Attritionist Letter #13: Thinkers need not apply

Summary:   Building a unadaptive military from enthusastic and innovative American young people requires work.  It does not happen by accident.  DoD’s success at that — proven by our similar mistakes in Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan, two generations distant — is a measure of infernal success.  Here General Screwtape explains the mechanics.

“Do remember you are there to fuddle him.  From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!
— Advice from Screwtape to his nephew, from chapter I of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1942)

“After such a lecture to one of my more obstreperous and foolish young instructors, he had the nerve to reply in a whiny tone, “But, Sir, I thought we wanted to teach them to think.” I immediately set upon him and told him that if by such “thinking” the students were induced to think heretical thoughts, then it was self-evidently counterproductive and undesirable.”
— Advice from General Screwtape to his nephew, Captain Wormwood, today


  1. Introduction from the Marine Corps Gazette’s Editor
  2. Letter #13:  Thinkers need not apply
  3. For more information about training officers
  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 #13: “Thinkers need not apply”, Marine Corps Gazette, May 2011

My dear Capt Wormwood,

Your most recent letter caused me to reflect upon my time as the head of one of our schools for officers. It was a trying assignment to be sure. The worst facet of the job was dealing with the instructors. Too many seemed to believe that it was their job to get the students to think! I spent a great deal of my time attempting to get the instructors to understand that the goal of the school was not thinking but teaching rote processes.

After such a lecture to one of my more obstreperous and foolish young instructors, he had the nerve to reply in a whiny tone, “But, Sir, I thought we wanted to teach them to think.” I immediately set upon him and told him that if by such “thinking” the students were induced to think heretical thoughts, then it was self-evidently counterproductive and undesirable. I reminded this imbecile that, in the end, “This is still the Marine Corps, not an educational institution like Harvard or Princeton.”

One of my other challenges at this time was to ensure that each student received the exact same instruction as every other student. This was very difficult and absorbed a great deal of my attention. Both students and instructors have varying abilities. In order to ensure that everyone receives the same instruction, I found it necessary to ignore these individual strengths and weaknesses. I had to enforce a uniform system of teaching that didn’t depend upon the abilities of the instructor or the intelligence of the student. It is unavoidable that all students must move at the pace of the dullest witted among them. Instructors who wish to do more or do things differently than their peers must not be allowed to deviate. They must do no more and no less than everyone else. We owe it to the students that, no matter how good or how bad the instructor or how intelligent or dull they may be as students, the result is the same for each.

The same instructor that I mentioned earlier chafed under these restraints. He claimed that it was a form of communism! I’m not convinced he followed my orders to the letter, but I was too busy to leave my office and see what he was doing. He was the most talented instructor at the school, which made him too dangerous to be tolerated. Having marked himself out to me as a troublemaker, on his fitness report I made him the “stump” on my reviewing officer’s Christmas tree, thereby effectively destroying his chances for promotion. I heard he left the Marine Corps shortly after, thank Nick, which is exactly what I had intended. The best must be cut down as a lesson to others not to leave the pack. I was not promoted because I was a thinker. I was promoted because I knew my place and how to please my superiors. No one shined up the handle on the big front door better than I did; I promise you! This is a lesson for you, Wormwood. You would do well to commit it to memory.

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).

(c)  Posts about the training of officers:

  1. Recommended reading: transforming the Army, the hard way, 15 January 2008 — Don Vandergriff, at the cutting edge of this struggle
  2. 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Vandergriff is one of the few implementing real solutions.
  3. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”, 1 July 2010
  4. Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions, 16 July 2010
  5. Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force, 17 July 2010
  6. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century, 13 August 2010
  7. Building a new generation of visionary leaders for the US military, 30 September 2010

(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!
  12. Attritionist Letter #11:  Artillery leads the way – to the past!
  13. Attritionist Letter #12:  Succumbing to enticements (career advice for the successful)

(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.

Leave a Reply

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

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: