Attritionist Letter #3: Do as you are told (moving the USMC into the past)

Summary:   Here we see the USMC version of The Empire Strikes Back.  After becoming one of the most modern land forces in the world, in a tactical sense, elements of the USMC’s senior leadership attempt a counter-revolution, dragging the Corps back to its WWI (second generation warfare) roots.  That would make the Corps ill-suited for the counter-insurgency warfare which is today its primary function (and perhaps that for the foreseeable future), but its more important to some that the perogatives of rank be preserved.  See the introduction to this series if you’re not familar with the subject; see the links at the end for more information. 

Attritionist Letter #3: Do as you’re told “, Marine Corps Gazette, July 2010 — Posted here with permission from the Marine Corps Association.  To protect the authors’ careers, the Gazette’s Editor published these anonymously (for more about this, see section 6a of this website’s authors page).  See the links at the end for more information about these issues.


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.

Letter #3, without date or address

Captain Wormwood,

I received your last letter some time ago, but you must understand that someone of my stature has far more important things to do. Furthermore, it took me some time to compose an adequate response to your misguided and — quite honestly — almost insolent comments suggesting that “mission tactics” and “commander’s intent” have redeeming value. Put such thoughts out of your feeble mind this instant!

I will tell you exactly what I want you to do. You will not have to wonder, nor will you have to burden yourself with thinking about it. And as for my intent, my intent is for you to do exactly what I tell you to do! It is time for you to grow up and leave such foolish notions behind. Wormwood, I must admit that at times I suspect that you may actually be in league with these maneuverists, and then I realize that it’s just the naïveté of a young captain. It is critical that you understand that the trend toward centralization precludes the need for Marine leaders to indulge in such archaic and ambiguous concepts as commander’s intent and mission tactics.

As a relatively recent graduate of The Basic School, you no doubt will recall the terms introduced above. Long heralded as part of the “triad of maneuver warfare,” these two elements of Marine warfighting philosophy are proving to be increasingly obsolete in today’s operating environment. According to Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1: Warfighting:

“The purpose of providing intent is to allow subordinates to exercise judgment and initiative — to depart from the original plan when the unforeseen occurs — in a way that is consistent with higher commanders’ aims.” 1

We must remind ourselves that commanders have been forced to use commander’s intent and mission tactics because of limits imposed upon them by chaotic battlefield situations and limited technological capabilities. Neither of these limits exists any longer. Further, we must admit that so few junior leaders on the battlefield possess that coup d’oeil — the intuitive grasp of what is happening on the battlefield. Thus, it is absolutely not in the interest of higher echelon commanders to allow subordinate leaders to demonstrate initiative and independence.

As we further our agenda, we can clearly imagine a combat operations center (COC) 5 years from now:

A battalion commander walks into his COC and sees a “troops in contact” unfold on the plasma touch screen operations monitor. The zoomed in live satellite feed provides him eagle-eyed observation of the situation unfolding in realtime. He sees the blue icons displaying his friendlies — thanks to global positioning system tracking devices embedded in the rifles — moving north along a road. He also sees the enemy platoon attempting to flank his lead units. Realizing the gravity of the situation, the battalion commander double taps on the trace squad leader’s icon and slides it approximately 200 meters north. The commander selects an ambush graphic icon from a dropdown menu and double taps the screen at the desired location. Almost immediately, he sees the squad leader halt his movement, glance downward — no doubt at the liquid crystal display screen strapped to the squad leader’s forearm — and make a few blurred hand gestures directing his men toward the identified ambush position. The battalion commander looks on with satisfaction as he sees the squad set out.

Wormwood, you know that the technologies to allow us these capabilities are currently available. If we adhered to the tenets of commander’s intent and mission tactics, we would have to rely upon subordinate commanders to receive, evaluate, analyze, and execute our guidance. Each of these steps introduces potential error into the process, error that — although once necessary to assume — can now be avoided.

A second reason for shifting our philosophy is that both commander’s intent and mission tactics demand that a commander trust his subordinate commanders. In today’s more interconnected and globalized world, the penalties for wrongly trusting subordinates are no longer confined to a court-martial or conference room deliberations among military professionals. We attritionists must continually leverage today’s commanders who are held accountable in a court of national and international opinion, and due to the 24-hour news cycle, immediately. Thus, a results-oriented (and dare I say career-minded) individual assumes tremendous risk if he leaves subordinate commanders to interpret his guidance.

MCDP 1 falsely claims that “trust by seniors in the abilities of their subordinates”2 is essential. In fact, I hope you will agree that it is far better for a senior to eliminate all doubt and ensure that subordinate commanders execute guidance as passed rather than risk mistakes. Ideally, subordinate commanders should be relegated to being nothing more than simply “managers” of the personnel assigned them. Wormwood, how easy would your job be if someone told you not just “what” to accomplish but “how” to do it as well?

You may be wondering what your role would be in such a system. Not to worry, my dear Wormwood, there would still be a need for a few exceptional officers to be trained for higher command. Junior officers would spend their formative years learning and developing not by trial and error, not by attempting to achieve dazzling results and succeeding or failing, but as they ought, by simply following the orders of their wiser seniors. They would always succeed, and success would be their teacher. The maneuverists would certainly complain, “You will teach them obedience and they will never learn initiative!” This is absurd. When officers and NCOs are young, they are like children and should be treated as such. We will teach them initiative at the proper time, if it is necessary, but we will be very careful about giving them this tool. It is unpredictable and difficult to control, much like giving fire to primitives.

Even at the simplest levels, we must continue to centralize decisions and remove the possibility that subordinates will misinterpret orders. Wormwood, I cannot remember when you last deployed to a combat zone. No doubt you saw firsthand the emergence of attritionist policy with regard to the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in theater. Commander’s intent and trust in subordinates have been usurped by the centralized dictates of an attritionist culture, and rightfully so. While some higher echelon commanders have suggested that perhaps PPE requirements are situationally dependent and based upon subordinate commanders’ battlespace assessments, several battalion commanders have indicated that such decisions were not delegated but rather made by a senior commander at a forward operating base far removed from their daily operations. It is clear that senior commanders cannot trust subordinates to make independent decisions. And this lack of trust is justified! After all, who will be held responsible if a Marine is killed and his death might have been prevented?

Capt Wormwood, you must realize that in order to be more effective as a 21st century fighting force, we must halt our dependence upon archaic characteristics, such as commander’s intent and mission tactics. Although such practices may have seemed to work in years past, they now work against us. (It is more likely that maneuverists have simply exploited such successes by claiming credit for maneuver warfare when in fact some other rationale was responsible.) Quite simply, senior officers make better decisions than junior officers, as we have seen both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Commander’s intent and mission tactics only serve to reduce the speed and precision with which a senior commander can make necessary decisions. Subordinate commanders should be relegated to the more appropriate role of “personnel manager” focusing primarily on the human resource concerns of the force rather than on the leadership and decisionmaking so espoused in eras past. The subordinates must understand that their role is twofold: to execute the orders they have received and to report back to higher headquarters.

While this may not sound terribly exciting, Wormwood, please remember that it is for the good of the Corps. I am looking forward to your next letter and until then, I remain,

General Screwtape



1. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1: Warfighting, Washington, DC, 1997, p.89.

2. Ibid., p. 58.

The Letters, posted on the FM website

  1. An introduction to the Attritionist Letters, volleys in the long war for control of US military doctrine
  2. Attritionist Letter #1 – the tides turn, turning the USMC back from the future?
  3. Attritionist Letter #2 — our military seeks to retreat from the future into the past

For more information

(a)  Important background material:

(b)  Other relevant articles:

  1. Culture Wars“, Donald E. Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired), Originally published as a chapter in Digital War: A View from the Frontline (editor R. Bateman, 1999)
  2. The Next War? Four Generations of Future Warriors“, Eric M. Walters (Prof History at American Military University) — Powerpoint

(c)  Fourth Generation Warfare:

I have developed a simple typology to show the relationship of the many works on modern warfare, to show the relationships among the various theories about modern warfare.  This has evolved into a first cut at a solution to 4GW.

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction
  2. How to get the study of 4GW in gear
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW – the two types of 4GW
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
  5. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
  6. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW
  7. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!
  8. 4GW: A solution of the second kind
  9. 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Vandergriff is one of the few implementing real solutions.
  10. Theories about 4GW are not yet like the Laws of Thermodynamics
  11. Why do we lose 4th generation wars?“, 4 January 2007 — About the two kinds of insurgencies

(d)   See these FM Reference pages for archives of other posts on this topic:

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