Attritionist Letter #10: Commanders today are too busy to develop subordinates!

Summary:   We lavishly fund our military services (although these sums are in turn dwarfed by the demands of the profitless but growing American Empire).  But decent pay and expensive machines does not create a powerful force.  That comes from the people we recruit and train, especially the leaders.  It’s the single most important task of our armed services.  Our Marines get the type and quality of leaders that meet the bureaucracy’s needs.  But are they well-suited to fight the unconventional wars that seem likely to dominate the 21st century?


  1. Introduction from the Marine Corps Gazette’s Editor
  2. Letter #10:  Subcontracting leadership development?
  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 #10. “Subcontracting leadership development?”, Marine Corps Gazette, February 2011

My dear Capt Wormwood,

Triumph awaits just around the corner for all of us attritionists! Day after day, I am increasingly convinced that we shall prevail much sooner than expected. The Marine Corps — once a disorganized and decentralized conglomerate of disparate “task forces” around the world — is becoming “attritionist” much more rapidly than any of our courses of action might have suggested.

In years past, “maneuverists” often boasted of the Marine Corps’ flexibility and adaptiveness due to the lack of a centralized institutional educational bureaucracy. Fools! I have long claimed that flexibility and adaptiveness are secondhand traits when compared to the benefits we would attain if we were to develop our own Training and Doctrine Command. Only now are we beginning to see Training and Education Command (TECom) develop and implement such a system of centralized and standardized learning. Soon enough I will finally be able to hold my head up when I attend those joint Service conferences!

Capt Wormwood, although you have only been around for a few years, you would be a fool if you did not notice the recent expansion in centralized bureaucracy. MCTOG (Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group), LTOG (Logistics Tactics and Operations Group), MCTAG (Marine Corps Training Advisory Group), MCIOC (Marine Corps Intelligence Officers Course), and CAOCL (Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning) — one can almost pick an acronym at random and create funding requirements and a mission statement afterward.  We are now growing a centralized bureaucracy at a fantastic pace.

Maneuverists might claim that the larger the centralized institution grows, the less flexibility is allowed for local commanders to develop their charges in unique and adaptive ways. I rebut that weak argument; local commanders would do well to adhere to the “school taught” method. After all, it — through validation of experts — has become the “best practice.” Deviation (or adaptiveness) is — and should be — frowned upon by the “experts.”

It is becoming more and more frequent that local commanders are demanding “school certified” individuals for key billets; MCTOG, LTOG, MCTAG, and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 have all become quasirequirements for key staff billets. The increased dependence upon a standardized “certification” process allows commanders to stop exercising judgment and depend ever more on centralized policy emanating from Washington.

Long gone are the days when commanders would select an individual to fill a billet and then train him to accomplish the mission. Now commanders are clamoring for pretrained and precertified personnel to fill the required billets prior to arrival at the assuming command. This forgives those commanders of having to expend effort in developing subordinates; that obligation is best left to the singular monolithic standardized process.

Wormwood, pay no attention when those maneuverists cite that archaic tome, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP 1), Warfighting, with such irrelevant and outdated thoughts as:

The responsibility for implementing professional military education [PME] in the Marine Corps is three-tiered: It resides not only with the education establishment, but also with the commander and the individual.1

No longer! Now more than ever, TECom is finally — and oh so joyfully — assuming control over every aspect of this education.  Uneducated maneuverists will claim that:

. . . all professional schools, particularly officer schools, should focus on developing a talent for military judgment, not on imparting knowledge through rote learning. Study conducted by the education establishment can neither provide complete career preparation for an individual nor reach all individuals. Rather, it builds upon the base provided by commanders and by individual study.  2

Wormwood, how I almost feel sorry for those maneuverists still clinging to these long held but useless thoughts of decentralization. Do they not realize that we attritionists have transformed the focus of Marine military officer education from military judgment to how to accomplish various billets as a staff officer? Just think back to any MAGTF integrated system training center course you may have taken. Did they really focus on any military decisionmaking? Likewise with that MCTOG course you just completed. Was it not the Tactical MAGTF Integration Course?

How much time was really spent on decisionmaking or developing your judgment compared to the amount of time spent on either learning the wonders of the different command and control systems the Marine Corps has purchased over the past several years or learning the procedures for proper operation of a combat operations center? Even at Expeditionary Warfare School, that one-time bastion of Marine MAGTF officership, how much decisionmaking does one really learn there anymore? Is it not better to teach Marine officers how to properly complete a collections matrix? Or transfer overlays from an .ovl file to Microsoft PowerPoint? Or send text messages over Microsoft Internet Relay Chat? These are the officer skills of today!

What I am trying to say, young Capt Wormwood, is that educational requirements for Marine officers have changed. No longer must we teach decisionmaking or military judgment. From here on we shall teach only “how” and “how better” to execute the guidance issued forth from higher headquarters. With more and more personnel appearing on staffs at the Pentagon, at Quantico, and even at MEF headquarters, there is no longer any need for junior commands to really do any independent planning or decisionmaking. So why waste the effort in teaching those officers how to make decisions?

Forget the irrelevant hogwash from MCDP 1 {Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1: Warfighting}. Good leaders have avoided becoming hindered by the idea that:

. . . all commanders should consider the professional development of their subordinates a principal responsibility of command. Commanders should foster a personal teacher-student relationship with their subordinates. Commanders are expected to conduct a continuing professional education program for their subordinates that includes developing military judgment and decisionmaking and teaches general professional subjects and specific technical subjects pertinent to occupational specialties. 3

We all know that commanders today are too busy to develop subordinates! That type of “development” is best left to the “institution,” where sanitized and appropriate version control can be monitored from Quantico and maintained with the utmost scrutiny. The best kind of commander-driven officer PME would be that of a training lecture on completing fitness reports. Good attritionist commanders will always ensure that the focus of officer PME remains upon “how to execute” rather than straying into the strange and ambiguous forum of decisionmaking.

Some will claim that increasing the focus on officer “training” rather than officer “education” has emerged because it is far easier to justify the post-11 September 2001 budgetary flood if one can marry funds to concrete and measurable training objectives rather than focus on such esoteric concepts as judgment and leadership. The truth — however difficult for one like you to comprehend — is that it is simply more appropriate for these new educational institutions to train the student in procedures, processes, and methods rather than seek to impart military judgment or decisionmaking skills. And the existence of these institutions forgives the commander of the unachievable obligation to train and educate his Marines.

While the wayward MCDP 1 might claim that “commanders should see the development of the subordinates as a direct reflection on themselves,”4 many commanders now look to TECom and the institutionalized educational bureaucracy to serve as the primary means to develop subordinates. A commander should simply act as a personnel manager, ensuring that the appropriate skill sets are procured by shuffling Marines to become certified at the respective institutions.

Maneuverists might claim that any institutional bureaucracy must consistently validate itself and that much effort has been expended by the newly established bureaucracy itself, convincing Marine decisionmakers that these new schools are required for training individuals for a myriad of specific billets. The truth of the matter is that there are many billets for which an individual is only qualified once he has taken the appropriate courses with the appropriate PowerPoint presentation offered by the appropriate TECom school and taught by the appropriate (perhaps retired) Marine field grade staff officers. Only then can we truly designate an individual as worthy to serve as an S–3 (operations), an S–4 (logistics) or even, most importantly, as a fire support coordinator.

Perhaps one day, Capt Wormwood, you might be in a position of real authority and only then will you understand the aforementioned discourse. Until then I remain,

General Screwtape


  1. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1: Warfighting, Washington, DC, 1997, p. 62.
  2. Ibid., p. 63.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.

(3)  For more information about developing officers

For more about this subject see Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance by Martin van Creveld (available from 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!
  10. Attritionist Letter #9:  the hidden reason behind DoD’s organization (it makes sense once you understand)

(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 #10: Commanders today are too busy to develop subordinates!

  1. Dear Writer,
    MCTAG IS NOT a TECOM organization. Read the name. It has recently changed titles. If anything, it is the bureaucracy of the Marine Corps that has prevented MCTAG now MCSCG from being a fully operational unit. Its called rice bowls. If anything, MCTAG was successful with less people and a wide latitude to develop its mission sets, which, because of higher headquarters guidance and short sited policy is preventing this organization from becoming the primer advisory organization in the military bar none. Too many other “competing” organizations and parochial short sighted bureaucrats have hampered MCSCG.

    1. This article was published in the February 2011 issue, written one or months before.

      Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group is the command resulting from the merger between Marine Corps Training and Advisory Group and the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Education Training Center. The merger of these two units was effective 1 October 2011..

  2. Fabius,
    Understand; I was the plans officer for MCTAG from 2008-2010. I saw the inner workings at HQMC and OSD and how OSD sees MCTAG now MCSCG and how some in the Marine Corps sees MCSCG. I tried to go back to the “FMF” from MCTAG and was told “no” you have too much operational time after being at MCTAG…go figure. My point MCTAG was NEVER meant to be a “training” command organization, training was certainly in the title but that training meant, training foreign forces whether in combat or not in support of MEFs, GCCs and National Security Strategy. At least that was the vision and the way we moved out. Now as I understand it, bureaucracy has taken over again, and it is being regulated down; I believe it could be THE standard wrt foreign military advising (not FAO’s or RAO’s who are essentially arms dealers) within military IF allowed to develop.

Leave a Reply