Warfighting Revisited

by Col Thomas C. Greenwood

Rarely do book reviews elicit spirited responses, so I am both honored and pleased that my critique of Dr. Anthony J. Piscitellis, The Marine Corps Way of War (MCG, Marl 8) did so, generating subsequent commentary from the author and a leading maneuver warfare advocate from the 1980s, Col Mike Wyly, USMC (Ret). I hope Gazette readers share my gratitude to both men for continuing to make this a meaningful discussion in our professional journal.

Having re-read Dr. Piscitellis letter (MCG, Septl8) and the concluding chapter of his book, I find that we agree on more points than not. Nor does he owe anyone an apology for his publisher’s oversights. Still, the next revision of his book will be strengthened by a more balanced presentation of the maneuver warfare debate that animated professional discussions around the Corps for nearly two decades. The so-called “opposition” was not composed of insubordinate officers who refused to carry out orders; rather, they were committed professionals who shaped the broader discussion that ultimately defined the Marine Corps ethos after Vietnam. The interactive nature of the debate sharpened maneuver warfare‘s foundational ideas and brought about institutional change.

The ways in which military organizations reform themselves to prevent repeated failures, avoid complacency, and remain useful to the Nation, is an important story that deserves to be told. Not just for history’s sake but, more importantly, so that successive generations of Marines might gain insight from lessons learned in the past. The latter have institutional responsibility to ensure doctrine keeps pace with the changing character of war and evolving threats our Nation faces. It is through this lens that I offer the following additional observations.

Dr. Piscitelli alludes that warfighting philosophy serves an important and necessary function in any military organization; however, philosophy alone does not produce battlefield victory. As the French discovered in WWI-when their philosophy of war became so sacrosanct as to escape dispassionate scrutiny and evolved into the cult of the offense-generalized conceptions of war still require armies to apply their visualization of combat to the specific operational context of each specific conflict.

The French were not alone in misunderstanding the evolved nature of war. The British also discounted changes in warfare that had been underway for decades and continued to believe moral factors could overcome revolutionary changes in firepower. Gen Douglas Haig’s thoughts on these matters reflected Britain’s outdated warfighting philosophy of the day:

The Staff College, and (General) Douglas Haig did accept the fact of modern firepower, but while making adjustments to tactics, they came to the conclusion that, other things being equal, it was simple solutions such as morale, discipline and leadership that decided battles. So, the problem of modern fire-power was to be solved by intensifying morale, discipline and leadership rather than using the same fire-power to devise appropriate solutions … this emphasis (on human factors) tended to distract Haig and others from fully appreciating the change that were taking place … only the mounted arm could win the decisive vietory-success in battle simply opened the way for cavalry to achieve the decision.!

This issue is still relevant with today’s leaders and Marine Corps Commandant Gen Robert B. Neller, who stated publicly in June 2017 that the Marine Corps is “not currently organized, trained, and equipped to face a peer adversary in the year 2025.” The Commandant’s candid pronouncement has prompted some to question why the Corps is not adequately postured for success against our most dangerous adversaries despite a $41 billion annual budget.

No doubt, there are multiple answers to this question; however, a key explanation is that warfighting philosophy must be complemented with a viable concept that translates philosophy into operational activities. As one writer has noted: The operational concept filters theory through the lens of geopolitical circumstances, national culture, historic context and technolog}’- to frame a doctrine of war-the codification of practice. An operational concept may or may not be explicitly set forth in doctrine, but it drives doctrine nonetheless. Doctrines that can demonstrate their basis in a clear and widely understood operational concept are far more effective than those that cannot.2

Since Warfighting was first published in 1989 (and most recently updated in 1997’s MCDP 2), the Marine Corps has drafted several operational concepts (e.g., Maritime Prepositioning Operations, Operational Maneuver from the Sea, Enhanced Network Seabasing, Expeditionary MAGTF Operations, Ship-to-Objective Maneuver, Sustained Operations Ashore, Distributed Operations, and Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment) that have enjoyed varying degrees of longevity. Unfortunately, before some reached full maturity, they were eclipsed by the speed of change in the security environment, adaptive nature of our adversaries, and bureaucratic limitations. So, it remains to be seen if the Corps’ latest concept- Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO)-will serve effectively as David Fastabend’s “operational filter” for fighting a peer adversary in a degraded and contested environment.

Ingenuity and innovation will help the Marine Corps overcome EABO’s logistical, mobility, and survivability challenges. If not, then EABO must be jettisoned in favor of a better operational concept that is subjected to rigorous experimentation and validation before being adopted. This cycle of rapid concept development and experimentation which, if done correctly, may involve as many failures as it does successes, is an essential part of creative military discovery. It also inoculates military institutions against falling in love with either their warfighting philosophy or their concepts.^

The same holds true for official doctrine, which may easily become irrelevant unless it is frequently updated. Worse, aging doctrine could potentially become worshipped as a kind of high religion- much like the offense and horse cavalry were in earlier eras-promoting inaction, intellectual stagnation, and slavish adherence to warfighting methods that are ill-suited for modern conditions. On this point, I think Col Wyly and I agree. My argument is not that Marine Corps warfighting doctrine (i.e., maneuver warfare) has outlived its usefulness. Rather, that after two decades (three decades if we use the original 1989 FMFM1 publication date), Chapter 4 of MCDP 1 will benefit from a discussion of today’s information environment; the contribution Marines are now being called upon to make in the competition phase short of armed conflict; the imperative of employing land-based long-range fires (both non-kinetic and kinetic) with fires in other domains; the impact of unmanned technology on force development; and organizational dexterity required to integrate with other joint/combined forces (whose warfighting philosophy and operational concepts may not embrace those held dear by any single U.S. Service). Ultimately, we must work to keep alive many of maneuver warfare‘s fertile ideas vice simply admiring the achievement and allowing it to become an artifact of military history.


1. Tim Travers, The Killing Ground: The British Army, the Western Front Ó’ the Emergence of Modern War 1900-1918, (United Kingdom: Pen and Sword, 1987).

2. David A. Fastabend, “That Elusive Operational Concept,” Army Magazine, (Arlington, VA: June 2001).

3. For additional insights into the critical role experimentation plays in concept development, see, Kevin M. Woods and Thomas C. Greenwood, “Multi-domain Battle: Time for a Campaign of Joint Experimentation,” Joint Forces Quarterly, (Washington, DC: January 2018).