Operational Handbook 6-1, Ground Combat Operations

reviewed by Col Michael D. Wyly

Operational Handbook 61, Ground Combat Operations The Marine Corps recently published a new draft manual describing tactical ground combat. In this article, our reviewer assesses its strengths and weaknesses and suggests some changes to make it a better Fleet Marine Force Manual.

Quantico’s new Operational Handbook 61, Ground Combat Operations, is at the same time both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging because it gives long-awaited official sanction to concepts of modern war; discouraging because many old ways of thinking that we need sorely to expunge seem bound to continue to haunt us.

That OH 61 was done by committee is evident In reading it, one hears the voices of many authors, the disjointed fragments of disparate thinking on tactics that have influenced the Marine Corps for the past 20 years. A three-page section in the first chapter is entitled “Maneuver Warfare.” The term itself is explained in as succinct a definition as I have read. “The essence of maneuver warfare,” it begins, “can be reduced to the following commonsense considerations.” From there flows beautifully in 10 short paragraphs a description of the art of war that should be read and reread by everyone.

Though the book purports to champion modern concepts of decentralized command and individual initiative, top-down centralized control and insistence on blind obedience are not so easily expunged. They have lurked in our thinking for many years since the thin red line and the Brown Bess musket went obsolete, and they may be depended upon to die hard. “All policies, decisions, plans, and orders are authorized or approved by the commander before being effected” says a paragraph headed “The Staff.” Then, as if to further ensure that subordinates are held back from acting on their own, it says, “The commander deals directly with his subordinates never allowing his staff to usurp his personal relationship.” What does this mean? Does it mean that the staff should be impersonal and the commander personal? And if this is to be, how is the staff to help accomplish the work of the commander when the commander is away? Impersonally? This seems to be built-in rigidity. The chapter on amphibious operations produces similar confusion. The commander is admonished to “not subject his forces to defeat in detail by procrastinating in the reestablishment of centralized control.” In a manual that started out championing low-level initiative, the contradiction here is almost appalling. I was disappointed that there was no treatment of the landing point assault; that is, maneuver warfare’s infiltration tactic carried over into amphibious warfare.

Why every publication on tactics must list again J.F.C. Fuller’s old principles of war, I do not know. But they reappear in Off 61 as another checklist Gen Fuller refuted the list shortly after he finished writing it, but it was air ready too late. Both the British and American armies had already copied it down and made it doctrine. The British have long ago taken Fuller’s advice and stopped requiring their soldiers to memorize them. I hope that now, instead, our British allies are learning useful theory. Still, Fuller’s list has remained etched in American doctrine for 63 years as if in concrete.

Clausewitz, after publishing a list of principles in 1812, refuted it later, as Fuller would do, and concluded that only two things in war were so essential that they deserved the status of being called principles. These were concentration and speed. They both deserve consideration by all of us-ground, air, and combat service support. And the sooner we all start thinking alike as warriors and stop being specialists with different sets of principles, the more quickly we will develop into a cohesive fighting force.

Regarding concentration, nearly three full pages are devoted to “the main effort,” which seems to have emerged as the agreed upon anglicization of the German Schwerpunkt, or heavy point that aroused so much anti-German outcry when the maneuverists began using the term in the late 1970s. But what it implies is concentration. It is such an essential concept that so serves to bring together the efforts of air, ground, and combat service support, I was elated to see it at last included in an official publication. The concept is clearly described until an example is postulated. Unfortunately, the example is not well chosen and where it ought to clarify, it confuses. The whole beauty of having a Schwerpunkt or main effort is that you convey to the entire force what you are trying to do and where you are concentrating your efforts. The one brief example does not adequately convey this.

The book’s treatment of speed under the heading “The Battlefield in Terms of Time” is too brief. Napoleon was trying to tell us something when he said “I may lose a battle, but I will never lose a minute.” I think this was more than an offhand comment. Battles are important, but campaigns are more important, and wars even more so. Time must be used to advantage, and Clausewitz, in elevating speed to the status of one of only two principles, was getting at the same thing.

My point is not to be overly critical. That concentration and speed, or the main effort and the battlefield in terms of time, were singled out and treated is unusual, innovative, and a step in the right direction. Also heartening was the attention given to the reserve, psychological operations, and the operational art-all subjects that are important to modern war but that have suffered from intellectual neglect since World War II. Each could and should have been treated in more depth, but at least they were included. Our Soviet counterparts have gained an edge over us in recognizing their importance. They will weigh heavily in the next war.

OH 61 must be rewritten so that it is more readable, so it will hold the attention of the serious student of war. In its present form it cannot do that It meanders through too many subjects. The wisdom in it is interspersed among long passages of checklists and meaningless idle rhetoric. For instance, idle statements, unresearched and unattributed, such as “military history has generally favored the superior force,” leave one asking, “What military history? What about Cannae and Colenso and Soumussalmi, Crete, Golan Heighis, and the 1st Marine Division in Korea?” These are only a few of the many victories by small forces over big forces. The serious student is left frustrated, cold. He goes on to better things.

But there are also gems in OH 61. Most are attributed to Gen A. A. Vandegrift. Why he should be the one military thinker drawn upon to any large degree is of question. But how effective are his quotations! The reader can think, “Aha! I know who he was. He said that and in context of what he did, the battles he fought, the campaigns he won, it makes sense. I understand.” “Positions are seldom lost because they have been destroyed,” says Vandegrift in Chapter 1, “but almost invariably because the leader has decided in his own mind that the position cannot be held.” And, “Offensive tactics, briefly summarized, may be stated as follows: Hold the attention of your enemy with a minimum force, then quickly strike him suddenly hard on his flank or rear with every weapon you have . . . .” There is concentration and speed!

On the defense, the book is less eloquent. The quotes from Vandegrift do not appear (though many are available). I got the feeling the authors did not understand the defense as a means of destroying the enemy. The reverse slope is treated still as a second-best altenative, though modern experience has shown it to be otherwise. The collective authors, whose combat experience and research sources are unknown to us, say through the veil of anonymity, “Commanders [in the defense] at every level must seek every opportunity to take offensive action in order to wrest the initiative from the attacking enemy and shift to the offensive.” The words are hollow. The authors see no value in the defensive at all. They counsel to shift to the offensive. They presume that in taking up the defensive we have ceded the initiative to the enemy. Not so, I say, if we have selected our defensive position craftily and forced our enemy’s hand, making him come to us to take back what is dear to him, luring him to cast away his resources in a vain attempt to regain it. I appreciate that the defense has its limitations, but if we are going to teach it, let’s teach it at its best.

But like so much of the book, it is as if someone made a long list of topics to cover and tried to cover all of them whether he had anything significant to say about them or not. Some of the topics I have singled out need more research and need to be rewritten in much greater depth. The others can be eliminated. What we have in OH 61 is a useful rough draft.

What we still need is a book on the art of war for Marines. The Army’s FM 100-5, Operations, remains the best example of the decade. It identifies its sources, which are invariably real battles. In this way, it uses and applies history. The Marine counterpart would be unique, designed to fight the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF). We need a book that recognizes that the MAGTF is not three forces-ground, air, and combat service support-but one force with may facets, all directed toward the same end, undoing the enemy. OH 61, our rough draft, gives an uneven view of the ground side with a bit of combat service support thrown in. Much work remains.