Require Marine officers to do as they’re told so – we can continue losing the WOT! (Attritionist Letter #4).

Summary: Like all power tools, technology can hurt or help an organization — depending on how the leaders use it. Since the dawn of third generation warfare in WWI, the power of an army results from its speed as well its force. Fast recognition, fast decision-making, fast execution, fast learning — these are power. This requires decentralization. But senior officers often prefer tight control to trusting their subordinates. Attritionist Letter #4 is some Marine officers’ protest about their general’s reluctance to trust and delegate, one of the factors responsible for our failures in WOT phase one. Now be be repeated in phase two by Trump’s all-general national security team (since they refuse to admit their failures).

“His Majesty made you a major because he believed you would know when not to obey his orders.”
— Attributed to Prince Frederick Charles of Germany (1868 – 1940).


Attritionist Letter #4: Do as You’re told

Marine Corps Gazette, August 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 #4.

Letter #4, without date or address.

Captain Wormwood,

So much time has passed since my last letter to you. I am sure that you have been waiting, no doubt with bated breath, for my next communiqué. You will understand that as a man of significance, I cannot leave matters unattended even to respond to your veiled pleas for correspondence. Although the trend is inarguably in our favor, there is much left undone in our “attritionist” crusade to centralize the Marine Corps.

Fortune smiles upon us! The latest news out of Training and Education Command (TECom) is of great significance to our cause. For years, units have been forced to conduct training without observation and monitoring from higher headquarters. This was only due to a lack of capability on the part of TECom. Great news! The development of the individual training management (ITM) module will soon resolve this shortfall. Finally, Marine Corps Combat Development Command and TECom will be able to access the information they need to properly oversee training across the Marine Corps.

Upon implementation of the ITM module, the training accomplishments of each Marine will be tracked and recorded from initial enlistment through retirement. Capt Wormwood, I am not only referring to professional schools or even just Marine Corps Institute courses. The ITM will record every collective training task, annual training event, and ancillary training requirement required of a Marine. Let me use an example to break it down for you.

Future generals will have even better junior officers!

Robot officer

Take a motor transport operator who drives 7-tons, for instance. He has a number of required tasks in which he must demonstrate proficiency. In addition, he must accomplish all of his required annual training (such as rifle range and Marine Corps Martial Arts Program) and ancillary requirements (such as suicide prevention and Serviceman’s Group Life Insurance briefs). This new ITM module will display all of the training tasks required for our 7-ton driver on a centralized database. Even better, it will identify which of those requirements have been accomplished and which remain incomplete. This information will be accessible to all — battalion staff, regiment/group commands, division/wing/group, and even (most importantly) TECom.

Until now, unit commanders would subjectively assess their own training readiness percentages. Unit commanders have proved time and again they cannot be trusted to objectively assess their own unit capabilities. We have all heard of those lazy battalion commanders who can’t seem to qualify enough drivers or those incompetent company commanders who are derelict in suicide prevention briefs. Why should we leave it to them to assess the readiness of their units?

The ITM allows higher (TECom) to assign numerical value to each training requirement and thus assess a readiness percentage for each Marine. With the ITM, higher headquarters can instantaneously ascertain a unit’s readiness by aggregating the individual Marine’s readiness percentages. After all, unit readiness is the sum of individual readiness. The honorable Mr. McNamara — and even Colonel-General Druzhinin — would be so proud of our effective use of quantification to measure results.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Colonel-General V.V. Mikhail Ivanovich Druzhinin of the General Staff, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were instrumental in the quantification ideology being applied to military practice in the 1960s and 1970s.

Red tape binding Uncle Sam

Even more impressive is the ITM module’s ability to take skill perishability into account. For instance, a suicide awareness brief is required once every calendar year. Three hundred sixty-five days after it was entered into the ITM module, the designator will automatically change from “qualified” to “unqualified.” The same is true for those collective training skills requiring refreshment every 30 or 90 days.

Wormwood, think about how much time you will save by using this ITM module to monitor those tens of thousands of training requirements for all of your Marines. All you must do is ensure that your staff keeps the ITM module up to date. Think of the freedom you will enjoy from higher headquarters; no longer will you have to submit rosters to them or answer the general’s queries. Now he only has to click a mouse a few times and he can evaluate your unit’s overall effectiveness and readiness for combat.

Not to mention, it is increasingly convenient now that the general can check up on how well your unit is doing maintaining those motorcycle clubs, conducting the vehicle inspections, and ensuring that everyone has printed off the appropriate information assurance certificates. Those company or battalion commanders who have routinely skimped on these critical matters under the guise of prioritization in “training for combat” will no longer have a crutch to lean upon; the numbers will speak for themselves!

More importantly, perhaps, the ITM will allow higher (regiment, division, MEF, or even TECom) to go back and investigate what training Marines were deprived of by unit commanders, especially after a mishap or casualty. For instance, if a Marine commits suicide, TECom can go back and open up the ITM to track all of the suicide briefs that the Marine missed in order to find the leader who failed his Marine. Similarly, if a Marine is seriously injured while on patrol in theater, TECom can speedily identify whether or not the Marine was properly trained; was the Marine qualified to cross a linear danger area, and was he proficient in maintaining dispersion? Were the other Marines of the unit properly trained in first aid?

Unit commanders must be held accountable for their lack of attention to detail. Time and again, company and battalion commanders have failed to ensure that the required “boxes are checked” in an appropriate manner; this attitude — bordering on insubordination — must cease!


Skeptics will argue that this oversight will have unforeseen negative ramifications. Some claim that the ITM module will undermine a unit commander’s ability to prioritize training requirements. Others claim that unit commanders will succumb to the moral hazard of designating Marines as “proficient” when they are not. Even more claim that increased centralization will only contribute to an “automaton mentality” among junior officers and make them more hesitant to take initiative and assume risk.

Some of these assumptions are indeed accurate. However, we must remember that we really no longer need junior officers to take initiative as they did in years past. Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) has now determined those training skills required of each Marine. They have also designed and directed adherence to those methods through which the Marines become proficient (such as the predeployment training program). Now HQMC — more specifically, TECom — will be able to hold the individual Marines accountable for being proficient in each requirement. We are gradually eliminating the need for decentralization and dependence upon unit leaders.

And my dear Wormwood, you know my thoughts on initiative in young officers. It is best if they do not try too hard too fast.

Capt Wormwood, I know you are but a junior officer, but I hope you can appreciate what this ITM program will do for us. Never again will higher commands have to depend on — nay, to trust — those subordinate unit commanders who prove themselves incompetent to train Marines. Marines are only properly trained when they have the appropriate skills “checked off” of those rosters designed by the retired Marine contractors in Quantico. I do hope you have the opportunity to lunch with me again before you execute orders. However, you will forgive me if I am too busy; we are gaining traction on so many fronts.

Until then, I remain,

General Screwtape.

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

A postscript by a general of an effective army

“A favorable situation will never be exploited if commanders wait for orders. The highest commander and the youngest soldier must always be conscious of the fact that omission and inactivity are worse than resorting to the wrong expedient.”
— Attributed to Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800 – 1891), Field Marshal and Chief of Staff of the German army in the Franco-Prussian War.

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 possible solutions …

  1. A step to getting an effective military. We might need it soon. Advice from Don Vandergriff.
  2. Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done. By Don Vandergriff.
  3. Don Vandergriff strikes sparks that might help reforge the US Army.
  4. The battle that mattered most to America: the Pentagon vs. Military Reformers. It’s over.
  5. When will our military learn modern warfare, & overcome the attritionist tendency? — By Daniel R. Grazier (Captain, USMC).
  6. Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done” by Donald Vandergriff.
  7. We don’t need a new army to fight modern wars, we need a smart one — by Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945
Available at Amazon.

To see what a well-run army looks like…

See Martin van Creveld’s Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (1982). He explains why the WWII German Wehrmacht was more effective, man for man, than its foes — specifically comparing it with the US Army.

“In this study, Van Creveld analyzes the ways in which the WWII German Army developed the fighting power that allowed them to achieve a number of military victories even when outnumbered and using outdated equipment. He compares and contrasts the Germans with the U.S. Army, which developed a different style of war based on superior economic and technological resources. Coverage includes organizational elements such as principles of command, assignment of manpower, and indoctrination of troops.”
—Reference and Research Book News.

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