War Without Firepower?

by LtCoL M. D. Wyly

The great debate of the early 1980s over maneuver warfare has been the healthiest thing to happen to our Corps since Pete Ellis suggested that we might one day find it necessary to seize Pacific Islands from the Japanese. It has gotten Marines to thinking, and as in the early 1930s, our thoughts have been about the future, about the next war. Losses of temper, perceived insults, hare-brained arguments notwithstanding, Marines are concerned about how we are going to fight, next time around.

I have willingly allowed myself to be categorized with the “maneuverists” because I have seen in their ideas, refreshing ways of thinking by which we can profit. I have accepted the ideas because I have found them to be validated in history and logical in the context of my combat experience.

Because I believe the debate to be healthy, I want to see it go on. It has provided the seeds of many new ideas for me, and I cannot but think that it has done likewise for many other Marines. There is, however, a point on which the two sides should come to agreement-firepower is essential to the successful waging of war. Misunderstanding of this point has stirred emotions and prevented those who have gravitated to one camp from learning from the other.

We “maneuverists” talk a lot about fluidity. We talk about movement, relative to the enemy. We embrace a concept of fast-pace battle, fought at a tempo that keeps our actions always a step ahead of the enemy’s orientation. But let us not deceive ourselves. Without firepower, forget victory. There will be none. When we speak of movement, we must include fire. Fire and movement is a term that has long been with us. Its application takes new forms in each successive war. It will take newer ones in the next.

My departure from the attrition camp comes in my strong conviction that fire and movement should take place within a maneuver scheme, not an attrition scheme. The objective has been attrition in too many past experiences, all of which proved that it is too expensive and indecisive. Our objective must be the defeat of the enemy. He will not, however, throw up his hands by mere token of being outmaneuvered. It is naive to believe that an enemy will give up unless he perceives that something decisive is going to happen to him. Our threat to him has to be made real through the deadliness of our fire.

I have only one war to draw on for experience. Two tours in Vietnam are a mere pittance of experience in the vast array of lessons that lie in the school of human conflict. But the most indelible, undeniable reality that was driven home to me in Vietnam was that we had to shoot. We had to risk our lives and be willing, in fact, eager, to take the enemy’s.

I would willingly label myself an “attritionist” before I would espouse a doctrine that would send Marines off to war, thinking that they would not have to kill, that they would not have to confront death and the bloodiest gore on a daily basis. I do not blame anyone for rejecting a theory that envisions an enemy dissolving in the face of maneuver without fire. As Marines, we often have difficulty relating to the idea of surrender, friendly or enemy. This is because, as U.S. Marines, we are nearly immune to that ever happening on our side. Marines don’t break and run. May this ever be so. But this does not give us immunity to the futility of static, unimaginative warfare. Marines don’t break and run, but as history shows, they sometimes are not at all bad at dying in place. We cannot condone a doctrine that will lead Marines to dying in place. Human life is the most valuable asset we have. Let no one forget that.

As a company commander in Vietnam, I saw maneuver work. I was little schooled in its potential; yet, there were times when we completely baffled the enemy by applying our brains, dropping off ambushes to surprise and destroy the enemy where he trailed after us, thinking that we were leaving. We predicted the route he would choose for his escape from our lumbering main forces and ambushed him there, too. But there was much we could have done better. That our doctrine, our concepts, and our very way of thinking must be revised and sharpened to meet the threats of this decade is, in my mind, beyond question. The great lessons in maneuver that we can learn from the Mongols, the ancient Swedes, the Germans of World War II, and the Israelis must be incorporated into our way of fighting; we must make them our own. We can be more agile and we must be. But war will still be dangerous and bloody, and we must ensure that it is more bloody for our enemy. Therefore, along with maneuver, we must deal a lethal blow.

Old ways of doing things will not do. “We’ve always done maneuver” is a hollow phrase. Major changes are called for. Resistance to new and foreign concepts must be overcome. Let the debate go on, but with a mutually agreed understanding of firepower‘s central role.