The View From Olympus 4: Calling Mr. Holmes

The Marine Corps considers itself America’s premier fighting force, and on the whole I would agree. It attracts the best recruits; Marine Boot Camp remains rigorous; it has, at least on paper, a Third Generation doctrine of maneuver warfare. From the mid 1970s up through much of the 1990s it earned a reputation as the most intellectual American armed service. Marines read serious books, and the Marine Corps Gazette was widely regarded as the best American military journal.

It is therefore a mystery how and why “the canon,” the list of seven books which I discussed in my previous column and which take the reader from the First Generation of modern war into the Fourth, disappeared from the Marine Commandant’s official Reading List, a list of books Marines are supposed to know.

The facts are these. The canon was on the previous version of the Commandant’s Reading List. It was put there by the Expeditionary Warfare School, the Marine Corps’ school for captains. While not called “the canon,” the books were in the correct order. When a new version of the list was released by the Commandant in January, they were gone. All of them, including the most important book on war written in the last quarter century, Martin van Creveld’s The Transformation of War, had been deleted.

How did this happen? I have no idea. I doubt the Commandant personally removed them. He may not even have noticed the change. But it is hard to believe no one noticed their absence in all the reviews such a document usually gets.

Why did it happen? Here is where we need our friend Mr. Holmes. It is hard to imagine a motive for an act so damaging to Marines and so embarrassing to the Marine Corps. These seven books aren’t just biographies of Chesty Puller. They contain what Marines most need to know if they are to orient, that word so emphasized by John Boyd, if they are to understand where their institution stands on the historical time-line of modern war and where it needs to go. Put simply, they offer what Marines need to know to win.

The authors are all highly respected scholars. Robert Doughty, the top American expert on the French Army in the 20th century (from which we learned our current way of war) was the chairman of the History Department at West Point. Bruce Gudmundsson, whose Stormtroop Tactics is the best book on the inception of maneuver warfare, teaches at Quantico. Marin Samuels is, as Bruce puts it, the one Englishman in his generation who really understands the German Army. Martin van Creveld is the most insightful military historian now writing. He has also taught at the Marine Corps’ schools at Quantico. So why are all these scholars now exiled from the official Marine Corps reading list?

One theory is that, in a masterful example of infiltration at the strategic level, either the Taliban or al Qaeda silently took over Headquarters Marine Corps. They ditched their turbans, got short haircuts, and learned to say “aye aye, sir” without an accent. While this might sound implausible, it does answer the question of motive. Someone who wanted to lead the Marine Corps to defeat would also want to delete the canon from the Commandant’s Reading List. Why would anyone else do something so damaging?

So it is time to call in Mr. Holmes. Perhaps Chesty is the dog that did not bark.

While he is here, we might ask Mr. Holmes to solve another mystery: why, being now 0-4 against Fourth Generation opponents, the Marine Corps is not acting to do anything differently? I suspect the two mysteries may be related. Both point to the theory of Taliban infiltration, since Fourth Generation forces certainly don’t want the Marine Corps to do anything differently. As things now stand, they have the game down pat.

Let’s hope Mr. Holmes will take the job. Both cases seem sufficiently curious to attract his attention. Of course, the Marine Corps will have to break DOD regulations and let him smoke his pipe. No gentleman can think without his pipe. And there’s another mystery for Mr. Holmes attention: how can a military service expect its men not to fear bombs or bullets but to live in mortal terror of “offended” women and second-hand smoke?