Making Thinking Warriors

by Col Christopher Woodbridge USMC(Ret)

Last month, Gen Alfred M. Gray, USMC (Ret), the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, turned 90years old. In late April, the editors of the Marine Corps Gazette and Leatherneck had the chance to spend several hours with the General for a wide-ranging conversation about his decades of service as a Marine. Gen Gray’s commandancy in the late 1980s came at a pivotal time for the Nation and the Corps.

As Commandant, Gen Gray shaped the Corps’ warfighting philosophy and professional military education in comprehensive ways that prepared the Marines for the 21st Century. The approach to “leading by example” expressed by this tough, thinking warrior was developed over a career spanning enlistment in 1950, service as a infantry Marine and reconnaissance NCO through commissioning, command at every level, from the Corps’first signals intelligence unit and later 1st Radio Battalion in Vietnam to Fleet Marine Forces Atlantic and IIMEF, and ultimately to the Commandancy.

In retrospect, the ability to execute much of what wouldfollow for the Corps throughout the 1990s and into the new century, from victory in DESERT STORM to the concepts of the “Three-Block War” and from “The Strategic Corporal” to the hard-won battlefield successes of nearly seventeen years of continuous operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, can be traced back to Gen Gray’s initiatives.

Maneuver Warfare

When asked about the movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s that led to the development of the Corps’ warfighting philosophy and doctrine based on maneuver warfare, Gen Gray was clear about the “bottom-up” approach to affecting this kind of change in the Corps’ thinking.

“It was very clear coming out of Vietnam that we had to make some changes to our thought process about warfighting. No question about our history- our history was so great. No question about the value of the individual Marine or anything like that. One of the great tricks trying to get some of these things done by those of us who wanted to see some change, and there were many, but the art of really getting it done was to get it done from the bottom up within the context of the situation. You have a lot of senior people, for example, who don’t like change. You had to do this in such a way as not to alienate them because it doesn’t do the Marine Corps any good to have that kind of division. You have to preserve a sense [of] one Corps going forward. And so İt was very difficult. That’s why in the 70s and 80s, particularly in 1981 through 1986, we opted to to try to bring the new thought process of warfighting into being from the ground up instead of developing doctrine and going through all of the layers and challenges of bureaucratic thinking, staffing, and having papers approved at multiple levels. When you do that, you can have a lot of people who didn’t believe İn İt and a lot of dissent, all that kind of thing. We went the other way. The interesting thing was that we really gained “disciples” through exercises and application because the approach really worked in practice. This practical discussion of what really works was more than theory like Col John Boyd’s “OODA” loop, and this is what some people have missed in the way the change really came about.

“There were examples when wellknown leaders, who in some cases opposed our ideas, changed their mind during field maneuvers. An illustration of what we called recon pull’ instead of command push’ was in 1981 while 8th Regiment was training at Camp Pickett (Virginia) on how to break out of an encirclement. We had the regimental headquarters and one of the battalions reinforced with tanks, reconnaissance, and artillery. The other elements of the regiment were the opposing forces surrounding us with the rest of the tank battalion and recon and other supporting forces. The Regimental S-3, then Maj (later MajGen) Ray Smith, put out reconnaissance teams in a 360-degree type environment, and one of the recon teams reported, ‘Were out here by Checkpoint 16 … There’s nobody here.’ Smith grabbed the radio-we had the PRC-25 radio İn those days-and said, ‘the focus of the main effort is now through Checkpoint 16.’ They escaped the encirclement, and Smith became a believer. Well, when you get a young guy like Smith, who won the Navy Cross İn Vietnam, you’ve won a good guy over and you’re on the right track there.

“Whether İt was a platoon or a regiment, İt was freeplay with an opposing force, and İt was never scripted. You had to use your own reconnaissance to provide your own intelligence and use your own security and your own logisitcs and the like. At every level, the MEF always trained as a MAGTF, and we came to be known as “the Carolina MAGTF.’ It was a tremendous time and it was exciting for the young officers and the staff NCOs and the young NCOs because they were allowed to do things. We had already attacked the so-called mistake-free or zero-defect mentality. We said, ‘You know you can’t let people do things and learn without allowing them to make some mistakes.’ Of course we don’t want them to make mistakes, but when we care more about how we look rather than how we are, well that İs careerism and it is the antithesis of what we were trying to do.

“We were also trying to teach our officers and our noncommissioned officer leaders that you need to think one or two levels up the chain of command and be ready to take over at any time. We had talked a good game about that, but we never really practiced it. So we changed and routinely practiced this kind of thing in training. Very important to this is your understanding of the mission two echelons up and, of course, understanding the commander’s intent is crucial. Because that way you can operate on your own under the umbrella of intent without disrupting the whole overall game plan.”

Professional Military Education

Always a strong proponent of self-education and PME throughout his career> as Commandant, Gen Gray made the education of Marines one of his highest priorities. The impact of this focus remains with us today in the Commandant’s Professional Reading List and in the continued world-class caliber of the colleges and schools of Marine Corps University.

“In my own experience, we had learned a lot through reading. Most of what I learned through the years, I learned through reading. You can’t send everybody to school, so reading was a good way to learn. I wanted that for everybody. I said the privates and PFCs should read the Guidebook for Marines. Everybody else has to be in the reading program. And so from lance corporals on up, we had the reading program. And my thought was very simple: what I was trying to do was hook them on reading.

“I wanted to establish Marine Corps University to include non-resident courses for a Warfighting Skill Program, AWS {now EWS), Command and Staff College, and to have a Staff NCO Academy. I looked at what they taught at Fort Leavenworth {U.S. Army Command and General Staff College), and I looked at what they taught at Carlisle {U.S. Army War College) and at Fort McNair {National Defense University), and I paid a great deal of attention to what they were doing at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama {USAF War College). So hand in glove with our thinking through the years was to have a powerful non-resident program and the ability to grant accredited degrees to our graduates. We looked at all of the universities we could find that were involved in what was called ‘alternative non-traditional education’ like Thomas Edison University in New Jersey, Syracuse University, as well as programs at Oklahoma, California, and Florida for ideas on the non-resident programs and regional accreditation.

“Fet me say a bit more about my relationship with Maxwell, which is related to professional reading and the university. We couldn’t have an accredited university because we didn’t have a first-class library at Quantico. We had a small library on the second deck of Breckinridge Hall, the Command and Staff College. I had seen the library at Maxwell, and that was the genesis of the idea for the research center, so I set a ‘task force’ and sent Col Gerry Turley down there to see their facility. Then I approached Representative Ike Skelton and the other people İn Congress to support our research center-“library” has an administrative connotation, and I knew Congress wouldn’t buy that. There were several proponents of military education in Congress at that time, and I worked with them. So I got a lot of backing even though some people thought I knew nothing about Congress.”

In 1989, FMFM 1, now MCDP 1, Warfighting, was first published as the Corps’ capstone doctrine as the result of the bottom-up intellectual “insurgency”that embraced maneuver warfare, spearheaded by Gen Gray. Today, the General Alfred M. Gray Research Center is among the finest military research libraries. It also houses the Corps’ archives and the History Divison of Marine Corps University. MCU is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to grant graduate degrees with resident, distance for both EWS and CSC; and the Staff NCO Academy has developed into the College of Enlisted Military Education as part of a campaign plan to modernize enlisted PME. This legacy of learning continues to build Marines who are thinking warriors, better prepared for the uncertainty and unknown challeges of future warfare-all thanks to the vision of our 29th Commandant.

>Authors’ Note: Gazette readers can access Col Mary Reinwald’s companion article on Gen Gray in this month’s Leatherneck at www. mca-marines. org/leatherneck.