Words Have Meaning

By Col Alex Vohr, USMC(Ret)

The MAGTF Staff Training Program (MSTP) held a period of instruction entitled “Terminology” as part of the Warfighting Seminar portion MEF exercises. The purpose was to impress upon the training audience the importance of using the correct terminology in planning and the development of orders. The incorrect use of technology at best increases friction and at its worst can result in battlefield disaster.

Dr. Bradley Meyer, one of the founders and curriculum architects of the School of Advanced Warfighting stood, one overcast windy and cold day in January, on the remnants of Verdun, a World War I battlefield in France. The discussion focused on “defense in depth,” a topic for which Dr. Meyer is arguably the foremost expert on in the United States. The students, all majors in a second year of professional education, were working to get their minds around the intractable tactical challenges faced by the World War I combatants in breaking the stalemate of the Western Front.

At one point, one of the students suggested the solution could have been found through the application of the Marine Corps doctrine of “maneuver warfare.” Dr. Meyer, an eminently thoughtful man, noted that maneuver alone would not be the solution to the tactical challenge so pervasive that it dominated and paralyzed operations and strategy for the Great War. On the battlefields of World War I, with the front lines stretched from Switzerland to the sea, there was no space for any of the armies to maneuver to gain advantage. The defense in depth Dr. Meyer has suggested, was the centerpiece tactical challenge in 20th century warfare requiring doctrinal paradigm shifts to overcome.

Dr. Meyer’s broad and simplistic interpretation of the doctrine of maneuver warfare was literal and focused on the term “maneuver.” The word suggests a doctrine advocating the use of maneuver to gain advantage over the adversary. On the battlefields of World War I, the challenge that favored the defender and precluded freedom of maneuver was an interdependency between the symmetry of the armies in the field and the lack of operational mobility. In 1918, the German Army, through concentration of the best troops and the employment of the new “Stormtroop” tactics, overcame the challenge of symmetrical forces. The Germans were not, however, able to overcome the problem of operational mobility. It would take them until 1940 to solve that problem.

The exchange with Dr. Meyer raises questions. The Marine Corps doctrine of maneuver warfare has survived largely intact since it first was codified in the late 1980s into what has become Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting (HQMC, Washington, DC: 1997). The doctrine was significantly based on the work of Air Force Col John Boyd, a modern day war theorist most famous for his observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop. Boyd’s OODA loop encapsulated in a single diagram a complex theory for fighting and winning. The distilled doctrine of maneuver warfare leverages a theory for winning at war, perhaps from a position of disadvantage, in a complex, chaotic, and dangerous battlespace. Both Dr. Meyer and the students were correct in their staff ride discussion. Maneuver warfare, a doctrine advocating paradigm changing approaches may have offered a solution to the challenge of the World War I battlespace, but that solution was not to be found in maneuver alone.

The OODA loop alone has a richness and depth far beyond the basic understanding held by most Marines, limited vaguely to the idea of cycling rapidly through the loop to operate at a higher tempo than that which can be achieved by your enemy. To offer a simple analogy for the broader reach of the doctrine, it is about how to look at problems that confound the best minds, such as the problem facing the generals of World War I, and to find a mismatch or an asymmetric seam that can be exploited to win. Maneuver may be part of the solution, but the solution is not limited to maneuver. Like an Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter who gamely maneuvers his way around the octagon only to be viciously submitted when his opponent drags him to the ground and pounds the maneuverer to a pulp, we understand maneuver alone has its limitations.

Asymmetry and attrition are popular words in the defense lexicon. How common is it to hear the sage assertion from a 24-hour news cycle talking head that we don’t want to get involved or tied down in a war of attrition? Is this really true? Because of overwhelming advantages in all warfighting functions at the tactical level, attrition is the approach American forces most often employ with great success. Perhaps given the right circumstances, it can be the most effective approach to warfighting, especially when one considers the attrition ratios in current engagements are well over 100 to 1 in favor of U.S. forces.

Attrition in these cases is our asymmetric advantage. The bottom line is that if attrition works to bend the will of the enemy, then by all means use it. What those who decry attrition warfare most likely intend on conveying is that we should avoid wars of symmetry. Battles between symmetrical forces generally incur somewhat balanced casualty rates as armies grind away at each other without decisive result. This was certainly the case in World War I, but is not necessarily so for all scenarios. Specific words have specific meaning.

The term “asymmetry” is most often attributed to our enemies. In the conflicts that have spanned the last decade, the enemy is often described as being a force that is asymmetric to our capabilities. The underlying unspoken assumption in these assertions is that U.S. forces are designed and best suited for conventional fights. The implication is that the asymmetry of insurgency brings challenges U.S. forces find difficulty in confronting. I’d suggest that looking at this challenge through the lens of Marine Corps warfighting doctrine would assess any asymmetric battlefield as one with great opportunity to find and exploit mismatches to our advantage. Some of these advantages may be found through maneuver, but again, maneuver alone is not the extent of the opportunity. Other advantages could be found and exploited through deception, through fires, or even through non-lethal methods such as diplomacy or economics.

The point of this article is that words carry specific meanings and as MSTP would assert, using the right words is critical. Marines need to say what they mean and mean what they say. With this in mind, I’d offer the following recommendations:

  • Consider renaming the Marine Corps warfighting doctrine of maneuver warfare. As one option, the title “asymmetric warfare” more completely describes the intent behind the approach while reducing the friction caused through the limitations and imprecise use of the word maneuver. In today’s sound bite world, the term maneuver has become somewhat of a “bumper sticker” for the doctrine. If a bumper sticker impression is all some take away in their depth of understanding, that bumper sticker should be as accurate and complete as possible.
  • Reinvigorate efforts to examine, reflect upon, and study Marine Corps doctrine throughout the careers of Marines. Too often doctrine is taught only at the entry level and is not effectively revisited as Marines—especially officers—progress. An understanding of our doctrine should serve as the backdrop and foundation for all training and education. As Marines gain practical experience, new perspectives on our doctrine emerge when it is the doctrine that is periodically re-examined. Most critically our doctrine, descriptive more than prescriptive, provides context for how to think about warfighting.
  • Theory is analogous to hypothesis and doctrine is simply theory that has survived limited testing. Gen James N. Mattis has been attributed as saying, “doctrine is the last bastion of the unimaginative.” This is true to the extent that we as Marines can’t allow our doctrine to mature into unquestioned dogma. The theory behind our doctrine needs to be constantly re-examined through the lens of change in the warfighting environment outside the Marine Corps. In short, we can’t drink our own bathwater. If the theory and doctrine no longer meet the requirements of an evolutionary and sometimes revolutionary world, it should be discarded and replaced; better to rigorously pursue this effort during times of peace than to find ourselves with doctrine that does not meet the requirements of the day as did our predecessors during World War I.
  • Consider adding Colonel Chet Richards’ (USAF [Ret]) book, Certain to Win, (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2004), and Frans P.B. Osinga’s book, Science, Strategy and War; The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, (Florence, KY: Routledge, 2006), to the Commandant’s reading list at the grade of major or lieutenant colonel or in the “Roots of Maneuver Warfare” section. These books provide color and insight into the work and into the man of Col Boyd. They bring a deeper perspective to the source of much and the Marine Corps’ excellent doctrine.