Attritionist Letter #5: we prize simple concepts (even if they haven’t worked since WWII)

Summary:   The dueling military theories fighting for control of the US military consist of a few simple sentences, but they convey radically different approaches to warfare.  Which wins may have a large effect on the effectiveness of US forces in the 21st century.

To protect the authors’ careers, the Editor of the Martine 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 familiar with the subject; see the links at the end for more information about these issues.

What are attritionist and manoeuvre warfare?

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 worn 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 production 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.

The Oxford Companion to Military History entry for “manoeuvre warfare”:

Its original meaning is the movement of forces on the ground into advantageous positions which facilitate the destruction of the enemy or may of themselves induce the enemy to surrender.  In recent years this has been extended to include surprise, deception, and being able to act faster than the enemy can respond … Sun-tzu wrote that the acme of skill in war was to subdue the enemy without fighting.  That is the manoeuvrist approach in its purest form:  it may be likened to checkmating an opponent’s king in chess.


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.

Some background

Simplicity is the most deceitful mistress that ever betrayed man.
— Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

When true simplicity is gain’d
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.
— Joseph Brackett, Simple Gifts (1848)

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
— Attributed to Albert Einstein. Possibly paraphrased from remarks in “On the Method of Theoretical Physics”, Herbert Spencer Lecture, Oxford (10 June 1933)

Today’s Letter

Attritionist Letter #5: Words mean things“, Marine Corps Gazette, September 2010

My dear Captain Wormwood,

I must admit that the tone of your last letter surprised me. The “maneuverists” may have recently celebrated the 20th anniversary since Fleet Marine Force Manual 1, Warfighting, was published, but you should ask yourself, what have they truly gained? You are, perhaps, not sophisticated enough to understand, but simply publishing a book and proclaiming it doctrine does not a revolution make. I will attempt to enlighten you on this topic in the future; I doubt that you are capable of comprehending my meaning in a single letter. It will suffice for now to examine this thankfully “incomplete revolution” (as I long ago took to calling it) from the perspective of terminology.

In the effort against the maneuverists, we have one inestimable advantage. Let us be blunt: attrition is simply easier to understand than their “maneuver” warfare. This is one of our inherent advantages. For those who are lost and confused in the morass of maneuver warfare, attrition will seem a light in the darkness, a beacon for the wayward. We will seduce converts with our simplicity. Simplicity is essential in war. After all, “everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”1 The maneuverists are fond of trotting out this quote, but they ignore its implications — in war, everything should be as simple and straightforward as it is possible to make it.

Hard experience has shown us that our subordinates cannot deal with much complexity. Take the example of the “strategic corporal.” I have often heard senior officers extol the virtues of the strategic corporal, yet the only examples they give of the impact of the strategic corporal are negative. I do not want any strategic corporals! I want corporals who do exactly what I tell them to do. There is a reason that enlisted Marines are taught “instant, willing obedience to orders” in boot camp; it is because this is their appropriate role. Please save us from Marines who “think”! They should leave the thinking to their superiors and do what they are trained to do — follow orders. We must seek to make everything as simple as possible for our subordinates, otherwise they will leave us with a mess that we must clean up and for which we will be responsible.

We have been extremely successful in dominating the way that terms used by the maneuverists are defined. I am certain that you have heard many of your instructors and superiors repeat the phrase, “words mean things.” It may be trite, but it is also true. We must strive to dictate the meaning of key terms to the maneuverists. By doing so we can quite literally force them to discuss and understand war on our terms. This is particularly true in the case of those new lieutenants seeking to understand maneuver warfare. If we control the lexicon that they must learn and use, they will be predisposed to accept our views. We will have prepared their minds properly, and they will be much more receptive to attrition warfare, all while speaking in maneuverist terms.

Let me give you an example. Take the term “shaping.” For the maneuverists, it has many meanings. It may connote gathering intelligence; it may mean an attempt to deceive the enemy or create uncertainty in the enemy commander’s mind. Only rarely does it mean that you are attempting to attrite the enemy’s forces. For us, however, shaping is virtually synonymous with destroying the enemy’s forces on the field of battle. And why not? After all, this is the purpose of military force! What the maneuverists fail to understand is that anything else is simply window dressing! The fools!

Where we cannot subvert the meanings of their words, we must attempt to sow confusion. Confused officers will look for answers they can understand — clear answers that attritionists will be able to provide. Thus far we have been extremely successful in this arena. The terms “center of gravity” and “critical vulnerability” are a clear indication of this success. As many times as I have seen it, it never fails to amuse me to watch operational planning teams devolve into chaos as they attempt to determine the enemy’s center of gravity. Perhaps the greatest joke is that upon the conclusion of this intense debate, they invariably determine that the center of gravity is the enemy’s artillery or indirect fire assets! Whatever was the debate about?

We have also been aided by a number of well-intended efforts to “clarify” the concept of the center of gravity. In some cases such clarification has been to our decided advantage as it has forced the maneuverists to employ concepts that virtually force them into an attritionist approach. I find it a delightful irony that the maneuverists’ own efforts to clarify their terms may actually lead to their undoing!

In my last years on active duty, I became heartily sick of hearing maneuverists quote chapter and verse from John Boyd’s briefings about how war is fought not just at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels, but also at the physical, mental, and moral levels. What nonsense! War is a physical act; all of Boyd’s mental- and moral-level mumbo jumbo is useless and unnecessary complication. Today, young officers are taught that the center of gravity must be a tangible thing, most likely an enemy unit. This forces them to focus on the “physical” level of war, which is only proper. They cannot escape it.

Perhaps this is all more than you can take in at one time. I sometimes forget that I am writing to a mere captain. Please forgive me if I have overburdened you with ideas that you cannot yet understand. When next we meet I will give you detailed instructions for the continuation of the struggle. Until then, do nothing unless I have approved it first.

Until then, I remain,

General Screwtape



1.  Von Clausewitz, Carl, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1976, p. 119.

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
  4. Attritionist Letter #3:  Do as you are told  (moving the USMC into the past)
  5. Attritionist Letter #4:  using technology to make the USMC slower to learn and less effective

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)  Posts about empowering junior officers and strategic corporals

  1. Thoughts on FMFM 1-A, an important tool for survival in the 21st century, 6 July 200
  2. Why do we lose 4th generation wars?, 4 January 2007
  3. Americans in foreign lands, putting our knowledge of their cultures to work in war, 28 April 2009
  4. Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps, September 2010

4 thoughts on “Attritionist Letter #5: we prize simple concepts (even if they haven’t worked since WWII)

  1. One of Stephen Wolfram’s major points in his “A New Kind of Science” is that complex systems often consist of a few simple components. Take, for instance, computer programs – based on “0s” and “1s.” That might seem to argue for simplicity in all things, but Wolfram demonstrates that very complex systems can be built from this simplicity.

    As such, we have to be wary of reductionist thinking that pares reality down to a few components while, perhaps, ignoring major determinants and the overall functional complexity of a given state of affairs. This is especially true in theories about human individual (the field of psychology) and social (the field of sociology) behavior. People, both individually and socially, are motivated by immediate local conditions, historical memory, religious beliefs, economic conditions, politics & policy, geography, climate, and belief systems that filter reality.

    We have to be careful that the last thing in that list doesn’t exclude any of the previous ones. Life is difficult enough without making any major mistakes based on stupid ideas.

    1. “we have to be wary of reductionist thinking that pares reality down to a few components”

      Well said. Whenever you abstract a problem far enough, you wind up with what amount to platitudes. Every bit of stock market knowledge can be boiled down to “buy low, sell high” and every bit of military thought can be boiled down to “attack the enemy’s weakness with your strength and hold everywhere else” Thus Sun Tzu sounds tremendously profound, because it’s all literally true, but not practically useful other than as a litmus test for seeing if you’ve gone off course somewhere (i.e.: if your strategy involves “buy high, sell low” you probably are making a fundamental error)..

      i find these ‘attritionist letters’ to be thought-provoking and amusing because they illustrate another deep truth, which is that once we’ve found something that works, we’re willing to accept a great deal of inefficiency knowing that it will work in the end. In a sense, attrition has been a guaranteed catch-all strategy of last resort for warfare, forever. The trick is to distinguish between strategies that’ll probably work eventually and strategies that will work efficiently and rapidly. Oh, yeah, it helps to know which strategies have never worked, yet (like “hearts and minds” and “clear and hold”) so they can be avoided.

    2. The flip side to this is that war does change. We have to beware of Zeno’s commonsense proof that “motion is impossible.”

      Society does change. For example, democracy and free markets have existed for millenia, but the 19th and 20th centuries saw the development of capitalist republic nation-states — far more effective than any predecessor forms of society. This is the essence of the generations of war. Although the components are basic to human society, tactical and strategic innovation create new and superior forms of war. Second generation warfare trumps first generation methods, third generation warfare trumps second (European states found the demonstration of blizkrieg quite convincing) — and now 4GW (brought to maturity by Mao) trumps our mechanized 3GW air-sea-land attritionist warfare.

    3. The “Ant Fugue” in Chapter X of Godel Escher Bach: an eternal golden braid by Douglas Hofstadter (1979). Search for “ant fugue”; it appears after the prelude.

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