Attritionist Letter #7: “Trust one another” is the motto (“trust be damned” is often the reality)

Summary:   Most vets describe the fact of our military as different from the idealistic portraits of movies and theory.  Most especially in their treatment of junior officers and non-commissioned officers.  Poor treatment, verging on contempt — with a pervasive lack of trust.  The low re-enlistment rates after the first term — resulting in staggeringly high costs for recruitment and training — are the inevitable results.  Here we see a stark explanation for the thinking that produces it.  Changing this might be one of the keys to success for a 21st century military.


  1. Introduction from the Marine Corps Gazette’s Editor
  2. Letter #7:  Trusting one another!
  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

“Trusting one another“, Marine Corps Gazette, November 2010 — Red emphasis added.

Capt Wormwood,

After reading some of the missives that you send, I cannot help but sit down and laugh heartily at your naiveté. It does not surprise me that you hear all manner of absurd ideas; there is no end of foolishness in this world. What I find laughable is that you give enough credence to the things you hear that you would actually ask me about them! I suppose I should not be terribly surprised. What else should I expect from a mere captain? In fact, perhaps I should be pleased that you are referring matters great and small to me. That is certainly the role of every subordinate.

This brings me to the subject of your last letter. It is a mark of the degeneracy of these “maneuverists” that one of their number would actually state that “trust is the secret ingredient of maneuver warfare.” The arrogance of these people is stunning. If you need a “secret ingredient” to conduct their form of warfare, what happens when it disappears? If trust between subordinates and seniors is an absolute requirement for maneuver warfare, then the maneuverists occupy an even weaker position than they know. When was the last time that you observed a relationship between senior and subordinate in which they truly trusted one another? I would wager that you have never seen it. I certainly haven’t.

How can we trust our subordinates? They have been trying to avoid and shirk their duties since time immemorial. Frederick the Great wanted his soldiers to be more afraid of their officers than their enemy, and with good reason. He knew they would desert if given a minute’s opportunity. Do you not think that your lieutenants will require minute supervision? Of course they will, and not simply because they are young. They will attempt to mislead you if you do not watch them closely. This is no more than an acknowledgement of human nature.

The need for control, not trust, is a truth that the Marine Corps has long recognized. If you look beyond the rhetoric, you can see how little trust commanders have in their subordinates. It is manifest in things both small and large. Why do Marines fill out reams of paperwork before going on leave or prior to an extended liberty period? Why has the Marine Corps created a detailed predeployment training program that minutely prescribes training requirements for deploying units? The answer is obvious, although it is also obvious that no one will openly admit it.

Trust be damned! You cannot command and control a unit effectively based on trust! You cannot trust that your subordinates did maintenance; you must know. You cannot trust that your subordinates know what you want them to do; you must tell them and then ensure that it is done to your full satisfaction. I know what one of those fool maneuverists would say. I had one of them as a subordinate before I retired, and he was thick enough to attempt to discuss this issue with me. He said that “trust did not replace supervision, but that the form of supervision is different.” He said that “in many cases, the senior would conduct unannounced visits to see what is really going on and had the right to expect total openness and honesty from his subordinates.”

Can you imagine this? I was far too busy to leave my headquarters. My form of supervision was better; I had my subordinates come to my headquarters and brief me. We would sit in the conference room and they would conduct a Microsoft PowerPoint brief detailing what they had been doing. I could have them make changes or give guidance to my staff based upon this brief. I did exactly what everyone else did, but I had this young officer tell me that it was wrong. What did he know about exercising command? Nothing! I find that I am getting angry just relating the story to you now, and it happened some years ago.

Let me tell you this, Wormwood. You had better learn your place in this organization. Listen carefully and keep your mouth shut. Your superiors have been put in their positions because they are smarter than you. You would do well to remember this. I have heard maneuverists say that decisions flow up the chain of command and support flows down, but this is not the way the Marine Corps works, thank Nick. There is a reason that information flows up the chain of command and decisions flow down. It is because those who have the experience and will know best what to do in any situation are at the top.

It is quite likely that it is difficult for a mere captain to grasp all of this. If you are able to understand, you should begin to see how all of the things we have discussed in this and in past letters are interrelated. Each individual issue may not seem critical, but they are part of a coherent and logical whole. When viewed in this manner, it is clear that the maneuverists have been defeated and that we are in charge.

If, as I expect, you are still confused, just shut your mouth, put your brain in neutral, and do what you’re told. No Marine who follows that order can go far wrong.

General Screwtape

(3)  The experience of being a first-term Marine

(a)  See this animated short to better understand this perspective:  USMC animation One  (note:  profane language)

This short cartoon by cookchief1 does not well reflect the experience of being in the USMC, as most vets will tell you.  But they passionately represent one aspect of that experience.  Aspects that are unnecessary, reduce the effectiveness of the Corps, and greatly increases its cost.  There are three others in the series, which are IMO a waste of time.

(b)  “Reenlisting in the Marine Corps: The Impact of Bonuses, Grade, and Dependency Status“, Center for Naval Awareness, July 1991 — Looking at how these factors affect first-term reenlistment rates, which at that time ranged from 1/4 to 1/3 — which creates massive costs for recruitment and training.  Note the reenlistment rate differs from the retention rate, as it includes only those eligable to reenlist.

(c)  “DOD Needs Action Plan to Address Enlisted Personnel Recruitment and Retention Challenges“, GAO, November 2005 — “Given the fiscally constrained environment we are facing now and in years to come, DOD can no longer afford to take a ‘business as usual’ approach to managing its force.”  Perhaps its time to reconsider how the Corps treats its people — not just pay and benefits.

(d)  “Marine Corps Deployment Tempo and Retention in FY05“, Center for Naval Awareness, March 2006 — First-term reenlistment rates ranged from 1/ to 1/3, depending on time deployed.

(e)  “Effects of Bonuses on Active Component Reenlistment Versus Prior Service Enlistment in the Selected Reserve“, RAND, 2011 — From 1998 – 2008 the average first term reenlistment rate was 27%; another 5% switched to the Reserves (Table 2.3).  See below graph.  USAF:  light blue; USN:  dark blue;  USMC:  red; USA:  green.

Figure 2.3; Rand (2011)

(4)  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)
  7. Attritionist Letter #6:  train our Marines like robots, to better fight our adaptive & decentralized foes

(5)  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

(6)  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 66than 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.

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