The View From Olympus: Making Maneuver Warfare Real in the Marine Corps

The indications that the new Marine Corps Commandant intends to get serious about maneuver warfare are proliferating.  Serious plans for genuinely free play training are being made.  The latest issue of the Marine Corps Gazette is mostly devoted to the history of the maneuver warfare movement that culminated with the Corps formally adopting the concept as doctrine under Commandant General Al Gray. Training and Education Command at Quantico is talking about maneuver warfare, although I will not believe it is serious until it decrees the T&R manual is optional at the discretion of the battalion commander.

But making maneuver warfare what the Marine Corps does as opposed to just what it says in its field manuals is a major challenge. It means fundamental change in institutional culture, from the Second Generation’s inward focus, centralization, preference for obedience over initiative, and dependence on imposed discipline to the Third Generation’s outward focus, de-centralization of decision making, preference for initiative over obedience, and reliance on self-discipline. Overall, the culture of order must be replaced by a culture of results: at every rank, every Marine must become responsible for getting the result the situation requires. But no Marine should ever be held responsible for method: not for technique, not for process, not even for following orders.  In the old Prussian/German Army, which developed maneuver warfare as we know it, it was routine to give junior officers problems in war games that could only be solved by disobeying orders.

So we face the hard question: how is this transformation to be brought about?  The key is to make certain that institutional rewards and punishments are aligned with the behavior the Corps wants from its Marines.

That means, above all, fundamental changes in the personnel system. At present, the personnel system’s incentives all work against creating the kind of leaders maneuver warfare requires. That means leaders from corporal through Commandant who show strong character. What is strong character? Verantwortungsfreudigkeit: joy in taking responsibility.  Maneuver warfare demands leaders who, whenever they see a situation that is not going right, immediately act to get the necessary result. They do so whether the mess is “in their lane” or not. They do not hesitate to use unorthodox methods. If they have to break the rules, they do so and take responsibility for it. In turn, so long as what they do works, their superiors back them up. In the case of junior leaders, they back them up even if it doesn’t work so long as the mistake arose from initiative rather than passivity. Years ago, a Marine lieutenant told me that the motto of his platoon at The Basic School had been “Death before initiative”, because they knew that if they just did what they were told they would not get in trouble, but if they took initiative they might. In a maneuver warfare military, exactly the opposite is the case.

The Marine Corps can fix some of the problems in the personnel system itself; others will require exemptions from DOPMA, which I suspect Congress would willingly grant.  The basic changes are :

  • End up-or-out, which undermines character, promotes conformism, and rewards careerism, which is a sign of weak character.
  • Vest Marines’ retirement at twelve years of service and drop all-or-nothing at twenty years.
  • Eliminate the informal requirement to follow a cookie-cutter career pattern to obtain promotion.
  • De-centralize promotion and assignment to a low enough level that those making the decisions know the individual they are assigning or considering for promotion.
  • Reduce the vast surplus of officers above the company grades.  Nothing more powerfully drives centralization than an officer surplus, because the surplus officers constantly interfere in their subordinate’s business in search of something to do.
  • Greatly reduce the churn of personnel so units have time to become coherent. A company or battalion command should last three to five years, not eighteen months.

For any institution, pitting rhetoric calling for the behavior maneuver warfare requires against concrete incentives to behave otherwise is hopeless. People behave not as they are told but as they are rewarded or punished for doing. We will know the Marine Corps’ push for maneuver warfare is real when institutional incentives begin to change.

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