The View From Olympus: Is the Marine Corps Waking Up?

From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, the U.S. Marine Corps established itself as the leading service intellectually. The ultimate outcome was the adoption by the Corps of a new doctrine of maneuver warfare, which occurred in 1989. The driving agent of change was the Marine Corps Commandant at that time, General Al Gray.

The Marine Corps’ intellectual endeavors paid large dividends. Not only did the Corps get a modern doctrine, its awakening drew strong support from Capitol Hill, the press, and the general public. I was Hill staff at the time, and the Corp’s clout in Congress was the envy of every other service.

Then, after General Gray left the Commandancy, the Marine Corps went to sleep. The doctrine remained words on paper. Few efforts were made to align what the Corps did with what it said. The result today is a Marine Corps that can talk about maneuver warfare but, aside from a few islands created by individual commanders, cannot fight as a maneuver doctrine recommends. Like the U.S. Army, it just puts firepower on targets and expects that magically to yield victory. Against Fourth Generation opponents, it guarantees defeat.

When General Robert B. Neller became Commandant earlier this year, no one expected any change in this situation. Neller was virtually unknown. To everyone’s surprise, he asked the question, “Are we really doing maneuver warfare? I’m not sure we are.” More, he has gone on to encourage others in the Corps to ask the same question. It is beginning to look as if the Marine Corps is waking up.

Where this will lead is anyone’s guess. But with the Commandant’s encouragement the Marine Corps’ Training and Education Command (T&E) at Quantico sponsored a conference in late October to address the question, “Are we doing maneuver warfare?” I was there, along with John Schmitt, the author of FMFM/MCDP 1, Warfighting; Bruce Gudmundsson, author of Stormtroop Tactics, the definitive history of the development of maneuver warfare in the German Army in World War I; and Marines ranking from corporal to brigadier. Unusually, the conference was run on a civilian-clothes, no-ranks basis, which led to everyone speaking up. Even more unusually, instead of the self-congratulations that are the norm in American armed services, the critiques offered were brutally frank. Not one person said the Marine Corps has institutionalized maneuver warfare. On the contrary, the conference concluded Marines can talk about maneuver warfare but they cannot do it.

The slides from the briefing produced by T&E that summarizes the conference’s finding are attached below. Great credit is due to T&E for not sanitizing the report. A few recommendations fell out, including making the Training & Readiness manual at the discretion of the battalion commander (at present it reduces both to dog training while leaving the battalion no time for free-play exercises), but most of what was discussed made it.

The question lies squarely on General Neller’s desk. As I saw in the Al Gray years, change will only occur if the Commandant drives it.



2 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: Is the Marine Corps Waking Up?”

  1. It’s a good attempt, and when I was in we’d go out to 29 Palms twice a year and train on maneuver warfare. But until the Marine Corps pulls its head out of its fiscal ass and allocates a training budget to do it in other places besides the stumps it’s not gonna happen. When I was a tank platoon commander and company XO you had to physically threaten somebody just to get a training range, much less get money for fuel or participation from artillery and air. The MEU training always took over all the ranges, and money. We’ll see.

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