Review of a Review

by Col Michael Wiley, USMC(Ret)

I Having been interviewed extensively by Dr. Anthony Piscitelli in writing his excellent The Marine Corps Way of War (Savas Beatie, 2017), I read with special interest Col Tom Greenwood’s review as published in the March Gazette.

It was a sentence four paragraphs into the review, where Col Greenwood quotes Gen Alfred M. Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, that first motivated me to write this “review of the review.” The sentence read: “a large cadre of returning Marine officers who had served in Vietnam wanted to see a change in some of our conceptual thinking.” Back in the 1970s, when the need for change was so evident, I would have been glad to have met that “large cadre.” My experience through the 1970s and well into the ’80s (as we visualized a potential war with the Soviet Union) was that too many sought to blame “the hippies, the politicians, and the press” for all that had not gone well in Vietnam and move ahead without a course change. To those of us down at the company-grade level, Gen Gray stood out as one of the few who saw a need for change, and it was not my privilege to meet him until he took command of 2dMarDiv in 1981.

Col Greenwood lists about fifteen authors, including at least one civilian, that dealt with maneuver warfare in articles of the Gazette, some in favor of it, others taking issue. The articles span fifteen years, including the four years following my retirement and the retirement of Gen Gray. The authors were mostly young and were not Vietnam veterans. So this is not evidence of “a large cadre of returning Marine officers who had served in Vietnam.” In fact, through the 1980s, from Gen Gray’s assumption of command as CG, 2dMarDiv, until he became Commandant in 1987, my experience was that it was “pretty lonely” being an advocate of tactical change.

Marines need to appreciate that the burden of readiness rests on each and every one of us. That burden, that responsibility, is an unending calling to honor of the Marines who serve with and under us to serve our country by ever asking the questions: Are we ready to compete with and defeat today’s potential adversaries? Tomorrow’s? What are the hard lessons we learned in the last conflict?

In his final paragraph, Col Greenwood opines that

doctrine is a tool that armies use to codify their institutional memory until the changing character of warfare dictates something new must be adopted if the force is to remain relevant and avoid defeat.

I beg to differ. Doctrine quickly becomes dogma, and we must always be skeptical of it. It too quickly stultifies thinking. Col Greenwood continues by suggesting that the Marine Corps’ way of war, in reality, is little more complicated than “move on order, perform on arrival-eschewing any single dogma or prescriptive approach.” I will counter by saying that it is a great deal more. It-“the Marine Corps way of war”-is a unique and special shared understanding, cohesion, and trust that has to be practiced in the field and discussed in the classroom and in informal conversation so that it becomes a shared way of thinking that will sustain itself through the toughest rigors of violent action.

Col Greenwood’s lament that The Marine Corps Way of War is not a book to be compared with Barry Posen’s The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany Between the World Wars, or Edwin H. Simmons’ classic battle history, The United States Marines, 1775-1975, is true but not relevant. Dr. Piscitelli’s is a totally different kind of story. Posen’s and Simmons’ are about the institutional behavior of fighting forces. Dr. Piscitelli’s is about a unique movement within the Corps that started at a very low level in the 1970s and worked upward. Seen in that light, it is an intriguing and unprecedented story; one that could only happen in the U.S. Marine Corps. This is because we Marines identify the Corps as ours, neither the generals’ nor the Defense Department’s but the prized property of each and every one of us, including the youngest rifleman in the squad.

Marines will find this work a helpful introduction into maneuver warfare, but more importantly, it is a unique study of an unprecedented effort that took place in our Corps; in fact, it is a renaissance that will endure another hundred years in the form of an organization of warriorscholars, unafraid to speak up when stagnation rears its ugly head: Marines who, without exception, place the strength of the country above personal advancement.