Father of My Spirit

by Capt Isaiah J Berg

During World War II, LtGen A.A. Vandegrift distributed a pamphlet entitled Battle Doctrine for Front Line Leaders} This pamphlet was published by the Third Marine Division, summarizing lessons learned by Marines engaged in fierce combat in the Solomon Islands. The pamphlet contains 41 proverbs of combat leadership, proven in the brutal infantry warfare of the Pacific islandhopping campaign. The final leadership proverb in Battle Doctrine for Front Line Leaders is perhaps the most important: “Battles are won during the training period.” In combat, our Marines demand decision making from their leaders. Decision making and mission tactics are the fundamental responsibility of officers and leaders in combat. Yet the decisive moment of preparation arrives before the last 100 yards to the enemy. Training İs critical, and, therefore, the fundamental responsibility of leadership outside of combat is education and mentorship. Horace wrote that “learning increases inborn worth, and righteous ways make strong the heart.” Great leadership outside of combat must teach more than it tasks. Commanders must be professors of their Marines’ minds, bodies, and spirits.

Gen John A. Lejeune s famous letter on the relationship between Marine officers and enlisted members, published in the Marine Corps Manual, 1921, İs helpful in illustrating this mandate.2 He describes a spirit of “comradeship and brotherhood” that “must be fostered and kept alive and made the moving force in all Marine Corps organizations.” He rejects leadership as superiority over those being led or as an excuse to demand servitude. A leader is to be a “teacher and scholar” who serves his Marines, responsible for their physical, mental, and moral welfare as well as their discipline and military training. This İs not to neglect the other dimensions of a Marine officer’s leadership. Officers shoulder a burden of moral and legal authority for killing. They must demonstrate character, endurance, resilience, and technical and tactical proficiency. Fundamentally, leaders İn combat must be able to make good decisions quickly. Our Marines demand this leadership İn combat.

However, time spent in training and preparation vastly exceeds time spent in combat. During this time of training and preparation, our focus must be on education and mentorship. This can be a challenge for some young Marine officers. Young officers are specifically prepared to supervise the tasks that fall within their occupational specialty, but mentorship and education are often murky by comparison. Very little of their training directly prepares them for it. Training schedules can still be compiled and submitted. Counseling letters and fitness reports and awards can still be written. But how can leaders rise above this bland, formal, procedural leadership and deliver the training and education that their Marines need?

One of the best gunnery sergeants I have ever worked with once said to me, “When I think of a great leader, I think of someone who can really teach me something.” An officer can wear shiny rank and be appointed to a position of authority, but he cannot fake competence. There İs no shortcut to earning trust and credibility. Teaching İs an excellent way to develop and evaluate one’s Marines. It also builds the teacher s own capabilities and reinforces the trust that makes teams lethal. My company commander once put me and our rifle company’s weapons platoon commander through a fire support tactical decision game during a large-scale field exercise, purely on his own initiative. The whole company was tired and thirsty after a few hot days of establishing our defensive positions and patrols. The tactical decision game was good training for us, and İt gave our company commander a tool for evaluating our capabilities. Most importantly, it reinforced for us that (1) our company commander was proficient enough that he could not only do but also teach at a high level, and (2) that he valued our development and training, not just in his words, but in his actions. When the new infantry battalion executive officer checked in, one of his first actions was bringing the battalion’s officers and SNCOs together on a regular basis for real professional military education. We would have some food and drinks and work through a case study or tactical decision game facilitated by company-grade officers and SNCOs. We were doing what a warfighting organization needs to do. I would go anywhere with leaders like that. They prioritized my learning and development and, in turn, the learning and development of our Marines. Good leaders carved out time in the schedule to prioritize the study of warfighting and tactical decision making.

The history of military education can also offer us some insight into effective training and education. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Europe was gripped by the Napoleonic Wars. Mass conscription, the rise of the nation state, technolog}7, and professionalization had transformed the character of war. This was fundamentally a social and political transformation. Leaders were being raised up in France on their own merit as opposed to their birth. Gerhard von Scharnhorst was a Hanoverian-born military officer who was hired to work with the Prussian military institute İn Berlin, the Militärische Gesellschaft. The Prussian aristocracy and ruling class was hobbled by social and cultural prejudices. This aristocracy dominated the military but disdained education and ignored the threat posed by Napoleon’s France. Scharnhorst was brought from Hanover on the strength of his reputation as a military leader who could think, teach, and make reforms.

Scharnhorst instituted a number of reforms, but his chief influence was on the students of the Militärische Gesellschaft who would go on to lead the transformation of Prussia’s military, especially after the Prussian defeat at Jena İn 1806. Among his pupils was the revered theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz.

In Scharnhorst, Clausewitz recognized qualities and achievements to which he himself aspired: a successful career in spite of humble beginnings, intellectual authority, manliness-a soldier who was not the passive agent of events, but one who tried to understand and guide themV

Scharnhorst’s work revolutionized the Militärische Gesellschaft and Prussian military education. His students studied philosophy, literature, and history in addition to technical and military subjects. Hard training in the field and academic study under Scharnhorst led Clausewitz to describe him as “the father and friend of my spirit.”4

Scharnhorst’s influence was especially remarkable because of his lack of combat experience. HİS first fifteen years of military service were spent reading, teaching, editing three professional journals, and publishing three books. He was commissioned İn 1777 and first went to war in 1792. He joined the First Coalition against France and demonstrated excellent leadership under fire until his return from the war İn 1795. The disciplined intellect that allowed him to write, teach, and study was the same intellect that prepared him for leadership in combat. Nothing could be more relevant to Marine officers today. There İs a famous image of Defense Secretary James N. Mattis as a Marine Captain, a few years after the end of the war in Vietnam, boasting a single ribbon and two shooting badges. He lacked experience, but he possessed the mind and mindset that he needed to lead his Marines İn war. Gen Matris would later write a famous letter to all officers who lamented that they did not have time for reading:

We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. ‘Winging it’ and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession. As commanders and staff officers, we are coaches and sentries for our units: how can we coach anything if we dont know a … lot more than just the [Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures]? What happens when you’re on a dynamic battlefield and things are changing faster than higher [Headquarters] can stay abreast? Do you not adapt because you cannot conceptualize faster than the enemy’s adaptation? (Darwin has a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing circumstance-in the information age things can change rather abruptly and at warp speed, especially the moral high ground which our regimented thinkers cede far too quickly in our recent fights.) And how can you be a sentinel and not have your unit caught flat-footed if you don’t know what the warning signs are-that your unit’s preps are not sufficient for the specifics of a tasking that you have not anticipated?-‘

If the men and women who lead Marines fail to build a teacher-scholar culture İn their units, Marines will deploy with procedural competency but without the creativity, judgment, and decisiveness required to win. Let us return once more to the young officer, recently graduated from his occupational specialty school, confident in his procedural acumen but uncertain about his capacity for training and education. What does he have to teach given his lack of experience?

Officers of any rank will be prisoners and victims of their own experience if they do not read widely and seek the experiences of others they wish to learn from. They have to be scholars hrst if they hope to be professors later. The hrst necessary step for all men and women who lead Marines is to read. Marines have no other choice if they aspire to be what Gen Mattis called the “‘coaches and sentries” of their units. Simple reading can form the foundation for some of the best training at the platoon level in the Operating Forces. Critical thought is the difference between mindlessly hitting the right codes İn a training and readiness manual versus understanding your future enemy and preparing to fight him and win İn an uncertain, chaotic, violent, and timecompetitive environment. Resources abound, whether in MCDP l, the Commandant’s Professional Reading List, Marine Corps University, or the Marine Corps Gazette’s, library of tactical decision games. Senior officers should prioritize the development of a digital library for their units, where tactical decision games, case studies, articles, books, and creative held training events can be widely shared and discussed without being lost. Time must be devoted to officers and SNCOs learning and studying together in order to “get a good rep” in making tactical decisions. If a unit does not prioritize its learning, İt will fail İn its warhghting.

Great leadership outside of combat must teach more than it tasks. Ask yourself, what have my Marines learned from me lately? What have I done to build their minds, bodies, and spirits? If you cannot conceive of anything beyond the procedural “what” of your daily routine, you are missing the “who” and the “why,” which are the foundations of an effective warhghting organization. Col John Boyd’s famous axiom was, “First people, then ideas, then things, in that order.” Attack your weaknesses through self-study, and share what you have learned. Pay close attention to your Marines and attempt to probe their weaknesses and strengths. Discuss and practice maneuver warfare. If you hope to succeed, this must be a team effort. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The soul environs itself with friends, that İt may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.”6 Men and women who teach will hnd themselves learning more than they thought possible. They will enjoy the fruits of solitude and self-study, the camaraderie of fierce bonds, and the soldierly affection that belongs to any father, mother, and friend of their spirit.


1. A.A. Vandegrift, Battle Doctrine for Front Line Leaders, (Third Marine Division, 1944).

2. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Manual, 1921, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922).

3. Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

4. Charles E. White, The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805, (New York: Praeger, 1988).

5- Geoffrey Ingersoll, “General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis Email About Being ‘Too Busy To Read’ Is A Must-Read,” Business insider, online at http://www.businessinsider.com.

6. Ralph W. Emerson and Joel Porte, Essays & Lectures, (New York: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1983).