The Attritionist Letters, volleys in the long war for control of US military doctrine

Summary:   Key points of military history are marked by debates among soldiers, usually invisible to the public but affecting the course of nations.  Such a debate is underway now about the doctrines by which we wage the long war against jihadists and their allies.  With the permission of the the Marine Corps Association (publisher of the Marine Corps Gazette, one of the finest of military journals), we’re bringing to public a series of entertaining but powerful volleys in that debate:  the Attritionist Letters.  This is an introduction to the series.

Leadership as Chess

C.S. Lewis first published the 31 Screwtape Letters in The Guardian from May through November 1941.  They are letters from Screwtape (a senior demon) to his nephew Wormwood (a novice tempter).  They discuss the moral context behind the wars then shaking the world, which are a manifestation (or perhaps an echo) of the larger war between good and evil.   They show that fallen angels (from low-level tempters up to Satan) are components of a bureaucracy driven by the personal needs of its participants as much as its ideology and purpose.  The result is often futility in action (pitiful under other circumstances, but an element of their damnation).

The Letters entertain us by mocking evil, much as the passion plays did for people in the Middle Ages.  More importantly they show how the mundane decisions of our daily lives have embedded in them vital moral choices.

During the past year the Marine Corps Gazette has published the “Attritionist Letters”, written by junior officers protesting the dominance of second generation military thinking (i.e., French doctrines of methodical battle) to a 4th generational world — doctrines successful during the first half of the 20th century but unsuited for the new millennium.   As seen in our defeats in Vietnam and Iraq, and lack of success so far in Afghanistan.  Like the Screwtape Letters, they describe a conflict within a large organization during wartime — in which the internal struggle shapes the external war.

“All wars ought to be methodical, because every war ought to be conducted according to the rules and principles of military art …”
— Napoleon, From volume IV of The History of the captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena by Comte de Charles-Tristan Montholon (his executor).

Like Lewis’ book, these Letters entertain through mockery, but contain a serious critique of our military doctrines.  As insurgents fighting the established order, they place their careers at risk.  Accordingly the Gazette’s Editor has published these anonymously (for more about this, see section 6a of this website’s authors page).

Both sets of Letters describe a conflict in which the ruling forces have overwhelming superiority.  Both conflicts are fought for high stakes, and fought in the minds of individuals.  Unlike Lewis, however, our officers (and America) cannot count on an eternal and omnipotent power to produce eventual victory.  Our fate lies in our hands.

“The best way to drive out the devil, is to despise him and call on Christ, for he cannot bear that.
— Martin Luther, from The life and letters of Martin Luther by Preserved Smith (1911) — misquoted by Lewis in the preface

“Some folk have been clearly rid of such pestilent fancies with very full contempt of them, making a cross upon their hearts and bidding the devil avaunt. And sometimes they laugh him to scorn too, and then turn their mind unto some other matter. And when the devil hath seen that they have set so little by him, after certain essays, made in such times as he thought most fitting, he hath given that temptation quite over. And this he doth not only because the proud spirit cannot endure to be mocked …”
— Sir Thomas Moore, chapter 16 of A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1534).

The Attritionist Letters

These are posted on the FM website with the generous permission of Marine Corps Gazette, where they were originally published. Also see The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1942).

My introduction to the Attritionist Letters, volleys in the long war for control of US military doctrine.

  1. The US Marines turn away from the future.
  2. The Marines shackling their field-grade officers & losing wars.
  3. Teaching Marine junior officers to obey, not think.
  4. Require Marine officers to do as they’re told so – we can continue losing the WOT!
  5. We prize simple concepts (even if they haven’t work since WWII).
  6. Train our Marines like robots, to better fight our adaptive & decentralized foes.
  7. “Trust one another”.
  8. Resist the temptation to make every soldier a knower and decider.  Cherish the hierarchy!
  9. The hidden reason behind DoD’s organization (it makes sense once you understand).
  10. Commanders today are too busy to develop subordinates!.
  11. Artillery leads the way – to the past!.
  12. Succumbing to enticements (career advice for the successful).
  13. Thinkers need not apply.

For more information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our officer corps, about the US Marine Corps, and these about the attritionist tendency…

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