Teaching Marine junior officers to obey, not think (Attritionist Letter #3)

Summary: “The Attritionist Letters” are Marine officers’ protest about their general’s policies that resulted in our failures in phase one of the WOT, now be be repeated in phase two by Trump’s all-general national security team (since they refuse to admit these failures). This, the third letter, cuts to the heart of the problem. See the introduction to this series; see the links at the end for more information.


Attritionist Letter #3: Do as You’re told

Marine Corps Gazette, July 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 #3.

Letter #3, without date or address.

Captain Wormwood,

I received your last letter some time ago, but you must understand that someone of my stature has far more important things to do. Furthermore, it took me some time to compose an adequate response to your misguided and — quite honestly — almost insolent comments suggesting that “mission tactics” and “commander’s intent” have redeeming value. Put such thoughts out of your feeble mind this instant!

I will tell you exactly what I want you to do. You will not have to wonder, nor will you have to burden yourself with thinking about it. And as for my intent, my intent is for you to do exactly what I tell you to do! It is time for you to grow up and leave such foolish notions behind. Wormwood, I must admit that at times I suspect that you may actually be in league with these maneuverists, and then I realize that it’s just the naïveté of a young captain. It is critical that you understand that the trend toward centralization precludes the need for Marine leaders to indulge in such archaic and ambiguous concepts as commander’s intent and mission tactics.

As a relatively recent graduate of The Basic School, you no doubt will recall the terms introduced above. Long heralded as part of the “triad of maneuver warfare,” these two elements of Marine warfighting philosophy are proving to be increasingly obsolete in today’s operating environment. According to Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP 1), Warfighting:

“The purpose of providing intent is to allow subordinates to exercise judgment and initiative — to depart from the original plan when the unforeseen occurs — in a way that is consistent with higher commanders’ aims.”

We must remind ourselves that commanders have been forced to use commander’s intent and mission tactics because of limits imposed upon them by chaotic battlefield situations and limited technological capabilities. Neither of these limits exists any longer. Further, we must admit that so few junior leaders on the battlefield possess that coup d’oeil — the intuitive grasp of what is happening on the battlefield. Thus, it is absolutely not in the interest of higher echelon commanders to allow subordinate leaders to demonstrate initiative and independence.

Commander's Intent
Mission orders from Grant to Sherman on 10 April 1864.

As we further our agenda, we can clearly imagine a combat operations center (COC) 5 years from now:

A battalion commander walks into his COC and sees a “troops in contact” unfold on the plasma touch screen operations monitor. The zoomed in live satellite feed provides him eagle-eyed observation of the situation unfolding in realtime. He sees the blue icons displaying his friendlies — thanks to global positioning system tracking devices embedded in the rifles — moving north along a road. He also sees the enemy platoon attempting to flank his lead units.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, the battalion commander double taps on the trace squad leader’s icon and slides it approximately 200 meters north. The commander selects an ambush graphic icon from a dropdown menu and double taps the screen at the desired location. Almost immediately, he sees the squad leader halt his movement, glance downward — no doubt at the liquid crystal display screen strapped to the squad leader’s forearm — and make a few blurred hand gestures directing his men toward the identified ambush position.

The battalion commander looks on with satisfaction as he sees the squad set out.

Command in War
One of the best books on this subject! Available at Amazon.

Wormwood, you know that the technologies to allow us these capabilities are currently available. If we adhered to the tenets of commander’s intent and mission tactics, we would have to rely upon subordinate commanders to receive, evaluate, analyze, and execute our guidance. Each of these steps introduces potential error into the process, error that — although once necessary to assume — can now be avoided.

A second reason for shifting our philosophy is that both commander’s intent and mission tactics demand that a commander trust his subordinate commanders. In today’s more interconnected and globalized world, the penalties for wrongly trusting subordinates are no longer confined to a court-martial or conference room deliberations among military professionals. We attritionists must continually leverage today’s commanders who are held accountable in a court of national and international opinion, and due to the 24-hour news cycle, immediately. Thus, a results-oriented (and dare I say career-minded) individual assumes tremendous risk if he leaves subordinate commanders to interpret his guidance.

MCDP 1 falsely claims that “trust by seniors in the abilities of their subordinates” is essential. In fact, I hope you will agree that it is far better for a senior to eliminate all doubt and ensure that subordinate commanders execute guidance as passed rather than risk mistakes. Ideally, subordinate commanders should be relegated to being nothing more than simply “managers” of the personnel assigned them. Wormwood, how easy would your job be if someone told you not just “what” to accomplish but “how” to do it as well?

You may be wondering what your role would be in such a system. Not to worry, my dear Wormwood, there would still be a need for a few exceptional officers to be trained for higher command. Junior officers would spend their formative years learning and developing not by trial and error, not by attempting to achieve dazzling results and succeeding or failing, but as they ought, by simply following the orders of their wiser seniors. They would always succeed, and success would be their teacher.

The maneuverists would certainly complain, “You will teach them obedience and they will never learn initiative!” This is absurd. When officers and NCOs are young, they are like children and should be treated as such. We will teach them initiative at the proper time, if it is necessary, but we will be very careful about giving them this tool. It is unpredictable and difficult to control, much like giving fire to primitives.

Even at the simplest levels, we must continue to centralize decisions and remove the possibility that subordinates will misinterpret orders. Wormwood, I cannot remember when you last deployed to a combat zone. No doubt you saw firsthand the emergence of attritionist policy with regard to the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in theater. Commander’s intent and trust in subordinates have been usurped by the centralized dictates of an attritionist culture, and rightfully so. While some higher echelon commanders have suggested that perhaps PPE requirements are situationally dependent and based upon subordinate commanders’ battlespace assessments, several battalion commanders have indicated that such decisions were not delegated but rather made by a senior commander at a forward operating base far removed from their daily operations.

It is clear that senior commanders cannot trust subordinates to make independent decisions. And this lack of trust is justified! After all, who will be held responsible if a Marine is killed and his death might have been prevented?

Trust broken

Capt Wormwood, you must realize that in order to be more effective as a 21st century fighting force, we must halt our dependence upon archaic characteristics, such as commander’s intent and mission tactics. Although such practices may have seemed to work in years past, they now work against us. (It is more likely that maneuverists have simply exploited such successes by claiming credit for maneuver warfare when in fact some other rationale was responsible.) Quite simply, senior officers make better decisions than junior officers, as we have seen both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Commander’s intent and mission tactics only serve to reduce the speed and precision with which a senior commander can make necessary decisions. Subordinate commanders should be relegated to the more appropriate role of “personnel manager” focusing primarily on the human resource concerns of the force rather than on the leadership and decisionmaking so espoused in eras past. The subordinates must understand that their role is twofold: to execute the orders they have received and to report back to higher headquarters.

While this may not sound terribly exciting, Wormwood, please remember that it is for the good of the Corps. I am looking forward to your next letter and until then, I remain,

General Screwtape.

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

The Attritionist Letters

The Attritionist Letters

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

These are posted on the FM website with the generous permission of Marine Corps Gazette, where they were originally published. Also see The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1942).

My 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 & losing wars.
  3. Teaching Marine junior officers to obey, not think.
  4. Require Marine officers to do as they’re told so – we can continue losing the WOT!
  5. We prize simple concepts (even if they haven’t work since WWII).
  6. Train our Marines like robots, to better fight our adaptive & decentralized foes.
  7. “Trust one another”.
  8. Resist the temptation to make every soldier a knower and decider.  Cherish the hierarchy!
  9. The hidden reason behind DoD’s organization (it makes sense once you understand).
  10. Commanders today are too busy to develop subordinates!.
  11. Artillery leads the way – to the past!.
  12. Succumbing to enticements (career advice for the successful).
  13. Thinkers need not apply.

For More Information

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…

  1. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  2. Overhauling The Officer Corps. By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
  3. Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps.
  4. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Marine junior officers to obey, not think (Attritionist Letter #3)”

  1. Existentialists ultimately assert with great personal passion that all psychological issues will by nature merge into moral questions and issues. It’s is quiet here, on this issue and that is a negative sign. And it is a good sign, too. The new man has yet to arise fully into public view. Captain Wormwood’s son may not need literary tools and may speak more clearly to the General, more directly. He may find a better place to do. A red pill decision leads there.

  2. *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.

    I have had some incredible ‘combat commanders’ (in opposed to ‘peacetime commanders’) and I have had some bad ones. It is simple. The great combat commanders trusted me to get the job done and gave me a lot of latitude to accomplish the mission in the best way possible (in the way I saw fit). In return I gave those commanders mission success. The worst commanders were those who did not trust me, did not trust my judgement, my leadership, my way of operating – and what they got in return from me was – mission success. It was unfortunate that to attain mission success with bad commanders that one had to push aside their intent. Not everyone could do that and not everyone should. However, trust is a two-way street. A great combat commander has what I call ‘commander’s combat chemistry’ which is simply a relationship with his subordinates that promotes risk-taking, decisive decision-making and loyalty. These commanders knew the difference between making a bad decision and making a good decision that turned out badly. In combat, often, there are no good decisions. So, one does the best they can with what they have…Good combat commanders know that you have to ‘play it where it lies’…and that you don’t get ‘do-overs’. As I said in my response to Attritionist letter #2:

    And of course, in many cases they (bad commanders) 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 or 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.

    In the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, decision-making had to be quick. But decisions can only be made at the ‘speed of trust’. Hence, a slowing of operations and what I call ‘tactical timing and tempo’. Enough good tactical timing and tempo adds up to operational momentum. We could never really get operational momentum in Afghanistan.

    The only way this will ever change is if we find ourselves in a war that we must win. And my guess is that we won’t be able to pick the time and the place of that war.

    Keep up the great work on FM!


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