Maneuver Warfare: A defense

By B. A. Friedman

Since the last revision of Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP 1), Warfighting 17 years ago, the Marine Corps’ fighting philosophy has proven itself time and again. The flexibility of the maneuver warfare ethos allowed the Marine Corps to pivot from brutally effective major combat operations to low-intensity counterinsurgency operations all while maintaining our crisis response abilities as proved by Operation Odyssey Dawn and humanitarian relief operations in Haiti, Japan, Pakistan, and the Philippines. In all of these varied operations, it has been the small unit leaders who have translated intent into action, whether in combat or not. In so doing, those small unit leaders have proven the efficacy of the tenants of maneuver warfare. As the Marine Corps resets itself after Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, it is an appropriate time to examine its operating software, our foundational doctrine. One effective way to examine Warfighting honestly is by viewing it through the lens of its critics.

Perhaps the most famous attack has been that written by William F. Owen in 2008, The Manoeuvre Warfare Fraud.1 In that article, Owen attacks maneuver warfare on various grounds, including the existence of a maneuver-attrition dichotomy, the validity of B. H. Liddell Hart’s indirect approach, and the usefulness of the OODA [observation, orientation, decision, action] loop. Others attack the existence of the operational level of war, an important facet of MCDP 1. The most telling attack, however, is the unintended one raised by the Attritionist Letters published by the Marine Corps Gazette: the fact that there is a widening gulf between what we preach and what we practice. The author or authors clearly espouse maneuver warfare, but the lack of adherence pointed out by that series should worry us all.

Despite these attacks, Warfighting has endured and has become ever more ingrained in the fabric of the Marine Corps. Its attackers have yet to point out a fatal flaw. Still, in the finest traditions of maneuver warfare, the attacks should not be discarded but rather utilized to improve Warfighting, last revised in 1997. When Gen Alfred M. Gray told John Boyd that he had signed the first version, Fleet Marine Force Manual 1, Boyd said, “Okay, General. Now you have to start changing it.”2 It’s up to today’s Marines to continue the work of improving Warfighting, so a look at its critics can be instructive.

Maneuver versus Attrition

The biggest problem for maneuver warfare proponents is the simplistic maneuver versus attrition warfare dichotomy that occupies a central place in the document. There is really no such thing as attrition warfare: there has never been an attrition warfare theorist or book that proposed that attrition warfare should be utilized. Rather, attrition warfare serves as a straw man against which to compare maneuver warfare. Warfighting thus depicts every aspect of poor tactics and leadership—direct attacks, methodical planning, centralized decision making, firepower-focused, etc.—as “attritionist.” Maneuver warfare then becomes just a collection of good tactics.

Warfighting is not just about choosing good tactics, though. It is about connecting good tactics with the defeat of the enemy’s will to continue fighting. Attrition plays a big role in defeating that will. As Owen wrote in The Manoeuvre Warfare Fraud, “Most battles have been won, or operations have been successful because a percentage of the enemy was killed and the rest gave up. By far the simplest and most easily understood methods of breaking an enemy’s will is to inflict great violence and death upon him.” While true, maneuver warfare principles are more effective at causing this attrition and are intended to connect physical attrition with its effects on the enemy’s will. By separating maneuver from the necessary attrition of the enemy’s forces, the false dichotomy breaks the connection between physical action and psychological effect. As Marines well know, the aim of tactics is not just attrition but on what and for what reason we use maneuver to afflict attrition. Warfighting makes attrition a dirty word by using it as a bin for ineffective tactics and leadership styles thus clouding the dynamic interactions at play on the battlefield.

Indeed, there is an attempt to correct this confusion about firepower and attrition in Chapter 4, but it would be best not to introduce this confusion at all.3 Warfighting could be revised without relying on the attrition versus maneuver crutch by utilizing a better explanation of this dynamic. Attrition has a vital role on the battlefield and causes powerful psychological effects. But thoughtless attrition employed for attrition’s sake may not contribute to the destruction of enemy cohesion and will, violating the principle of economy of force and possibly increasing the amount of force that must be applied to achieve that destruction.

The Operational Level of War

In recent years, the concept of the “strategic corporal” has been in vogue. This is basically a phrase pointing out that the decisions of corporals can have strategic effect. This is not new: a strategy can only be accomplished by and through tactical actions; thus, every tactical action has a strategic effect. No actor on the battlefield or in the chain of command is just a tactical or just a strategic actor—each one is both.

This fact was forgotten in recent years after the adoption of the “operational” level of war by both the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps after first being published in Field Manual 100-5 (FM 100-5, Operations, (Washington, DC, June 2003)). In a 2009 paper for the U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute entitled, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy, Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan wrote:

In the American/NATO usage of FM 100-5, rather than meeting its original purpose of contributing to the attainment of campaign objectives laid down by strategy, operational art—practiced as a level of war—assumed the responsibility for campaign planning and, by reducing the political leadership to the role of “strategic sponsors,” quite specifically widened the gap between politics and warfare. The result has been a well-demonstrated ability to win battles that have not always contributed to strategic success.”4

The imposition of this new level in effect created a conceptual wall between tactics and the policy goals they were intended to serve, and allowed high-level leaders to abdicate their responsibility to execute strategy by identifying themselves as operational leaders. This fosters the idea amongst practitioners that strategy is not their problem, they need only be concerned with the tactical problems at hand.

The inclusion of this wall is especially harmful in MCDP 1. It is meant to be read by all Marines, but the use of the operational level makes part of the intended audience—those strategic corporals, lance corporals, and privates—feel like strategy is so far beyond them that it is not their concern. This is definitely not the intended lesson, and the experiences of the last decade bear out the problem. The actions of each Marine on the battlefield adds to or detracts from progress toward the strategic end state. At its core, Warfighting is a document meant to teach Marines how to think about the tactics they are meant to employ. It cannot do this effectively when it also teaches Marines to think about those tactics in isolation from the strategic context. Tactics employed without regard to strategy are at best wasteful and at worst counterproductive. This concept is something that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan understand at an intuitive level since they frequently witnessed tactical brilliance fail to meet strategic end states. As new Marines begin to enter service, this insight is something that must be taught.

The removal of the operational level would strengthen Warfighting as a philosophy while simultaneously making it easier to understand and to teach to junior leaders. When Marines better understand their role in strategy and the role of the tactics they carry out, it will enable them to make better decisions, thus increasing the trust senior leaders have in their subordinates when utilizing decentralized decision-making principles.

The OODA Loop After

MCDP 1 states that the intent of maneuver warfare is for the Marine Corps 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.

Then what?

Shattering the enemy’s cohesion is all well and good, but once that occurs, we cannot click our heels and be transported back to Kansas. The enemy, though presumably ineffective, still exists and the end state intended to be reached through the defeat of the enemy has not been achieved. (Unless the policy is pure destruction.) Once we have out looped our enemy, what does the OODA loop after that entail?

What’s missing from MCDP 1 is the exploitation of battlefield success. Clausewitz considered the exploitation of battlefield success to be second in importance only to victory itself.5 In On War, in a chapter titled “Strategic Means of Exploiting Victory,” Clausewitz wrote:

Meanwhile, what remains true under all imaginable conditions is that no victory will be effective without pursuit; and no matter how brief the exploitation of victory, it must always go further than an immediate follow-up.6

Strategic effects of tactical victories cannot be achieved without the exploitation phase of combat because truly decisive effects can be achieved once the enemy is in disarray. Simply winning on the battlefield accomplishes nothing. Using battlefield success to further the strategy is the only path to victory, and Warfighting is silent on this point. While it is true that the United States Marine Corps is not a strategy-making organization, it is responsible for the prudent use of tactics to achieve the strategy as set forth by higher authorities. It is impossible to choose and execute appropriate and effective tactics if Marine leaders do not understand—or willfully choose to ignore—their connection to the strategy.

Preaching and Practice

The most damning attack on War fighting is that the Marine Corps has yet to implement it. While the document was signed, it is still an ideal that we are striving to reach. Micromanagers are cursed in Warfighting, but are not only tolerated in the Marine Corps, they flourish. Centralized decision making has crept into the institution after more than a decade of canned predeployment training.7 Methodical, process-driven planning is denounced, but the Marine Corps Planning Process remains essentially unchanged as professional military education students at all levels are rewarded for following the process and punished for not doing so. In the section on equipping, Warfighting warns against the acquisition of leap-ahead technology, but our pursuit of extremely expensive platforms in recent years ignores it.8 So too the proliferation of more and more C2 systems shows that we ignore a warning in that very same section.9 Warfighting recommends that we strive for stability of personnel in operating units, but our personnel management policies make such stability impossible.10

The articles known as the “Attritionist Letters” that have appeared in these pages in recent years are one example of a warning sent up by someone or a group of someones in our ranks that sees this problem. Another example is Capt Daniel O’Hara’s article in the May 2014 issue of this magazine:

Calls for empowerment coupled with stiff top-down regulations are empty rhetoric. Marines are generally clever and will see through that. If we truly count ourselves as professionals, does it not follow that we should provide our NCO corps the freedom and trust expected of the position? Should we not focus on their education and allow them to solve the disciplinary problem, maybe each unit in its own way, with an eye toward end state?11

A reawakening can be accomplished through a refocus on Warfighting as our foundational philosophy. But when NCOs read and reread that document and then witness senior leaders ignoring it, they will lose that vital faith in the organization that will allow them to reach their full potential.

In 1970, following the My Lai Massacre, Army Chief of Staff GEN William C. Westmoreland ordered the Army War College to study the U.S. Army command climate. That study describes a complicated relationship between the ideals espoused by the Army and the actual practices employed.12 The delta between those ideals and the practices plays a key role in command climate. Command climate—as the Commandant has recognized13—in turn can affect the occurrence of ethical breaches. A loss of faith in the organization can lead to actions outside the accepted norms of that organization. The examples of ethical violations in recent years—desecrations, animal cruelty, the rise in sexual assaults—may be attributable in part to the fact that Marine Corps leaders are failing to adhere to maneuver warfare tenants. The relationship between leaders and subordinates is a defining characteristic of maneuver warfare and the Marine Corps. If subordinates cannot trust that their leaders are adhering to stated principles, they will also start to drift away from them. In the words of Colin S. Gray:

For soldiers to decide that they will fight truly hard, they need to be led by people they trust… at every level of command, from the highest down to the single soldier and very small group, the most essential basis for voluntary, sometimes personally outrageously risky, combat effort, is trust.14

This lack of adherence therefore has far more pernicious effects than just the occasional negative Gazette article.

A breach of trust between junior Marines and senior leadership caused by more and more apparent flouting of Warfighting will not be fixed by wearing more formal uniforms on more occasions, more rockers on sleeves and more bars on collars in the barracks, or more firearms on more duty belts. It will be solved by more of the intrusive and involved leadership espoused by Warfighting—Marine leadership decentralized to the lowest levels.


can be improved, strengthened, and defended, but it’s all for naught until we begin to practice what we preach. Indeed, it states that, “Perhaps most importantly, our philosophy demands confidence among seniors and subordinates.”15 Any erosion of that trust and confidence is incompatible with maneuver warfare.

A common thread runs through these critiques: the relationship between tactics and victory. The maneuver versus attrition dichotomy treats some tactics as inherently bad and others as inherently good. What matters is whether tactics can translate to strategic effect that serves to achieve the political end state, a relationship rendered opaque by the imposition of the operational level of war. Finally, the actions after tactical victory is achieved determine strategic effects. Tactical victory is insufficient as an end state. Of course, all of these details are immaterial if we do not actually put Warfighting into practice. The critics have Warfighting wrong: it is not a work of strategic theory. Rather, it is a work of philosophy meant for practitioners. While it is informed by strategic theory, it serves a far different purpose and thus cannot be fully judged from a strategic theory viewpoint. It occupies a space between theory and praxis, an extension of strategic theory meant to teach not academics or strategists but tacticians how to think about their actions. If the Marine Corps were an organization of theorists meant to debate war rather than fight it, Warfighting would not pass muster. But we are an organization of warfighters rather than philosophers. We do not intend to win battles with theory. The Marine Corps is an organization of warriors, men and women who will do the dirty work of which battlefield victories are made and upon which strategy depends. With a few tweaks, Warfighting can be improved even further and the critics silenced by future victories. If the Reawakening is intended to reinvigorate our NCO corps, then it is time to reaffirm the philosophy that empowers them.



1. Owen, William F., The Manoeuvre Warfare Fraud, originally published by the Royal United Services Institute, White Hall, London, p. 2. Available at:

2. Coram, Robert, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Back Bay Books, New York, 2002, p. 391. MCDP 1 was originally published as a Fleet Marine Force Manual in 1989.

3. MCDP 1, p. 74.

4. Kelly, Justin and Mike Brennan, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy, U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle, PA, September 2009, p. 93. Available at:

5. Clausewitz, Carl von, Principles of War, translation by Hans W. Gatzke, Dover Publications. Mineola, New York, p. 33.

6. Clausewitz, Carl von, On War, translation by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1989, p. 263.

7. Russell, LtCol Brian E., “Organizational-level Leadership,” Marine Corps Gazette, July 2014, p. 11.

8. MCDP 1, p. 65.

9. Ibid, p. 67.

10. Ibid, p. 64.

11. O’Hara, Capt Daniel A., “The Re(al)awakening,” Marine Corps Gazette, May 2014, p 50.

12. U.S. Army War College, “Study on Military Professionalism,” Carlisle Barracks, PA, 1970. The study can be accessed at: http://www.

13. Lamothe, Dan, “Commandant links bad behavior by Marines with poor command climates,” The Marine Corps Times, Springfield, VA, 10 May 2013.

14. Gray, Colin S., The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010, p. 215.

15. MCDP 1, p. 82.