The Legacy of J.C. Breckinridge

by Capt R. Scott Moore

Winner of the 1983 MajGen Harold W. Chase Prize Essay Contest

Late in June 1934, the initial chapters of what remains the Marine Corps’ most lasting bequest to military science were submitted to the Commandant for approval. The completed manual, ambiguously titled the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations, has endured as the bible of amphibious warfare for nearly 50 years. Although periodically modified to meet the changing demands of military technology, the manual expounds still sound fundamentals. Perhaps more than any other contribution, of which there has been many, the amphibious warfare principles published in 1934 testify to the innovation and foresight so prevalent in Marine Corps history.

The years prior to the publication of the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations, while lethargic for most armed forces, constituted years of critical importance to the Marine Corps. Beginning in 1921, under the leadership of Gen John A. Lejeune, Marines spent the next eight years squeezing rudimentary amphibious experiments in the Caribbean and Pacific between operational commitments ranging from guarding mail in the United States to combat patrolling in Central America. By 1929, with the return of most overseas Marines, development of amphibious doctrine shifted to the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, quickly drawing many of the Corps’ best officers along with most of its attention. To direct the developmental effort, the Commandant sent Col James C. Breckinridge to assume command of the Schools. Almost instantly the educational and intellectual climate at Quantico underwent a radical transformation.

James C. Breckinridge, who would redirect the focus of the Marine Schools during the final year of the Roaring Twenties and return to Quantico as a brigadier general 18 months later to ensure the completion of his educational revolution, brought a rare combination of operational experience and intellectual vision. Having participated in the early development of the Advanced Base Force and being intimately familiar with the operational rigors of Latin American guerrilla war, he fully understood Marine Corps missions and requirements. Equally important, Breckinridge possessed a uniquely progressive approach to professional education and the intellectual development of officers. Viewing military education as a series of logical steps beginning with fundamentals and leading toward broad policy issues at the highest level, he defined his concept as “the shedding of the all-important drill regulations and technique that is required at the bottom to make room for tactics and strategy in the middle; then a shedding of tactics to make room for strategy and policy.” At each step, Breckinridge hoped to build toward open thought soundly based on an understanding of what he called the “military craft.” At times he seemed almost obsessed with the desire to inculcate officers with initiative and “the urge to be original.” To this end, he declared blind adherence to precedent to be an anathema, going so far as to ban the use of examinations and single, preset solutions to tactical problems. Officers at Quantico were encouraged to reason rather than memorize and to question established procedures while searching for new, innovative solutions to problems. Breckinridge sought to educate the minds of Marine officers rather than train their memories.

The results of Breckinridge’s efforts were electric. Marine Corps Schools rapidly became the heart of the Marine Corps. Officers assigned to Quantico, as either students or instructors, encountered an intellectual beehive. Long accepted tactics and techniques, many based on World War I experience, were subjected to critical scrutiny by officers encouraged to question precedent. Spurred by such instructors as Maj Charles D. Barrett, an acknowledged and self-educated expert in the history of seaborne assault, students dissected amphibious operations ranging from those of an 1891 Chilean civil war to the German seizure of the Baltic Islands in 1917. By 1933, when the Commandant directed that attention be focused on publication of a manual for amphibious landing, the Schools were ready.

While the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations stands as a testimony to Gen Breckinridge’s educational concepts, it symbolizes far more. A generation of officers, bearing such names as Julian Smith, Oliver Smith, Alexander Vandegrift, and Roy Geiger, felt the impact of the intellectual fervor engulfing Quantico. That impact would manifest itself in the innovation and professional excellence that distinguished the Pacific island campaigns of World War II. Of far more importance to today’s Marine Corps, however, are the principles of intellectual development so clearly espoused by Breckinridge. The real legacy of J.C. Breckinridge is essentially twofold-the requirement that officers question precedent rather than blindly follow established routine and the need to develop professional education that will encourage initiative and new approaches to problems.

Unfortunately, Gen Breckinridge’s testament seems to have faded from Marine Corps memory. The Marine Corps’ education system is, in reality, one devoted to training. While the argument can be made that, due to long periods of absence from the Fleet Marine Force by many officers and the increasing complexities of modern combat, officers must be solidly grounded in technical fundamentals, the relative exclusion of innovative thought is tragic. Despite some historical analysis included in the curriculum at Amphibious Warfare School and the Command and Staff College aimed at improving decisionmaking skills, there seems to be little room for questioning of current doctrine. Even more tragic, many officers show little inclination for such introspection. Additionally, a large number of outstanding officers either seek alternatives to attendance of either Amphibious Warfare School or the Command and Staff College or complete schooling with the too-often-heard comment that the value of the school lay not in its instruction but in the opportunity it provided to meet peers. The intellectual dynamism that pervaded the Marine Corps Schools of the 1930s appears absent in the 1980s.

Fortunately, there are rumblings that indicate Breckinridge still watches over the Marine Corps. Whatever the merits of their ideas, maneuver warfare advocates have affected many operational units-most notably the 2d Marine Division-and have made advances into the schools’ curriculum at the Education Center. In doing so, many Marines have awakened to study the new tactical concepts, generating often heated intellectual exchanges. Quasi-official maneuver warfare boards have sprung up at several Marine bases to examine current doctrine. Perhaps even more encouraging, the pages of the Marine Corps GAZETTE have become a neutral zone where Marines, regardless of rank, can freely debate current policies and doctrine. While still somewhat tentative, the Marine Corps is showing signs of emulating the example set over 50 years ago.

For the Marine Corps to capitalize on these intellectual stirrings, they must be not only encouraged, but also permanently fixed in the Corps’ psyche. Like the Schools of the early 1930s, the Corps must establish the institutions and professional atmosphere that will compel Marines to critically examine doctrine. To do so, current education and training may require revamping and, more importantly, careful integration of all phases into a logical progression. For the enlisted Marines, this process will begin during recruit and initial training, where technical fundamentals are mastered. Critically important, the noncommissioned officer and staff noncommissioned officer schools must build upon the basics to develop junior leaders who are capable of exercising control over their Marines and can use their initiative to develop small unit tactics. At the officer level, a similar progression must evolve from The Basic School through Amphibious Warfare School and the Command and Staff College and be carried by senior Marines into the highest-level schools. Throughout a Marine’s career, he must constantly be reminded, prodded, or even forced, if necessary, to question and to approach established doctrine with a critical mind. Such intellectual prodding can only be accomplished through an educational process that is, at once, traditional and innovative.

Military history-the study of leaders, battles, and campaigns-has long been recognized as the foundation of professional military education and remains so today. Napoleon viewed a thorough knowledge of the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and Frederick as essential for any successful commander. Breckinridge incorporated military history into the Quantico curriculum; indeed, the British official history of the Gallipoli campaign could be considered the source document of modern amphibious doctrine. Only very recently, however, has the Marine Corps shown anything more than cursory appreciation of the educational role of military history. At both the Amphibious Warfare School and the Command and Staff College, serious historical study in the form of the Battle Studies Program began only in 1982. In addition, a new series of booklets published by the Education Center present historical tactical problems for squad leaders through battalion commanders.* While encouraging, these steps are not enough. If, as Breckinridge clearly understood, history is the foundation of the military profession, then its study must be systematic and thorough, concentrating on decision processes, impacts of weapons and tactics on operations, and the application of long-recognized principles. Collections of readings and diverse campaign studies, while important, are too superficial. As a largely historically illiterate military organization, the Marine Corps must incorporate historical study into all levels of education, particularly that of officers. Indeed, the analysis of military history should hold as high a position as the acquisition of technical skills, whatever the MOS.

The study of military history, however, too often degenerates into memorization of dates and events. To be effective, knowledge of military history must serve as a data base for developing sound problem-solving skills. Bismarck once remarked that fools learned by their own mistakes, he preferred to learn from others. Such is the educational value of military history. While history rarely, if ever, repeats itself, it does provide a valuable tool in assessing tactical and operational problems, the principles of which have remained remarkably consistent. The decision processes of Hannibal at Cannae, Lee at Chancellorsville, and Patton during the Normandy breakout were quite similar, despite obvious disparities in time and technology. In this sense, military history becomes the laboratory in which to test current judgment. Such was the nature of Breckinridge’s approach to amphibious operations, an approach that combined the historical knowledge of officers like Barrett with detailed analyses of past landing operations. Through such systematic study and application, Marine officers who would hold critical positions in the Pacific a decade later honed their intellectual skills.

The study of military history, and the resultant sharpening of problem-solving skills, offers Marines the tools necessary for innovation; the education system, however, must encourage these Marines to apply their knowledge to the future, particularly the critical analysis of doctrine. Unfortunately, development of doctrine largely has been divorced from education. Such a separation has led to stagnancy in doctrinal thought and resulted in a serious dichotomy between operational units and the Development Center. The recent draft of FMFM6-6, The Marine Rifle Squad, a hollow statement of minutiae and drill more closely resembling an 18th century Prussian manual than 20th century tactical doctrine, contrasts sharply with the innovative doctrinal experiments emanating from the 2d Marine Division. Much as in 1934, when officer students at Quantico redirected their efforts toward amphibious doctrine, the Education Center must become the heart of Marine Corps doctrinal development. In doing so, operational tenets will be subjected to continuous reappraisal by a constant flow of Marines with diverse Fleet Marine Force seasoning. These Marines, tasked as part of their studies with doctrinal evaluation, will be forced to apply both their experience and education to produce innovative solutions to present and future military problems. The benefits accruing from the meshing of education and development will reveal themselves in dynamic short-term doctrinal and long-term intellectual growth throughout the Marine Corps.

To achieve the type of progressive military education originally envisioned by Breckinridge and necessary to today’s Marine Corps, current educational methods require modification. While such basics as tactical fundamentals, organization, proper orders formats, and the many techniques of movement, fire support coordination, and logistics are required knowledge of all Marines, they cannot remain the primary focus of the educational system. Aside from that at the entry-level schools, instruction in these elements must be secondary to the development of Marines who can innovatively apply them. The assumption may have to be made, and perhaps verified through periodic preadvancement testing or careful selection of qualified students, that Marines are already equipped with the basics prior to attending schools. Only then can the schools concentrate on such areas as historical analysis, problem-solving, and evaluation of doctrine, so necessary to military education. The object of the schools must be to develop the intellect of Marines; professional education cannot become bogged down in techniques and training.

The Marine Corps, during the next decade, faces a crucial challenge not unlike that faced in the years following World War I. New technology, changing missions, and potential enemies equally or better armed pose serious doctrinal questions. To cope, Marines must be able to question existing precepts and develop new solutions. This ability is not hereditary, nor can the Marine Corps rely on the emerging signs of intellectual vitality evidenced by the maneuver warfare debate. The Marine Corps must educate its officers and enlisted ranks to be innovative and, as Gen Breckinridge admonished his Marines 50 years ago:

. . . never adopt a precedent for no better reason than to copy it. Lots of men can better it-and that is what we want: something better. Look ahead for progress, not back for precedent. Accept the precedent as a last resort.


* IPs 6-3, 6-4, and 6-5. Publication of these handbooks was reported in the MCG, Jan83 (p.6) and Aug83 (p.8). Periodic updates are published in the Education Center’s quarterly newsletter, Operational Overview.