The View From Olympus: A Marine Experiment

By a “Marine experiment”, I do not mean crossing airline stewardesses with manatees in hope of producing a mermaid.  That would result only in fat stewardesses and manatees with an attitude.  My proposed experiment would have as its subject the United States Marine Corps.  Its purpose would be to find a way to make what the Marine Corps says in its doctrine consistent with what it does.

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when General Al Gray was Commandant, the Marine Corps adopted maneuver warfare as its doctrine.  Also known as Third Generation war, it is the Prussian/German approach to war as it developed from 1807 to 1945, with the key years being 1914-1918.  The Marine Corps remains the only American armed service to have made this important move.  The Army, the Navy, and the Air Force remain Second Generation, which is to say doctrinally obsolete.

However, what the Marine Corps actually does, in terms of its tactics, life in garrison, and institutional culture, is still mostly Second Generation.  Ever since the FMFM-1 Warfighting field manual, which remains one of the best ever written, came out, Marines have told me,”What the Marine Corps says is great, but it’s not what it does.”

Changing that so the Marine Corps’ actions match its doctrine has been the Corps’ greatest challenge for almost thirty years.  Although islands of maneuver warfare appear here and there, the products of individual commanders, those islands vanish again into the Second Generation sea as personalities change–which they do at a dysfunctionally rapid rate due to our surplus of field grade and senior officers, each of whom wants his lick at the ice cream cone of command.  The Corps has failed, and continues to fail, at meeting its main challenge.

So here’s my proposed experiment to make maneuver warfare real.  The people who seem to take maneuver warfare most seriously are the NCOs and Staff NCOs, as the pages of the Marine Corps Gazette show.  The Corps’ failure is not their failure; it is thirty years of failure by Marine Corps officers, especially the field and senior grades (lieutenants and captains, like the enlisted Marines, often make serious efforts to follow maneuver warfare doctrine).  So why don’t we put them in charge with a simple order: “make it happen!”?

All officers from the Commandant on down would take between six and twelve weeks of leave.  They would not be permitted on base during those weeks, nor could they contact the Staff NCOs who would be in charge of everything.  At the end of their prolonged period of leave (paid, of course), the officers could come back, but only as observers for another six to twelve weeks.  They could offer advice if asked, but not otherwise interfere.  At the conclusion of this second “all enlisted” period, the NCOs and Staff NCOs would turn over to the officers a Marine Corps that actually does what Warfighting says.

Could enlisted Marines succeed where Marine officers have failed for 30 years? Since we know the officers can’t do it, it’s worth a try.  If that too fails, well, the Marine Corps will join the Army, Navy, and Air Force on their ballistic courses into history’s wastebasket.  As Mark Twain said of the male teat, they are neither useful nor ornamental.  They also cost what is effectively a bankrupt country a boatload of money.  We should be able to buy defeats for less than a trillion dollars a year.

My bet is the NCOs and Staff NCOs can do it.  They did it on a small scale a year or so ago at 29 Palms, when an officerless unit had each Marine read Warfighting and then just do it.  They took on and handily beat a normal Marine unit of much larger size.  No surprise there: we’ve known the Third Generation beats the Second since May, 1940.

In the end, if Fourth Generation war sweeps over America, as looks more and more likely, it will be the people now serving as NCOs and Staff NCOs who emerge as the leaders, at least on the political Right.  Few officers will be able to adjust as their comfortable upper-middle-class world falls apart.  Enlisted Marines still come from families where people work with their hands.  They are much more in tune with the real world than those who rank above them.  If they are not given a chance to save the Marine Corps now, they will be in charge later of building new Marine Corps–one if we’re lucky, one hundred if we’re not.

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.