Attritionist Letter #9: the hidden reason behind DoD’s organization (it makes sense once you understand)

Summary:   Enlisted Marines and their junior officers often find the USMC system byzantine, even irrational.  In fact there are deep reasons for its procedures, a hidden rationality seldom explicitly discussed.  In letter #9 General Wormwood explains these things to his nephew, using logistics as an example.


  1. Introduction from the Marine Corps Gazette’s Editor
  2. Letter #9
  3. For more information about logistics
  4. The Letters, posted on the FM website
  5. For more information about these issues
  6. What are the attritionist and manoeuvre schools of 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 #9, Marine Corps Gazette, January 2011

My dear Capt Wormwood,

I must say your last letter left me upset. There is no doubt that logistics is a crucial element of warfighting, but some of your comments regarding logistics support to your battalion make me fear you have been thinking. That is always a bad habit in a junior officer. Your commanding officer may say you are doing a great job, but keep in mind that he is one of those detestable disciples of Gen Alfred M. Gray and his band of “maneuverists.” I would not expect a mere captain to comprehend just how complex the science of logistics is and what is necessary to keep the store in order, which should always be a logisticians first concern.

How dare you have the audacity to consider trading away fuel in exchange for food to feed your squads partnered with the local host-nation security forces. That kind of decision can and must only be made at the G–4 (logistics for a brigade) level or higher. Besides, it does not matter if the local national police and army need the fuel to conduct operations; that is their problem, not yours! If you start caring about their problems, you will just get yourself in trouble.

Think, too, about the morale of your Marines. The last thing they want is to eat the same dirty food as the equally dirty people amongst whom they are unfortunate enough to have to live and work. Thanks to the patriotic efforts of a multitude of hard-working contractors, I know all of the main operating bases have civilian-run dining facilities with food choices that rival the best of Las Vegas buffets. You can just send your Marines some of that food once a day in vat cans. It is no big deal to put another logistics convoy on the road to deliver the chow. After all, you will have to send someone to clean out the portable toilets and service the air conditioning units anyway. Plus, the more convoys, the more justification for buying even more and even bigger mine resistant armored ambush protected vehicles.

For the rest of their meals the Marines can have meals ready-to-eat (MREs), and you know MREs are much better than any food a local national could come up with. Try some local bread and you will quickly see what I mean.

Another indication of your naiveté is your admission of how you have been going to the Army unit operating in the neighboring area of operations (AO) to get some of your basic supplies and repair parts. Egad! You do know those items do not go through the Marine Corps’ automated logistics information systems, don’t you? Everything has to go through the system! That is rule number one!

Technology now makes it possible for higher headquarters to have total and absolute visibility over everything. Your job is not to think. It is simply to input requirements into the system. Higher headquarters will do everything else for you. They are back on the secure base, miles away from that chaotic wasteland you call an AO {area of operations}, and they will know the best way to support your unit.

I do not care if the Marines can get their required items faster elsewhere. If you are not properly inputting requests into the master enterprise system then you are not doing your job, and worse yet, you are not letting the more senior and competent Marines at higher headquarters do their jobs.

I cannot expect your small brain to understand just how helpful those civilian contractors are about whom you complain. They are an absolute necessity for both maintaining all of the gear higher headquarters has entrusted to you, as well as providing those services that give you the same quality of life deployed as when you are back in garrison. Our material advantage is what gives us our combat power. Our technologically superior equipment is what will win this war. I have told you before, Wormword, Marines are just not smart enough to keep that gear working, even with training. We need contractor support, and without the quality of life services the contractors provide, Marines will not be combat effective. Also, one day you will want to work for one of those contractors. As I know from experience, they pay very well.

Finally, how dare you suggest that an infantry battalion needs to be more logistically self-sufficient on the modern battlefield? You know from everything we have ever discussed that mass wins wars—in firepower as well as logistics. The more supplies and equipment we are able to give to a unit, the more effective it will be. It is our material superiority that makes us a world-class fighting force. Suggesting that we need to lessen the logistics footprint of a unit is just as heretical as saying maneuver warfare should be the cornerstone of our doctrine. It and you are plainly ridiculous! Get your head on straight! When next we meet I will explain to you all of the benefits of still having separate ground and aviation logistics systems. Until then, remember, logistics is about enterprise solutions and best business practices.

General Screwtape

(3)  For more information about logistics

See Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton by Martin van Creveld — Available at Amazon.

(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
  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!

(5)  For more information about these issues

(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

(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 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.

4 thoughts on “Attritionist Letter #9: the hidden reason behind DoD’s organization (it makes sense once you understand)”

  1. All this technologly has finally converted evern our “three stars” into squad leaders. We can only hope that the “multiple stars” are up to it.

  2. “make me fear you have been thinking. That is always a bad habit in a junior officer.” Cracked me up.

    But, the more thing change the more they stay the same. In WW2, post Normandy, US divisions got the same daily allocation of food, fuel, ammo, etc …. no matter what they were doing! Plus logistics was outside Eisenhower’s command. Some commanders (Patton being the expert) became adept at wheedling/dealing/stealing resources. COMZ, based in Paris, led a very nice life.

    Yeager’s book mentioned that in Vietnam the planes had to be serviced according to order … no matter what the battle damage or losses (real life Colonel Blimp stuff). To get around it they changed the numbers on the planes to suite.

    Ah the wisdom of those at the top, who become ever wiser the further away from the front line they are (I suppose that if they managed to get far enough away, say the Moon, they would become omnipotent).

    Love this series.

  3. I love the bit about the “civilian contractors” ;) Hopefully the US military will never experience another engagement in which the rear echelons suddenly become the front lines. Because, unlike at Bastogne, where “cooks and clerks” grabbed weapons and helped resist, we can’t expect civilian contractors to do likewise. I realize, of course, that in modern warfare there is no “rear echelon” or “line of battle” – but I wonder if the “civilian contractors” have figured out what a serious reversal would look like…? I’m picturing Dien Bien Phu, with 50% of the people in the pocket being rental cowboys and carpetbaggers. They won’t make hagiographic movies about that, for sure, because it’ll be more like the deck of The Titanic than The Green Berets…

  4. It’s well known in Afghanistan that if you’re a westerner, know you way around Big Army and need ammo, food or fuel you can trade liquor (Jack Daniels seems to be the troops favorite) for what you want on most US military bases. The smaller base he better with ODAs being the pot o’gold.

    Apparently it’s civilian contrcators that have mastered maneuver warfare’s logistics side.

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