Attritionist Letter #1 – The US Marines turn away from the future

Summary: Sixteen years of the War on Terror have made our jihadist foes stronger, more virulent, and more widely spread — few Americans realize that America’s internal divisions are mirrored by equally serious problems within the US military. The “Attritionist Letters” described one facet of that conflict, written by Marine Corps officers. We should listen to them as we start a second phase of WOT. A new Letter will be posted every Sunday.

“The best way to drive out the devil, is to despise him …for he cannot bear that.
— Martin Luther, from The life and letters of Martin Luther by Preserved Smith (1911).

Leadership as Chess

The Screwtape Letters
Available at Amazon.

 

C.S. Lewis published the The Screwtape Letters in The Guardian from May through November 1941.  These are letters from a senior demon (Screwtape) to a novice tempter (his nephew Wormwood).  They discuss the moral context to WWI, a manifestation (or echo) of the larger war between good and evil.   Fallen angels are cogs in a bureaucracy driven by the personal needs of its participants as much as its ideology and purpose.  The result is futility in action, not just pitiful but part of their damnation.

The Letters entertain and instruct by mocking evil, as the passion plays did in the Middle Ages.  They show how the mundane decisions of our daily lives are embedded in larger values. As our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ran to their almost inevitable failures, the Marine Corps Gazette published the “Attritionist Letters” — written by junior officers who have fought our wars protested our generals’ second generation military thinking (i.e., French doctrines of methodical battle) in a world of fourth generational wars.

Like the Screwtape Letters, they describe a conflict within a large organization during wartime, where the internal struggle shapes the external war. Like the Letters, they entertain through mockery and provide a critique of US military doctrines. As insurgents fighting the established order, they place their careers at risk.  Accordingly the Gazette’s Editor published these anonymously.

The Attritionist Letters

“All wars ought to be methodical, because every war ought to be conducted according to the rules and principles of military art …”
— Napoleon writing about war in his era. From volume IV of History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena by Comte de Charles-Tristan Montholon (his executor).

“The problem is one of philosophy. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP 1), Warfighting, does not compromise; it unequivocally states that trust of subordinates and decentralized training are paramount to the success of the Marine Corps. At times it appears that the Marine Corps has abandoned this doctrine and determined that centralized training …and distrust of subordinates is our modus operandi.”
— J.P. Steinfels (Captain, USMC) writing about war in our time. From his letter in the Marine Corps Gazette, August 2011.

Attritionist Letter #1

Marine Corps Gazette, May 2010. Links added.
Posted with the generous permission of the Marine Corps Association.

Introduction.

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 Capt 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.

————————————-

Captain Wormwood,

From your lessons at The Basic School (TBS), you no doubt recall the great 1989 victory won in Quantico by those who called themselves “maneuverists.” Then-Commandant, General Alfred M. Gray, arrayed his forces against us — we the noble “attritionists” — to do battle over the philosophy upon which the Marine Corps would operate. Gen Gray’s forces attempted to redefine the Marine Corps with a new interpretation of military theory, that of “maneuver warfare.”

For the past two decades, these maneuverists have touted their victory. But as you know, young Wormwood, we are far from dead. In fact, attritionist forces have long waged a surreptitious insurgency on all fronts of the Corps. Now, even as those maneuverists celebrate the 20th anniversary of their victory, it is increasingly evident that they have all but lost the war. As the Corps has quietly transitioned from a “maneuver-centric” philosophy back to a more attritionist one, you will note that Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP 1), Warfighting, has remained anchored in the past, dated and inadequate. It should be quite obvious that the Marine Corps in no way conducts itself in accordance with this document.

What is more, very few Marines realize this — and fewer still even care! It is now almost useless as a reference upon which to base action. As a young Marine officer, you can appreciate the importance of ensuring doctrine is kept current. This is the sign for which we have been waiting! In order to accurately reflect those attritionist methodologies we have striven so hard to implement and currently employ, MCDP 1, Warfighting, must be revised.

We must not strive for certainty before we act, for in so doing we will surrender the initiative and pass up opportunities.  The very nature of war makes certainty impossible; all actions in war will be based upon incomplete, inaccurate, or even contradictory information.

"On War" by Clausewitz
Available at Amazon.

You will recognize the previous excerpts from the current version of MCDP 1, Warfighting. While they could have been uttered by Sun Tzu, Moltke (the elder, of course), Clausewitz, or even Patton, they represent the most dangerous line of thinking to our Corps. Military philosophers have long suggested that uncertainty and disorder are inherent attributes of war. Clausewitz said that…

“the commander must work in a medium which his eyes cannot see; which his best deductive powers cannot always fathom; and with which, because of constant changes, he can rarely become familiar.”

You, my dear Wormwood, being at the dawn of your career, are perhaps most familiar with the traditional Marine Corps position on this line. Since 1989 Marine schoolhouses have attempted to familiarize the student with an environment of intentionally diminished situational awareness while simultaneously demanding decisive action. This was intended to create tolerance for uncertainty and simultaneously discourage the expenditure of energies in seemingly fruitless attempts to ascertain certainty. Surely you can recall that most horrific utterance from an overzealous TBS instructor, “What now, Lieutenant?”

“But to what end?” I have long asked. Wormwood, you will note with zeal that over the past several years, we have succeeded in finally convincing Marine commanders that they can no longer tolerate the uncertainty and disorder traditionally characteristic of battlefields from time immemorial. No longer must we attempt to appease our discomfort at an unruly battlefield in which we lack complete and clear situational awareness. Quite the opposite, we can no longer tolerate uncertainty. We must ensure that primacy of effort lies with pursuing certainty.

Command in War
Available at Amazon.

As a mere captain of Marines, there is no need for you to clutter your mind with military theory. However, if you feel so inclined, there is an author who claims:

“When confronted with a task, and having less information available than is needed to perform that task, an organization may react in either of two ways. One is to increase its information processing capacity, the other to design the organization, and indeed the task itself, in such a way as to enable it to operate on the basis of less information. It is obvious that maneuverists would rather accomplish the latter while we attritionists have long sought to pursue the former.”
— Martin van Creveld, Command in War, 1985.

You will note with pride that fellow attritionists have worked ever so diligently to ensure that billions of dollars are invested to procure the latest technologies with the primary objective being the elimination of disorder and uncertainty on the battlefield.

Similarly, intelligence preparation of the battlespace is becoming extraordinarily focused on product development in order to provide the commander with the answers for any possible data requests. From your reading of Napoleon, you will recall that he would implore intelligence staffs to find “any information I might find of interest” and subsequently leave it to their initiative. How pathetic! Today’s commanders can — and therefore do — rightfully demand ever-increasing amounts of quantitative information with which to eliminate uncertainties and disorder on the battlefield. For only when the highest echelon commanders are provided all of the information can they determine the appropriate course of action and issue forth appropriate tasks for subordinates. You can see that current technology has eliminated Clausewitz’s “fog of war.”

I cannot recall when you last deployed to CentCom (U.S. Central Command). Was it earlier this year? Last year? Either way, you must have observed that our movement is gaining significant assistance from military contracting firms. Even in a recent issue of the Marine Corps Gazette — that forum for discourse among our Corps’ best — one firm actually published an advertisement clearly identifying “uncertainty” as the primary enemy and offering the military extensive command and control system capabilities in order to resolve the problem.

I have seen similar advertisements from other companies, both offering elaborate (although expensive) information and command and control systems that seek to “increase information-processing capability” rather than to pursue the useless objective of allowing the commander to become comfortable with uncertainty. These advertisements are, of course, not targeted at junior officers like you, Wormwood, but rather they are intended to connect with our Corps’ decisionmakers. I must admit that upon seeing the advertisements, I was flooded with an immense sense of relief — relief that our position, so long banned from respectable circles, is now firmly entrenched and even valued at the highest levels.

I have no doubt that we are achieving our objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq primarily through increased use of technologies that seek to eliminate uncertainty on the battlefield. Deluded maneuverists will argue that these new technologies can actually introduce more confusion into the operating environment. They will also try to argue that rather than attempt to banish uncertainty from the battlefield, Marines should train more extensively in such unpredictable environments in order to develop confidence in their abilities.

By clinging to such dated ideas, the maneuverists are proving their ineptitude by their refusal to accept the obvious: technology has eliminated the need to be comfortable in chaos. After all, one of our most esteemed fellow attritionists, retired Major General J.F.C. Fuller, wrote, “Weapons, if only the right ones can be found, form 99% of the victory.” (From Armament And History: The Influence Of Armament On History From The Dawn Of Classical Warfare To The End Of The Second World War.)

Capt Wormwood, I am cognizant of your contribution — albeit a small and almost meaningless one — to this cause. At times, however, you strike me as almost rambunctious and unpredictable. How many times must I tell you? Take no unnecessary risk! Make no unnecessary decision! You would do well to simply pay attention and emulate those seniors (such as myself) who are kind enough to have assumed the responsibility for your leadership development as we proceed in our most worthy cause. Stay vigilant, for just as victory is near, it can also be seized away at the last. Until then, I remain,

General Screwtape.

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

The Attritionist Letters

“… the proud spirit cannot endure to be mocked …”
— From Sir Thomas Moore’s A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1534).

See An introduction to the Attritionist Letters, volleys in the long war for control of US military doctrine.

  1. The US Marines turn away from the future.
  2. The Marines shackling their field-grade officers, and losing wars.

For More Information

Officers in other US services have made similar observations, such as Dale C. Rielage (Captain, USN) in “Act On Commander’s Intent“, Proceedings, April 2017.

If you lik ed 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…

For more about modern warfare.

More On War
Available at Amazon.
The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World
Available at Amazon.

 

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10 thoughts on “Attritionist Letter #1 – The US Marines turn away from the future

    1. Frederick,

      Great question! It’s not a MIC-kind of issue. Rather it is the failure of the US military to adapt to a changing world. Quite similar but probably larger than the problems it had doing so during the 1930s (although in the 1930s the Marines were innovators in amphibious warfare, giving them invaluable preparation for their role in the Pacific during WWII).

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  1. I thought we had given up telling ourselves that we were “maneuverists” and bad people were “attritionists” (as if there is a US commander today who would gladly or even intentionally sacrifice his troops for an acceptable exchange rate with the Taliban).

    There is no way that a state with America’s industrial, manpower and technological advantages is not going to use them. In the small wars of Iraq and Afghanistan- wars that don’t really matter apart from the harm we do to ourselves by wasting money- it makes sense for commanders to want to limit casualties by reducing risk. This also happens to reduce civilian casualties.

    By all means run exercises where you turn off the radios,computers, satellites and drones for a few days but don’t expect commanders to not strive for as much information as they can when they work. Don’t expect ambitious staff officers not to try to impress their boss with their command of the available technology and don’t expect commanders not to micro manage subordinates- the ability to do so is an advantage in battle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. setrg,

      Did you read the article? Your comment gives zero evidence of doing so.

      “as if there is a US commander today who would gladly or even intentionally sacrifice his troops for an acceptable exchange rate with the Taliban).”

      That’s quite delusional, showing a near-total ignorance about the terms of this debate. I suggest you reply to direct quotes, rather than making stuff up and replying to that.

      Like

  2. Editor’s note</h4

    This comment is by Special Forces Major Jim Gant, one of America's most successful field officers in the WOT. To learn more about him see Ann Scott Tyson's book about him, American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant. See Donald Vandergriff’s review at Foreign Policy.

    ————————-

    Really enjoy this website. This is a great article. I concur with the premise of it completely. What follows in just my opinion.

    In the US military, a vast majority of individuals and pretty much all of the higher commands (except JSOC) are scared by uncertainty, which causes them to be hesitant, which in turn causes long pauses in tactical momentum. Tactical momentum (enough of it) will, if handled properly, turn into operational momentum.

    The reality of combat (at the tactical and strategic level) is that within uncertainty there is opportunity. Having spent a lot of time on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan it is very clear that we (US forces) always had much more information, command and control, situational awareness, intelligence and firepower than our adversaries – however, they always were able to get inside our “OODA” loop as soon as the situation left the tactical arena and moved into the operational arena. We just couldn’t make large, important decisions quick enough to impact the overall course of the war (particularly in Afghanistan). The situation just changed too fast, it was too complex, and uncertainty was everywhere.

    It was the small-units on the ground that could deal with the type of “mobile thought-process” (my term) needed to be successful.

    As an aside, CS Lewis in one of my favorite authors and “The Screwtape Letters” comes with my highest recommendation.

    Keep up the great work here. I appreciate and enjoy the website.

    Jim Gant

    Like

    1. Since you appear to approve of painting the officers you disagree with as “attritionists” (the term is used to encourage visions of the Somme isn’t it?) my view is hardly delusional. It smacks of some on the left calling everyone they disagree with fascists. Having officers who want more info as being in league with the devil is akin to linking every commercial banker with Nazis isn’t it?

      If you mean “risk averse” then use it and explain how you know taking additional risk will end well. Was the invasion of Iraq a well thought out risk? How about August 1914, Barbarossa, Anzio, Arnhem, Ardennes 1944 or Dien Bien Phu,? Or do you mean you simply want fewer reports to be required by HQs? Decentralization with all it’s potential for good and bad? Do things faster- again for good or bad since in the last two wars we’re talking about changing public opinion among very traditional societies?

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    2. setrg,

      “Since you appear to approve”

      You appear to have not read this well. This is a reprint of a Marine Corps Gazette article written by serving officers. I just post their views. I am not competent to judge them.

      “my view is hardly delusional.”

      Since your specific statements are mind-blowingly odd and irrelevant to this article, yes — your view is delusional. More technically, you are guilty of the “strawman” logical fallacy. Try posting a quote and explaining why you disagree with it, rather than fantasizing and disagreeing with your delusion.

      Like

  3. Great…just so you’ll know – I have read everything I have ever been able to get my hands on about Col Boyd and the OODA loop. I have read all Col Richards writings and all the articles, etc on this site…:) I used the OODA loop extensively when training my special forces team (ODA) on ‘enemy contact’ SOPs. Our ‘enemy contact’ SOP was pretty lethal. It was centered on making decisions faster than the enemy could react to them. And, no – the OODA loop is just not theory. It had direct and practicable application for me on the ground.

    Again, keep up the great work. I am a fan of your site! Have learned a lot about so many things that I normally would not have read about.

    Jim Gant

    Like

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