Attritionist Letter #2 – our military seeks to retreat from the future into the past

Summary:   With US forces engaged around the world in six conflicts (and many small ones), each the day our media paint a picture of the armed services.  News, articles, books, movies — seldom have we been so well informed about our mechanized high-tech defense professionals — the very model of a 21st century military.  Unfortunately the picture is flawed in almost every way.  Here we see the dark underbelly of a massive bureaucracy tied to obsolete professionals while our enemies adopt radical new tactics, repeating the early 20th century conflicts over the role of horses and battleships.   These letters provide a window into this conflict, so important for our future.    See the introduction to this series if you’re not familiar with the subject; see the links at the end for more information.  Comments are open for this series.

Shattered Dreams

Attritionist Letter #2: The Debate Continues.

Marine Corps Gazette, June 2010.
Posted with the generous permission of the Marine Corps Association.
To protect the authors’ careers, the Gazette’s Editor published this anonymously.


I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence, which I now offer to the public, fell into my hands. The general who authored them is almost certainly retired, for he writes with such careless disregard — and one might suggest some contempt — for our beloved Corps. The young captain to whom he writes is a more puzzling case; there are far too many Captain Wormwoods in the global access list to determine which is being addressed. Nevertheless, it is the essence of these papers that I find disconcerting — and thus the urgency with which I submit them to you,the reader.

The Letter.

Captain Wormwood,

I received your reply just last week. You raised an interesting question regarding centralized command and control and why we attritionists are so adamant in our pursuit thereof. I must express my disappointment in you. I had thought that you were intelligent enough to see the wisdom of this method. You have once again reminded me of how incapable our junior officers can be and why centralized command and control is absolutely essential. Being a young captain of Marines, you will no doubt recognize the following excerpts:

“In order to generate the tempo of operations that we desire . . . command and control must be decentralized.”  1

“We must not try to maintain excessive control over subordinates since this will necessarily slow our tempo and inhibit initiative.”  2

These contentions — cited directly from that archaic and outdated MCDP 1 [Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1], Warfighting — represent the strongest arguments maneuverists have derived to support their antiquated and inadequate theories of decentralized command and control. These maneuverists — blinded by their own hubris — have sought to cling to a principle even as it has succumbed to the realities of the modern age.

I am convinced — and the Marine Corps is increasingly demonstrating — that centralized control is the most efficient method of controlling tempo, operations, and supervising mission accomplishment. Militaries have long been forced to execute decentralized command and control procedures only out of necessity, not out of preference. Battles and wars have been lost because of insufficiently centralized control and coordination; France’s defense in 1940 is a clear example. You will recall that I spoke of extensive technological innovation in a previous letter. Those technological capabilities have increased clarity on today’s battlefield and enhanced the capability of higher commands to receive and analyze information, and then to disseminate detailed orders to subordinate commanders — all with unprecedented speed.

I am sure that you have witnessed all this firsthand. In recent years, the size of command and control cells has grown exponentially due to the amount of information acquired, processed, analyzed, demanded from, and disseminated to subordinates. This all serves to ensure effective centralized control. One needs only to compare the size (defined by number of assigned personnel and amount of command and control systems/equipment) of the MEF command staff in Operations DESERT SHIELD/STORM with that deployed in a combat environment today to realize the transformation that we — as a modern fighting force—have undergone, and this is just within the past 20 years!

Not since the Prussians, after being trounced by Napoleon in 1806, has a military force so ideologically transformed itself in such a brief period of time. However, Scharnhorst’s misguided and detestable efforts attempted to empower junior ranks, whereas we seek to empower the highest commander with greater situational awareness and increased decision making capability. Look where it got the Germans! Catastrophic losses in two world wars were the reward for delegating responsibility to subordinates. 3

As you have served at various regimental and battalion staffs, you have no doubt seen the growth of centralized staffs as well. Some maneuverists might claim that the increased size of battalion and regimental staffs reflects a corresponding increase in decentralization. However, as you — and any others who have served on battalion and regimental staffs — are well aware, much of the battalion and regimental staff effort is expended not to lead their own men but rather to meet the ever-increasing demands of higher echelon commands. Those obsequious battalion and regimental staffs are inundated with demands for required reports, various overlays, and PPT [Microsoft PowerPoint] information slides — all forwarded on to a single centralized hub of operations.

Wormwood, if you find time you might want to review recent trends in OIF/OEF [Operations IRAQI FREEDOM/ENDURING FREEDOM] combat operations. I believe that you will be pleasantly surprised to see that subordinate commanders are already deferring routine decision points and reporting seemingly minor information requirements to higher echeloned commanders. Many commanding generals — while perhaps “required” to pretend maneuverist sympathies — actually concur that greater centralization is key to achieving desired effects in combat.

One of my dear friends boasts that as a division commander in Afghanistan he demanded daily situation reports from his company commanders in the field. These reports were sent directly to him rather than to the respective battalion and regimental/brigade commanders! As he says, “there just wasn’t time to wait” on battalion and regiment commanders to act on the information at their level. Similarly, I have heard that approval of fires is now often centralized at the highest level in order to best coordinate with all participant agencies as well as assess potential collateral effects.

These recent trends toward centralized command and control are nothing new; they simply represent the military returning to its roots. Young captain of Marines, I will again refer you to Martin van Creveld who wrote that decentralized command and control was:

. . . bitterly opposed by headquarters, especially higher headquarters, who resented the loss of control and did everything in their power to counter the growth of chaos on the battlefield. Control-by-wire was pushed progressively forward and downward until corps, divisions, regiments, and even battalions were hooked into the network. From then on, if an officer was to be on call by his superiors he had to be within reach. 4

While Van Creveld’s example dates from World War I, it is easy to see the same trends emergent in today’s military forces. Wormwood, have you seen the latest discussion on the CLICs [company-level intelligence cells] and CLOCs [company-level operations cells]? Although such plans might be “packaged” as maneuverist in nature under the guise of enhancing smaller units with more capabilities, they will no doubt be used to keep those subordinate units under ever tighter and centralized control.

The trend toward centralization of command and control is due in large part to effective command and control systems now available at all levels. Never before could high-level commanders gain an accurate sight picture of the fluid battlefield. Gen [A.A.] Vandegrift could not accurately track unit positions on a C2PC [command and control personal computer] or verify “green gumballs” on the AFATDS [advanced field artillery tactical data system] as subordinate units encountered jungle terrain, tropical storms, and Japanese troops on Guadalcanal. But today’s environment no longer requires that command and control be decentralized to subordinate commanders. In fact, it is far more effective to assume and maintain centralized control at the highest echelon. Even distributed operations — the latest catchphrase tossed around by Marines of all ranks — are not immune to this trend; although miles distant from central control, information transfer capabilities ensure that subordinates have limited ability to conduct any autonomous operations. Centralization is the wave of the future.

This trend toward centralization precludes the need to indulge in the ambiguous “commander’s intent” and “mission tactics,” but I shall write more on that in my next letter. Capt Wormwood, I am looking forward to your pending selection to career-level school where you shall have the most enjoyable opportunity to master the Marine Corps Planning Process and learn to make the most effective matrices and PPT slides with which to brief your higher. Only then can you become an effective staff officer. Until then, I remain,

General Screwtape



  1. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1: Warfighting, Washington, DC, 1997, p. 78.
  2. Ibid., p. 80.

  3. Here it appears that the general is referring to the work of Prussian GEN von Scharnhorst in establishing the “Militarische Gesellschaft” (an educational collaborative) that led to a reformed — and victorious — Prussian military much changed in the 6 short years between Jena (1806) and Leipzig (1813). It is my opinion that the general mislabels the German losses in World War I and World War II. There is no argument that the Germans lost both conflicts at the strategic level, but sound arguments suggest that German tactics were actually superior, Charles Edward White, The Enlightened Soldier, Praeger Publishers, Santa Barbara, CA, November 1988.

  4. Van Creveld, Martin, Technology and War, The Free Press, New York, 1989, p. 176.

© Copyright by the Marine Corps Association. All rights reserved.

The 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 debate about military doctrine for the long war …

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction, 12 March 2008
  2. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009
  3. Our tactics are an obstacle to victory in the Long War, as the Darwinian Ratchet works against us, 19 April 2011 — A serious side-effect of attritionist methods.

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