Attritionist Letter #4: using technology to make the USMC slower to learn and less effective

Summary:   Like all power tools, new technology can hurt or help and organization — depending on how the leaders use it.  Most especially, their goals.  Ever since the dawn of third generation warfare, when the German army developed infiltration tactics to break through the trenches, the power of an army results from its speed as well its armed force.  Fast recognition, fast decision-making, fast execution, fast learning and adaptation.  This means decentralization.  But often senior officers prefer tight control to trusting their subordinates, and military institutions tend to reflect and encourage that preference.

The Attritionist Letters


To protect the authors’ careers, the Editor of the Marine Corps Gazette published these anonymously (for more about this, see section 6a of this website’s authors page).  These letters are posted here with permission from the Marine Corps Association.  See the introduction to this series if you’re not familar with the subject; see the links at the end for more information about these issues.

Attritionist Letter #4: Do as you’re told

Marine Corps Gazette, August 2010.
Posted with their generous permission.


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.

Captain Wormwood,

So much time has passed since my last letter to you. I am sure that you have been waiting, no doubt with bated breath, for my next communiqué. You will understand that as a man of significance, I cannot leave matters unattended even to respond to your veiled pleas for correspondence. Although the trend is inarguably in our favor, there is much left undone in our “attritionist” crusade to centralize the Marine Corps.

Fortune smiles upon us! The latest news out of Training and Education Command (TECom) is of great significance to our cause. For years, units have been forced to conduct training without observation and monitoring from higher headquarters. This was only due to a lack of capability on the part of TECom. Great news! The development of the individual training management (ITM) module will soon resolve this shortfall. Finally, Marine Corps Combat Development Command and TECom will be able to access the information they need to properly oversee training across the Marine Corps.

Upon implementation of the ITM module, the training accomplishments of each Marine will be tracked and recorded from initial enlistment through retirement. Capt Wormwood, I am not only referring to professional schools or even just Marine Corps Institute courses. The ITM will record every collective training task, annual training event, and ancillary training requirement required of a Marine. Let me use an example to break it down for you. Take a motor transport operator who drives 7-tons, for instance. He has a number of required tasks in which he must demonstrate proficiency. In addition, he must accomplish all of his required annual training (such as rifle range and Marine Corps Martial Arts Program) and ancillary requirements (such as suicide prevention and Serviceman’s Group Life Insurance briefs). This new ITM module will display all of the training tasks required for our 7-ton driver on a centralized database. Even better, it will identify which of those requirements have been accomplished and which remain incomplete. This information will be accessible to all—battalion staff, regiment/group commands, division/wing/group, and even (most importantly) TECom.

Until now, unit commanders would subjectively assess their own training readiness percentages. Unit commanders have proved time and again they cannot be trusted to objectively assess their own unit capabilities. We have all heard of those lazy battalion commanders who can’t seem to qualify enough drivers or those incompetent company commanders who are derelict in suicide prevention briefs. Why should we leave it to them to assess the readiness of their units? The ITM allows higher (TECom) to assign numerical value to each training requirement and thus assess a readiness percentage for each Marine. With the ITM, higher headquarters can instantaneously ascertain a unit’s readiness by aggregating the individual Marine’s readiness percentages. After all, unit readiness is the sum of individual readiness. The honorable Mr. McNamara—and even Colonel-General Druzhinin—would be so proud of our effective use of quantification to measure results.1

Even more impressive is the ITM module’s ability to take skill perishability into account. For instance, a suicide awareness brief is required once every calendar year. Three hundred sixty-five days after it was entered into the ITM module, the designator will automatically change from “qualified” to “unqualified.” The same is true for those collective training skills requiring refreshment every 30 or 90 days. Wormwood, think about how much time you will save by using this ITM module to monitor those tens of thousands of training requirements for all of your Marines. All you must do is ensure that your staff keeps the ITM module up to date. Think of the freedom you will enjoy from higher headquarters; no longer will you have to submit rosters to them or answer the general’s queries. Now he only has to click a mouse a few times and he can evaluate your unit’s overall effectiveness and readiness for combat. Not to mention, it is increasingly convenient now that the general can check up on how well your unit is doing maintaining those motorcycle clubs, conducting the vehicle inspections, and ensuring that everyone has printed off the appropriate information assurance certificates. Those company or battalion commanders who have routinely skimped on these critical matters under the guise of prioritization in “training for combat” will no longer have a crutch to lean upon; the numbers will speak for themselves!

More importantly, perhaps, the ITM will allow higher (regiment, division, MEF, or even TECom) to go back and investigate what training Marines were deprived of by unit commanders, especially after a mishap or casualty. For instance, if a Marine commits suicide, TECom can go back and open up the ITM to track all of the suicide briefs that the Marine missed in order to find the leader who failed his Marine. Similarly, if a Marine is seriously injured while on patrol in theater, TECom can speedily identify whether or not the Marine was properly trained; was the Marine qualified to cross a linear danger area, and was he proficient in maintaining dispersion? Were the other Marines of the unit properly trained in first aid? Unit commanders must be held accountable for their lack of attention to detail. Time and again, company and battalion commanders have failed to ensure that the required “boxes are checked” in an appropriate manner; this attitude—bordering on insubordination—must cease!

Skeptics will argue that this oversight will have unforeseen negative ramifications. Some claim that the ITM module will undermine a unit commander’s ability to prioritize training requirements. Others claim that unit commanders will succumb to the moral hazard of designating Marines as “proficient” when they are not. Even more claim that increased centralization will only contribute to an “automaton mentality” among junior officers and make them more hesitant to take initiative and assume risk. Some of these assumptions are indeed accurate. However, we must remember that we really no longer need junior officers to take initiative as they did in years past. Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) has now determined those training skills required of each Marine. They have also designed and directed adherence to those methods through which the Marines become proficient (such as the predeployment training program). Now HQMC—more specifically, TECom—will be able to hold the individual Marines accountable for being proficient in each requirement. We are gradually eliminating the need for decentralization and dependence upon unit leaders. And my dear Wormwood, you know my thoughts on initiative in young officers. It is best if they do not try too hard too fast.

Capt Wormwood, I know you are but a junior officer, but I hope you can appreciate what this ITM program will do for us. Never again will higher commands have to depend on—nay, to trust—those subordinate unit commanders who prove themselves incompetent to train Marines. Marines are only properly trained when they have the appropriate skills “checked off” of those rosters designed by the retired Marine contractors in Quantico. I do hope you have the opportunity to lunch with me again before you execute orders. However, you will forgive me if I am too busy; we are gaining traction on so many fronts.

Until then, I remain,

General Screwtape



1.  Here I believe that the author is referring to the former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Colonel-General V.V. Mikhail Ivanovich Druzhinin of the General Staff, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, both of whom were instrumental in the quantification ideology being applied to military practice in the 1960s and 1970s.

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

The Letters

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

For more information

(a)  Important background material.

(b)  Other relevant articles.

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

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…

  1. Recommended reading: transforming the Army, the hard way, 15 January 2008 — Don Vandergriff, at the cutting edge of this struggle
  2. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”, 1 July 2010
  3. Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions, 16 July 2010
  4. Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force, 17 July 2010
  5. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century, 13 August 2010
  6. Building a new generation of visionary leaders for the US military, 30 September 2010

11 thoughts on “Attritionist Letter #4: using technology to make the USMC slower to learn and less effective”

  1. “The ITM will record every collective training task, annual training event, and ancillary training requirement required of a Marine.”

    Yes, this makes sense if you are an idiot, of which there appears to be no shortage these days. And, the following bright conclusion would seem to follow in its wake:

    “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.”

    This is really disturbing. What is really going on here? What is the Attritionist intent?

    1. Hey Marc,

      The Introduction to the Attritionist series explains intent:

      Basically, there is a misalignment of the high/command bureaucracy with the needs of the people on the ground doing the actual fighting.

      In generic terms, this mirrors the kind of “management disconnect” found in many large organizations (including government/politics) where a paradigm lives on far past its original purpose, and no longer matches the realities of the real world. (Habermas “systems colonize lifeworld”) The people in “high management” whose careers, ego gratification, and/or greed, are served by maintaining an outdated, dysfunctional paradigm fight all the harder to keep it in place even as it increasingly is incapable of meeting the “coherence needs” of newly emergent “real world” circumstances. This creates a downward spiral of dysfunction and corruption. Moral choice becomes hollow, instrumentalized/compromised, and “formal”. The “inner” (spiritual) basis of morality is largely gone.

      This is mirrored in the larger culture and political life, where premodern, modernist and postmodern paradigms are failing to meet the coherence needs of emergent holistic/integral culture.

      The right wing religious lunatics are premodern (mythic conformists), the scientific rationalists in “upper management” are modernists (this is the old paradigm that is failing/regressing). Postmodernism’s role isn’t clear to me (pluralism/relativism/multiculturalism), except in the sense that de Toqueville’s analysis of the failings of american democracy might indirectly play into this scenario.

      Jean Gebser (Jung Institute), in the wake of surviving the Spanish Civil War and WWII/Nazism wrote “Ursprung und Gegenwart” (The Ever Present Origin) to explain how the modernist paradigm (industrialism) has failed. Vaclav Havel had a similar criticism of the “fragmentation of the psyche” in modernist culture. One of Gebser’s main contribution to consciousness studies was the idea that culture can internally “regress” to more primitive forms, while maintaining the outer, formal facade of a “higher” paradigm. Thus, the Nazis had the outer facade of scientific rationalism, but their “inner” motivations were based on rage, tribalism and brutalism (regressive romanticism opposed to the rise of the “bourgeoisie”). This is similar to the “mean green meme”, which is regressive postmodernism, such as thought policing, political correctness.

    2. Marc A. Cirigliano

      You write: “This is mirrored in the larger culture and political life, where premodern, modernist and postmodern paradigms are failing to meet the coherence needs of emergent holistic/integral culture.”

      Bravo! Great explanation. What do we do about it?

    3. Hey Marc, (Glad you liked it, but I’m just rehashing Ken Wilber’s ideas, go to his material for the source.) Sorry, I have no experience in military reform.

      In terms of social change in the civilian world, the human potential movement has started several experiments in “integral transformative practice”. The practice is usually easily adopted by people that have experience in healing, therapy, meditation.

      Some research indicates that people have varying rates at which they can force themselves to undergo a profound paradigm shift in their personalities. Young people with relentless focus can accomplish a paradigm shift from “postmodern” to “integral” in a year or two. Middle aged people will typically take 5 to 10 years of relentless work. Here are some examples:
      ITP is not a quick-fix approach. There are no “three easy steps” to fitness, health, or enlightenment, no lightning bolts waiting to vivify us with Shaktipat. In fact, it is our search for short cuts and climactic experiences that has helped engender not only today’s pandemic self-destructive and addictive behavior but also the pervasive disillusionment with the very idea of positive human transformation.

      The holistic enchilada:
      “all the talk of a new spirituality in America is largely a waste of time unless those two central dialogues are engaged and answered. Unless spirituality can pass through the gate of science, then of liberalism, it will never be a significant force in the modern world, but will remain merely as the organizing power for the prerational levels of development around the world.”

  2. Since it is clear that force protection is the number two military priority (career advancement is number one) the term “attritionist” seems out of place as the US has no intention of “trading” casualties to achieve victory.

    Central Controlist? No, that sounds clunky. Micro Manageism? Ditto.

    Please give us a better term to describe the tendency to use modern technology to observe and perhaps attempt to control the activities of ever lower levels of command.

    Of course if you don’t like the brigade commander following/ commenting on/ changing the orders being given by a squad leader in real time then the technology must be removed from HQs as no properly careerist officer will be able to resist the opportunity to prevent potential disaster.

  3. “Please give us a better term to describe the tendency to use modern technology to observe and perhaps attempt to control the activities of ever lower levels of command.”

    “Orwellian” But that has such a …nasty ring to it.

  4. fyi – (found via google) “Attritionist” apparently has a slang definition that may be the reason it is used in this context.

    “someone who actively tries to be abrasive and rude; someone whose people skills involve rubbing people the wrong way to make them go away. Usually associated with someone whose postion grants her power by who she’s associtated with, such as an administrative assistant (secretary).”

    1. that’s an interesting but totally unrelated usage. See this excerpt from The Oxford Companion to Military History entry for “attrition”:

      Its current use suggests a style of fighting dictated by material superiority, where the enemy is word down rather than outmanoeuvred, and where casualty rates are more important than psychological effects. Chronologically it is a child of industrialization, relying on the fruits of mass productio for firepower and assuming that economic preponderance in itself will ensure victory. Intellectually its roots are said to be Clausewitizian. Clausewitz emphasized concentration on the decisive point and put the slaughter of climactic battle at he heart of his analysis. But Clausewitz did not elevate what we would now call attrition into an operational method, nor has any major military thinker since.

      Attrition is the core of second generation warfare, as described in the seminal work “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”, Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989 (one of the writers of the FM website, GI Wilson, was a coauthor). For more about the generations of war see the FM Reference Page about Military and strategic theory.

  5. A simple description of the “generations” {wikipedia}

    2GW/Attrition is an outmoded doctrine. The satire in the title of the article apparently involves the “disconnect” between the holding of outmoded doctrines by central/high command (but doctrines sufficient to maintain the power/money flow from clueless political elites to military elites) and the 3GW (Blitzkrieg) or 4GW (insurgency/asymetric) conditions that soldiers face in real world conflict.

    Presumably an additional layer of meaning involves the “local” perspective of the soldier on the ground facing 3GW/4GW being marginalized because of bureaucratic dysfunction and/or political corruption in central/high command. The corruption was described by Eisenhower’s famous warning about the rise of the “military-industrial-complex”. The needs of the war industry (defense contractors) eventually surpass the actual needs of the combat soldier or the actual needs of defending the constitution. The needs of the war industry become part of an imperial system based on money/power, and both the original spirit of the constitution and “local needs” become marginalized. imperial power has an effective PR machine that covers up the dysfunction and keeps populist outrage on the fringe.

    1. (1) How nice that you consider it “outmoded doctrine.” Are you speaking ex cathedra, or is this direct revelation from God? These letters are written by officers in the US military, who explain that attritionist doctrines remain dominant in the USMC. Other reports show that this is even more so in the US Army.

      (2) This post links to the article which first introduced the generations of war concept, by people (eg., William Lind) who have become among the top experts in this study, which briefly and elegantly describes the generations. I doubt that citing Wikipedia adds much to this. Esp since I think by now everybody reading this knows that they can go to it for more information.

  6. I have read all of the “Attritionist Letters” with interest. This one refers to the increasing trend toward centralization in Marine Corps training programs. The Marine Corps Gazette just posted an article that I wrote on this topic on their website. In addition, I wrote an article published in the Gazette last year taking the Marine Corps to task for instituting a centralized approach to training units for deployment (the Predeployment Training Plan, or PTP).

    While the Marine Corps’ goals may be to aid units and commanders in the short term, in the long term, the Marine Corps is creating a culture of dependency that will be difficult to break. In addition, increasing centralization will lead to a view that big Marine Corps can and will solve all the problems that plague small units and that unit leaders do not have a role to play in solving their own problems.

    I believe that this has already been the case in some instances. As is true with government interference, often it makes problems worse, not better. Such is also often the case with interference from on high in the Marine Corps. Remember, one of the signs that something bad is about to happen is a field grade officer saying, “I am here to help.” We should be very suspicious of such “help.”
    FM note: Major Gregory A. Thiele is an infantry officer in the USMC. He was last assigned as an instructor at Expeditionary Warfare School, and now attends the Australian Command and Staff College. He has written several articles relevant to this topic.

    (a) “The Road to Hell – Training management skills versus policy“, which won First Place in the 2009 Chase Prize Essay Contest.

    (b) An Open Letter to All Marines — well-worth reading about centralization in the USMC.

    (c) “The Marine Corps of the Future – It’s role in US national defense“, Marine Corps Gazette, January 2011 — “Given the difficulty that U.S. forces have had in Iraq and Afghanistan in rooting out the insurgents from among the civilian population, it is likely other opponents will present us with the same problem in the future.” Subscription only.

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