Warfighting: A leap of faith

by LtCol G. Stephen Lauer

1994 Chase Prize Essay Contest Honorable Mention

A ‘modern’ infantry may ride sky vehicles into combat, fire and sense its weapons through instrumentation, employ devices of frightening lethality in the future-but it must be old-fashioned enough to be iron-hard, poised for instant obedience, and prepared to die in the mud.

-T. R. Fehrenbach

Tactical ground combat requires a certain type of training; the creation of a certain mindset, pride, and toughness; the willingness to obey orders intelligently, flexibility of mind in leaders; and the ability to adapt to the environment presented in each combat situation. Historically, Marines have fought and won this way-without the practical need for a theory of battle. We looked with confidence to our own experience.

Our institutional vision was simple-the Corps exists to fight on the ground. Whatever equipment was added to the inventory, whatever method of entry or transport was provided to us, the vision for its employment remained that of usefulness in the successful prosecution of tactical ground combat. In 1989, the Corps adopted a theory of war as its own, the theory of maneuver warfare. Thus enlightened, we now move towards a future, defined not by our institutional experience of combat but by the tenets of our theory.

What did we do before the “enlightenment”? How did the Marine Corps find its way through the wilderness and the fog of war to adapt itself to the warfighting requirements of the 20th century before seeing the true light? In what way were we so unsuccessful in the prosecution of war? How many battles did we lose? What catastrophe on the order of Cannae, or Dien Bien Phu, did we suffer to bring about the need for a complete redirection of our tactical theory and practice? This enlightenment was accomplished by dictate in the publication of FMFM 1, Wafighting.

In the past we relied upon an institutional vision born of battle experience. This experience led to a commonsense approach to the requirements of ground combat. Our officer and staff noncommissioned officer forebears were schooled in the realities of war and battle, and they were uniformly victorious. They looked at our own history of battle and viewed the battles fought by others to devise a doctrine and force structure needed to win in close combat. The history of the Corps in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam sees us victorious on the battlefield, fighting with common sense, within political constraints, against enemies that did not surrender. We suffered no defeats, nothing invalidated how we prepared our Marines to fight. We adapted to the changing battlefield environments of “every clime and place” to win. Even Vietnam, which has been used as the justification for this change, was successfully fought by Marines on the ground within the political constraints defined for us.

Until the maneuver age, we articulated no theory of war except that of experience. Our institutional experience of war in the 20th century was one of close combat against enemies who did not surrender, even when disrupted or surrounded. The lens through which we viewed war was experience at warfighting. We are a ground combat force. We developed a uniquely effective entry technique-amphibious warfare. Our doctrine sought to describe ways to engage an enemy first through assault from the sea and then to destroy him in close combat ashore. The force was structured to obtain maximum firepower and mobility. Commanders were expected to improvise. We became a powerful combined arms force-agile and flexible. This led to the practice of building force structure that sought balance between mobility and firepower and doctrine that maintained the need for few rules.

The maneuver theory is not a basis for doctrine but is now the basis of our tactical dogma. It is a theory built upon our acceptance by faith in the inductive leap demanded by the logic of the theory of maneuver. That dogma espouses the cult of maneuver. It is based on faith in an interpretation of the history of warfare that tells us that battles are won by the disruption of an enemy in the face of our quicker movement, that battle is no longer essential, that war is fundamentally different than we believed or experienced, that we are no longer slaves to our attrition past.

The terms of the debate have been defined for us. We have been handed a dogmatic requirement for belief. Dogmatic debate demands that any debate simply reinforce the creed. Dogmatic debate is self-feeding, endlessly circular, and politically correct. Who wants to stand up today and be seen to be in favor of attrition or destruction? The connotations of attrition are all negative, reflecting darkness and backward or wrong-headed thinking. Maneuver connotes light and forward or right-headed thinking. Maneuver theory rejects experience that does not conform to the tenets of its dogma. It requires us to teach war as we wish it were-battle without violence, hatred, enmity, or bloodshed. The dogma of maneuver teaches wishful warfare.

What is the effect of this on the Marine Corps? In the institutionalization of wishful warfare, we run the profound risk of not preparing our next generation of leaders for the horror and violence of death and their absolute need to face that reality and continue to lead. By teaching that they can, and indeed must, avoid battle in order to win, we are not preparing them for the truth. The end results of the tactical dogma of maneuver include the following:

* Loss of institutional vision, i.e., the common vision that defines the ethos of being a Marine.

* Denial of the value of previous combat experience that does not conform to the dogma.

* Creation of force structure built on false analysis of the requirements of modern ground combat.

How can these effects be limited? First, rewrite FMFM 1 to reflect our experience and the primacy of combined arms. The primary lesson of our combat history is the effectiveness of combined arms. To the extent that we need a theory of war, a theory of practical experience that views battle as it is, not as we wish it to be, would seem to fit our needs best. Where does such a theory come from? Clausewitz is a good start. Modifications to his writings are best found in our experience with combined arms battle during the 20th century.

Second, place the maneuver theory in the school house and take from it what is applicable, discarding what is unrealistic. It is no better and of no more use than any other theory that fails to reflect what our experience tells to be true.

Third, take all references to theory out of our tactical manuals. Tactical manuals must be written to reflect our experience of war, in other words, they reflect our institutional experience of battle. Faith in theory has no place in an organization whose sole purpose is warfighting. We do not have the right to risk the lives of our Marines on the basis of faith. Let’s write tactical manuals to reflect the reality of war, not wishful warfare. As T. R. Fehrenbach wrote in This Kind of War, “The problem is to see not what is desirable, or nice, or politically feasible, but what is necessary.”

Finally, we need to understand the effect the adoption of any theory has on the Corps’ future ability to fight and win in battles. The accompanying diagram describes how theory becomes the lens through which we view battle and the requirements to fight with the forces ultimately derived from that theory.

In effect, the lens you use creates a cascading effect throughout the Marine Corps. We derive warfighting requirements from analysis of our own experience in battle and from the vicarious experience gained through the critical analysis of history and recent accounts by others. Our view of battle is fundamentally changed by the choice of lens or theory that serves as a guide to that analysis. From that analysis comes the creation of doctrine that drives all aspects of training, organization, and equipment. The Corps procures equipment and builds force structure to fight that doctrine, and when that force goes to war, experience is then analyzed again through whatever theory lens has been chosen. If you choose the lens incorrectly, the effect may only be discovered on the battlefield and paid for in the blood of young Marines. We do not have the right to be wrong.

In conclusion, maneuver warfare is not simply “a mindset, or way of thinking about war,” it is the theoretical basis for tactical doctrine and force structure. It is this connection to doctrine and force structure that is profoundly misunderstood by many Marines. Instead of a theory built upon the practical experience of war- war in which enemies, though cut off, surrounded, and thoroughly disrupted, would not surrender; war in which enemies had to be brought to close combat before either their death or capture-the Marine Corps embraced maneuver warfare. We abandoned our history-the lens of practical experience which guided us through our first 200 years-in favor of a lens based on faith in the theory of maneuver and the dogma derived from that theory.