The View From Olympus: Maneuver Warfare and What Comes Next

The September 2020 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette announced a series of articles titled The Maneuverist Papers and offers the first, “Marine Corps Maneuver Warfare: The Historical Context,” by “Marinus”, whose initials I suspect are J.S.  The history it discusses and its analysis of the maneuver warfare movement’s “success” is generally accurate and thoughtful.  I put “success” in quotes because, while maneuver warfare was adopted as official Marine Corps doctrine, the Corps left its personnel system, education, and training largely unchanged, which means it can talk about maneuver warfare but not do it.  The Italian Army did the same thing in the late 1930s; hopefully, the Marine Corps’ results will be happier.

Marinus’s article concludes by asking,

Will there need to emerge another Gray, Boyd, Wyly, or Lind?  Should or how should maneuver warfare adapt to recent and emerging changes in warfare?  Or, more fundamentally, has warfare changed sufficiently that the Marine Corps should reconsider its basic doctrine?  Most Marines would instinctively and emphatically say, “No!”–but does that mean the question should not be asked?

I appreciate his acknowledgement–I did after all start the debate over maneuver warfare with a piece I wrote in 1976- and I would also note that with the exception of John Boyd, the rest of us (including Jeff Grelson, whom the article forgot) are still alive, functioning, and probably have one last campaign in us.

But war is evolving in such a way that the situation is wholly different.  In the 1970s through the early 1990s, the Marine Corps could choose whether to stick with Second Generation (firepower/attrition) warfare or shift to the Third Generation (maneuver warfare).  Fourth Generation war offers no such choice, because it moves in next door.

The essence of Fourth Generation war, to quote Martin van Creveld, is that what changes is not how war is fought (although that does change) but who fights and what they fight for.  In the First, Second, and Third Generations of modern war, states primarily fight other states and the fighting is done by soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen.  In the Fourth Generation, many different kinds of entities fight wars, and wars are fought by anyone who wants to fight.  War therefore turns up in many guises.

We are seeing one aspect of 4GW being fought on the streets of American cities.  Groups of young people, primarily men, who want to fight, are fighting the state’s forces, in this case police, on behalf of many “causes” that represent their primary loyalties: anarchy, black supremacy (and sometimes white supremacy, although the Right is generally fighting defensively as it should), feminism, hatred for President Trump, and just out of boredom and desire to fight.  They are wrecking, looting, and burning businesses (many of them small businesses whose owners are ruined) and any building that is a symbol of the state.  Our primary force for 4GW, the National Guard, is already engaged.  Do Marines think this is going to stop before it reaches their doors?

Beyond our southern border, three drug cartels are already stronger than the Mexican state, and Marines have been deployed to that border in the past.  Do Marines think the cartels respect borders and will stop at ours?

Wise 4GW entities fight the state’s forces by taking them from within.  Do Marines not know that gangs have penetrated the Marine Corps, in part to learn combat skills they can use against the Marines?

I have been writing and speaking about war to Marines and others since the mid-1970s.  I, and others who played central roles in the maneuver warfare movement in the Marine Corps in the 1970s through 1990s, are still able and willing to help the Corps get off its eternal sine wave and make the institutional changes needed so its maneuver doctrine is real.  But while the Marine Corps has either vegetated or steamed in circles since General Gray retired, which is almost thirty years ago, war has not stood still.  As 4GW spreads on our own soil, the Marine Corps will either learn how to win it or disappear along with the state it will have failed to defend.  This time, it has no other option.

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