Attritionist Letter #8: Resist the temptation to make every soldier a knower and decider. Cherish the hierarchy!

Summary:   The internal battle in the USMC about the nature of command goes back (at least) to Colonel Carson’s controversal creation of the Marine Raiders, based on insights gained from Mao’s Eighth Route Army — especially a more egalitarian division of responsibility and the importance of a shared understanding and committment to the mission (“gung ho”).  That battle still rages within the Corps.


  1. Introduction from the Marine Corps Gazette’s Editor
  2. Letter #8
  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

Letter #8, Marine Corps Gazette, December 2010

My dear Capt Wormwood,

It never fails to astound me how quickly “the Young Turks” are ready to dismiss the prerogatives of command and the benefit of long years of experience. As in all things, we see the “maneuverists” touting the benefits of decentralizing military intelligence resources to the lowest possible level, chattering on about “collaboration,” “every soldier a sensor/every Marine a collector,” “achieving the hive mind,” and other such drivel. The latter bumper sticker phrase is particularly hilarious, for the swarm of bees serves the natural matriarch, the queen, who in turn provides for and reproduces for the hive. Likewise, it serves little purpose to decentralize intelligence assets and resources without ensuring that this directly serves the master decisionmaker who is held responsible for results.

Is not intelligence a primary responsibility of command? Yet those Young Turk maneuverists seem altogether too ready to divest the senior commander of his eyes and ears. As the Ringwraiths served Sauron in the Tolkien classic, so must the assets and resources of intelligence serve the senior commander. They must be at his immediate beck and call. To do otherwise is to waste time and effort in pursuit of diversionary distractions at best; at worst it will dilute its power and fall prey to enemy tactical deception in pursuit of purely local, temporary — and illusory — advantage.

“Two heads are better than one,” goes the common wisdom, which — after all — cannot be wisdom once you consider what this means in military affairs. Unity of command is essential; given two commanders of equal rank and experience, only one can be in charge. So he is the decisionmaker, the other the advisor. And who is the information gathering and analysis apparatus intended to support? The both of them? No, of course not. But this is an artificial and theoretical problem in any case. Naturally, we never see such situations in reality.

What is really happening is that the maneuverists propose to share intelligence asset allocations amongst themselves in a bizarre “trickle down” arrangement. The two heads are not of the same seniority and experience as the one. Actually, these people want 6, 8, 10 heads—but they are all far junior than the one. And they want the intelligence system to support all of them equally “on demand” and, worse, “just in time.” “This is the way conditions must be to succeed in irregular warfare,” they proclaim. Is one to surmise that 6, 8, or 10 kindergarteners know as much (let’s dismiss the fanciful idea that they can know more) as their teacher? Poppycock!

It is amazing to me, my dear swollen-headed Wormwood, that you can fall prey to such illogical and emotional argument. But then, how could you know the difference? You are bedazzled by the power that increased access to information could potentially bestow upon you. Do not be so easily and stupidly seduced by those who would tell you that “information is power.” Information is power only to the mind cultivated to receive, analyze, and make use of it. Delivering the capability to collect and process to the unpracticed mind is like giving the grammar school student a law library; having all the legal information at one’s fingertips does not a lawyer make. Indeed, successful lawyers have not only the information, but they also have a whole network of assistants to help them make their case. From the junior partner to the lowliest paralegal, the entire system is set up for the success of the lead lawyer in the courtroom or at the negotiating table.

This was true 200 years ago, and despite the advent of computers and instant communications, it is still true today. So it is with command and control when it comes to intelligence support. To give mere captains — to say nothing of lieutenants and sergeants — unsupervised and unrestricted access to such information-gathering resources is akin to putting toddlers in a workshop filled with power tools.

Nowhere do I see evidence of a more dangerous mindset than the maneuverist pleas for access to wider and wider sets of information data, saying they will analyze and tailor actual intelligence products that provide knowledge and understanding to those making decisions at their local area, based on local requirements and the local situation. One can interpret this to mean that those who stand in the middle of the woods are best suited to understand the forest if they merely can get access to all of the data about more of the trees! And they expect us to truly believe such paradoxical statements?

Only the benefit of distance from the problem, a cool head, a calm disposition, the obvious advantages of years of experience, and the authority to make decisions at the highest level can successfully leverage such reams of information. Economy of scale considerations alone make it necessary to centralize such capacities into fewer and fewer far more capable hands, to say nothing of minds, to be more efficient in dealing with all of the information at hand.

It is only the naïve who forget the lessons of history. After World War II, our forebears understood the dangers of decentralization. That is why the National Security Act of 1947 set up the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The name has meaning. Not the National Intelligence Agency or even the American Intelligence Agency. The CIA was intended to centralize intelligence. Why? Not only to ensure that those who were national leaders had the knowledge they needed, but it also went to great lengths to ensure secrecy. It is not fashionable today to speak of secrecy, but as Master Sun relates to us, all warfare is based on deception. You cannot deceive when you cannot keep secrets. And to keep a secret, tell it not to a friend.

To those who suggest that 11 September 2001 has put paid to what they term are such “quaint” notions, I will only point to what has been done, rather than what has been said. Centralization is obviously the only solution. The Director of National Intelligence has been created because the CIA could not centralize intelligence enough. The Department of Homeland Security was implemented because its discrete and disparate organizations and agencies had decentralized information and intelligence capabilities. Inventing additional supervisory layers on top of existing ones is not—despite what some might be tempted to label otherwise — decentralization.

Of course, it is natural that the pawns of the commander should bridle and brook complaints about their lowly status, deprived of the information-gathering and analytical resources of their masters. How else can we encourage them to want to become masters themselves? Having a hierarchical organization where more and more information is concentrated in ever fewer and larger hands is necessary to the overall health of the food chain. Certainly some of the lower elements are devoured (I’m sorry, consumed is perhaps the more accurate term) by their seniors, but this only ensures that those lower elements are more and more anxious to become seniors themselves. They will strive all the harder, doing whatever is necessary, to achieve the necessary power themselves. Advancement is not only desirable, but it is also essential to main the order of things. Were we to facilitate wide-ranging decisionmaking at the lower levels, junior military members might cease to desire promotion above all else. This we simply cannot tolerate!

If intelligence is the responsibility of command, it is also its prerogative; the greater the command, the greater must be its prerogative in matters of intelligence. The higher the hilltop upon which one is perched, the farther one can therefore see!

But there are those maneuverists who clamor for more ability to execute what they call “reconnaissance pull.” If ever there was an oxymoron (and the military intelligence field is full of such terms), this is perhaps the epitome of one. It presumes that a commander willingly surrenders control of his battle to his subordinates through allowing local understanding to shape disposition of combat power without the active and continuous participation of that commander expressly authorizing such movements and actions. This is an abrogation of leadership of the lowest order and cannot be countenanced.

The maneuverists will claim such technique makes up for its difficulties by being faster (once again I hear that nonsensical OODA (orientation, observation, decision, action) loop reference) while still being focused by the commander’s intent. Speed alone means nothing if the cyclist is pedaling in the wrong direction. Subordinates cannot possibly divine the commander’s intent, and we already know that from seeing pages and pages (or Microsoft PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide) of purpose, method, and end state discussions trying to cover every conceivable situation.

So let’s stop pretending that mere fledglings barely out of their nests can be as deadly as the most seasoned eagle in finding and catching its prey. The organization must flock around its natural leader; such is the order of things, and this is the same for intelligence as it is for all other things. For those who want such information, such resources, such power, let them become that leader, that master, who will—who must—command it. Many will fail, but those who succeed will have well earned the right and the prerogative. Certainly they will have achieved such heights on the carcasses of their peer competitors along the way, but that is for the overall good of the organization!

General Screwtape

(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)
  7. Attritionist Letter #6:  train our Marines like robots, to better fight our adaptive & decentralized foes
  8. Attritionist Letter #7 — “Trust one another”

(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

(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.

Leave a Reply