proliferation of sensors, unmanned vehicles, and other emerging technologies means that the U.S.’ reliance on the “few and exquisite” platforms required to support the author’s conception of amphibious war falls fíat against competitors arming themselves with “small, many, and smart” platforms that sidestep American strengths and exploit its vulnerabilities.12 Not only is the cost imposition upon the United States in such an engagement wholly unsupportable, but the unacceptable risk for which the author denigrates the MOC is significantly greater under his own operational conception.

Ultimately, the author builds his argument on an outdated conceptual framework and a set of assumptions about maritime operations that fails to recognize the changing character of war. It does not address the threats that emerging technologies and methods pose to American forces, capabilities, and interests. It further fails to recognize the capabilities that those same emerging technologies provide to U.S. forces as a means of exploiting maneuver and combined arms integration in new domains beyond the traditional land, sea, and air of the physical realm. This is dangerously regressive thinking. Drawing upon history is only valuable if the correct lessons are learned, and improvements at fighting the last war do nothing to improve the chances of victory on a wholly new and different battlefield.


1. G. Stephen Lauer, “Damn the Torpedoes: The Marine Operating Concept and the Failure of Decisive Maneuver from the Sea in the 21st Century,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: February 2009).

2. Ibid.

3. Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch, Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War, (New York, NY: Free Press, 1990).

4. “Damn the Torpedoes.”

5. Alexander A. Vandegrift, Battle Doctrine for Front Line Leaders, (Quantico, VA: U.S. Marine Corps Education Center, 1981).

6. “Damn the Torpedoes.”

7. Ian Brown, A New Conception of War, (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2018).

8. “Damn the Torpedoes.”

9. Ibid.

10. Franklin C. Spinney, Evolutionary Epistemology, (Online: December 2014), PowerPoint presentation, available at https://fasttransients, fi les .wor dp re ss .com.

11. Heather Maxey, Sandra Bishop-Josef, and Ben Goodman, Unhealthy and Unprepared: National Security Depends on Promoting Healthy Lifestyles from an Early Age, (Washington, DC: Council for a Strong America, October 2018).

12. T.X. Hammes, “The Future of Warfare: Small, Many, Smart vs. Few Sc Exquisite?,” War on the Rocks, (Online: July 2014).