Maneuver Tactics and the Art of War

by Capt C.A. Leader, USMCR

Sex, religion, and politics, we are counseled in The Marine Officer’s Guide, should be discussed among officers only with the greatest discretion. Each of these topics is of intense emotional concern and involves personal beliefs. Each subject is difficult to discuss objectively and quickly generates emotional and confused issues as each involves basic values and lifelong commitments.

Today, this same discretion should probably be exercised when discussing tactics. The current debates generated by maneuver warfare reforms have made tactics an emotional and confused topic which seems to threaten lifelong and basic values.

It may be that this confusion results because the basic tactical issue today is not one of conflicting doctrines of warfare as much as it is one of conflicting styles of warfare. When searching for a common denominator for the collective positions of the advocates and critics of what is called maneuver warfare, it appears that at base the conflict is whether war should be practiced as an art or a science.

Specific confusion and distracting emotion surrounding the advocated maneuver reforms can be attributed to three factors: a lack of focus inherent in the title “maneuver warfare,” the deep rooted and emotional misconceptions involved in the use of the German military model as an example of what is to be emulated, and finally, professional resentment of the origins and authorship of maneuver reforms.

Schwerpunkt, or conceptual focus of effort, is an elemental concept of maneuver warfare. It is surprising then to find that the word “maneuver” should be chosen by its proponents as a title. The word is so semantically confused as to almost preclude a theoretic focus. “Maneuver,” “mobility” and “movement,” although having very different specific connotations, are widely perceived as interchangeable. Although the practice of maneuver warfare does not demand mechanization or motorization, the perceived reciprocity of maneuver and the concepts of mobility and movement has created such a perception. “Maneuver warfare” as a title thus creates a most confused punkt in its focus.

Maneuver warfare is unexpectedly placing one’s force, either physically or psychologically, in an advantageous position relative to the enemy that will result in the destruction of his force. This destruction may be immediate and physical, such as by killing the enemy. It may be a psychological destruction resulting in his surrender. It may also be a combination of the physical and psychological, as when the maneuver generates such command dislocation as to allow exploitation and pursuit.

There was strategic maneuver in the movement of thousands of miles to leapfrog islands in our Pacific campaigns. There was also maneuver in the limited movement of the tactics developed to reduce mutually supporting Japanese defensive positions on those Pacific islands we attacked. The assault tactics of those World War II Marines were in many ways similar theoretically to those of the revolutionary sturmtruppen of Ludendorff’s 1918 offensive.

There is difficulty in describing a concept which is both tactical and strategic, physical and psychological, with the single word “maneuver” that has previously had a more restricted meaning in the English language. That the attempt to use the word this way has created confusion is not surprising.

The extensive reliance on German examples of the practice of maneuver tactics largely reinforces this confused focus. The Wehrmacht is incorrectly remembered as a predominantly armored, mechanized, and motorized force. This misconception applies also to their contemporary Soviet opponents. As a result, the identification of maneuver with the Germans raises the specter of Panzerarmees and Soviet tank armies fighting sweeping battles across the steppe. Many Marines initially find little of relevance there to the nature of the battle they expect to encounter.

Beyond this is the existence of a strong misperception of the German military that causes the use of it as a model to generate both negative emotion and perceptual confusion. There is strong Teutophobia based on what is seen as the antidemocratic base of the German tradition and particularly its General Staff. This is ironic in that the tradition of Prussian institutional excellence began with the reforms of the military by Scharnhorst to create a people’s army in the wake of the French revolution. The army was reformed but not the political system it served. Perceptions, however, are stronger than truths in the short term. And the perception exists that the German military was antidemocratic.

Finally, a great deal of resistance to objectively examining either current tactical doctrine or maneuver oriented reform is based on the authorship of those criticisms and ideas. There is a large, and understandable, negative reaction when criticism comes from persons not experienced in combat. That many of the authors of current maneuver oriented thought are civilian intellectuals creates most difficult credibility problems for them within military circles. This is unfortunate. Any theory deserves evaluation on its validity, not its origin. War, of course, is too important a human endeavor for us not to learn from Nazis, communists, barefoot Asians, and even intellectual theorists. Ultimately, theories of war are only disproved in combat, not by discrediting their authors.

In recent months the 2d Marine Division has dedicated considerable time to the study and practice of maneuver tactics. This effort will do much, as much as can be accomplished short of combat, to either prove the validity or inappropriateness of maneuver theory. If nothing else, by having Marines consciously attempt to develop the techniques to support or deny an American maneuver theory, the resulting doctrine will be our own.

Semantics in the defense of current doctrine has created another and bizarre source of confusion. Maneuver theorists have labeled current doctrine as “Firepower-Attrition” warfare. Amazingly, defenders of current doctrine accept and use the same term.

Firepower appears to have a valid application at some point in all theories of war. Attrition, though, is another ambiguous term which too often contributes nothing to the clarity of current discussion. It is another point of emotion. Maneuver theorists are viewed as naively denying the inherent violence and lethality of war. Those defending current doctrine, but accepting the definitions of terms provided by their critics, are placed in the position of being forced to advocate the acceptance of debilitating carnage in our own force as the norm in conducting war.

Maneuver and attrition on a battlefield are not doctrines but only reflections of the style of warfare employed. As such, the maneuver versus attrition argument does not focus on the most basic issue. Searching for the basic American concept of warfare will reveal that the central question today is more whether America is to practice war as an art or science than whether to use a maneuver or attrition style.

It is interesting to examine the roots of current doctrine in that period between the World Wars when America was digesting the lessons of her continental European warfare experience and developing the basic military institution with which, somewhat modified, U.S. forces still operate. The 1941 version of FM 100-5 Operations formalized what was to be American tactics throughout World War II and remains the grandfather of current tactical doctrine. It is interesting to discover that this field manual was written under the influence of Heeres Dienstvorschrift 300 (Army Service Publication), titled Truppenfuhrung (Command of Troops), published in Berlin in 1936.

Interestingly, then, U.S. doctrine since 1941 has been very basically influenced by Truppenfuhrung that provided the tactics the German Army, the given exemplars of maneuver practice, used throughout World War II. Martin van Crevald, in his new book Fighting Power (see MCG, Feb83) displays that whole sentences of FM 100-5 were plagiarized verbatim from Truppenfuhrung. Whole chapters, particularly “Doctrines of Combat,” display structure and theory obviously borrowed from the German manual. What is of specific interest are those parts of the German theory that were rejected in the American doctrine.

The introduction to Truppenfuhrung begins with the passage, “War is an art, a free creative activity resting on scientific foundations. It makes the highest demands on a man’s entire personality.”

FM 100-5 of 1941 had no introductory examination of the nature of warfare. It began with a preface expressing concern for the scientific management of war that is absent in the German model.

Van Crevald is in a position to pass a unique judgment on both American and German doctrine. As a Jew, he is unlikely to be infatuated with the German warfighting institution. As an Israeli, he views America with a detachment unattainable to the average American.

His conclusions in comparing the American and German models offer interesting insight into practicing war as an art or a science. Never losing sight of the fact that America won the war, van Crevald concludes that while the United States attempted to achieve an organizational efficiency that would result in efficiency in combat, the Germans were willing to accept an amount of organizational inefficiency in an attempt to achieve an institutional fighting effectiveness.

The handling of replacements provides a contrast between the two systems. The American model was to regard the replacements as a part of a manpower pool available for interchangeable assignment. This is obviously an efficient way to manage men as assets.

The German system was more inefficient as a management vehicle. It strove to instill a bonding of the individual to the regiment. Each division maintained its own training battalion in the rear with each regiment providing training for its own replacements within one of the battalions’ companies. Replacements thus not only knew in which division and regiment they were to serve but also met some of the officers and NCOs who would lead them in combat. Billets in the training battalion were used as a way to rotate officers and NCOs out of combat.

The two systems have obvious strengths and weaknesses. The American system, currently used by the Marine Corps, is more efficient for the scientific management of an organization. The German model is inefficient but desirable if the goal is to establish units cohesive enough that their increased fighting power offsets the management sacrifice. Van Crevald feels the German replacement system contributed significantly to producing the cohesion that allowed their units to fight effectively long after they knew the war was lost.

This is an interesting point for Marines to consider. Although we attempt to manage manpower scientifically, our avowed goal is to achieve the small unit bonding that is produced by a regimental system.

This conflict between ideals is not new. Reduced to basic assumptions, conflicts between theoretic ideals can normally be viewed as being created by one theory being based on a scientific and quantifiable ideal while the other rests on subjective, humanistic values.

Maneuver theory is undeniably subjective. Psychological dislocation, the adding of a psychological dimension to the concept of maneuver within the three planes, is subjective. The viewing of the enemy cohesion as an objective for attack is humanistic and not quantifiable.

The application of current doctrine, as evidenced by organization, is undeniably scientific in orientation. It is startling to realize the many parallels between our controlling national military organization and organized science as reflected by a research medical facility.

Computerization has vastly increased the ability to quantify the details of war and its attendant organization. It has given birth to the civilian analyst of war who is a pure military scientist-if anything as abstract as these scientists can still be considered military in the classic martial sense. This analyst bears a closer resemblance to the technician doing medical research than to the soldier. It is ironic that as we decry the intellectual military theorist we accept the equally abstract intellectualism of the civilian scientist and contract him as a consultant to explain war and how to win it. Consulting firms have attached themselves like pilot fish to the military. Sharks, however, only tolerate their parasites, they do not ask them for advise on how to fight.

War is studied by these men as if it were a distasteful but fascinating disease that eventually they will know enough about to cure. Solutions are sought to the eternal questions of war. The humanists argue, on the other side, that war will not be solved as any equation; that there are no formulas to understand. War is something that can be humanly understood but not scientifically known.

With such a collection of scientists developing weapons, systems, doctrine, and strategies on the national level, it should be little surprise that America makes war as if it were a medical problem.

At the highest levels, both the Vietnam and Korean Wars can be viewed as attempts to achieve remission rather than either political or military victory. The analogy was often made in both cases that Communism was a cancer whose spread had to be stopped. Unstated was that there existed no cure for either Communism or cancer and that the best case that could be achieved was a remission. Such a mentality readily accepts delineation of the remission by demilitarized zones and other demarcations. It also allows for the unimaginative pumping of men and materiel into Vietnam as if they constituted some social drug that could cure the poltical and military problem.

Our language increasingly betrays this medical and scientific view of war as we speak of “surgical interdictions” and battlefield “life support systems.” We embrace the softer sciences too. The number of sociological and psychological studies and surveys is legion. Problems that traditionally would have been handled within a regimental family as leadership problems are now examined by social scientists.

This friction between scientific and humanistic solutions to man’s problems is an ancient one. Dr. Otto Bird, in his essay Cultures in Conflict* studying the origin and history of conflict between theoretic ideals, traces the roots back to the ancient Greek separation of thought into logos and mythos.

Logos was the quantifiable, the absolute knowledge. Mythos was the unquantifiable, that knowledge humanly perceived but not objective. Having recognized the conflict, the Greeks also provided a thinker with a solution; Aristotle. This is of interest to warriors because Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander, by any standard one of the great fighters.

Aristotle divided knowledge between episteme, the scientific knowledge of the specialist, and paideia, a broader perspective of knowledge. The man of paideia was “able to form a fair offhand judgment of the goodness or badness of the specialists’ presentation.” The compatibility of that educational ideal with the belief that war is “a free creative activity resting on scientific foundations” is striking when one remembers that Aristotle provided Alexander such a paideiac education.

Aristotle also provided Alexander with advice on how to deal with the Persians. He recommended treating them as one would treat animals. Alexander, having well learned how to form a judgment on the specialists’ presentations, wisely chose to ignore this counsel.

Alexander’s basic strengths were his judgment and character. He was a persistently creative synthesizer of ideas rather than a creator of original thought. It was Epaminandus, his father’s general, who developed the tactical concept of unequal distribution of force to achieve local superiority that provided the Greek phalanx such an advantage over its adversaries. It was his father, Phillip, who raised, trained, and organized the Macedonian army and brought it to Greek preeminence. It was Phillip who redesigned the Macedonian spear.

The conquests of Alexander were not primarily the result of a tactical genius. Rather, they reflect the unusually creative practice of war as an art. He was a charismatic leader, a forceful character, and a decisionmaker as both judge and commander. His needs dictated his systems rather than his systems controlling his potential.

His indirect tactics, as for example at the Rock of Sogdiana, and his decision to adopt oriental manners while conquering Persia as well as his willingness to let defeated enemies serve him reflect a flexibility of judgment and international acumen previously unpracticed and presaged the use of similar techniques by the Romans and English to gain their empires.

The inflexibility of the primarily scientific approach to our similar problems in Vietnam dramatically reflects the weakness of the scientific approach to political and military problems and appears sound reason to explore alternatives. If war could be scientifically managed to success, Robert McNamara would have done much better in Vietnam.

Whether one accepts or rejects historical precedent, the choices today remain basic. As a Nation we can continue to practice war as an increasingly scientific and quantifiable pursuit capable of being considered abstractly divorced from combat. After all, one recent member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our highest war council, had no combat experience but did have a doctorate in physics. Or, we can regard war as a creative activity where the character of the warriors constitutes the greatest strength and determines the nature of the service of science.

Viewing maneuver warfare theories in the context of whether they reflect war as an art or science is illuminating. Such a context makes more readily accessible the theory of Col John Boyd. The OODA (Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action) Loop theory stressing the time competitive criticality of warfare and identifying the command orientation synapses of the enemyas objectives is generally accepted as a central tenet of maneuver oriented thought.

Boyd has produced the most creative American thought on war since the Mahans. His ideas are presented in theoretic form arrived at through a scientific method and are not easily accessible to the soldier. Although arrived at scientifically, Boyd’s theories are at base artistic. To implement the theories, the soldier must synthesize the scientifically explicit into the artistically implicit. There is a shortage of soldiers capable of that in America today. Boyd offers an American scientific base upon which to build an institutional application of the art of war.

Ironically, many who reject Boyd’s theories accept very similar, though not as well thought out, ideas by George Patton. The often repeated Patton dictum that “A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution 10 minutes later” reflects a recognition of the time competitiveness of warfare. An examination of the letters of instruction distributed by Patton to the Third Army reveals his attempt to formalize the specific actions that achieve the results of Boyd’s theories.

In contrast to Boyd, Patton arrived at his ideas more intuitively than scientifically. Despite the inherent dangers of formalizing his ideas, Patton’s thought was more accessible to the soldier than is Boyd’s theory today.

The compatibility of theory and practice, of the implicit and the explicit, and the fulfillment of the vision of war as an art based on science is found in comparative examination of the theory of Clausewitz and the practice of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein.

Mainstein was educated at the German War Academy. Despite the preeminence of Clausewitz in German military thought, his theory was not studied at the War Academy. General of Infantry Guenther Blumentritt writing after World War II explained, “Clausewitz made a science of war, therefore, he was studied by academics rather than by us soldiers.” Boyd is treated similarly today.

Blumentritt felt that only 100 soldiers in the German Army had read Clausewitz and that only 50 had understood him. Manstein does not mention Clausewitz in his war memoirs, Lost Victories, yet the reader familiar with Clausewitz cannot but be struck with Manstein’s understanding, restatement and implimentation of those theories. Neither can the reader not be struck with how comfortably Manstein’s methods fit into Boyd’s theoretic framework.

Manstein was a brilliant soldier, but the excellence of his military education was not based primarily on a study of On War. The excellence of the system that produced Manstein was that it contained soldiers who had been able to take the science of Clausewitz and turn it into a system perpetuating an operational art that could be taught to, and practiced by, the army.

It is at this hurdle that the armed forces of our relatively young Nation are poised. We must now do something coherent, articulate, and consistent if we are to strike an American balance between science and art in war that can be put into practice on the battlefield.

Whichever way we go as a Nation, or a Corps, we should consider well the strengths of America. If managerial ability, scientific technology, and gross weight of wealth constitute America’s real strengths, then our Armed Forces should be organized to reflect that fact. If, on the other hand, the character of the individual American warrior is our greatest strength, then we must progress in a different direction. The art of war, after all, is built upon the collective strengths of the individual combatants.

If the character of the warrior is to be the keystone, we must realine the professional education of our officers to articulate a unity of thought, realine the operational training of our units to reflect that combat is their purpose, and establish priorities in manpower management to support the combat cohesion of small groups of Marines as uncompromisable by cost or other conflicting consideration. To perpetuate the system, we must enforce promotion and assignment policies that reward men of character and fighting abilities rather than men of careerist polish and tact.

The Marine Corps has always leaned more towards those values traditional to the warrior. Being the poorer relation in the Defense Department family, the individual in the Marine Corps has retained a more vital role than in our sister Services. But we too have compromised our small unit’s cohesion in the quest for managed efficiency at the expense of combat effectiveness. We have not allowed our educational system and training priorities to support a consistent orientation for success in combat. And perhaps most embarrassing of all, we have allowed psychologists and sociologists to have an unwarranted influence in drawing us away from the simple, tribal form of leadership that provides the ultimate unit cohesion.

How we educate our officers to view warfare, how we train our Marines to fight, and how we build individuals into units will determine the results of our next combat. History will judge then whether we have done all that the soldiers of a democracy can do to preclude perpetuating a third generation of American veterans of unwon wars.


* Published by University of Notre Dame Press, 1976.