False Choice

by Maj Brett Friedman

The Marine Corps is not unique in its struggle to address an operating environment frequently characterized by both state and non-state irregular enemy forces equipped with increasingly advanced weaponry and technology. The other branches of Service have struggled equally despite a shared history of success against both conventional and irregular opponents around the world.

The Marine Corps is unique, though, in that its essential core ethos, maneuver warfare, remains a valid and powerful philosophy. Tested again during the opening phase of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the concept proved sound. As an institution, the Marine Corps continues to produce the kind of dynamic and innovative leaders required to execute maneuver warfare on the modern battlefield.

The Corps must decide, however, how best to address a global trend of adversaries who are increasingly potent given the rapid proliferation of advanced technology. The question of whether the Marine Corps should focus on conventional or irregular warfare itself implies a fallacy: that our maneuver warfare philosophy is designed solely for conventional war and cannot address irregular warfare. This is wrong. The Marine Corps can most effectively wage war against irregular organizations by scuttling the idea that our tactical philosophy is an inappropriate means to address the threats, redoubling our efforts to achieve mastery of those tactics, and fostering a better understanding of the strategic operating environment.

Just Good Tactics

At the tactical level, warfare operates on the same principles whether the actor is a uniformed, conventional soldier or an irregular fighter. A surprise flanking attack on an enemy’s weak point will serve both the professional and the guerrilla well. So-called guerrilla, or irregular, tactics are focused on speed, deception, surprise, and maneuver, but no good professional soldier or Marine should eschew such principles. These are simply good tactics. Any intelligent and effective military force will employ them.

Doctrine has long recognized the similarity between conventional and guerrilla tactics. The 1940 Small Wars Manual, for example, recognizes that all tactics are generally the same. In the section “Small Wars Tactics,” it states,

During the initial phases of intervention, when the landing and movement inland may be opposed by comparatively large, well led, organized, and equipped hostile forces, the tactics employed are generally those of a force of similar strength and composition engaged in major warfare. *

Even in later stages,

the tactics of such infantry patrols are basically the military methods, principles, and doctrines of minor tactics, as prescribed in the manuals pertaining to the combat principles of the units concerned.3

The principles of war that the manual refers to include “mass, movement, surprise, and security.”3 Essentially, the Marines of the small wars era recognized that when it came to the actual fighting, the tactics and principles were similar to those of conventional wars. Even former Commandant of the Marine Corps MajGen John A. Lejeune attributed the success of Marines in the First World War-some of the most “conventional” warfare in history-to the skills and experience they gained fighting guerrillas in the Banana Wars.4

Major strategic theorists would agree. Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his war college lectures on small wars that

the use of weaponry in Small Wars is not different from that in Large Wars. The same is true of those things that are taught to soldiers. Flanking … and sniping … are in Small Wars just the same as in Large Wars.3

Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese guerrilla leader and theorist, prescribed tactics to his fighters:

In guerrilla warfare, select the tactic of seeming to come from the east and attacking from the west; avoid the solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow, seek a lightning decision. When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws.1^

Marines will recognize this as good advice for any type of warfare and can identify the same concepts in our own doctrine, for our capstone doctrine plays the same notes. MCDP 1-0, Marine Corps Operations, for example, uses phrases like:

Avoid the enemy’s strength and attack his weakness by focusing combat power against the enemy’s critical vulnerabilities. Isolate the enemy from his sources of support … Strike the enemy from unexpected directions.3

Perhaps it would have just been easier to cite Tse-tung than to write the above. MCDP 1, Warfighting, defines maneuver warfare as

a warfighting 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.8

The best way to achieve this end state is through mass, movement, and surprise, or guerrilla warfare. Maneuver warfare has been criticized as just being good tactics. It is. So is guerrilla warfare. In fact, the two are so similar that MCDP 1 explicitly states,

[Maneuver warfare! applies regardless of the nature of the conflict, whether amphibious operations or sustained operations ashore, of low or high intensity, against guerrilla or mechanized foe, in desert or jungleP

The strategic studies’ academic community has also noticed the similarity of these works’ tactics. In a monograph for the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute called Categorical Confusion?: The Strategic Implications of Recognizing Challenges as Either Irregular or Traditional, Professor Colin S. Gray examined whether dividing war into conventional and irregular warfare makes sense. He unequivocally concluded,

It is an error amply demonstrated by historical evidence to divide threats, challenges, war, and warfare into two broad, but exclusive categories-irregular and traditional (regular, conventional).10

The conclusion for the Marine Corps is clear: there is no distinction between irregular and conventional warfare. If the Corps continues teaching its members an inaccurate conception of warfare, it can hardly expect to be successful at waging it.

The best academic study of this convergence of tactics in modern warfare is Stephen Biddle’s Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. Biddle found that modern technology virtually mandates some tactics as opposed to others. Those tactics he refers to as the “modern system.” He found that good offensive tactics are “cover, concealment, dispersion, smallunit independent maneuver, suppression, and combined arms integration.”11 Defensive tactics, he found, operate on largely the same principles,

[demanding] much the same exposurereduction tactics of cover, concealment, dispersion, suppression, combined arms, and independent small unit maneuver that modern system attackers require, albeit adapted to the particular problems of the defense.13

Yet what the modern system actually describes are tactics that we normally associate with guerrillas. Now, everyone on the battlefield must use them-soldier and guerrilla.

When military professionals, guerrilla fighters, and academics all agree on which tactics work and which do not, it leads to one inescapable conclusion: when tactics are good for one mode of operation, they are good for another. Thus, the true difference between conventional and irregular warfare lies not in tactics but in differing strategic precepts. Differences in uniforms, armament, and professional training are minute when compared to the strategic differences between the guerrilla force and the conventional military. The tactical principles for the soldier and the guerrilla seem similar because they are similar: they are just good tactics.

The distinguishing factor between conventional and irregular war can be explained by the ideas of two strategic theorists: Hans Delbrück and Navy RADM J. C. Wylie. Delbrück was a German historian who believed that there were two modes of strategy: Niederwerfungsstrategie (strategy of annihilation) and Ermattungsstrategie (strategy of exhaustion).13 A strategy of annihila- tion is focused on the quick destruction of the enemy at a concentrated point in time. A strategy of exhaustion, however, is predicated on the wearing down of the opponent vice a fast campaign of attrition. Whereas Delbrück used time to differentiate between the two modes of strategy, Wylie viewed process as the distributing factor. His two modes of strategy are sequential strategies and cumulative strategies.14 In a sequential strategy, each tactical event (battle, operation, movement, etc.) follows logically from the previous one and is contingent upon its predecessor eventually leading to a target that achieves victory. The island-hopping campaign of the Pacific Theater during World War II is an example of a sequential strategy. In a cumulative strategy, however, tactical events are not necessarily connected in a one-after-another manner but happen in a seemingly random pattern. Victory is achieved when one side has simply had enough. This is the strategic logic behind many guerrilla campaigns, such as the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

/Executing a strategy of annihilation in a sequential manner usually requires a professional, organized military force to do the heavy lifting. A cumulative strategy of exhaustion, however, does not. Any force that lacks the required strength to execute the former-such as a guerrilla organization-will choose the latter. A cumulative strategy of exhaustion requires tactics that help to outlast the enemy: ambushes, surprise, deception, and the ability to hide amongst a population. A force with a strategy must be beaten at its own game, outlasted and out-exhausted. A strategy of annihilation, however, cannot succeed against an enemy that refuses to be annihilated. Since 9/11, the U.S. military has attempted to do just that and has focused on defeating insurgent tactics-of IEDs, etc.-while it needed to confront its strategy of exhaustion. This only highlights how important it is for Marines to understand strategy in order to execute tactics successfully.

There are many competing but ultimately distracting concepts that are marketed and sold to the U.S. military. Stylish but shallow concepts like hybrid warfare, asymmetric warfare, and gray-zone conflicts are simply the recognition of an ancient truth that has recently become more obvious: a strategic actor will not eschew one form of tactics for another except in rational self-interest. Given similar equipment, each strategic actor will choose the most effective tactics. This is not to say that there are not important and significant differences between conventional and irregular wars and the actors that wage them. There are. But when it comes to the actual fighting, at bullet and bayonet range, the same tactical principles apply.

Technology and Trends

The ever-increasing lethality of firepower and proliferating intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technology is driving a convergence of conventional and irregular methods. If modernization and the spread of technology will eventually produce a general consensus of which tactics are effective and which are ineffective, then in what direction is technology currently driving tactics? Fortunately for the Marine Corps, there is a lot of data to be gleaned from conflicts around the world. What current events show us is that technology is not driving toward new tactics but rather tactics that raise the cost of poor decisions. Biddle’s modern system still holds, but the consequence of failure ıs not just high casualties but the annihilation of entire units. This trend has long held true for our enemies, seen in the Battle of 73 Easting or An Nasirıyah. The trend has now caught up with us.

Still, it is folly to try and differentiate conventional and irregular fighters based on equipment. The Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 vastly outgunned the French Army units it surrounded. The Islamic State (or ISIS) was much better equipped than most other “guerrilla” forces because it captured avast amount of American-made equipment from the Iraqi Army. Additionally, state-sponsored irregular forces like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Donetsk separatists in Ukraine have access to the most modern military equipment. These ongoing conflicts demonstrate the convergence of tactics normally associated with either conventional or irregular warfare.

This is not to say that warfare is not changing or that modern technology is not driving those changes. Both those statements are true. Timeless tactical principles endure but express themselves in novel ways on the battlefield. Cover and concealment, for example, is of vital importance for both professionals and guerrillas as the ubiquity of aerial surveillance drones with long loiter capabilities grows. This is why First World War-style trench works have begun to reappear in places like Donetsk and Mosul, Iraq. The use of ambushes, of course, has been a dominant tactical maneuver in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and IEDs have driven American tactical and equipment adaptations like the MRAP. Firepower, as usual, retains value. Russian artillery fired at targets spotted by UAVs in Ukraine, and ISIS used waves of vehicle-borne IEDs to shape its objective of Ramadi.

What these trends show is that while tactical principles remain the same, failure to adhere to these principles leads to dire consequences, thanks to the proliferation of aerial and precision guided munitions. The use of poor tactics promises not just casualties-but massive casualties.

Implications for the Marine Corps

There are numerous implications of dropping the regular/irregular dichotomy from Marine Corps doctrine. All are necessary to preserve the long-term utiliry and viability of the Marine Corps as a warfighting institution.

When it comes to the tactical level, the Marine Corps has more opportunities than threats. Maneuver warfare, as a warfighting philosophy, is well-suited to the character of modern warfare. The other major strength, perhaps the Marine Corps’ greatest strength, is its NCO corps. Future tactics are in the hands of our NCOs more than anyone else’s, and MCDP 1 recognizes that. Indeed, its use depends on it. Unfortunately, institutional traditionalism frequently clashes with a maneuver warfare mindset. Our capstone doctrine is an ideal for which we must continue to strive; when tradition and philosophy clash, tradition must give way.

Tactical implications include:

* Teaching “guerrilla” tactics at the School of Infantry, Marine Combat Training, and Infantry Officer Course. Let Marines learn to fight as individuals and in small teams in freeplay, force-on-force exercises first, and then build up from there.

* Refocusing training at these schools on the principles of war taught not as a checklist to memorize but as parameters to evaluate tactical options. Train tactical judgment by exercising it.

* Teaching every concept as a lecture, then as a sand table tactical decision game, then a student-led planning phase, then a practical exercise. This method is already used at TBS to great benefit.

The Marine Corps has less inherent strength at the strategic level. It is not so much falling behind the other Services in developing strategic and innovative leaders as it is refusing to join the race. Other Services have strategists by MOS, world-renowned war colleges, and publishing arms that attract talent military and civilian. These institutions and individuals constantly evaluate and research future environments, fostering better vision and strategic planning. With the exception of Marine Corps University, the Marine Corps fails to employ such resources. We prefer to employ common Marine phrases like “stay in your lane” or “shut up and color.” These phrases should be abolished as emblematic of intellectual laziness. The luxury of burying our heads in the sand of tactics is one we can no longer afford.

This can be fixed by revamping the education system for officers. Resident PME should refocus on broadening an officer’s base of knowledge in military history and strategic theory rather than teaching doctrine and enforcing its dogma. Familiarity with and adherence to doctrine are the responsibility of the officer and his chain of command when stationed in the Operating Forces. It is a waste of time and resources to reiterate it during PME. As NCOs increasingly dominate the realm of tactics, officers will increasingly need to understand the broader strategic context of the battlefield. Instilling a lifelong study of war in our officers from the very beginning is no longer an option but a mandate.

Strategic implications include:

* Eliminating the Center for Irregular Warfare Integration Division. It makes no sense to segregate irregular tactics in an office aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico.

* Making selected books from the Commandants Reading List mandatory for officers at each grade. Physical fitness is already mandated by HQMC, but mental fitness is merely encouraged.

* Introducing strategic theory to officers at TBS, expanding the strategic theory curriculum at Expeditionary Warfare School, and fostering expertise in strategic theory at the Command and Staff College. A crawl, walk, run approach is appropriate, but officers should be crawling as lieutenants, not as majors.

* Expanding the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s Ellis Group. Use the personnel and cost savings from shuttering the Center for Irregular Warfare Integration Division to turn the Ellis Group into a more robust and capable office.

These subtle and inexpensive changes will work slowly but in the long term will reap dividends for the Marine Corps and its members.

Security Cooperation and Building Partner Capacity

A solid foundation in strategic theory will be necessary for our leaders who will not just be called upon to fight but also to work with foreign partners. Security cooperation was a key component of Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM, and the United States will increasingly work with and through partnered nations. Building partner capacity is not just a feature of irregular warfare; it never has been. Both World Wars and the Korean War had major building partner capacity components. Wherever and whenever Marines deploy, security cooperation will occur.

Eliminating the assumption that there is a practical division between irregular and conventional tactics will allow Marines to become better partners. Building the tactical expertise of all Marines, and specifically NCOs, will make them ideal partners and trainers. Equipping officers with the intellectual tools to understand strategic and historical contexts will enable them to tailor instruction and training plans to the specific needs of any partnered force. These efforts, in turn, will build a common tactical language and a common strategic outlook among the archipelago of American allies, thus improving the interoperability, cooperation, and coordination of those forces in any situation before that situation occurs. The security cooperation efforts in recent years have been ad hoc and sporadic, rarely advancing beyond basic low-level tactics. When it comes to partnering, Marines should never be put in the position of starting from scratch again.


The irregular warfare debate is stymied not by a lack of answers but by continual appeals to the wrong questions. Should the Marine Corps focus on conventional or irregular war? What is the right mix? How can the Marine Corps succeed in irregular warfare? These are all questions founded on an erroneous assumption that the tactics are vastly different for each. The face of every war will indeed be different, but the principles remain the same. LtCol Pete Ellis said it best when discussing how Marines can succeed in war:

It is not enough that troops be skilled infantry men and jungle men or artillery men of high morale; they must be skilled water men and jungle men who know it can be done-Marines with Marine training.

At a time when the other Services and the DOD are focused on the next technological leap-ahead-and sacrificing training and education to pay for it- the Marine Corps should refocus on and strengthen tactical training, strategic education, and its battle-tested warfighting philosophy. It should drop the distracting conventional/irregular dichotomy and refuse to chase the intellectual flavor of the week. This will make Marines ready for and adaptable to any situation and make the Marine Corps itself more valuable and successful as a partner and ally. In short, Marines with Marine training will be ready for any clime and place.



1. Headquarters Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual, (Washington, DC: 1940).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. John A. Lejeune, The Reminiscences of a Marine, (1930).

5. Christophers Daase and James W. Davis, Clausewitz on Small War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

6. Mao Tse-tung, translated by Samuel B. Griffith, On Guerrilla Warfare, (Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

7. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1-0, Marine Corps Operations, (Washington, DC: 2011).

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Colin S. Gray, Categorical Confusion?: Strategic Implications of Recognizing Challenges Either as Irregular or Traditional, (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2012).

11. Sam Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Warfare, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).


13. Gordon A. Craig, “Delbrück: The Military Historian” in Peter Paret, Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986).

14. RADM J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016).