The Attritionist Letters: the Marines shackl their field-grade officers & losing wars

Summary: As we begin the second phase of our post-9/11 wars, let’s ask why the first phase went so badly despite our vast expenditures of money and blood. This second of the Attritionist Letters, describes one reason for these failures (which will lead to failures in the second phase): generals shackle their field-grade officers. See the introduction to this series; see the links at the end for more information.

They can’t win modern wars. But they look great!

American generals

Attritionist Letter #2: The Debate Continues

Marine Corps Gazette, June 2010.
Posted with the generous permission of the Marine Corps Association.
To protect the authors’ careers, the Gazette’s Editor published this anonymously.


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.

Text of the Attritionist Letter #2.

Captain Wormwood,

I received your reply just last week. You raised an interesting question regarding centralized command and control and why we attritionists are so adamant in our pursuit thereof. I must express my disappointment in you. I had thought that you were intelligent enough to see the wisdom of this method. You have once again reminded me of how incapable our junior officers can be and why centralized command and control is absolutely essential. Being a young captain of Marines, you will no doubt recognize the following excerpts:

“In order to generate the tempo of operations that we desire …command and control must be decentralized. …We must not try to maintain excessive control over subordinates since this will necessarily slow our tempo and inhibit initiative.”

These contentions — cited directly from that archaic and outdated Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP 1), Warfighting — represent the strongest arguments maneuverists have derived to support their antiquated and inadequate theories of decentralized command and control. These maneuverists — blinded by their own hubris — have sought to cling to a principle even as it has succumbed to the realities of the modern age.

The Attritionist Letters

I am convinced — and the Marine Corps is increasingly demonstrating — that centralized control is the most efficient method of controlling tempo, operations, and supervising mission accomplishment. Militaries have long been forced to execute decentralized command and control procedures only out of necessity, not out of preference. Battles and wars have been lost because of insufficiently centralized control and coordination; France’s defense in 1940 is a clear example.

You will recall that I spoke of extensive technological innovation in a previous letter. Those technological capabilities have increased clarity on today’s battlefield and enhanced the capability of higher commands to receive and analyze information, and then to disseminate detailed orders to subordinate commanders — all with unprecedented speed.

I am sure that you have witnessed all this firsthand. In recent years, the size of command and control cells has grown exponentially due to the amount of information acquired, processed, analyzed, demanded from, and disseminated to subordinates. This all serves to ensure effective centralized control. One needs only to compare the size (defined by number of assigned personnel and amount of command and control systems/equipment) of the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) command staff in Operations DESERT SHIELD/STORM with that deployed in a combat environment today to realize the transformation that we — as a modern fighting force — have undergone, and this is just within the past 20 years!

Not since the Prussians, after being trounced by Napoleon in 1806, has a military force so ideologically transformed itself in such a brief period of time. However, Scharnhorst’s misguided and detestable efforts attempted to empower junior ranks, whereas we seek to empower the highest commander with greater situational awareness and increased decision making capability. Look where it got the Germans! Catastrophic losses in two world wars were the reward for delegating responsibility to subordinates. {1}


As you have served at various regimental and battalion staffs, you have no doubt seen the growth of centralized staffs as well. Some maneuverists might claim that the increased size of battalion and regimental staffs reflects a corresponding increase in decentralization. However, as you — and any others who have served on battalion and regimental staffs — are well aware, much of the battalion and regimental staff effort is expended not to lead their own men but rather to meet the ever-increasing demands of higher echelon commands. Those obsequious battalion and regimental staffs are inundated with demands for required reports, various overlays, and PPT [Microsoft PowerPoint] information slides — all forwarded on to a single centralized hub of operations.

Wormwood, if you find time you might want to review recent trends in OIF/OEF [Operations IRAQI FREEDOM/ENDURING FREEDOM] combat operations. I believe that you will be pleasantly surprised to see that subordinate commanders are already deferring routine decision points and reporting seemingly minor information requirements to higher echeloned commanders. Many commanding generals — while perhaps “required” to pretend maneuverist sympathies — actually concur that greater centralization is key to achieving desired effects in combat.

One of my dear friends boasts that as a division commander in Afghanistan he demanded daily situation reports from his company commanders in the field. These reports were sent directly to him rather than to the respective battalion and regimental/brigade commanders! As he says, “there just wasn’t time to wait” on battalion and regiment commanders to act on the information at their level. Similarly, I have heard that approval of fires is now often centralized at the highest level in order to best coordinate with all participant agencies as well as assess potential collateral effects.

Technology and War
Available at Amazon.

These recent trends toward centralized command and control are nothing new; they simply represent the military returning to its roots. Young captain of Marines, I will again refer you to Martin van Creveld who wrote that decentralized command and control was:

…bitterly opposed by headquarters, especially higher headquarters, who resented the loss of control and did everything in their power to counter the growth of chaos on the battlefield. Control-by-wire was pushed progressively forward and downward until corps, divisions, regiments, and even battalions were hooked into the network. From then on, if an officer was to be on call by his superiors he had to be within reach.
— From Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present

While Van Creveld’s example dates from World War I, it is easy to see the same trends emergent in today’s military forces. Wormwood, have you seen the latest discussion on the CLICs [company-level intelligence cells] and CLOCs [company-level operations cells]? Although such plans might be “packaged” as maneuverist in nature under the guise of enhancing smaller units with more capabilities, they will no doubt be used to keep those subordinate units under ever tighter and centralized control.

The trend toward centralization of command and control is due in large part to effective command and control systems now available at all levels. Never before could high-level commanders gain an accurate sight picture of the fluid battlefield. {At the Battle of Guadalcanal} Vandegrift (General, USMC) could not accurately track unit positions on a C2PC (command and control personal computer) or verify “green gumballs” on the AFATDS (advanced field artillery tactical data system) as subordinate units encountered jungle terrain, tropical storms, and Japanese troops on Guadalcanal. But today’s environment no longer requires that command and control be decentralized to subordinate commanders.

In fact, it is far more effective to assume and maintain centralized control at the highest echelon. Even distributed operations — the latest catchphrase tossed around by Marines of all ranks — are not immune to this trend; although miles distant from central control, information transfer capabilities ensure that subordinates have limited ability to conduct any autonomous operations. Centralization is the wave of the future.

This trend toward centralization precludes the need to indulge in the ambiguous “commander’s intent” and “mission tactics,” but I shall write more on that in my next letter. Captain Wormwood, I am looking forward to your pending selection to career-level school where you shall have the most enjoyable opportunity to master the Marine Corps Planning Process and learn to make the most effective matrices and PPT slides with which to brief your higher. Only then can you become an effective staff officer.

Until then, I remain,

General Screwtape.

Note 1: Here it appears that the general is referring to the work of Prussian General von Scharnhorst in establishing the “Militarische Gesellschaft” (an educational collaborative) that led to a reformed and victorious Prussian military — one much changed in the 6 short years between Jena (1806) and Leipzig (1813). It is my opinion that the general mislabels the German losses in World War I and World War II. There is no argument that the Germans lost both conflicts at the strategic level, but sound arguments suggest that German tactics were actually superior. See Charles Edward White’s The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (1988). {Also see Martin van Creveld’s Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945.}

© 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 liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our officer corps, posts about the US Marine Corps, and these about America’s senior generals…

6 thoughts on “The Attritionist Letters: the Marines shackl their field-grade officers & losing wars”

  1. Dear FM and all,

    Thank you for the post. I think I read it back in the day, and this stuff drives me crazier now than it did back then. Support for the “troops” is not about bumping the budget, it’s about moral clarity. As people far smarter than I can ever be observed warfare is primarily moral, with mental and physical dimensions taking up the rear in differing degrees. The American Way of War is about how many different states you can get factories in to build the G-42 Awesomesauce, and not one (tapestry of obscenities) thing to do with fighting and winning wars, or avoiding them in the first place.

    As a very old man (who missed that coming?), you’d think I’d be cranky for cranky reasons. Totally uncool, and perhaps I am. But I’m actually very cool with taking a couple of hours watching a Kurosawa movie very closely when all of the other people have passed out (or on their phones) from ADD. I like The Expanse, too. Rockets in my day were named Mercury and Apollo, but Rocinante is ok with me, and I love the crew. Science or Sci Fi. It’s a moving forward of our culture in a positive way. I am *not* cool with kids, friends, colleagues, fellow citizens, and those of allied nations getting blown up, shot, knifed, garroted, pummeled, poisoned, or gassed in foreign wars with no clear goals, objectives, or strategies.

    And the sad part is that letting your rivals know what your goals, objectives (to a degree), and strategies are can often be helpful. To not let your folks who need to execute the strategies and tactics know is, well, folly.


    With best regards,


  2. FM,

    I had not read “The Attritionist Letters” before it was posted here.

    Much to contemplate. I am truly enjoying this thread…thank you for posting it.

    Thinking slowly,


  3. An interesting article. Certainly as a society we are becoming much more top-down. For example, I work at a major University, and power has been almost completely taken out of the hands of the faculty. There is a faculty senate but it’s more like a Soviet Parliament. The administration keeps growing and growing, sucking up more and more resources… there is now an initiative to have all faculty use the same colors and fonts etc. on their scientific presentations. To protect the brand image!

    And when cash is outlawed, and all financial transactions can be centrally monitored AND CONTROLLED, well…

    But even so, I think in this case the problem with our misadventures in Afghanistan etc. are not due to the central military command micro-managing lower level officers – just as I don’t think that the German militaries’ decentralizing of command in WWI and WWII caused their defeats. The problem is that our core leadership is setting as strategic objectives goals that are variously ill-posed, or in fact impossible.

    I suggest that our problem is that we keep trying to recreate what happened at the end of WWII: defeated Germany and Japan became prosperous stable allies. And yet we are trying to do this with nations where the conditions are different, and such success simply cannot be achieved.

    As many have pointed out, even reduced to rubble, post-WWII Japan and Germany had a history of respect for law, and strong work ethic. Not so in the countries we are invading today. In addition, post-WWII both Germany and Japan had low fertility rates, which allowed modest economic growth to eventually compound to prosperity. It is an iron law of development that, absent an open frontier, no society becomes rich until AFTER fertility rates have moderated. “Development” is impossible in high-fertility rate Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, etc. Whatever progress is achieved will simply be wiped out by ever more people. And of course, there is the utter corruption of economic thought known as “Neoliberalism” and increasingly incoherent economic policies… Policies that are NOT what post-WWII Germany and Japan followed…

    Yet our elites keep wanting to reproduce the success of post WWII Germany and Japan. Like a WWI general throwing ever more infantry into frontal assaults against fortified defenses, it’s only a matter of will. If we would just try harder this time success cannot be far off…

    1. TG,

      “I think in this case the problem with our misadventures in Afghanistan etc. are not due to the central military command micro-managing lower level officers – just as I don’t think that the German militaries’ decentralizing of command in WWI and WWII caused their defeats.”

      That’s a strawman. Who is saying that our results in Af are “due to” this? These letters say the exact opposite. They describe a dysfunctional military apparatus (or “culture”). The fetish for centralized command is just one manifestation of this dysfuncationality. The other letters describe this in more detail, slowly building up a picture of the beast — snapshot by snapshot.

      “I suggest that our problem is that we keep trying to recreate what happened at the end of WWII”

      What is your evidence for that? I doubt anyone is that daft.

      A broader perspective shows that is not the core problem. Since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII, no foreign army has defeated a foreign insurgency (excerpt for grey cases; e.g., are the Brits a foreign army in Northern Ireland?). First world armies, second world armies, third world armies — nobody has solved this puzzle. These wars have occurred for many reasons, under many different circumstances — with quite uniform results.

      For details see Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win.

  4. Pingback: Daily Reading #11A | thinkpatriot

  5. *Note: I had the honor of serving with some of the greatest Generals of our era. I am as responsible for our inability to pull of success in Afghanistan as anyone. I accept that responsibility completely.

    Although impossible to determine, there was a time in Afghanistan in 2010-2011 where I had more support than any tactical commander that I knew of. In the States I had the support of the USSOCOM Commander (Cdr), the USASFC Cdr, and the USASOC Cdr. In Afghanistan I had the support of the CENTCOM Cdr, the ISAF Cdr, the CFSOCC Cdr, the CJSOTF Cdr, the RC-East Cdr, the CJSOTF Cdr, the SOTF-East Cdr and the AOB Cdr. All these acronyms simply add up to every single layer of headquarters in my entire chain of command. I was plucked out of the military administrative bureaucracy (one of the most lethal bureaucracies one can imagine) after writing “One Tribe at a Time” and sent to Afghanistan to help implement what would become “Village Stability Operations”. We were on the clock. The President had approved the “surge” but had also put a time frame on showing success. There was an incredible amount of pressure to show progress, however, for me on the ground in Konar it was coupled with unsurpassed support and not just of resources – but approvals and authorities. I was unencumbered by most of the constraints, limitations, and restrictions that most tactical commanders were under. The initial phases of the mission in Konar witnessed incredible success. Slowly however, the clock was ticking and the commanders mentioned above started to rotate back to the States and my support was leaving with them – one after the other. I stayed in Afghanistan so long that I saw entire chain of commands switch out, this included two CFSOCC commands, two CJSOTF commands, four SOTF commands and four AOB commands. There were too many changes of directions, too much time wasted “re-assessing” and reevaluating”. Entire new staffs were put into place and had to relearn, rethink and then rewrite all “plans, policies and procedures” while the mission on the ground was still moving at light speed. There was not time to call a battlefield pause and wait for new or in some cases completely contrary mission statements that were counterproductive to what the initial intent of the VSO mission was. Then of course mission creep set in and the war I had started with was completely unrecognizable with the war I found myself being told to fight. At the end of the deployment in 2012 the micro-management, second-guessing and simple indifference was so prevalent that it became hazardous on the ground to continue to operate. We reverted to the “older” method of operating which included long, convoluted CONOPs which required approval from commanders at every level and it became almost impossible to fire even tactically owned mortar systems. Worst of all was the fact that there was always a staff judge advocate (a lawyer) sitting right next to a commander in the tactical operations center (TOC) who the commanders would ask, “Is this a legal drop?” …before they would give clearance of fires. And of course, in many cases they would then hold tactical commanders responsible for making incredibly difficult decisions that there was no clear right answer for. The ability of high-level commanders to “see” the battlefield gave them unprecedented access to real-time information on what they thought they were seeing in battle, but of course they were 500 miles away at Bagram and Kabul, while the guys on the ground were under-fire trying to make decisions to not only win the battle, but to get their guys out alive and not cause collateral damage. Second-guessing became common place which very quickly eroded the trust between the tactical commanders and the decision-makers at higher headquarters. How did that ever happen? How can commanders who have no “skin in the game” other than a good Officer Evaluation Report (OER) be calling the shots for the guys on the ground? The answer is control. They wanted control over situations that are by their very nature chaotic. “Commander’s Intent” and “Mission Tactics” and “Adaptive Leadership” as written about in detail by Don Vandergriff became a pipe dream. And all of this within a 22-month period. From trying to turn a war around – to sitting on our hands – in less than two years.

    Of course, the question of whether we should have invaded Afghanistan at all and once we did how we decided to fight in Afghanistan are different topics for a different time.

    My response to General Screwtape would be that the forces of evil that he is leading are winning and that Captain Wormwood had better toe the line if wants to make Colonel.

    Keep up the great work on the web-site. I am a loyal reader and learn a lot.

    All the best,


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