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900 Orders by LtCol Brendan McBreen, USMC (Ret.)

Editor's Note: This essay was originally published on LtCol McBreen's website,

A lieutenant asked me last week where I had learned to issue orders. “It wasn’t a place,” I said, “It was a process.” I thought back to my time at the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) when I was a lieutenant:

Let me get this straight. In less than a month, I’ll be making tactical decisions and issuing orders to Marines in combat. They won’t know who I am. They won’t know if I’m competent. But they will know that I have zero experience. I can’t fake it. I’ve got to make myself as capable as possible: on tactics, decision making, and combat orders. The Marine Corps expects that. My Marines deserve that.

Four years later, I was in Somalia on my third deployment. Mogadishu was on fire, collapsing in a chaotic turmoil of tribal conflict and warlord-on-warlord violence. We—38 Marines and four HMMWVs—were assembled on the beach, at night, south of Mogadishu. On the radio, the MEU passed an anxious report about six blacked-out militia vehicles heading in our direction. The battalion XO was furious because the LCACs were not coming back for us in the dark: “Hold the beach.” I secured the handset and showed the platoon sergeant my defensive order. It was three short paragraphs, six sentences, and a fire plan sketch, anchored on four interlocking machine gun positions and good narrow dirt—flank defilade. “What do you think, staff sergeant?”

Lieutenant McBreen (right) and a fellow lieutenant,

Somalia, 1994.

(Image provided by author.)

He smiled. “I think that’s your job, lieutenant.”

Damn right. He was a tough professional and our confidence in each other was well-established. We knew what we were doing.

Over the next two decades, I wrote or edited over 900 orders. Every Marine develops their own orders process. This was mine.

The Basic School (TBS). One weekend at TBS, I wrote an order for homework. It took a long time, and I thought about the instruction we had received: “This cannot be how we do it in combat.” I had read an article by Colonel Michael Wyly, who said that the orders he issued in Vietnam looked nothing like his orders at TBS, especially with their overwhelming focus on control measures. I discussed this with our TBS tactics instructor, who seemed resigned: “That’s what’s in the manual.” [2 orders]

Deployed. During my first three deployments, I issued dozens of orders to my Marines in combat, contingencies, and training. With 48 months as a lieutenant in the infantry battalion, I gained extensive operational experience and my orders reflected my growing tactical confidence and competence. Most importantly, in a well-trained unit, I learned what not to say in an order. My real-world orders did not look at all like the orders I had written at TBS. [24 orders] Tactical Fundamentals. On float, I completed Marine Corps Institute's (MCI) Warfighting Skills Program, a five-volume correspondence course that was required for all lieutenants. This excellent MCI, written by Tim Jackson, required each student to make a series of tactical decisions, write their orders, and then discuss these orders with their company commander, who graded them. [12 orders]

Tactical Decision Games (TDGs). One of my professional military education (PME) goals as a lieutenant, and then as a captain, was to submit a TDG order every month to the Marine Corps Gazette. I successfully submitted—minus deployments and other training obligations—about half the problems over the course of ten years. TDGs really helped me to develop good habits: for making estimates, making decisions, and then communicating orders quickly and clearly. [50 orders]

Quantico. The Wargaming Division, for a Korean war scenario, tasked me to write the notional orders for the 3rd Marine Division and three regimental landing teams. This was an overwhelming task for a captain. But I read the war plan, wrote the four orders, and then watched 100 majors execute my orders. I learned that big orders were the same as small orders, and that nesting—where the mission at each echelon parallels the higher headquarter's intent—is critical in large-unit operations. [4 orders]

Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL). As a captain, I designed the Combat Decisionmaking Course to teach NCOs the tactical decision making and orders skills normally taught to officers. I had visited a British Army NCO course where every student wrote an order every day—on a single card in the field, in the rain. With a team of contractors—all Vietnam veterans—we facilitated hundreds of student orders for multiple courses during the initial Sea Dragon experiments, and taught practical techniques for constructing orders that would be well-understood by Marines. [300 orders]

Images provided by author.

Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS). Five of my peers fought on Tuesday nights—Branstetter, Schuehle, Byron, Evans, and Collins. I reserved a room at the Research Center and bought a laptop wargame and a large map. We wrote our orders on pre-printed templates and fought as brigade and division commanders—far above our rank. I continued this practice, fighting with other Marines in other places—Okinawa, 29 Palms, and Quantico—for years. Fighting your peers triggers tremendous professional discussions—on the enemy, tactics, orders, and doctrine. [90 orders]

Kodiak Actual. At Camp Pendleton, I wrote “Kodiak Actual: Thoughts on Verbal Orders in the Infantry Battalion” to share the orders techniques that we had trained on as company-grade officers and that I had used as a company commander, battalion operations officer, and regimental operations officer with 5th Marines. A sergeant in the S-3 showed me how to post this article to the new website I had started: [18 orders]

Ten Years of TDGs. As a major at Quantico, I reviewed the first 400 TDG orders that had been published by the Marine Corps Gazette. My article “Ten Years of TDGs” summarized the trends these orders displayed, identified strengths and weaknesses, and recommended best practices for improving our written orders. [400 orders]

Close Combat Marines. For the Marine Corps Institute, I wrote the Close Combat Marines Workbook—including scenarios and higher headquarters orders—to enable Marines to make tactical decisions, develop their own orders, and fight the simulation. The Close Combat Marines computer wargame had recently been developed and distributed by the Marine Corps. [12 orders]

Images provided by author.

CENTCOM. After SAW, I spent a year as a lead war planner at CENTCOM. I wrote and edited over 100 annexes and appendices—orders—for a high-priority war plan in the Middle East. [100 orders]

Unit PME. As a battalion commander, company commander, and warfighting instructor, I led unit PME events that focused on fighting. Our map exercises, TDGs, and battles studies all required decisions before discussions—analysis of the terrain, estimates of the enemy, and an actual order. Combat scenario training is particularly valuable for internalizing the value of reconnaissance and learning to act with limited information. [48 orders]

My Marines practiced critiquing each other’s orders, learning from each other in order to improve their techniques. Twice, I submitted orders critiques to our instructor staff at IOC and TTECG to contribute to the discussion on how best to teach orders. (See Enclosures (1) and (2) below.)

Orders: A User’s Guide. Last year, Chad Skaggs and I wrote Orders: A User’s Guide to help Marines develop their own orders procedures. We collected best practices from leaders across the Marine Corps and published recommended techniques for concise and effective orders.

Images provided by author.

The primary skill for Marine leaders is communications—directing their units in combat. Developing this skill requires focused practice with peers and mentors. Practice, critique, and repetition— especially repetition—improves your orders. Leaders of all ranks need to internalize strong orders techniques so that they are second nature in the chaos of combat.

Fight. We all need to fight. Every month. The Marine Corps is a combat organization, ready to fight tonight. All other activities—everything we do on a daily basis—are supporting efforts. Combat scenarios—map exercises, TDGs, and wargames—train us to make rapid decisions and issue orders with incomplete information, insufficient resources, and changing situations. Writing makes a Marine precise.

The Marine Corps cannot provide you with enough opportunities to make decisions and issue orders. You have to drive your own PME efforts and develop your own scenario training. Because our units are so busy, some of our best professional development occurs in B-billets. Put yourself in combat situations. Make decisions. Write orders. Fight your boss. Fight your peers. Fight online. Practice, practice, and practice!

Enclosure 1: McBreen's Letter to Infantry Officer Course

(provided by author)

Enclosure 2: McBreen's Letter to Tactical Training and Exercise Control Group

(provided by author)

Author's Bio: A career infantry officer, LtCol Brendan McBreen served 27 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He currently works at Marine Corps Intelligence Schools.

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1 Comment

"Kodiak Actual" and many other of Brendan McBreen's articles are worth going over again and again. Orders skills (verbal and written) are so darned perishable. Every time I do a TDG or write orders as part of playing a wargame, I'm reminded of trhat in spades! Repeated practice with plenty of feedback is the only way to stay sharp.

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