Re-Maneuverizing the Marine Corps

by Maj Sean F.X. Barrett, Mie Augier, & Col Michael D. Wyly, USMC(Ret)

The 2018 National Defense
Strategy identifies t he “ reemergence
of long-term, strategic
competition,” a weakening
international order, and rapid and
more readily accessible technological advancements
as key characteristics of the
strategic environment that have served
to undermine U.S. military advantage,
which the strategy claims can no longer
be taken for granted. The strategy
serves as a clarion call to awaken the
DOD from “a period of strategy atrophy”
and reset the force a fter a lmost
two decades of armed conflict. Reenergizing
PME and revising antiquated
manpower management practices are
crucial to developing leaders who can
operate effectively in today’s “increasingly
complex global security environment.”
Multiple developments since the release
of the 2018 National Defense Strategy
provide reasons for optimism that we
are progressing beyond an industrial era
mindset to prepare for great power competition.
For example, the Department
of the Navy has emphasized the importance
of agility, education, intellectual
preparedness, and talent management to
our warfighting capabilities.3 Similarly,
Gen David H. Berger’s Commandant’s
Planning Guidance (CPG) identifies
the need to fundamentally change the
manner in which we train, educate, and
manage the talent of the force, and the
recently released MCDP 7, Learning,
formalizes continuous learning as an
institutional priority. The CPG even
references the original FMFM 1, Warfighting,
possibly indicating a broader
re-embrace of the maneuver tradition.
However, despite these positive developments,
there are some reasons for
pessimism, too. For one, change in an
organization is always difficult. Military
organizations, in particular, have
been accused of ignoring or misusing
the past,4 or even rejecting it outright,
in order to avoid change.5 To adapt and
learn, organizations must maintain a
balance between “the exploration of new
possibilities and the exploitation of old
certainties.”6 Unfortunately, exploration
and exploitation compete over scarce
resources, and in today’s tight budgetary
environment, which lacks additional resources
to serve as a buffer, exploitation
tends to crowd out exploration since
feedback from exploitation in the shortterm
is greater, more immediate, and
more observable.7 Manpower policies
that necessitate short tours only exacerbate
this desire for short-term impact,
control, and quantifiable metrics, resulting
in an inherent bias toward training Marines only for the specific tasks they
need to perform today instead of educating
them for the decades to come.
Fortunately, organizational change
and innovation are not new to the Marine
Corps. We wish to share some of
Col Mike Wyly’s experiences concerning
education, thinking, organization,
and technology that can perhaps help
the Marine Corps experience a richer
and more authentic re-embrace of its
maneuver tradition and avoid being led
astray by the allure of quick fixes and
the temptation to cut corners. We write
this in a spirit of admiration for the
maneuver warfare movement and its
influence (if mostly temporary) on our
Corps and with the belief the maneuver
philosophy and the reform movement in
which it was embedded are quite fitting
for our times.8
Potential Pitfalls
On the heels of the Vietnam War,
the United States faced a great power
competition with the Soviet Union, the
terrorist threat was burgeoning, inflation
was ravaging the economy, and the
military had to resolve the challenges
posed by the All-Volunteer Force. Vietnam
required an enormous manpower
commitment over a long period time,
cost the Corps over 100,000 killed and
wounded, delayed modernization programs
essential to the Corps’ amphibious
capability, sparked heated internal
debate concerning the Corps’ mission
and standards, and led to unprecedented,
reform-minded public criticism.9
Unfortunately, while many Marines
experienced the limitations of Marine
Corps doctrine and centralized decision
making firsthand and adapted, many at
Headquarters wanted to put Vietnam
behind them, forget any lessons learned,
and revert to the “tried and true,” pre-
Vietnam concepts of conventional warfare.
In the face of war with the Soviets,
Col Wyly found this reversion to old
ideas unacceptable.
Today, the Corps faces a similar
crossroads, once again trying to modernize
as it enters another great power
competition following an even longer
period of combat. Iran and its terrorist
proxies remain a destabilizing influence,
the novel coronavirus has disrupted
the economy, the Corps is integrating
female Marines into combat roles
previously closed to them, and debate
over the future Corps continues to be
waged.10 We do not intend to suggest
a perfect parallel or to provide prescriptive
solutions. Rather, we highlight a
few potential pitfalls and provide some
insights for how the Corps overcame
them in a similarly challenging and
transformative period in our history.
Dilemmas of education. There is a
tendency to talk about education and
learning in ways that are not really
conducive to thinking and judgment.
For example, requirements for schoolhouses
to produce a certain number of
graduates each year can emphasize the
short-term at the expense of long-term
development.11 This focus on metrics
strengthens the institution’s desire to
control, which can undermine feelings
of ownership instructors have for their
curriculum, the flexibility they have to
adapt it to the needs of their students
and the enthusiasm of the students. Col
Wyly’s experiences teaching highlight
the importance of empowering instructors
and developing military judgment.
After an initial tour as a platoon
leader in Okinawa, Col Wyly checked
into 1st MarDiv and was assigned to the
(CG/CI) School, where he grappled
with preparing students for how to
think in combat. The school was the
brainchild of LtGen Victor “Brute”
Krulak, then CG, Fleet Marine Forces
Pacific. It was Krulak’s idea not only to
establish it but also to grant instructors
the freedom to exercise initiative
based on the study of real war as it was
emerging in the 1960s. Krulak provided
guidance for how time should be divided
between the classroom and field
work, and he set the criteria for selecting
instructors. However, he empowered
the junior officers and NCOs on staff
to take ownership of the education and
training experience.12
The focus then was counterinsurgency
because the Soviet Union planned
to expand its influence by fomenting
insurgencies worldwide. As a result, the
staff became experts on the threat of
communism and studied every counterinsurgency
possible, including in
Burma, Algeria, Nicaragua, Cuba, the
Philippines, and South Africa. They
hosted visitors from the French Foreign
Legion, Royal Marines, the Republic
of Vietnam, and Indonesia, and they
traveled to schools and courses on psychological
operations and counterinsurgency
such as those taught at the John
F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and
School to inform and refine their curricula.
They were able to do so because Krulak freed them from bureaucratic
hindrances, and they were thus able
to develop the course as they saw fit,
making it more tailored and relevant
to their students.
In designing the two courses at the
school—one primarily in the classroom
(but incorporating some field work as
well) for officers and SNCOs, the second
a company course in Cleveland National
Forest—Col Wyly found it counterproductive
to offer “school solutions”
at the end of problem-solving exercises.
Such solutions were simply somebody
else’s idea of how to resolve a tactical
situation the student may never encounter.
Col Wyly and the staff viewed their
task as making the students think, not
telling them what to think. In doing
so, they remained open to the students’
ideas, knowing they might well be better
than theirs. The staff motivated the
students by injecting a healthy dose of
realism. The company course, for example,
culminated in a week-long exercise
against aggressors played by the
staff. The staff challenged the students
with tactical problems, enabled them to
experiment with new ideas while searching
for their own solutions, and forced
them to make decisions—even at the
lowest levels.13
After two tours in Vietnam with
1st MarDiv, Wyly attended Amphibious
Warfare School (AWS) in 1973.
The curriculum relied on lectures and
scripted tactical problems with schoolhouse
solutions.14 This left Wyly asking,
“How do they know? And, what
does it matter anyway when the likelihood
of being confronted in real combat
with the same scenario was slim to
non-existent?” Rejecting this approach
to education, Wyly embarked on a quest
of self-study, spending most nights at
Quantico’s library reading military
history. He did not focus on any one
war or period in history but rather read
about everything from Genghis Khan
to Napoleon to Patton and Holland
Smith. This experience reinforced his
belief that a school’s mission was to
teach students how to think and not
what to think. In all the battles, Wyly
identified a recurring theme: finding
the enemy’s weakness and exploiting
Wyly’s interest in military history
grew stronger when he attended
the Command and Staff College in
1976–1977. Following a WESTPAC
tour, he was assigned to Quantico’s
Education Center and began attending
a graduate program at George
Washington University at night. Then
MajGen Bernard Trainor, Director of
the Education Center, took an interest
in Wyly’s war studies and named
him Head of Tactics at AWS in 1979.
Wyly quickly realized the curriculum
had not changed since he was a student,
and much of the doctrine was precisely
what he had been taught at The Basic
School in 1962–1963. Empowered by
Trainor to do it his way and not fall back
on doctrine, Wyly completely rewrote
the curriculum, focusing on making
decisions, broad reading, and nurturing
questioning minds through active learning
approaches, including historical case
studies, sand table and map exercises,
tactical decision games, terrain walks,
and tactical exercises without troops.
These active learning approaches are
based on the premise that there is a stark
difference between a “manual” that
functions as a “how to” rule book and a
“story” relating facts and circumstances
that enables readers to place themselves
in the minds of the story’s protagonists
and relate the protagonists’ decisions
and actions to the decisions and actions
they might be called upon to make in
the future. Much in line with case-based
and discussion-based approaches to
teaching in general, Wyly never rejected
a student’s solution because it might
not match the school’s—even if it was
drawn from history. Instead, he asked
the student why he made the decision
he did. For students, Wyly believes there
is little more rewarding than watching
a teacher whom he respects listen
to him, think over what he said, and
congratulate him on the quality of the
idea and the progress he is making.
Technologitis. Our focus (sometimes
even fixation) on technology is nothing
new, and neither are technology’s limitations.
However, we tend to overlook the
latter to justify the former. Gen Berger
attributes this capabilities-based mindset
to the end of the Cold War and the
corresponding lack of a threat against
whom to base our analysis.15 Technology
has always offered the promise of
new, seemingly more effective ways of
fighting and shortcuts to get there, but
we cannot know what these new ways
are without a rigorous and systematic
trial-and-error process. Unfortunately,
this process is oftentimes short-circuited,
and military organizations tend
to engage in “peripheral borrowing,”
wherein the potentialities and efficient
use of new technologies are not fully
realized, as evidenced by the way the
French in 1940 treated tanks as accoutrements
rather than as an integral part
of a coordinated military effort.16
Our ability to fight without becoming
over reliant on technology is increasingly
relevant given the potential for our
adversaries to disrupt our communications
and the need for smaller units of
Marines to operate independently. Col
Wyly understood that leaders need to
be prepared to think critically and make
decisions quickly in such an environment.
17 As such, he took a decidedly
“people first” approach, prioritizing
investments in our Marines. For example,
when Wyly first took over at
AWS, reading assignments consisted
of excerpts from khaki colored manuals
that established rules so thinking
was not required. Upon this realization,
Wyly went to LtGen Trainor’s office and
argued that when people go to college,
the first thing they have to do is buy
books, so the captains at AWS should
have to buy (and read) books as well.
The initial reading list consisted of B.H.
Liddell Hart’s Strategy; Robert Heinl’s
Victory at High Tide; Edgar O’Ballance’s
No Victor, No Vanquished on the Yom
Kippur War; and Jeter Isely and Philip
Crowl’s The U.S. Marines and Amphibious
War.18 Reading history, however,
was not an end in itself. Rather, it was intended to provide vicarious learning
experiences that enabled Marines more
readily to recognize patterns and identify
solutions to problems they encountered
on the battlefield. This is necessary
to enable the effective use of technology.
Under Wyly’s tutelage, the captains
transformed into avid readers. One of
these captains, Bill Woods, executed
orders to 2nd MarDiv as Gen Al Gray
assumed command. Gen Gray had himself
already adopted maneuver practice
and thinking and knew Col John Boyd
and his “Patterns of Conflict” lecture.
Woods introduced himself to Gray in
the Officers’ Club at Camp Lejeune and
discussed with him what was happening
at Quantico. Recognizing the importance
of organizational experimentation
and the need to nurture ideas, Gray established
the 2nd Marine Division Maneuver
Warfare Board, which consisted
of Woods and other mostly junior officers,
and declared maneuver warfare the
official doctrine (and way of thinking)
for the division. Wyly also arranged for
Gray to become a regular guest speaker
at AWS. These (and other) activities
helped maneuver thinking take hold in
the organization. It was no longer just
a “new concept” but rather a prelude to
what many graduates would experience
on assignment to the FMF.
Organizational Myopias. If thinking
and learning are the foundations
for individual agility, experimentation
and learning from failures are essential
for organizational agility. Free play
and force-on-force exercises in realistic
training environments are most conducive
to this type of discovery and
help us avoid simply training to meet
minimum requirements (e.g., mission
essential tasks). Similarly, open inquiry,
enthusiastic debate, and a willingness to
hear the viewpoints of others, including
outsiders, is critical for avoiding complacency
and falling into a “competence
trap.”19 This i s e specially important
today given the rate of technological
While at AWS, Col Wyly invited Bill
Lind, a congressional aide to Senator
Gary Hart, down to Quantico to speak
with the captains, some of whom wondered
why they had to listen to a “civilian
hack.” Wyly, however, was open
to ideas from everyone. Lind was welleducated,
even if an outsider, and Wyly
wanted his captains to hear every side
of the maneuver warfare debate. When
the subject of Lind having no experience
came up, Lind gave Col Boyd’s telephone
number to Wyly. Wyly quickly
formed a friendship with Boyd, another
outsider, that endured. They compared
their experiences (Wyly on the ground,
Boyd in the air), thus forming conceptual
comparisons that were instructive
for Wyly’s students.
Col Wyly also established a relationship
with Col John Greenwood, the editor
of the Gazette for 20 years, to use
the medium to facilitate open inquiry
and debate without fear of reprisal. Captains
at AWS began meeting at each
other’s houses on Friday night to reflect,
debate, and then write articles as they
sharpened their ideas. This learning
process was continuous; maneuverists
never rested on their laurels, recognizing
that strategy, organizational adaptation,
and evolution are an ongoing process.
For example, even as Gen Gray signed
FMFM 1 and maneuver thinking officially
became the organization’s way
of thinking, maneuverists were already
thinking ahead to how to make the
movement broader and more enduring,
refining their ideas along the way
through an ongoing learning process.
After all, no victory is permanent but,
rather, must be won again and again.
Re-maneuverizing the Marine Corps:
Lessons From the Past to Inform the
Education and the ability to think
critically, quickly, and decisively are
critical warfighting enablers. While
maybe not as intuitively obvious as
the physical demands, Williamson
Murray argues the military profession
might also be the most intellectually
demanding since military forces rarely
get the chance to practice their profession.
21 FMFM 1 similarly observes
the centrality of the human dimension
in war, reminding us, “No degree of
technological development or scientific
calculation will overcome the human
dimension in war.”22 Recent rhetoric,
strategic documents, and initiatives in
the Marine Corps, the Department of
the Navy, and DOD seem to embrace
the need to move beyond our industrial
era mindset. However, any change in an
organization is fraught with challenges and oftentimes succumbs to the wellintentioned
bureaucratic tendency to
develop processes to track, measure, and
validate “progress” towards an objective,
which usually only serves to stifl e
it. In highlighting the importance of a
bottom-up approach starting and ending
with the individual Marine, Col
Wyly’s experiences hopefully might
inform these efforts.
As a teacher, Col Wyly was empowered
by senior leaders who trusted him
and removed bureaucratic obstacles instead
of adding to them. This is not to
say there was no resistance along the
way. Rather, support from leaders like
Trainor and Gray enabled Wyly to continue
on despite pressures to revert to
the old “tried and true” teaching methods
and tactics. Realism and practicing
decision making, implemented through
active learning techniques, took precedence
over accreditations, quotas, and
degrees. Instead of relying on mundane
lectures, Wyly took ownership of his
curricula, and his enthusiasm proved
infectious. He inspired (and prepared)
his students for a lifetime of learning not
to meet requirements but to live up to
their professional calling. Col Wyly and
likeminded maneuverists were always
seeking to improve, even if this meant
having the humility to take inputs from
nontraditional (even eccentric) sources
and from those they outranked. Perhaps
most importantly, they placed their responsibility
as professionals ahead of
their own professional advancement.
Adapting and overcoming is never easy,
but we have a rich history that might
help guide us.
1. David Berger, “Marine Corps Readiness
and Modernization,” CSPAN, (October 2019),
2. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018
National Defense Strategy of the United States
of America: Sharpening the American Military’s
Competitive Edge, (Washington, DC: 2018).
3. Department of the Navy, Education for
Seapower, (Washington, DC: 2019); Former
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly,
“SECNAV VECTOR 7,” (January 2020);
Former Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas
B. Modly, “SECNAV VECTOR 16,” (March
2020); John Kroger, “Charting the Future of
Education for the Navy-Marine Corps Team,”
War on the Rocks, (November 2019), available
4. Williamson Murray, “Innovation: Past and
Future,” Joint Force Quarterly, (Washington,
DC: NDU Press, Summer 1996); Edward L.
Katzenbach, Jr., “The Horse Cavalry in the
Twentieth Century: A Study in Policy Response,”
Public Policy, (Cambridge, MA: John
Fitzgerald Kennedy School of Government,
5. Williamson Murray, “Does Military Culture
Matter?” Orbis, (Amsterdam, NED: Elsevier,
Winter 1999).
6. James G. March, “Exploration and Exploitation
in Organizational Learning,” Organization
Science, (Catonsville, MD: Institute for Operations
Research and the Management Sciences,
March 1991).
7. James G. March, “Rationality, Foolishness,
and Adaptive Intelligence,” Strategic Management
Journal, (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, March
8. We focus on Col Wyly’s experiences in
particular, but we recognize he was just one
member of a key group of people that initiated,
participated in, and led the maneuver warfare
movement. Others included Col GI Wilson,
USMCR; Gen Al Gray; LtCol Bill Woods;
Col John Boyd, USAF; and Bill Lind, among
many others.
9. For more on the Vietnam War and its aftereffects
on the Corps, see Allan R. Millett,
Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States
Marine Corps, rev. ed., (New York, NY: The
Free Press, 1991).
10. For examples of articles both implicitly and
explicitly critical of Gen Berger’s CPG or Force
Design 2030, see Jim Webb, “The Future of the
U.S. Marine Corps,” National Interest, (May
2020), available at;
Jake Yeager, “Expeditionary Advanced Maritime
Operations: How the Marine Corps Can Avoid
Becoming a Second Land Army in the Pacifi c,”
War on the Rocks, (December 2019), available
at; Mark Cancian,
“Don’t Go Too Crazy, Marine Corps,” War on
the Rocks, (January 2020), available at https://; and Dan Gouré, “Will
Commandant Berger’s New Marine Corps Be
a High-Tech Forlorn Hope,” Real Clear Defense,
(April 2020), available at https://www.
11. For example, excessive hint-giving may help a
student pass a test, but it undermines long-term
progress. See David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists
Triumph in a Specialized World, (New
York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2019).
12. In a similar effort, MajGen William F. Mullen,
CG, TECOM, published a memorandum,
“Training and Education Command Authority
to Experiment With New Learning Practices
Policy,” to grant “to Formal Learning Centers
(FLCs) the authorities necessary to experiment
with new learning practices with respect to innovative
curriculum design, development, and
13. When 1st MarDiv deployed to Vietnam
in 1965, some elements of these units had experienced
the training at the CG/CI School.
Comparatively, they were a small minority, but
to Wyly and others, their effectiveness exceeded
those who lacked the training. Unfortunately,
the CG/CI School instructors deployed with the
division, so there was no such school left behind
to instruct follow-on units and replacement
personnel. As a result, over time, what might
be described as “the Krulak tactics” gave way
to the operational concepts established by GEN
14. After each tactical game, students were provided
a typed handout of “The School Solution,”
which was printed on yellow paper and thus
became known as “The Yellows.” The yellow
paper was intended to make it visibly evident
that what was printed on this piece of paper was
special—different—the answer!
15. “Marine Corps Readiness and Modernization.”
16. Oriol Pi-Sunyer and Thomas De Gregori,
“Cultural Resistance to Technological Change,”
Technology and Culture, (Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins University Press, Spring 1964); James
J. Tritten, “Revolutions in Military Affairs:
From the Sea,” Military Review, (Fort Leavenworth,
KS: Army University Press, March–April
2000). In highlighting the shortcomings of the
technology-driven model of military innovation,
Tritten notes that it assumes military organizations
will always capitalize on new technologies
and recognize the need for new doctrine
or organization. Additional examples of this
mistaken notion include the thought initially
that sustained artillery fi re would defeat the enemy;
however, experience taught that intensive
fi re enabling infantry to close with the enemy
and be “on top of him” before he could recover
was more effective. The machine gun’s sustained
automatic fi re was supposed to enable the attacker
to attack and move through and defeat
www.mca-marines.Marine Corps Gazette • November 2020 org/gazette 41
enemy defenses. Instead, it proved more effective
in the defense until such time as light automatic
weapons that could be carried by infantry were
developed. It was also initially thought that an
enemy could be bombed into submission by
fl ying over him and dropping ordnance, but the
more effective employment of aviation proved
to be providing cover for friendly infantry so
they could move forward during the period
defenders were “hunkered down” when planes
were overhead. Especially relevant today, the introduction
of electronics was supposed to enable
all-knowing commanders in all-knowing command
centers to command from there without
ever having to venture out. This myth began
with the invention of the telegraph, but it soon
became evident that commanders who were not
eye-to-eye with their subordinates were “out
of touch” and often unaware of the drive and
motivation (or lack thereof ) of forces under
their command. Thus, FMFM 1 reminds us
the “commander should command from well
forward” in order to “sense fi rsthand the ebb and
fl ow of combat, to gain an intuitive appreciation
for the situation which he cannot obtain from
reports.” Headquarters Marine Corps, FMFM
1, Warfi ghting, (Washington, DC: 1989).
17. Leaders like MajGen David Furness, CG,
2nd MarDiv, have been working to address the
problem of enemy actions in the electromagnetic
environment and the challenges of command
and control in denied or degraded communications
environments. David Furness, “Winning
Tomorrow’s Battles Today: Reinvigorating Maneuver
Warfare in the 2d Marine Division,” Marine
Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: November
2019). That being said, “control” is something
of a misnomer. Command is more a matter of
seeking, identifying, and seizing opportunities.
18. Every year, Wyly added more books, which
he picked up from the Gazette store and sold
in the AWS parking lot out of the trunk of his
car. The captains became very enthusiastic and
started coming to his offi ce to discuss what they
read. Soon, the captains started initiating their
own suggestions of what to read. Wyly added
them to the ever-growing list, a prelude to the
Commandant’s Professional Reading List.
19. Daniel A. Levinthal and James G. March,
“The Myopia of Learning,” Strategic Management
Journal, (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, Winter
1993). Careerism has a tendency to undermine
debate and exacerbate competence traps. Marines
and the institution must not defi ne “career
success” as getting promoted or retiring with
a comfortable pension. On the contrary, according
to Wyly’s perspective, career success
should be viewed as living a meaningful life
and having accomplished the mission on which
a Marine set out.
20. Gen David H. Berger, Commandant’s Planning
Guidance, (Washington, DC, 2019).
21. Williamson Murray, “MCDP 7: On Learning,”
Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA:
November 2019).
22. FMFM 1, Warfi ghting.