Sorting Out Maneuver and Attrition

reviewed by Col Gordon D. Batcheller

Sorting Out Maneuver and Attrition MANEUVER IN WAR. By LtCol Charles A. Willoughby, USA, The Military Service Publishing Company, Harrisburg, PA, 1939, 286pp. NA. Reprinted 1986 as NAVMC 2796.

Those participating in the maneuver warfare dialog will be interested in NAVMC 2796, the reprint of the 1939 edition of LtCol Willoughby’s Maneuver in War. The title alone is enough to make it an obligatory “read.” While it is dangerous to draw conclusions on the superficial reading that most of us find ourselves limited to, the book contains some interesting observations for those trying to sort out maneuver, attrition, and Forrest warfare. (See LtCol EJ. Robeson IV’s article in MCG, Aug86.) Strangely enough, it will bring little happiness to the maneuverist camp. On page 1 it warns the student to be wary of those who claim to have found THE ANSWER to war’s challenges by quoting from Gen Douglas MacArthur’s 1935 Annual Report as the Army Chief of Staff:

They apparently cling to the fatuous hope that in historical study there is to be found a complete digest of the science of war rather than simply the basic and inviolable laws of the art of war. . . .

Even more interesting, as a sign of the time, the quotation is part of a longer dissertation on military historical study and the military profession. Maybe during lean fiscal years, with a paucity of programs and systems to arvel at, thoughts turn to more enduring aspects of our profession. (Gramm-Rudman-Hollings to the rescue?)

The book goes on to develop the historically revealed “principles of war,” demonstrating in the process the fundamental importance of terrain in warfare and the requirement for the successful practitioner of war to draw from a broad knowledge of these principles, of terrain, and of the behavior of men in dealing with the situation confronting him. Napoleon, one of the greatest military “cooks” of all time, would have little sympathy with a rejection of these principles because they are conducive to “cookbook tactics.” He would appear to endorse the requirement for a cookbook, based on the diversity of dishes on the menu of war, and on the variety of skills found in the kitchen.

On page 133 the student learns that superiority in numbers, while not essential to victory, is eminently desirable: Napoleon had a 2 and 5 won-lost record when outnumbered, and Moltke deliberately avoided such engagements. Similarly, the value of defensive warfare receives support and endorsement, and Moltke is given credit for recognizing that “the tactical defensive has gained an unmistakable advantage over the offensive, as a result of increased firepower.” Several lines later: “. . . the attack of a position has become increasingly more difficult than its defense.” But rather than espousing one form of warfare or another, the book serves to underscore only that the study of war reveals a number of principles that commanders must be able to apply to the tactical situation at hand. Battles are fought, on at least one side, by moving men, and the author finds it useful to repeatedly talk in terms of mass and direction, and of the advantages derived from the proper combination of these vectors. But he makes it clear that this proper combination will come most frequently to the commander with good intelligence and a sound plan.

There is nothing m Maneuver in War that suggests Marine Corps doctrine or style is as woefully deficient as the maneuverists claim; rather, it shows that maneuver is one of several means to an end, and the attainment of that end is more likely when the commander accommodates the “basic and immutable” principles and properly prepares the battle. It is normal for historians to search for order and meaning as they interpret the “what” and the “why” of the past, and it is normal for the participants in past events to reinforce (or create anew) order and reason as they recount the events. But even allowing for these tendencies, it is difficult to find support for the fluid, uncoordinated battle that maneuverists seem to champion. Maneuver in War advocates an approach to battle that stresses planning, and preparation, and coordination, and discipline. It may be only a matter of emphasis, but the tendency of the maneuverists to belittle the unimaginative mindset of those concerned with formations, and firepower, and terrain, and coordination detracts from the valid points they would make. Perhaps the best end for this discussion is to revisit its beginning and agree that dogma, from either end of the spectrum, is fatuous.

In any event, Maneuver in War is worth the time it takes to read it, and the Marine Corps has done us all good service by keeping this book available for a new generation of readers.