The View From Olympus: Groundhog Day in the Marine Corps

Over the past year or so, the Marine Corps Gazette has again become an important forum for debating maneuver warfare, a.k.a. Third Generation war.  That is to the good, and I am happy to participate, as I did in the first round of that debate in the 1970s and ‘80s.  The Gazette’s editor at the time, the late Col. John Greenwood, told me I wrote more for his publication over a twenty-year span than any other author. 

But what does it say about the state of intellectual life in the Marine Corps that it is again fighting over old ground, ground it traversed forty years ago?  The debate of those years culminated in the then-Commandant, General Al Grey, making maneuver warfare official Marine Corps doctrine.  So why is maneuver warfare the latest hot topic now?  How did the Marine Corps get caught in its own groundhog day?

Part of the answer is that the Marine Corps adopted maneuver warfare on paper but not in practice.  Beyond its doctrine manuals, it remains a Second Generation, French-model armed service: centralized, preferring obedience to initiative, depending on imposed rather than self-discipline, and inward focused: rules, processes, (highly specific) orders etc. are more important than getting the result the situation requires.  Tactics, to the degree they exist at all, consist of wandering around until Marines bump into an enemy, then calling in remote firepower.  Success is measured in attrition. 

A debate over why the Corps has failed to adapt to its own doctrine and how to fix that would be useful, and part of the discussion in the Gazette is on that subject.  But much of it just repeats what I and others were writing before most of today’s Marines were born.  That points to a second reason for the Corp’s groundhog day problem: most Marine officers now read little or nothing.  During General Gray’s Commandancy, reading and discussing serious books, books such as Martin Van Creveld’s Fighting Power that were and are directly relevant to the changes the Corps needs, were common activities among not only officers but NCOs and Staff NCOs.  Perhaps that is still true to some extent with the latter, but the officer corps seems to have left its brain at the hat check.

That is especially concerning because war has not stood still.  Since General Gray’s time, the Marine Corps has found itself fighting Fourth Generation wars, wars with non-state opponents, in Iraq and Afghanistan.  With the rest of the U. S. armed forces, it has been defeated.  If we do not grasp the significance of President Biden’s choice of September 11 as the date for the end of our efforts in Afghanistan, our victorious Moslem enemies do.  That was the date the Turkish siege of Vienna was raised in 1683.  This time, the shoe is on the other foot.

Nor does the Marine Corps’ intellectual collapse end with its failure to address, much less win, Fourth Generation wars.  It has failed on the strategic level as well, both in terms of its role in our nation’s defense and in its strategy for political survival.  The two are linked: the Marine Corps has survived as an institution because Americans could see a need for it.  They could do so because the Corps had a unique strategic role.

At present, it does not, and its attempts to find such a role border on farce.  In a war with China we ought not fight and almost certainly will not fight, because China has nuclear weapons, the Marine Corps is to take strategically meaningless islands from the Chinese on which Marines will base anti-ship missiles to shoot at Chinese ships that will all be in port.  In pursuit of this “strategy” that needs only music by Sullivan to become a comic opera, the Corps gave up substantial force structure in the naive assumption it would get the money saved thereby.  OSD said “Thank you very much,” and took all of it.

The obvious and necessary strategic role for the Marine Corps is to be the nation’s force for Fourth Generation war.  Both Capitol Hill and the public could grasp that readily.  Unfortunately, doing so requires thought, high-quality thought and lots of it.  No one yet knows how to win such wars.  But figuring that out would have been the Corps’ intellectual Schwerpunkt under General Gray.  Now, it’s not even on the map.

John Boyd stressed that winning wars requires people, ideas, and hardware, in that order.  Without ideas, the Marine Corps is more than a few bricks shy of a load.