The Attritionist Letters (#5)

I have no intention of explaining now the correspondence, which I now offer to the public, fell into my hands. The general who authored them is almost certainly retired, for he writes with such careless disregard – and one might suggest some contempt – for our beloved Corps. The young captain to whom he writes is a more puzzling case; there are far too many Capì Wormwoods in the global access list to determine which is being addressed. Nevertheless, it is the essence of these papers that I find disconcerting – and thus the urgency with which I submit them to you, the reader. Read on.

My Dear Capt Wormwood,

I must admit that the tone of your last letter surprised me. The “maneuverists” may have recently celebrated the 20th anniversary since Fleet Marine Force Manual ], Warfighting, was published, but you should ask yourself, what have they truly gained? You are, perhaps, not sophisticated enough to understand, but simply publishing a book and proclaiming it doctrine doesnoca revolution make. I will attempt to enlighten you on this topic in the future; I doubt that you are capable of comprehending my meaning m a single letter. It will suffice for now to examine this thankfully “incomplete revolution” (as I long ago took to calling it) from the perspective of terminology.

In the effort against the maneuverists, we have one inestimable advantage. Let us be blunt: attrition is simply easier to understand than their “maneuver” warfare. This is one of our inherent advantages. For those who are lost and confused in the morass of maneuver warfare, attrition will seem a light in the darkness, a beacon for the wayward. We will seduce converts with our simplicity. Simplicity is essential in war. After all, “everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”1 The maneuverists are fond of trotting out this quote, but they ignore its implications – in war, everything should be as simple and straightforward as it is possible to make it.

Hard experience has shown us that our subordinates cannot deal with much complexity. Take the example of the “strategic corporal.” I have often heard senior officers extol the virtues of the strategic corporal, yet the only examples they give of the impact of the strategic corporal are negative. I do not want any strategic corporals! I want corporals who do exactly what I tell them to do. There is a reason that enlisted Marines are taught “instant, willing obethence to orders” in boot camp; it is because this is their appropriate role. Please save us from Marines who “think”! They should leave the thinking to their superiors and do what they are trained to do – follow orders. We must seek to make everything as simple as possible for our subordinates, otherwise they will leave us with a mess that we must clean up and for which we will be responsible.

We have been extremely successful in dominating the way that terms used by the maneuverists are defined. I am certain that you have heard many of your instructors and superiors repeat the phrase, “words mean things.” It may be trite, hut it is also true. We must strive to dictate the meaning of key terms to the maneuverists. By doing so we can quite literally force them to discuss and understand war on our terms. 1 his is particularly true in the case of those new lieutenants seeking to understand maneuver warfare. Ir we control the lexicon that they must learn and use, they will be predisposed to accept our views. Wc will have prepared their minds properly, and they will be much more receptive to attrition warfare, all while speaking in maneuverist terms.

Let me give you an example. Take the term “shaping.” For the maneuverists, it has many meanings. Ir may connote gathering intelligence; it may mean an attempt to deceive the enemy or create uncertainty in the enemy commander’s mind. Only rarely does it mean that you are attempting to attrite the enemy’s forces. For us, however, shaping is virtually synonymous with destroying the enemy’s forces on the Field of battle. And why not? After all, this is the purpose of military force! What the maneuverists fail to understand is that anything else is simply window dressing! The fools!

Where we cannot subvert the meanings of their words, we must attempt to sow confusion. Confused officers will look for answers they can understand – clear answers that attritionists will be able to provide. Thus far we have been extremely successful in this arena. The terms “center of gravity” and “critical vulnerability” are a clear indication of this success. As many times as I have seen it, it never tails to amuse me to watch operational planning reams devolve into chaos as they attempt to determine the enemy’s center of gravity. Perhaps the greatest joke is that upon the conclusion of this intense debate, they invariably determine that the center of gravity is the enemy’s artillery or indirect fire assers! Whatever was the debate about?

We have also been aided by a number of well-intended efforts to “clarify” the concept of the center of gravity. In some cases such clarification has been to our decided advantage as it has forced the maneuverists to employ concepts that virtually force them into an attritionist approach. I find it a delightful irony that the maneuverists’ own efforts to clarify [heir terms may actually lead to their undoing!

In my last years on active duty, 1 became heartily sick of hearing maneuverists quote chapter and verse from John Boyd’s briefings about how war is fought not just at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels, but also at the physical, mental, and moral levels. What nonsense! War is a physical act; all of Boyd’s mental- and moral-level mumbo jumbo is useless and unnecessary complication. Today, young officers are taught that the center of gravity must be a tangible thing, most likely an enemy unit. This forces them to focus on the “physical” level of war, which is only proper. They cannot escape it.

Perhaps this is all more than you can take in at one time. I sometimes forget that I am writing to a mere captain. Please forgive me if I have overburdened you with ideas that you cannot yet understand. When next we meet I will give you detailed instructions for the continuation of the struggle. Until then, do nothing unless I have approved it first.

Gen Screwtape


1 . Von Clausewitz, Carl, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Parer, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1976, p. 119.