When will our military learn modern warfare, & overcome the attritionist tendency?

Summary: Captain Grazier (USMC) writes another chapter in our series explaining why we lose at modern warfare despite the training, size, and fantastic tech of our forces. Another post by a Marine officer explaining our military’s internal struggle to overcome its attritionist tendency (i.e., fighting 21st wars with WWI methods). He explains the complexities of our wars (debunking the “kill until we win” mindlessness that often dominates discussions of our wars). These insights come from someone who has fought our wars. We should listen when he says that learning is the key to future success.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Verdun: 2GW
Attritionists finest hour.


  1. Overcoming the attritionist tendency
  2. About the author
  3. What is attrition warfare?
  4. The Generations of War
  5. For More Infomration


A Manœuvre Renaissance: Overcoming the attritionist tendency

By Daniel R. Grazier (Captain, USMC)
Marine Corps Gazette, June 2015
Posted with their generous permission.

An eccentric retired Air Force colonel accepted an invitation to speak to the students of Amphibious Warfare School class of 1979 only after the staff grudgingly agreed to his demand for a five-hour block of time.1 From this slightly awkward beginning, the Marine Corps’ doctrine of manœuvre warfare sprouted and grew. The shift from attrition to manœuvre hardly occurred overnight. It took the efforts of many intelligent and dedicated officers and civilians years to create a critical mass of manœuvreists within the officer corps to bring about this momentous shift.

Now more than three decades later, almost everyone in the Marine Corps can identify that Air Force colonel as John Boyd and say he “invented” the OODA (observation, orientation, decision, action) loop. But few people appear to understand the real significance of Col Boyd’s work anymore. This becomes readily apparent any time a staff creates a synchronization matrix or a battalion attacks straight into an enemy defense during an integrated training exercise. We are doomed to backslide completely into old attritionist habits without a reexamination of our way of doing business. To prevent this, a manœuvre renaissance is necessary to move forward as we transition away from the long war and prepare to confront a future fourth generation adversary.2

Several factors are to blame for the current lack of appreciation of John Boyd and manœuvre. First, the bulk of intellectual energy over the past decade plus has been expended studying counterinsurgency theory and practice. This, combined with constant deployment preparation and theater-specific training, hardly fosters the proper study and understanding of manœuvre. Secondly, we are now a generation removed from those early revolutionaries of the post-Vietnam military reform movement. Most people take manœuvre for granted now, not realizing just what an all-encompassing concept it really is.

Blitzkrieg: 3GW
Maneuver, the Third Generation of Warfare.

The greatest challenge to overcome, however, is the U.S. military’s natural tendency toward attrition. That style of warfare fits within our existing military culture of perfect alignment, ruler straightness, and impeccable grooming. It is a holdover from the first generation of warfare. An attrition-based plan covers every base, eliminates every threat, and leaves nothing to chance. This is the style best suited for a hierarchical organization. It is the embodiment of the American military ideal that seeks to remove all friendly friction. Control in such a situation is retained at the highest level possible with little room for individual initiative at the bottom.

Our corporate culture is the lasting legacy of Napoleon, still alive and well in the United States military. The Napoleonic system was transported to this country by Sylvanus Thayer, “Father of West Point,” who incorporated French methods at the Military Academy during his tenure as superintendent (1830–1871). This mindset was further ingrained by Dennis Hart Mahan, professor of military science at West Point (1830–1871). He idealized Napoleon and taught his methods almost exclusively. He personally taught nearly every important Civil War general while they were cadets. Mahan’s influence can be detected in nearly every battle of that conflict.3

Professor Mahan’s legacy continues to the present day. Improved weapons tend to drive tactical changes in order to take advantage of new capabilities. However, the underlying mindset, the corporate culture, does not change so easily. So, the Mahan ideal of victory by capturing enemy territory remains the driving force behind all operations.4 Pivoting the focus away from objective terrain-based or enemy-based operations to the subjective systems-based operations requires abandoning nearly 200 years of deeply ingrained military thought. This is a feat not easily accomplished.

Words mean things

Words Mean Things

“Words mean things” is a mantra battered into the skulls of everyone in the military. Operational terms are very precise and serve to facilitate exacting communications within the ranks.

Marine Corps Reference Publication 5-2A, Operational Terms and Graphics (September 1997) lists more than 1,600 terms in its glossary, many with multiple meanings. The entry for maneuver includes four variations. In its most pedestrian forms, the term refers to the physical movement of a vehicle or a tactical exercise. The more broader and relevant definition is stated as the “employment of forces on the battlefield through movement in combination with fire, or fire potential, to achieve a position of advantage in respect to the enemy in order to accomplish the mission.” The official reference publication defines maneuver as nothing more than spatial movements on the battlefield. This definition speaks to tactical maneuver and fails completely to encapsulate the much broader meaning when referring to manœuvre as a warfighting philosophy.

Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1: Warfighting (MCDP 1, 1989) provides a much better definition. It states, “Maneuver warfare is a war fighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.” Notice how nothing in this definition refers to a physical movement. “Shatter the enemy’s cohesion” is the key to understanding. Manœuvre warfare is much more than simply achieving a position of advantage over the enemy in physical space. The goal is to collapse his entire system.

This process begins first in the enemy’s mind. Far too many officers have been conditioned to understand manœuvre as a matter of pinning the enemy down with fire with one element while “maneuvering” with another to close with and complete his destruction. Such thinking betrays a basic lack of understanding.

Savvy readers should by now know why I have chosen to use the British spelling manœuvre when writing of the warfighting philosophy. There is a fundamental difference between tactical maneuver, which is really nothing more than tactical common sense, and manœuvre as a warfighting philosophy. Admittedly, this is more than a little gimmicky, but it does help to illustrate the wide difference between the two definitions. I have chosen this method in no small part because B.H. Liddell Hart wrote of the far superior “manœuvre form” of warfare in his monumental study of strategy.5

Parsing this single word helps to illustrate the point of how far we have strayed from the hard fought advances made by genuine American military theorists like John Boyd, William Lind, Gen Alfred M. Gray, and BG Huba Wass de Czege, USA. Far too many officers confuse tactical maneuver with manœuvre. A simple method to differentiate these two entirely separate concepts is to use the alternate spelling when referring to the philosophy. Future editions of official publications could incorporate this change to reinforce the difference and to foster the correct mindset.


Re-emphasizing Education

Minor edits in publications would be merely the beginning of more broad reforms necessary to recapture the spirit of the manœuvre revolution. Improving education is even more fundamental but is a far more daunting task. The first necessary change is to ensure the right instructors are chosen to teach this most basic tenant of Marine Corps’ doctrine. Instructors must be intimately familiar with not only the doctrine but also the history of its evolution. It is not enough to simply read slides reiterating MCDP 1. They must be familiar with the work of the manœuvre pioneers including Sun Tzu, Hart, Boyd, Lind, and others. They should know historical examples and be able to teach using them. Above all, they should have a deep knowledge of the primary source material and encourage students to read them as well.

Manœuvre is an interdisciplinary field. To study and truly understand it, one must look beyond military texts. A complete discussion of manœuvre encompasses broad fields of study to include history, psychology, physiology, engineering, sociology, and many others. Any instructor assigned to teach this subject should be widely read in more than just the official reference materials. Historical examples, psychological studies, and even cultural references should be interwoven into their lessons. Providing such texture would serve to elevate the study of manœuvre beyond the mere rudiments of machinegun employment and engagement area development.

It is virtually impossible to properly understand a concept without knowledge of the basics. This is no less true of manœuvre than of any other subject. System theory is perhaps the most fundamental element of manœuvre. The most widely regarded pioneer in this field was a biologist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Any discussion of manœuvre without a mention Bertalanffy’s work is lacking. His book, General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (1969) should be a primary source for any period of instruction. As the goal of manœuvre is to collapse systems, understanding how they work is obviously important.

An illustration of the vast nature of the study of manœuvre is to peruse the references of a key scholar. The list of sources John Boyd used preparing his presentation, “Patterns of Conflict” numbered 225 in the 1986 edition. His vast research spanned titles from James Gleick’s Exploring the Labyrinth of the Mind to Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare.6 In this, Col Boyd was merely following in the footsteps of earlier military education innovators. Gerhard von Scharnhorst, an early proponent of military education in the Prussian Army and mentor of Carl von Clausewitz, recognized, “Only a broad, liberal education in the arts and sciences, to include ‘a general spiritual culture,’ could develop leaders capable of waging war as an art.”7

This instruction should not be geared simply toward the relevant quiz. An understanding of manœuvre goes much beyond a simple regurgitation on a short answer or multiple choice quiz. The only way to truly evaluate a student’s understanding is to observe their decisions and actions in practice. Evaluators should observe a student’s ability to generate unexpected actions and to find ways to collapse the enemy systems confronting him.

The USMC Professional Reading Program is an excellent tool for reinforcing and expanding the education of Marines throughout their careers. Rather than being a constantly evolving list incorporating numerous titles of contemporary subjects and parochial heroes, however, it should be an enduring canon of essential works related to manœuvre. Though rich in our own history and traditions, many of the current titles serve more to teach Marines what to do, rather than how to think. Education, teaching people how to think, is far more important than training, teaching people what to do. The more the manœuvre mindset is reinforced, the better oriented Marines will be. As John Boyd always believed, the orientation aspect of the OODA loop is the most important.

Solutions: puzzle

An Offered Solution

The purpose of this article is not to merely highlight the shortcomings of the Marine Corps’ current collective mindset. It is certainly not an indictment of anyone in particular. Having spent several years researching this topic, I know how difficult it is to teach manœuvre. I have no intention of simply pointing out a problem without also offering a solution.

I have prepared a period of instruction that I believe to be an improvement on the instruction currently offered. I have created a recorded version of the class. The presentation is available for all to view on YouTube. I believe it gives a good overview of the key components of manœuvre. At the very least, it should spark an interest in viewers to take it upon themselves to learn more.

Ultimately, the work of John Boyd and the other military reformers is not something that can simply be taught. The best possible outcome of instruction is an introduction of Boyd’s work. With encouragement, many will be inspired to then take control of their professional development to embark on their own journey of enlightenment. A real understanding requires individual study and reflection. This is a matter of intellectual evolution, a process that unfolds over years. There is no quick or easy solution for this challenge. But it is one that must be addressed properly as we reset the force if we are to be successful in future conflicts.


  1. Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002), p 378.
  2. William Lind breaks down the four generations. 1GW: column and line formations of uniformed soldiers governed by a state. 2GW: industrial firepower/attrition warfare with success measured by comparative body counts. 3GW: manœuvre warfare involving mission-type orders and individual initiative. 4GW: the end of the state’s monopoly on war.
  3. Stephen E. Ambrose’s Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point (1966), p 100.
  4. Ibid., 102.
  5. B.H. Liddell Hart’s The Strategy Of Indirect Approach (1967).
  6. John Boyd’s “Patterns of Conflict” (unpublished manuscript), p 190.
  7. Charles Edward White’s The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (1989).

© Copyright by the Marine Corps Association. All reprint rights reserved.

Daniel Grazier (Captain, USMC)


(2)  About the author

Daniel R. Grazier (Captain, USMC) is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and was commission as a second lieutenant in March 2005.  He deployed in April 2007 to Al Anbar province, Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).  Upon his return, he graduated from Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico, VA.  He deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in May 2013 for service with Regimental Combat Team 7 as senior watch officer in Support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He currently serves as the Assistant Operations Officer, 1st Tank Battalion.

Other works by Captain Grazier

  1. Heisenberg and Mao Zedong: The Occupier Effect“, Medium, 7 December 2014.
  2. Rethinking the USMC Leadership Principles“, Medium, 21 December 2014.
  3. Blinding Glimpses of the Obvious: Lessons from Dr. Andrew Gordon“, Medium, 28 March 2015 — Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command.
  4. Maneuver Warfare: Making it real in the Marine Corps“, with William Lind, Marine Corps Gazette, April 2015.

(3)  What is attrition warfare?

From Carter Malkasian’s A History of Modern Wars of Attrition (2002)…

Attrition is a gradual and piecemeal process of destroying an enemy’s military capability. All conceptions of attrition share this primary characteristic. It has been a reasonably effective method of applying force, often preferable to many other operational strategies. Proponents of attrition include figures central to strategic studies such as the Duke of Wellington, Carl von Clausewitz, Hans Delbrück, William Slim, Douglas MacArthur, Basil Liddell Hart, and Matthew Ridgway.

Major turning points in several conflicts were the result of attrition, like Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, the Battle of Britain, and the Battle of Imphal-Kohima. Nearly every major war has witnessed the implementation of attrition as an operational strategy in at least one campaign. Indeed, in conventional warfare, attrition has been the major alternative to the dominant strategy of seeking a decisive battle.

The distinguishing feature of our time is that both of the classic tools to produce victory in war have become difficult or even obsolete. Neither the decisive battle nor attrition has any relevance in nuclear warfare or 4th generation warfare.

For more about this I highly recommend reading The Attritionist Letters (published in the Marine Corps Gazette).

(4)  The Generations of War

This conceptual framework for modern warfare comes from October 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”. See all posts about the 4th generation of war, and especially these…

(5)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our officer corps,about the US Marine Corps, and these about the attritionist tendency in our military…



6 thoughts on “When will our military learn modern warfare, & overcome the attritionist tendency?”

  1. Pingback: Building Snowmobiles: Manoeuvre Warfare, By Captain Daniel Grazier « Feral Jundi

  2. Kind of interesting to quote from Carter Malkasian, that was the book he wrote pretty much in rehabilitation of attrition warfare … how much traction does that have in the marine corps compared to the pro-maneuverists like Captain Grazier?

  3. The “maneuver warfare” crowd of the 80’s doesn’t provide nearly as good alternatives as it claims.
    The attritionist tendencies are strong because technology, budget and culture push that way. Land warfare has become more of a technology-driven affair and less of an art ever since the late 19th century.
    One would be bet-advised to seek a mix, with the ability and willingness to switch from one style to another on the spot, depending on circumstances (“TTTOE”).

    I disagree that decisive battle has no importance today (or in “4GW”). It doesn’t happen because those who claim to seek it actually suppress it by offering the opposing forces no perspective to win it. You would first offer them a chance to win a decisive battle before you can lure them into one. Instead, Western military forces are all-too concerned about “overmatch” and “suppression” that does precisely NOT bait the enemy into a decisive battle.
    This attitude wouldn’t go away if suddenly all U.S.army commanders in the field turned manoeuvrist. They would ask for reserves superior to the entire red force in themselves.

  4. Great article and well written. But there are still questions.

    First, there is no doubt that an attention approach is unsustainable. Slogging at the decisive point, or what appears to be, is a risky approach that will not always work or be worth the rewards. Yet, manœuvring has issues as well.

    The problem with manœuvre warfare that the author calls for is that it requires such a deep understanding of the adversary’s system. In an age where as Gen. McChrystal explains it, complexity dominates the environment, it is hard to develop a full understanding of the enemy’s system, ensuring that you’re manœuvring through the system properly (ie., ensuring that you have properly identified the center of gravity).

    When you look at threats such as China’s three block warfare, Russia’s hybrid war in Eastern Europe, and the Islamic State, each adversary presents an extraordinarly complex system. Some brilliant writers have outlined what the most important parts of each system are, but a complete understanding seems impossible. Without a complete understanding of the system, the efficiency presented with manoeuvre warfare is substantially degraded, triggering decision-makers to reexamine the attritional approach.

    Does this mean that we should stop studying manœuvre warfare? Of course not. Publications like MCDP-1 are under appreciated (MCDP-1 arguably should be mandatory reading for any student of national security following ‘On War’.). But when students/decision-makers put down MCDP-1 and say “Great, let’s hit the system”, they need to realize the severe friction they will encounter.

    1. HQI,

      Nicely stated. I agree on all points, and can state your points even more succinctly. Attrition warfare is a form of 2nd generation warfare. Manœuvre warfare is the 3rd generation. Our wars are — and are likely to remain — 4th generation wars. They can fought with good odds of victory only by mastering 4GW.

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