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Commanders Own PME: A Follow Up to “Time for Another Stand-Down” by Captain Devon Sanderfield, USMC

Tactical small unmanned aerial systems and precision-guided munitions have forced military units to distribute to survive on the modern battlefield. Maneuver warfare concepts are key to operating in a distributed operating environment. Therefore, commanders must ensure that all Marines, enlisted and officers, have a solid understanding of our Corps’ warfighting philosophy as described in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 Warfighting (MCDP 1). Two years ago, I wrote an article in the Marine Corps Gazette titled “Time for Another Stand-Down.” I intended it as a call to arms for commanders across the service to institute a Warfighting Stand-Down to educate their Marines on the tenets of maneuver warfare.

Upon assuming command of Alpha Company, First Battalion, Second Marines (1/2), I committed to executing the stand-down I had envisioned. Thankfully, my battalion commander believed in this effort and permitted me to run a Warfighting Stand-Down for the battalion. We leveraged small group discussions, decision-forcing cases, tactical decision games, multiple tabletop wargames, and guest speakers over the course of a week. We designed the stand-down to both educate the unit in our warfighting philosophy and serve as a model for how units should conduct professional military education (PME). The purpose of such PME is to create superior decision-makers who embody and apply the concepts of our foundational doctrinal publication. Commanders across the Marine Corps should adopt this approach and initiate their own unit stand-downs. They are responsible for educating every Marine in their charge on our warfighting doctrine and how it must be applied at every level in both garrison and in combat. Commanders own PME.

MCDP-1 Discussion Groups

My instructor team and I designed the stand-down to begin with a small-group discussion on MCDP-1 for all Marines. This was intentional. We needed the Marines to have a baseline understanding of our warfighting philosophy because all other focus points throughout the week would tie back to the “little white book.” Marines had been given several weeks to read MCDP-1 prior to the stand-down. Careful thought and preparation went into selecting the instructors. In keeping with maneuver warfare, I wanted the instructors to tailor their instruction to their unique style and approach, so long as they met my commander’s intent. My intent was simple and straightforward. I wanted the discussions executed in squad-size groups or smaller, facilitated as discussions and not PowerPoint lectures, and to adequately cover components from all 4 chapters of MCDP-1. I informed the instructors of their role weeks before the stand-down and required them to complete a mock dress rehearsal board prior to being allowed to teach the event.

The battalion's Warfighting Stand-Down began with small group discussions on MCDP-1.

(Photo provided by author.)

As I had learned during my time teaching warrant officers at The Basic School, most Marines have never thoroughly studied the concepts in MCDP-1. Some of them had attended Corporals Course and Sergeants School, where they certainly heard the terms maneuver warfare and centers of gravity, but they admitted to not fully understanding what the terms looked like in action. After laying down a foundational understanding of our warfighting doctrine, we returned to and built on its concepts in follow-on discussions and decision-forcing exercises.

Decision-Forcing Exercises

The instructors used three types of decision-forcing exercises throughout the stand-down: tactical decision games (TDGs), ethical decision games, and decision-forcing cases (DFCs). They played a crucial role by forcing leaders to become more comfortable making tough decisions. They also helped by highlighting each Marine’s thought processes and mental models. As a result, the Marines better understood how one another thought and responded to complex situations.

In the lead-up to the stand-down, we prepared our instructors to properly facilitate decision-forcing exercises. For this, we brought in DAO Consulting and the Warfighting Society’s Damien O’Connell. Damien has worked closely with the Marine Corps for years and is an expert facilitator. He conducted a 2-day workshop that put the Marines through multiple DFCs and taught the NCOs how to facilitate DFCs for their small units. This prepared instructors to execute their crucial roles during the stand-down.

The battalion hosted a two-day workshop on DFCs to prepare its instructor team.

(Photo provided by author.)

While we used DFCs at different points of the stand-down, instructors leveraged TDGs as the main exercise each day. We used TDGs from The Basic School, the Marine Corps Association website, and Colonel Michael Wyly’s exercises in the appendix of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook. Each TDG was purposely selected to reinforce maneuver warfare concepts like commander’s intent, surfaces and gaps, and exploiting opportunities. The instructors chosen to run these exercises received the following intent. Each Marine had to develop their own plan. Each exercise and subsequent discussion had to have specifically-identified focus points that reinforced the tenets of MCDP-1. Lastly, the instructors had to create an environment where all Marines participated and drove discussion. I wanted the Marines to feel comfortable criticizing each other’s plans and asking hard questions that got to the “why” behind a decision. Through these exercises and discussions, small unit members begin to truly understand the people they work with and how they think and make decisions. They also develop the ability to recognize gaps in their plans and others' and uncover faulty reasoning in decision-making. This kind of intellectual development is necessary to become a leader who applies maneuver warfare in the field and in garrison.

TDGs formed the main decision-forcing exercise of the stand-down.

(Photo provided by author.)


Wargaming served as another critical component in the stand-down and should be central to every commander’s PME plan. Wargaming allows Marines to fight a living, breathing, thinking adversary. This forces them to not only make dozens of tactical and operational-level decisions in a short period of time, but do so against another human being trying to impose their will on them.

Wargames in action.

(Photo provided by author.)

Prior to the stand-down, the battalion purchased a large number of wargames and distributed them to the companies. Alpha Company also received multiple wargames as a donation from the Marine Corps Association. Our games include Brandywine, Gettysburg, and Marengo from Command Post Games; Memoir ‘44; and Advanced Squad Leader. These are just a few of the thousands of options available for purchase by any unit. Since the Warfighting Stand-Down, wargaming has become a regular addition to every squad’s weekly training schedule. Squad leaders simply sign out games from the company office and use these amazing tools to better prepare their Marines for combat.

A sample of the battalion's wargame library.

(Photo provided by author.)

Guest Speakers

The stand-down also included three guest speakers who reinforced the concepts within MCDP-1: Colonel T. X. Hammes; General Anthony Zinni; and Ryan Rogers, former Marine infantry sergeant, motivational speaker, and author of the combat memoir Lions of Marjah. Colonel Hammes selflessly donated his time and drove down to Camp Lejeune from Virginia to meet with the battalion’s staff non-commissioned officers and officers to discuss maneuver warfare, the importance of PME, and his thoughts on the evolving character of war.

Col Hammes talks with leaders from 1/2.

(Photo provided by author.)

General Zinni was kind enough to speak with the battalion’s officers for over two hours via Zoom. He offered his unique thoughts and experiences shaped by over 40 years in uniform, culminating as the commanding general of Central Command. His perspective on PME was invaluable and left a lasting impression on all who attended. He provided examples of the “officers school” and “SNCO school” he facilitated weekly with his Marines. He emphasized that PME is the commander’s responsibility and must be executed often to ensure you develop your people personally and professionally. Ryan Rogers also traveled to Camp Lejeune to spend the afternoon with the Marines of Alpha Company, where he provided motivational words on training, close combat, and resiliency.

Ryan Rogers delivers a motivational speech to Alpha Company.

(Photo provided by author.)

Maneuver Warfare Articles

To complement the decision-forcing exercises, wargames, and guest speakers, each platoon in Alpha Company read and discussed key maneuver warfare articles going back to the 1980s. These included pieces from General Al Gray, General Bernard Trainor, Colonel Wyly, Major John Schmitt, and Bill Lind. Each instructor used the Marine Corps Gazette article "The NCO and Maneuver Warfare" (April 1, 1993) by Captains William H. Weber IV & David J. Furness. This article provides great insight into the non-commissioned officer’s role in an organization that embraces maneuver warfare and should be required reading for any warfighting stand-down.

One of several articles used during the stand-down.

(Marine Corps Gazette, April 1993)

Instructors typically provided students with articles at the end of the day with the expectation the Marines would read them before the next day’s training. Platoons would then exploit gaps in time that naturally came up throughout the day to discuss the main point of the articles. These fruitful discussions allowed Marines to bring up important questions, defend or challenge the writers’ arguments, and most importantly, further their understanding of maneuver warfare and the Marine Corps' warfighting philosophy.


The Marine Corps touts maneuver warfare and the warfighting philosophy of MCDP-1 as the conceptual framework that drives our thinking in garrison and combat. This view is problematic because our current force has an inadequate understanding of MCDP-1. To solve this problem, we need commanders across the Corps to step up and educate their Marines. By instituting a Warfighting Stand-Down similar to the one outlined above, commanders can better prepare their Marines to fight and win future wars. Combined with realistic force-on-force field training, graduates of the stand-down will be able to avoid enemy surfaces, ruthlessly exploit gaps, and thrive on the disorderly and uncertain modern battlefield. Commanders and leaders across the Marine Corps must initiate a stand-down to educate every Marine in our foundational warfighting doctrine. Modern warfare demands no less. Commanders own PME.

Author Bio: Captain Devon Sanderfield is the commanding officer of Alpha Company, 1/2. He’s served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the Pacific region as part of two unit deployment programs.

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1 Comment

Gratifying to read of efforts such as this. Had much the same experience while on active duty that few could demonstrate a real understanding of any of the MCDP "white books," not just MCDP-1. Immersive decision-forcing cases, TDGs, and wargaming was essential in gaining it short of actual combat, but it takes artistry to effectively pair such instruction in such a way to address specific knowledge/application deficiencies. Not everyone can do it. Great to see accomplished experts leveraged so well in a program such as this.

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