The Opposing Ideas

A wise man once opined that what you see depends on where you sit. In the past few months the Gazette pages have been the location of an interesting debate that centers on the predeployment training program (PTP), certification of operations officers and, depending on how you look at it, necessary guidance to or lack of autonomy of subordinates. The catalyst for this debate has been “The Attritionist Letters”; the response to them, such as Col William F. Mullen’s June 2011 article, “Attritionist Letter (#10): A Response”; my editorials in this years February and May editions; and an exchange of letters initiated by Maj Peter J. Munson’s letter in the April issue. In June LtGen Robert B. Neller penned a response to Maj Munson.

The central point of the debate is whether the PTP and top-down planning and guidance run counter to the maneuver warfare doctrine that we espouse. The debate continues in this issue with a letter from Capt J. P. Steinfels. His letter is an interesting and articulate airing of the issue that many junior officers see as lack of special trust and confidence in subordinate leaders.

Both LtGen Neller and Col Mullen make an articulate case for the importance of a structured training program that provides commanders with the tools and resources they require to prepare their units for combat. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless, but be determined to make them otherwise.” All of the Marines who have engaged in the debate have a first-rate intelligence. The answer may be a synthesis of both ideas. I don’t think there is a formula for the right amount of top-down planning and decentralized execution in training. I do know that the Corps is sending mixed signals to the deck plate by extolling maneuver warfare as our operating theory and then being extremely directive in training and garrison. The balance is somewhere in the middle, but it will take a policy-by-policy review to determine where lies the sweet spot. There is, however, a negative spillover of well-intended policies.

For just one example, consider the young corporal or sergeant in Afghanistan. A tremendous amount of faith and confidence is placed in that young NCO in combat. Return to home station though and he is treated quite differently. Think of the dichotomy of being completely trusted in combat but not being allowed to go on liberty until you sign your liberty pledge and sit through the vehicle safety lecture and the other unimaginative and boring training requirements that your commander has to report that you completed. Even a first-rate intelligence cannot hold those two disparate standards in his mind and be able to synthesize them into a coherent whole.

What the “Young Turks” are saying is that the message they are receiving will have an unintended consequence in combat when we are so directional in garrison. They fear we are developing Marines with a preference for direction rather than a bias for action. The other unintended consequence could be the failure to retain our best and brightest. Next month we have an article from a recently separated Marine who articulates what he saw as the disparity in what the Corps says and how it really operates. One man’s opinion for sure, but it certainly will provide food for thought.

John Keenan