Our Warfighting Philosophy

by LtCol Jeffrey J. Lloyd, USMCR

The Commandant describes FMFM 1 as his philosophy on warfighting and exhorts “every officer to read-and reread-this book, understand it, and take its message to heart.” It delivers a new doctrine in a document so imbued with the Commandant’s personality that in another society it might have been titled “The Thoughts of Chairman Gray.” By delivering it with the force of a papal bull. Gen Gray has sent heretics diving for cover, but some mild dissent persists.

The stated purpose of Warfighting is to describe, on an authoritative basis, a Marine Corps philosophy for the preparation and conduct of war. The book is written in a succinct, readable style, which is all too rare in offical prose. In the entire publication there is but a single acronym-MAGTF for Marine air-ground task force. This brevity and clarity are achieved, however, with the aid of serious omissions. Not only does our mandated mission (part of Title 10, U.S. Code) go unprinted, but also our particular abilities go unmentioned. We have published a book on “how we fight” that does not include the word “amphibious.”

Despite such omissions, Warfighting is no radical thesis. Most of its small pages are devoted to preaching to the choir. Although it may eschew many traditional phrases, it reinforces many traditional values. Most notably it states in clear terms a philosophy of commander-subordinate relations that recognizes the importance of individual experience in leadership development.

Maneuver Warfare

Most of the controversy springs from Warfighting‘s final chapter-“The Conduct of War.” This section constitutes a tract on maneuver warfare likely to capture the imagination of those budding Napoleons who presume that they will be the maneuverers. Its praiseworthy emphasis on individual initiative may even result in a flourishing of original thought. As it presently reads, however, it may also be construed as advocating a form of tactical shadowboxing.

That isn’t what Warfighting means to be about. In a footnote it quotes Clausewitz:

Kind-hearted people might, of course, think (here is some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst . . . .

Gen Gray and his maneuver warfare band aren’t talking about shadowboxing. What they are striving for is the tactical equivalent of a karate punch. Warfighting, however, fails to make this key point. It fails to mention the aggressive end sought by the maneuver, the ultimate mission of Marines, “to close with and destroy the enemy by fire and close combat.” Instead it defines maneuver warfare, in terms of its own success, as follows:

Maneuver warfare is a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a series of rapid, violent, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which he cannot cope.”

I have read, and reread, that definition and it still sounds a lot like “dazzle’em ’til they drop.” Might not some reader be seduced into thinking “there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat the enemy without too much bloodshed”? Warfighting seems so determined to underline its differences with traditional philosophy, that it fails to adequately recognize areas of common ground. Add to these omissions a few questionable concepts and practices and you have more than ample fuel for controversy.

Sun Tzu

Maneuver warfare traces its roots back to the ancient Chinese concept of cheng and ch’i:

The enemy, engaged by the cheng (orthodox) force was defeated by the ch’ (unorthodox, rare, wonderful) force. . . . the normal pattern was a holding or fixing effort by the cheng, while ch’i groups attacked the deep flanks and rear. Distraction assumed great importance, and the enemy’s communications became a primary target.”

Sun Tzu was the personification of this tradition. He has also become maneuver warfare’s favorite authority. In this later role he can be misleading.

Samuel Griffith, author of Sun Tzu, The Atr of War, notes that Sun Tzu “did not conceive the object of military action to be the annihilation of the enemy’s army, destruction of his cities, and the wastage of his countryside.” In Sun Tzu’s feudal age his goal was to overawe and assimilate his opponents whenever possible. That may not be as feasible today, but a modern American saying seems to be cousin to the concept of cheng and ch’i . We call it “Hold ’em by the nose and kick ’em in the rear.” To my mind, the kick is the whole point of the maneuver.


The observation-orientation-decision-action cycle (OODA loop) was in many ways the right idea at the right time to attract serious attention. The time was the late seventies, which saw the advent of the all-volunteer force, a growing Soviet threat, and a political fondness for military bashing. It is no surprise that strategists and tacticians were at work on ways to “fight outnumbered and win.”

The OODA loop concept supposedly grew out of an observation made by a fighter pilot while dogfighting to the effect that success would follow automatically whenever the enemy was forced to think too much and too fast to maintain his orientation. Analogies with successful ground tactics were discovered, which led back to Sun Tzu and became the basis for the new philosophy of maneuver warfare.* Fighter tactics can prove difficult, however, to transfer to land combat where “flying by the seat of your pants” is likely to be a fatal experience. As Napoleon states in his Maxims of War, “When you determine to risk a battle, reserve to yourself every possible chance of success.”

Maneuver warfare is so concerned with being able to “fight outnumbered and win” it sometimes forgets that fighting outnumbered is precisely the challenge we seek to give our enemies. Gen Nathan B. Forrest, CSA, was the maneuver specialist of his day. He said the key to victory was simple. “I always make it a rule to get there first with the most men.”

Maneuver Versus Attrition

The most disagreeable aspect of Watfighting is its penchant for depicting maneuver warfare as one of but two options in a maneuver warrior (good guy) versus attrition (bad guy) debate. To the extent that it supports this fiction of two camps, it ill serves its readers.

Warfighting alludes to the fact that different styles of war can exist simultaneously. At the reader’s level of combat, maneuver may not be an option. Lord Nelson, in his instructions to the fleet for the battle of Trafalgar, outlined his intended plan of maneuver in some detail. But he also noted “in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside the enemy.”

No style of warfare is appropriate to all occasions. The overriding rule of warfare is “whatever works.” Our book of doctrine should make clear that the principles of war remain unchanged and unchallenged. The emphasis on maneuver doesn’t negate old tactics. Nor is it a license for recklessness. Rather, it is a demand for competency of each unit leader.

After Maneuver Warfare

Maneuver warfare stresses the importance of several principles in the hope that their use will enhance our opportunities for success against a numerically superior force. One of its advantages is that it would accomplish this by drawing on a (raditional Marine strength-the flexibility and initiative of our unit leaders.

The “strategy of competitive advantage” is intended to systematically identify and exploit differences between our forces and potential foes. Instead of trying to match potential adversaries force on force, it calls for finding easy means to degrade his strengths while concentrating our efforts on exploiting his weaknesses. Since the seventies, new technologies and new political environments have emerged that have changed the face of potential conflict.

It is said, with some truth, that generals are always preparing for the last war. Does Warfighting break that trend or is it merely a prescription for “fighting outnumbered to win” in a ground combat in Europe that seems less and less likely? Every doctrine, every technique, and every weapon needs the scrutiny of fresh minds. As Albert Einstein said, “the important thing is not to stop questioning.”


Eric Bentley has said that “ours is the age of substitutes: instead of language we have jargon; instead of principles, slogans; and instead of genuine ideas, bright ideas.” Warfighting defies that description. It is a breezy, thoughtprovoking, almost jargonless little gem. But it is not necessarily right, and it is certainly not the end. Instead it is a starting point on a new way of thinking about Marine Corps doctrine.

It’s already time to begin on the new gospel-Change 1 to FMFM 1, a doctrine that reasserts our traditional foundations by putting more fight into Warfighting. Our book on “how we fight” should serve as a reminder that our version of cheng and ch’i does indeed conclude with a swift and powerful kick.


* As noted by BGen F.P. Henderson (MCG, Jun89, p. 24), the Marine Corps was talking about SEDA, a sense-evaluate-decide-act cycle, at least as early as July 1971 well before maneuver warfare became popular.