The Great FMFM 1 Debate

by Capt John F. Schmitt

It seems that one of the most common criticisms of FMFM 1-and by association of maneuver warfare in general-is that it contains nothing new. Perhaps these critics read the Commandant’s keystone manual, Warfighting, expecting to be given some radical insight that would guarantee success in this heretofore uncertain business called war. Perhaps they were disappointed. Perhaps they listened to the “maneuverists,” civilian and Marine alike (of whom I am one), who advocate this entirely “new” way of doing things, but failed to see anything revolutionary.

And so, as if a reply in the negative were reason enough to repudiate the book and its doctrine, they ask the question “Is there anything new here?” The unequivocal answer is: “Yes and no.”

In purely conceptual terms, there is nothing new in Warfighting. War is one of the oldest of the endeavors of man: I suspect we ran out of truly original ideas on the subject a long time ago. In fact, most of the thoughts contained in Warfighting date back some 2,500 years, as those familiar with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War will recognize. In some cases, it has introduced modern terms-such as the OODA (observation-orientation-decision-action) loopto describe timeless principles. But the principles, generally, are just that: timeless. What is new is that, for perhaps the first time, Warfighting manages to weave these various ideas into a cohesive doctrine, and, also for the first time, we have made that doctrine official.

The maneuver advocates certainly cannot argue that the history of war has been one purely of brute strength and mindless attrition waged by Neanderthals-although certainly examples of this do exist. There have been maneuverists throughout the ages. In fact, it seems to me from my readings that the commanders who are recognized as the Great Captains of military history have generally waged war by maneuver. Whether by native intuition or extensive self-study, these men have generally come to the individual conclusion that maneuver is a superior way of making war. Winston Churchill observed that “nearly all battles which are regarded as masterpieces of the military art, from which have been derived the foundation of states and the fame of commanders, have been battles of maneuver.” Given this example, in absolute terms we might conclude again that there is nothing new to maneuver warfare. But these men are the true and rare geniuses of the military profession; considering the countless commanders on whose epauletted shoulders have rested the fates of nations, their numbers are infinitesimal.

It is cliche now to say that we should not attack an enemy frontally, but should envelop him instead. If this is true, and we all realize it, then in the defense we should all ignore our fronts and protect our flanks. So why is it in training we still protect our fronts to the neglect of our flanks, and yet our enemy generally persists in attacking us frontally? And why is it that we still achieve decisive victories by taking our enemy in the flank? Perhaps it is because, as Clausewitz said, “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” It is one thing to appreciate a concept in principle but another entirely to be able to translate it into reality.

To those among us who can honestly claim membership in the elite company of Great Captains, FMFM 1 probably has nothing to say. To them Warfighting must seem a boring, although thankfully short, collection of platitudes. Certainly, such men are among us today. But we should not deceive ourselves; they are very few. What about the rest of us not gifted with the same clarity of vision?

Most of us, when we read Warfighting, will be struck by how obvious and simple its message appears to be. (This may be one cause of the disappointment of those who were perhaps expecting to be floored.) But how many of us can honestly say we would have practiced maneuver warfare naturally had we not read the book? How many of us even after reading Warfighting and criticizing its obviousness, will still miss the point? Some of us? Most of us? Unfortunately, far more than are willing to admit it. So, again, what about the rest of us?

There was a time not too long ago when maneuver warfare was being taught as “commonsense tactics.” There does in fact appear to be a certain common sensibility to the principles of maneuver warfare. But if these tactics are merely common sense, why do they need to be taught at all? Would not the average tactician apply them naturally? History has proven that these tactics are actually anything but common. Rather, they have been quite uncommon, reserved for the gifted few. The maneuver warfare advocates are simply trying to identify and formalize for the merely able among us what the geniuses seem to have grasped innately. Geniuses and true idiots will always be the exception to the rule, and we cannot hope to have much influence over their numbers (other than to give them the opportunity to demonstrate their true abilities). But we can strive to raise the general level of competence of the vast majority in between.

This explains in part why the maneuver warfare advocates like to cite the German example so often, ala Bill Lind, (to the distress of the numerous Germanophobes). The Germans were certainly not the only people to practice maneuver warfare. But they do seem to be the only ones who tried to institutionalize it. They spent a good deal of time and effort studying and writing about maneuver warfare (in the process establishing a vocabulary of hard-to-pronounce terms), and they very earnestly set about reforming their military establishment to support in every way their maneuver doctrine. As they met with a certain amount of success, we would do well to learn from their experience.

So in the absolute sense, the answer to our original question is that there is nothing new here. But this is no excuse for rejecting FMFM 1. The ideas that are the foundation of maneuver warfare are nearly as old as war itself and have been validated by history. The recognized geniuses of our profession generally gained their reputations by putting these ideas into practice. But as a group, we have not done things this way. Therefore, in the practical sense (which is the only sense that really matters in this most pragmatic of professions), the answer to our question is that there is something new here after all. Recognizing that most of us are not geniuses, the maneuver warfare advocates are simply trying to give the rest of us the same opportunity for success by formalizing what the geniuses have known all along.

Ultimately, the thing that scares me most about the mostly true “nothing new” argument is that from there it is a very short step to “This is the way we’ve always done things,” which is not true at all. From there it is another very short step to convincing ourselves that, since we have always done things this way, we do not need to try to get any better. And that is a very dangerous attitude indeed.