Attritionist Letter #6: train our Marines like robots, to better fight our adaptive & decentralized foes

Summary:   America’s foes in the 21st century seem unlikely to resemble those of the Spanish American to Korean War era.  4GW has become the dominant form of war, and its successful practitioners will be adaptive and wily foes.  Unfortunately much of the Marine Corps leadership prefers a more rigid, hierarchical organization.  As so often is the case in America today, institutional imperatives trump our nation’s needs.


  1. Introduction from the Marine Corps Gazette’s Editor
  2. The Letter
  3. For more information
  4. What are attritionist and manoeuvre warfare?

(1)  Introduction from the Marine Corps Gazette’s Editor

(a)  Why are the author’s anonymous?

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.

(b)  The Editor’s introduction, echoing the original from C. S. Lewis

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.

(2)  Today’s Letter

Attritionist Letter #6: Eliminate maneuver warfare concepts“, Marine Corps Gazette, October 2010

Capt Wormwood,

In my last letter I discussed some of the reasoning behind why we have made such a concerted effort to eliminate such archaic concepts as “commander’s intent” and “mission tactics.” You noted that I only mentioned examples from in theater or from combat situations. How daft of me! You obviously are aware that we are aggressively pursuing this agenda on all fronts—including in garrison environments across the Corps.

For the past 20 years we attritionists have sought to banish commander’s intent and mission tactics from the modus operandi of the Corps, and we have all but succeeded. For instance, in all previous predeployment training programs (PTPs), higher echelon leadership was limited to providing commander’s intent and allowing mission tactics to occur as subordinate regiment, battalion, company, and platoon commanders determined specific training requirements and the methods of best accomplishing them. However, most—if not all—current PTP is coordinated, directed, and supervised by higher echelon directives. I think that we can all agree that such templated training programs as Enhanced MOJAVE VIPER exist because subordinate unit commanders have proven themselves consistently unable to execute higher headquarters’ intent.

Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP 1), Warfighting, dates itself by claiming that “as a rule, [senior commanders] should refrain from dictating how the training will be accomplished.”1 In no other PTP environment has the Marine Corps been able to institutionally create, maintain, and disseminate such extensive guidance via such effective media as e-mail and Microsoft PowerPoint and SharePoint systems. With these assets available today, there is simply no need to rely upon subordinate commanders to create or execute training plans. Rather, it is best to implement templated training packages that cover all potential situations for all units preparing for deployment. Wormwood, I must ask, does it not make your job considerably less challenging now that you have no need to schedule or execute training? Just count the Marines when they show up and ensure that your operational risk management has been submitted.

Our dear friends—those attritionists who implemented the PTP—have minimized any platoon, company, battalion, and even regiment leadership input into the PTP process. This centralized attritionist policy — while clearly executed on a daily basis across our Corps — is still not reflected in those antiquated philosophies found in MCDP 1. I find it so frustrating that MCDP 1 still claims that “commanders at each echelon must allot subordinates sufficient time and freedom to conduct the training necessary to achieve proficiency at their levels.” MCDP 1 goes on to claim that commanders “must ensure that higher-level demands do not deny subordinates adequate training opportunities for autonomous unit training.”2 It is almost laughable! Thankfully, these archaic pronouncements are clearly out of step with the current attritionist trends across our Corps! MCDP 1 falsely assumes that subordinate commanders are best situated to divine training shortfalls and requirements for their respective units, when in fact the PTPs offer a far superior and comprehensive solution.

Higher echelon commands have effectively relegated subordinate commanders to “managers” of their assigned personnel with limited ability to interfere with the training of their units. While skeptics decry this trend and claim that it will serve to diminish initiative and the abilities of subordinate commanders, it is a small price to pay for the creation of a MAGTF with “standardized” capabilities and the protection of our training programs from the tampering of subordinate leaders.

Wormwood, more examples of our success abound! Think of those junior Marines who are so often subject to restrictions placed upon them while deployed. Liberty cards in Okinawa, curfew restrictions imposed in Korea, and exclusion from major cities in Kuwait are specific policies directed by the highest echelons of command, not by local subordinate commanders. After all, it is far simpler to impose a regulation than it is to establish an expectation and challenge subordinates to accomplish it. Moreover, it is far more difficult to trust a subordinate than it is to impose a regulation.

Thus the practice of the Marine Corps must be to eliminate the outdated need of “trusting subordinate commanders.” While MCDP 1 might claim that “trust by seniors in the abilities of their subordinates” is essential, you will witness the hypocrisy of that statement.3 As I mentioned in my last letter, it is far better for a senior to eliminate all doubt and ensure that subordinate commanders execute guidance as passed rather than make false assumptions.

And Wormwood, you will concur that when units return from training exercises or a deployment and the Marines seek to set out on leave, each is required to complete a paperwork-intensive leave request. In years past, the highest echelon commands would establish their intent and allow subordinate commanders to determine unit leave policies (and thus execute mission tactics). That obviously did not work. The Marine Corps has therefore established directed leave policies (including those extensive paperwork requirements) by higher echelon commands. Skeptics will query why a MEF commander must dictate the requirements of a lance corporal desiring to take leave. The answer lies no doubt in the inability of regimental, battalion, and company commanders to competently implement the commander’s intent from higher headquarters. Thus, the most senior commanders have no choice but to dictate and institutionalize standardized procedures that restrict subordinate commanders’ use of discretion and judgment.

You can see that we are achieving success on all fronts. Soon—very soon—subordinate leaders will be relegated completely to automaton-like roles, simply executing that guidance explicitly directed by the highest command. That transformation of the Marine Corps to a completely attritionist force will provide unprecedented battlefield effectiveness for the battles we have yet to fight. Until then, I remain,

General Screwtape


  1. MCDP 1, Warfighting, Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, 1997, p. 60.
  2. Ibid., pp. 59–60.
  3. Ibid., p. 58.

(3)  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
  6. Attritionist Letter #5: we prize simple concepts (even if they haven’t work since WWII)

(4)  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 the training of officers:

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

(5)  What are attritionist and manoeuvre warfare?

(a)  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.

(b)  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.

One thought on “Attritionist Letter #6: train our Marines like robots, to better fight our adaptive & decentralized foes

  1. I have loved this series FM, sorry I hadn’t told you before. Keep them coming.

    As an amateur student of military history I can honestly say that Monty and Rommel (et al) are turning in their graves. Rommel because the Wehrmacht didn’t tolerate such ‘Screwtape’ nonsense, Monty because he fired anyone like ‘Screwtape’ (sadly the British Army of that time was full of them).

    Monty was the British Army’s (maybe any Army’s) greatest trainer as even his greatest detractors admit. God help (because no one else could) any officer under his command who didn’t have a proper training plan .. that wasn’t continuously updated and carried out .. even in a combat environment (maybe especially important then, as the enemy changes tactics you train your people on how to deal with them). He’d train the senior officers on how to train, then hold them to training their people under them … and so on.

    Attritionist thinking was anathema to both of them.

    I can just hear Monty, in response to the Screwtapes .. “you’re insane .. and you’re fired (Rommel would have agreed with him totally)”.

    Sadly neither were not mean enough to use people like that in a properly militarily useful way ….. as mobile mine detectors.

    70 years on and the Colonel Blimps are still around, nearly 100 years since they were exposed as murdering idiots in WW1.

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