Attritionist Letter #12: Succumbing to enticements (career advice for the successful)

Summary:   How does the dead hand of excessive burocracy and outmoded doctrine retain its grip on the US officer corps?  The services recruit young energetic, often idealistic men and women.  Here we see how they become careerists.


  1. Boyd asks a young officer “the question”
  2. Introduction from the Marine Corps Gazette’s Editor
  3. Letter #12:  Succumbing to enticements (career advice for the successful)
  4. For more information about training officers
  5. The Letters, posted on the FM website
  6. For more information about these issues
  7. What are the attritionist and manoeuvre schools of warfare?

(1)  John Boyd asks a young officer “the question”

The late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) worked with many junior officers during his career.  There were only a few, perhaps half a dozen, that he had such respect for that he invited them to join him on his quest for change. Each one would be offered the choice: Be someone – be recognized by the system and promoted – or do something that would last for the Air Force and the country.  It says about about the state of our armed forces, that an officer rarely can to do both.

Boyd’s biographer, Robert Coram, describes how the conversation went.

Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road.  You will have to decide which direction you want to go.  You can be somebody. You will make compromises and turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club.  You will get promoted.  You will get good assignments.

Or you can do something – for your country, for your Air Force, and for yourself. If you decide to do something you may not get promoted, you may not get the good assignments, and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors.  But you will not  compromise yourself.  You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.

To be somebody or to do something.  In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision.  Which way will you go?

Boyd died in 1997.  As today’s Attritionist Letter shows, things have changed little since then.  How sad that our officers must choose between career success and integrity in this ugly fashion.  {this material is from an article by Chet Richards at DNI.)

(2)  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.

(3)  Today’s Letter

Letter #12. “Succumbing to enticements (career advice for the successful)”, Marine Corps Gazette, April 2011

My dear Capt Wormwood,

The problem you discussed in your last letter is not nearly as difficult as you believe it to be. There are a number of effective ways to deal with “maneuverists” who seem to be troublesome “true believers” and do not succumb to some of our more enticing arguments.

First, it is essential to convince them that you sympathize with them and are attempting to help them, even if they realize that you do not agree with their views. While this may be somewhat distasteful, it is critical to gaining their trust (and makes your moment of victory all the sweeter). Once you have gained his confidence, the destruction of the foolish maneuverist is all but assured. The only thing remaining is to determine upon the method of destruction that is most to your liking.

The simplest and most direct method is to point out to the fool that his career will surely suffer for his devotion to principle. I remember a number of years ago that some Marines wished to stamp out careerism! Such an effort was doomed to failure from the start, and fortunately so. Without the incentive of promotion to dangle in front of our victims, our quest would be much more difficult. Most young officers, even the so-called maneuverists, place great value on promotion and the other emoluments which the Marine Corps may bestow, and we do well to encourage this definition of success.

If the young Marines in question are not swayed by career considerations, then attempt to direct their energy to other more easily controlled pursuits. Tell them that they have excellent ideas and that they should work to create briefs and point papers that can be sent up the chain of command where real reforms can be made. This has several beneficial effects. Their efforts can be sidetracked by our friends at any point along the way (and we have a great many friends in senior headquarters). The products of the more troublesome idealists can even be allowed a public viewing, carefully controlled by us of course, so that they can be ridiculed and marked with a “scarlet letter” visible to their seniors, peers, and subordinates. This technique is extremely effective for demonstrating in exquisite detail what happens to the sheep that strays from the flock.

For those maneuverists who are not apt to be co-opted there is an infinitely more delightful option. Tell them that they should hide their light under a bushel, act like everyone else, and never reveal their true colors. They should work ceaselessly to achieve high rank, and once they have achieved it, they can cast off their disguise and act the part of the lion! The secret irony of this, known only to you, is that they will likely never attain rank sufficient to achieve their lofty goals, and if they should, their lust for power and self-aggrandizement will have overcome any desire for reform. They will have become one of us. This is by far the most delicious method of dealing with one of our enemies. Rather than a momentary victory, you will be afforded the wonderful spectacle of a soul in torment for years because while the decay is slow, it is absolutely certain once the first step has been taken.

Let me tell you, Wormwood, these cursed maneuverists are a dangerous lot and not to be underestimated. We must hunt them down and root them out. They must either see the error of their ways or be driven from our Corps. Dissent is not to be tolerated, and a lack of orthodoxy is far more dangerous than any external enemy. You may not truly understand this now, foolish as you are, but mark my words, the true enemy is not in Iraq or Afghanistan but in our own junior ranks. I will write more on this later.

General Screwtape

(4)  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).

(5)  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!
  12. Attritionist Letter #11:  Artillery leads the way – to the past!

(6)  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.

3 thoughts on “Attritionist Letter #12: Succumbing to enticements (career advice for the successful)”

  1. Wonder how much our military effectiveness will drop after the Super Committee cant come up with a deal on spending cuts?

    1. Relibably predicting political outcomes is difficult. My guess: the odds are small of large cuts to DoD, Homeland Security, and DoE (bomb-related programs). Don’t confused political theater with realpolitic.

  2. There are a lot of similarities between John Boyd and one of my great heroes, Stafford Beer (doyen of OR, cybernetics, etc). His (earlier) version was: “you can be competent or acceptable”.

    John Maynard Keynes had an interesting and even earlier twist on this “It is better to spectacularly fail in a socially acceptable manner than to succeed in a socially unacceptable manner”.

    The Attritionist Letters are based on experience in the military, sadly this same phenomena is the norm in business, finance, public service and Government.

    The problem is that in any hierarchical system you can get a self reinforcing elite who are at best marginally incompetent, at worst entirely useless. But because they are the gatekeepers into that elite they will block anyone else entering it, unless those candidates conform to the beliefs and behaviours of the existing members. If you don’t conform to that then you are unacceptable.

    Now this belief may be completely inappropriate, even downright contradictory, to the actual reality but the elite can isolate themselves, physically and psychologically for a very long time, often to the point of the death of the host organisation.
    Psychologically all the usual mental tricks come into play; cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, defensive strengthening (where the more the belief becomes attacked the stronger the belief is held), etc, etc. Being a group they will reinforce each other (TINA* is a catch cry) and bolster each others egos. Information contradictory to the beliefs are ignored (Beer called this the ‘disconnected head’ syndrome.

    Physically they can isolate themselves from the negative consequences of their actions (eg their company may be going down the gurgler, but it is the employees and shareholders who take the pain), they will even reward each other to greater and greater extents, even when the evidence is clear that they are failing**.

    These individuals that comprise this group tend to be (a) incredibly insular, (b) very petty and small minded, (c) very timid, though as a group they can be very bold (d) opaque in their communication. Interestingly they usually shun direct personal confrontation, preferring to work behind the scenes or use others to do the dirty work on unacceptable individuals.

    How can you fix this?

    Well if you are in this situation (and just about every Western Govt and organisation, etc is these days), then drastic surgery is the only option. Like fire the entire top 3 or even 4 layers. But that requires a supra-organisaiton or an incredibly competent and strong leader*** to do that, if those are also incompetent ….. then there is no hope

    How can you prevent this?

    Not easily, especially nowadays. There is virtually a whole industry that exists to select and reinforce conformity to organisational elite norms (eg the whole EQ movement, which I characterise as a show and tell book on how to emulate sociopathy and/or incompetence).
    Basically it takes a whole system. Eg clear organisational plans with clear outcomes and timelines. Clear lines of responsibility and accountability with rigorous accounting and measuring of outcomes (by a separate and protected auditing sub-organisation .. and that is not Personnel which should be eliminated). Plus it must be rigorously maintained, otherwise it will be subverted over time. No one should have a position that is not directly accountable for something. .. and so on of course.

    One tragedy is that an organisation can have a well functioning elite and then it whittles away, especially when times are good and the impacts of their incompetence are muted (or delayed). Then times get bad, they are not up to the task and that risks disaster.
    Watching the entire western world’s financial elites trying to deal with the current , ongoing and growing economic disaster (created by earlier incompetents) is instructive. They are all, I mean just about every blasted one of them, incompetent.

    A few (very, very few) who are not, are still being ignored and marginalised, which just shows how powerful group self protection really is. They will literally destroy their host organisations (and even whole nations) rather than deviate from their group norms (re:Keynes statement above).


    * TINA – There Is No Alternative. As soon as you hear that one then you know the speaker is an idiot, there are always, short of death, alternatives.
    ** Partially this is psychological, “see I can’t be an absolute moron, I get paid so much then I must be genius”. Some of this is downright perverse: “see I am a strong leader because I am making the hard decisions (to pass on the results of my incompetence to others), therefore I should be rewarded more”.
    *** One great but rare historical example: When Montgomery was put in charge of Land Forces for D-Day large numbers of British Army (spiritual home of incompetence at the time) officers resigned as soon as they heard.. as they knew they would be sacked. The statement that went around at the time was “the gentlemen (the acceptable) are out, the players (competent) are in”.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: