Attritionist Letter #11: Artillery leads the way – to the past!

Summary:   Technology allow leaders to reshape an organization according to their vision of the future — or of the past.  Our military has the most advanced technology on the planet, so they balance this by adopting extremely antiquated forms of organization.  We have the weapons to fight invaders from space, organized to fight the Wehrmacht.


  1. Introduction from the Marine Corps Gazette’s Editor
  2. Letter #11:  Artillery leads the way!
  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 #11. “Artillery leads the way!“, Marine Corps Gazette, March 2011

My dear Capt Wormwood,

Your missives must cease! I must admit that I am growing increasingly concerned at your almost naïve and pathetic insistence that maneuverist tendencies persist in the Marine Corps. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, is dead, Wormwood! Generals may quote passages, colonels may cite pages, but lip service it is! I have seen it with my own eyes, Wormwood. The dawn of attritionism is nigh! Just a few months past, I was invited to accompany a MEF deputy commanding general on a command visit to a division-level live fire and maneuver exercise. And what I saw was most pleasing. Read on.

The exercise, ordered by the MEF commander in order to demonstrate the ability of a division-sized assault, proved to be an attritionist delight! With the MEF and division command elements forward deployed, one of the regiments assumed the role of division command. Now I have been arguing for years that our staffs are far too small. But, Wormwood, how far we have come in just the past 5 years! As I visited the ad hoc division command post, I saw unit operating center (UOC) tents everywhere—more computers and folding chairs in sight than M16s! One UOC complex abutting another — that is the way to win wars, Wormwood! Plasma screens flickered and a symphony of generators hummed as I wondered to myself where were those maneuverists who like to spit forth terms like “expeditionary” and “austere”?

My tour continued at an infantry regiment combat operations center (COC). We flew in at night, guided by the tactical support wide area network with the red flashing light that could be seen from miles away. Urban sprawl emerged from the desert floor. There were cavernous UOC tents with air-conditioning so cold that fleeces and watchcaps were the personal protective equipment of choice; not a flack jacket or Kevlar was to be found.

The COC was alive with command post of the future (CPOF), command and control personal computers, and the common operating picture; charts and laminated matrices hung so neatly from the UOC walls. With two maneuver battalions in the midst of simultaneous attacks up their respective corridors, all seemed to be going well. Suddenly, a dust storm blew up and threatened the very UOC that represented the regiment’s command and control. Walls flew open, papers and mission cards were strewn about, and soon enough the UOC itself was blown over exposing the entrails to the mercy of the wind. Marines sullenly grabbed broken and bent bars from the crumpled UOC as if they had not a purpose except to mourn the loss of their command and control fortress.

I witnessed a foolish young lieutenant try to convince the Marines (both senior and junior) to leave the UOC alone and “get the radio nets back up” in order to continue monitoring the fight. The fool! Does he not realize that the CPOF and the UOC are the true manifestations of command and control, not simple communications with the maneuver battalions? How can we have a regimental commander coordinate the fight from a vehicle and a radio? Perhaps a decade ago, but no longer. Command and control is now only attainable by “stuff” like command and control systems, big intimidating tents, air-conditioning, plasma screens, and video teleconferencing. The poor lieutenant — he has no future in our Corps!

We then arrived at the artillery battalion that was in direct support of the entire exercise. Here is where I witnessed the most attritionist methodologies of all! Artillery batteries used to be semiautonomous units, designed by the Marine Corps table of organization (T/O) to be capable of operating independent of a battalion headquarters. But, oh joy! In today’s artillery battalions, centralization is occurring far more rapidly than anywhere else in our Corps. This is because, as I have long argued, captains just cannot be trusted to operate without close supervision and monitoring from battalion command. Plain and simply, the headquarters element of each artillery battalion should — and  is — absorbing the entire battalion and gradually dismantling the disparate firing units (traditionally called batteries).

For example, mechanics (whether motor transport or howitzer) are best maintained at the battalion level; captains do not know how to use or supervise them at the battery level. It is far more efficient to consolidate them at battalion level. Corpsmen are best controlled at the battalion level as well. After all, in order to do even the most minimal training that might require a corpsman (such as, perhaps, a hike), battery commanders must submit Microsoft PowerPoint presentations and conduct confirmation briefs weeks in advance. Trust and confidence, be damned! Why then should corpsmen be authorized for independent use by battery commanders?

The same goes for supply and maintenance management Marines; battery commanders are incapable of using these Marines properly.

The recent discussion as to consolidation of liaison — those forward observers who call for fires — has proven another example of how the archaic Marine Corps T/O is dead wrong. Marine captains are incapable of training lieutenants and scout observers. They have proven that time and again. Never mind that battalion commanders have proven incapable of holding captains accountable. Liaison is best consolidated (just like mechanics, corpsmen, supply, and maintenance management) at the battalion level. If a battery commander wishes to conduct any training, he should go through the proper bureaucratic channels to do so! He will submit a request to get corpsmen, vehicles, liaison officers, supply assets, and observers. He will also request a time to brief the battalion commander with PowerPoint and operational risk management. Then, after he has corrected all of the discrepancies — and provided there are no last minute battalion-directed whims — he might be allowed to train if the battalion commander deems it appropriate and not too distracting from the battalion mission.

Within each “new design” artillery battalion, the centralized headquarters battery element now counts upwards of 400 men, while each firing battery is only rarely over 100.

My dear Wormwood, I am delighted at how quickly our ideas have caught on! I hear that there is a new technology — a digital fire control system — with which howitzers can now be isolated from a battery position and controlled directly from a battalion fire direction center. If only we can get the “digital loop” to work, we can properly relegate battery commanders to be local security chiefs for the battalion’s howitzers. Gustavus Adolphus be praised!

I must admit that I am most pleased with that division live fire and maneuver exercise as it validated those attritionist trends that we have seen proliferate the Corps. In fact, I just read an after-action report from that regiment acting as the exercise division command; one of their primary recommendations is that they need larger UOCs with more computers in order to better accommodate a larger staff. How I love this Marine Corps! Heed Napoleon’s words, Wormwood, that “a man’s palate can, in time, become accustomed to anything.” Until then, I remain,

General Screwtape

(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)
  11. Attritionist Letter #10 – Commanders today are too busy to develop subordinates!

(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 #11: Artillery leads the way – to the past!

  1. I feel it’s worth mentioning that Gustavus Adolphus’ innovations involved increasing the tactical mobility of the Swedish army over its rivals, and cross training to allow individual soldiers to take on whatever role was needed on the battlefield.

    Profound historical ignorance is in character for the letter writer, but the Lion of the North was hardly a classic attritionist.

    1. We can only guess at the intent of the authors. I suspect the phrase “Gustavus Adolphus be praised” refered to GA in his role as “Father of Modern Warfare”, rather than any more specific meaning.

      As you noted, he was not an attritionist.

  2. I’m not clear what the aim of these articles is either. To shame the USMC into throwing away it’s IT hardware?

    A perusal of USMC articles on Helmand and Anbar would seem to indicate the management are very pleased with the system they have and want to reinforce it.

    I’m wondering if any current USMC general or colonel is ignoring the current command system for a more old fashioned one? Perhaps if large numbers of extremely wealthy and slightly eccentric 2Lts could be recruited the current system could be replaced in a generation or so. Of course by that time the troops will have brain implants that automatically connect them to HQs so the instigators of reform will be detected before they can do any damage.

    1. If you are not clear about the authors’ intent, I suggest you start with letter one and read through them — perhaps also reading some of the “for more information” references for a wider context.

      The authors’ primary concern is not the IT hardware of the USMC.

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