Doctrinal Change: The Move to Maneuver Theory

by Col Michael D. Wyly, USMC(Ret)

Maj Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr’s “On the Verge of a New Era,” (MCG, Jul93) captures some of the history of the long struggle for maneuver warfare, but among the missing parts is the most essential: The real origin of maneuver warfare was in Vietnam in the 1960s. Had there been no Vietnam, no body-count strategy, no attempts by senior officers to apply outdated, rigid doctrine to fast-moving fluid battles, no lost war-and had there been no returning veterans, conscious of the inadequacy of our old doctrine-there would have been no maneuver warfare.

What’s more, had there been no William S. Lind or John Boyd, we would have continued our fight for a new style of fighting anyway. The hard lessons learned in combat left an indelible mark on the minds of many of us. But whether or not we would have prevailed in the end as we did without the help of a few outside the organization remains an unanswerable question. We were, after all, relatively junior in rank then, and our views were not favored by colonels and generals.

Our quest for a better way began in combat in Vietnam, as did our experiments with fluid tactics and high initiative at the lowest levels. The need for change was clearly visible at junior levels, among lieutenants, corporals, and sergeants, but often not so among the more senior. The problems in the years that followed were in getting the Corps’ hierarchy to admit that change was needed and in developing an articulation of what those changes ought to be. Maj McKenzie is correct that our observation of the Arab-Israeli wars, especially in 1973, added to our realization that change was urgent. But the struggle had already begun, inexorably, years before.

We who had already committed ourselves to change drew in Lind and Boyd because Lind’s appreciation of history and Boyd’s use of fighter tactics as a model upon which to rethink tactics on the ground added to our bank of source material for ideas. Both men had already become active on their own, outside the Marine Corps-their original dissatisfaction, too, having roots in their observation of Vietnam. But we gave Boyd and Lind as many ideas as they gave us, to which they have always freely admitted.

Lind’s name became disproportionately prominent partly because a rigid Marine bureaucracy found him a convenient scapegoat for criticism in their effort to defend the status quo. Of him they could say “He’s never been in combat so he can’t be right.” So a separate controversy having nothing to do with tactical thought arose surrounding him, a manifestation of George Bernard Shaw’s axiom: “All professions are conspiracies against the laity.”

The truth is that both Lind and Boyd were a tremendous help to those of us who had experienced combat on the ground and sought a better way. First of all, it had gotten lonely within the Corps for those of us pressing for change. As civilians, they could bring pressures where we could not, finding ourselves at every turn “outranked.” Contacts outside the Corps helped to broaden our horizons beyond the Vietnam experience as well, which was important because it was predictable that the next war would not be Vietnam all over again, though it too, would call on us to break from our old doctrine.

But all in all, it was what we saw in combat in Vietnam, contrasted against what Quantico through the 1970s and 1980s insisted on perpetuating as doctrine despite its irrelevance to real war, that drove us to our present style of fighting.