The Marine Corps Way of War

by Col Thomas C. Greenwood

The Marine Corps Way of War THE MARINE CORPS WAY OF WAR: The Evolution of the U.S. Marine Corps from Attrition to Maneuver Warfare in the Post-Vietnam Era. By Anthony Piscitelli. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2017. ISBN: 978-1611213607,264 pp.

Dr. Anthony J. Piscitellis The Marine Corps Way of War: The Evolution of the U.S. Marine Corps from Attrition to Maneuver Warfare in the Post-Vietnam Era boldly attempts to capture how and why the Corps adopted maneuver warfare doctrine after Vietnam and, at the same time, stimulate readers with concise battlefield summaries from Belleau Wood (WWI) to the present day. Either one of these tasks would pose a Herculean challenge for any military historian. So neither author nor reader of this intriguing book should be surprised that İt comes up short. It neither matches the scholarly standards of previous doctrinal analysis, such as Barry Posen’s The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany Between the World Wars, nor has the appeal of Edwin H. Simmons’ classic popular battle history, The United States Marines, 1775-1975.1

Marines will nonetheless find this work a helpful introduction into maneuver warfare‘s main doctrinal tenets: commander’s intent, missiontype orders, trust tactics, speed of decision making, attacking weak spots, surprise, shock, and shattering the enemy’s cohesion. Interviews with key participants of the spirited doctrinal debates of the 1980s and ’90s that flourished around the Corps offer insight into a largely “bottom up” movement that sought to discover smarter ways for Marines to fight outnumbered and win {an imperative necessitated by the quantitative advantage Soviet conventional forces enjoyed at the time). In particular, Piscitelli’s informative interviews with Col Mike Wyly, MajGen Mike Myatt, and Gen James N. Mattis discussing how the Marines applied maneuver warfare during Operations DESERT Shield and Desert Storm enrich the author’s work. The accounts of the roles played by Maritime Prepositioning Squadrons (MPS) and afloat naval expeditionary forces İn the first Gulf War, and a decade later when Task Force 58 deployed into Afghanistan from unprecedented distances İn the Arabian Sea, create a maritime context that helps the reader better understand the current Commandant’s continued emphasis on the Navy-Marine Corps Team maintaining proficiency İn conducting maneuver warfare from the sea.

The book’s central thesis-that during the post-Vietnam era, the Marine Corps did not experience a revolution İn military affairs but rather continued its tradition of innovation and adaptation going back to 1775-would have been enhanced by more robustly framing historical antecedents of war in its opening pages. Piscitelli discusses the Small Wars Manual drafted in the 1930s and the Combined Action Program (CAP) implemented İn Vietnam (the Marine Corps’ pacification alternative to big search and destroy operations). However, he gives scant attention to other important doctrinal initiatives, such as the development of amphibious warfare {recorded İn the publication Tentative Landing Party Manual of 1934/1938), close air support, vertical envelopment using helicopters, adoption of the MAGTF concept, afloat prepositioning, the MEU training program, and live fire combined arms exercises in the Mojave Desert. Greater attention to the lengthy continuum of doctrinal initiatives throughout the Corps’ history would have strengthened his argument that innovation, adaptation, and constantly rediscovering ways to remain useful to the Nation İs coded into the Marine Corps’ DNA.

The book’s foreword is written by Gen Alfred M. Gray, Jr., 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps and highly respected advocate and sponsor of the “fighting smarter” mindset. Gen Gray spearheaded a more creative philosophical approach to war that eventually matured into official maneuver warfare doctrine with the publication of FMFM 1, Warfighting, on 6 March 1989. In the foreword, Gen Gray states,

The history of our Corps during this time frame supported this evolutionary paradigm shift away from the American doctrine of attritional warfare to a maneuver way of fighting, operating and thinking … a large cadre of returning Marine officers who had served in Vietnam wanted to see a change in some of our conceptual thinking, making this warfighting philosophy a priority for the future.

Part of the evolution Gen Gray alludes to İs the Marines’ classic amphibious assault against Japanese forces on the Pacific island of Tİnİan and the Inchon landing during the Korean War.2 Both of these epic achievements used operational maneuver from the sea to bypass enemy defenses but receive little more than a sentence or two in the book.

With few exceptions, Piscitelh focuses the maneuver warfare story on a small coterie of like-minded officers who inspired a Corps-wide organic movement that helped elevate maneuver warfare from the purview of a few into widespread acceptance and official doctrine. To that end, the book would have benefited from deeper excursions into some of the issues that Marines argued about as part of the broader maneuver warfare debate. For example, more than 70 maneuver warfare-related articles were published İn the Marine Corps Gazette from 1980-95 by such authors as Anderson, Brickhouse, Driscoll, Estes, Hammes, Hayden, Hoffman, Leaderer, Lind, McKenzie, Moore, Murray, Schmitt, Walker, Waters, Wilson, and others. These articles questioned or defended some facet of maneuver warfare thinking as it related to the role of firepower, synchronization, aviation as a maneuver element, Auftragstaktik (directive control), Schwerpunkt {heavy point or main effort), the OODA loop, light infantry, expeditionary sustainment, recon pull, and more. In short, scores of critical thinkers at all ranks contributed immeasurably to the Corps’ institutional learning during those heady years and helped reconcile maneuver warfare with the Marines’ combined arms, MAGTF, and expeditionary ethos.

Yet the book paints far too rosy a picture of the challenges the Corps still faces İn implementing maneuver warfare doctrine. There İs no discussion of the after-action analysis that attributed the great DESERT STORM victory to non-doctrinal factors.3 Some observers have also noted how a forward operating base mentality isolated Marines from the Afghan and Iraqi populations that needed their protection. Moreover, after-action reports from urban operations in both wars suggest that binary choices between attrition and maneuver approaches are sometimes false dichotomies in places like Helmand Province and Fallujah- where room clearing quickly escalates into lethal combat with high casualties.

One of the book’s major disappointments İs its poor editing. Swaths of text are erroneously recycled (half of page 66 İs repeated from page 57). On page 80, the 7th Marines Regimental Commander, Col Carlton W. Fulford, Jr.-who later retired as a 4-star general after serving as the Deputy Commander İn Chief for U.S. European Command-is listed as Carl Colfert. Chapter 6, entitled “Small Wars and Humanitarian Assistance,” includes a section on Operations DESERT FOX (Iraq) and ALLIED FORCE (former Yugoslavia), and both were punitive air campaigns, not small wars or humanitarian actions. They were major military operations undertaken to respectively weaken Saddam Hussein’s regime and coerce Slobodan Milosevic back to the negotiating table. Operation Allied Force lasted 11 weeks, and 14 of the 19 NATO Alliance members flew more than 40,000 combat sorties (about one third the number flown at the opening of DESERT STORM) altogether.^ These operations seem inappropriately categorized.

Finally, doctrine İs 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 İs to remain relevant and avoid defeat.3 For that reason, the Marine Corps’ “way of war”-to the extent it is anything more complicated than “move on order, perform on arrival”-İs to continue eschewing any single dogma or prescriptive approach toward warfare İn favor of championing the intellectual dexterity of leaders who exercise military judgment informed by history, experience, and an unrelenting bias for action.


1. Other doctrinal classics in this category include John English, On Infantry, Bruce Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics’, Jonathan House, Toward Combined Arms Warfare, Timothy Lupfer, The Dynamics of Doctrine; Elizabeth Kier, Imagining War; and John Nagl, LearningtoEat Soup with a Knife.

2. Tinian has been described as the classic amphibious assault of the Pacific Theater in World War II. “In fact, as a study in pure technical skill and amphibious virtuosity, the assault on Tinian excels any other landing in the history of the war.” Jeter A. Isley and Philip A. Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory and Its Practice in the Pacific, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951). The authors eloquently explain Tinian’s success using maneuver warfare concepts-deception, tactical surprise, massing combat power against enemy weak spots, and imaginatively integrating firepower with rapid ground maneuver to shock and collapse enemy forces.

Regarding Inchon:

It would never have happened were it not for the ingenious and altogether professional actions of the Marines and Navy people involved. The piecing together of the thirty thousand man air-ground force in the space of three weeks, the succession of improvisations in embarkation and İn planning, the steadfast poise with which General Smith, Admiral Doyle, and their staffs fought off the meddling of General Almond as they pursued their affairs, the ingenious adaptations to the unusual nature of the mandated landing area these were the indispensable lubricants that oiled the gears of strategy, these were the things that converted Inchon from a dream to a reality.

Victor H. Krulak, First to Fight, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981).

3.For three different perspectives on the Operation Desert Storm victory, see G.I. Wilson, “The Gulf War, Maneuver Warfare, and the Operational Art,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: June 1991); J.J. Edson, “A Perspective on Desert Storm,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: June 1991); Stephen Biddle, “Victory Misunderstood,” International Security, (Cambridge, MA: Fall 1996).

4.Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly: NATO’s War to Save Kosovo, (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2000).

5.John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya to Vietnam, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2002).