If maneuver warfare were a man, what would we make of him? When “he” arrived on the scene in the late 1970s, he stood full of vim and vigor and promised a better way. Four decades on, how would that youth regard his present state? Is he a former varsity athlete, content to wear a threadbare letterman jacket at the homecoming game or reunions? Maybe he’s the frontman of a once-vaunted punk rock band now accused of selling out, of going corporate, to sell records. Or is he a former child star, content to earn a living shilling autographs at fan conventions? Anthropomorphizing ideas is unusual but it helps to answer Neil Young’s eternal question: Is it better to burn out or fade away? Is it time for maneuver warfare to fade away?
The Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy is maneuver warfare. It has been since General Al Gray declared it so during his commandancy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I’m not one to criticize General Gray - he is the father of the modern Marine Corps - but maneuver warfare peaked before Gray handed over the reins in 1991 to his successor General Carl Mundy. It’s been fading ever since. What remains unanswered is if maneuver warfare is redeemable or doomed to nostalgia.
General Alford M. Gray, 29th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps
Longing for yesteryear is a human condition. We apply rose-colored glasses in two forms: nostalgia for a past we’ve not lived and nostalgia for the one we did. Both forms are warped and thus incomplete. Nostalgia implies selection of good recollections over bad to preserve a version of the past unconstrained by reality. To put things another way, it’s a critique of the present. What is maneuver warfare in the Marine Corps now, how do we learn it, and should we care about it?
For one, learning about maneuver warfare is not the same as practicing it. Indeed, maneuver warfare can mean so many things – and does, depending on who you ask or how you read the source material (think Mortimer J. Adler’s levels of reading). Maneuver warfare may refer to a movement - a place in time where it was either the vehicle for reform or a by-product of it. To others, it’s a philosophy akin to revealed universal knowledge. Some claim the project’s lineage dates back to the Germans and Prussians, while others point to the wisdom of Sun Tzu. Myriad interpretations, myriad oral traditions, and an endless well of applications battle to simplify or complicate our understanding. Within the Marine Corps, maneuver warfare manages to be four things at once: an identity, a philosophy, a movement, and a dogma. This problem cannot be what the reformers envisioned.
The adoption of maneuver warfare is a David vs Goliath story ripe for prestige television. Large cast, bureaucratic intrigue, colorful characters, and an improbable outcome. Consider this pitch: A small band of thinkers and practitioners, seeking a better way to fight and win, take on the establishment and, against all odds, slay the giant. The best part? Maneuver warfare is not only a winning approach, it’s the truer and higher form of warfighting. Maneuver warfare is the good. Maneuverists are the good guys! It promotes creativity and individual autonomy, depends on initiative and trust, and suggests prudent violence over wanton destruction. No more body counts - just winning! We love underdogs - we love them more when they're righteous. The final scene of the series finale is General Al Gray’s declaration that maneuver warfare is the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy. Roll credits. The good guys overcame the odds and won. Maybe there’d be an unaired secret scene - for the DVD box set - of John Schmitt surrounded by dusty old books and reams of crumpled paper, hacking away at FMFM1. We could even have interviews with key players open each episode, like Band of Brothers, to set the atmosphere. Of course, there’d be no season two. Former underdogs are less interesting as champions. It’s no different with maneuver warfare.
Maneuver warfare peaked in the early 1990s. Why? General Gray’s declaration made maneuver warfare dogma. Rather than work to understand why the Marine Corps believes in maneuver warfare, Marines need only say they believe it. Though true believers persist and a small cadre find their way into the fold each year, adherents are outnumbered by those who claim the identity of maneuverist by virtue of being a Marine. Indeed, these cradle-maneuverists often don’t know they’re maneuverists. The institution relieved Marines of the need to understand their philosophy by granting it as their birthright. Since the 1990s, all Marines live under a hard-won blanket earned by the reformers of the 1980s and few are wiser for it.
This ignorance is understandable because maneuver warfare is hard. It’s hard to explain and harder to learn. Few can claim expertise in theory or practice. Elements of maneuver warfare appear hardwired into the habits of Marines across all ranks – from an emphasis on initiative and commander’s intent to an appreciation of battlefield dynamics and combined arms in planning and training. It’s not uncommon for a squad leader to display celebrated tenets of maneuver warfare without a knowledge of MCDP-1 and Boyd. This suggests some success in absorbing the philosophy of maneuver warfare, but also begs the question: Did the Marine Corps need Boyd and Gray for a squad leader to show initiative and exploit gaps in the enemy? No, but the hope is that that squad leader is better at those things because of them.
I contend that the Marine Corps no longer knows what maneuver warfare is. If we ever did, it was concentrated in the minds of the few where it remains to this day. Maneuver warfare lends itself to simple slogans and martial aphorisms but, in truth, it’s so complex that most Marines cannot apply it. Such is the paradox, that something so hard should be given to so many. This tension between the learned few maneuverists and unenlightened masses who are told to apply maneuver warfare is overlooked. Because the Marine Corps struggles to see maneuver warfare in practice, we issue cyclical and indecisive calls to “reinvigorate” and “reintroduce” our doctrine without considering if it’s the right one for the Marine Corps.
A Recent Call for Reinvigorating Maneuver Warfare
I believe in maneuver warfare and think it’s the best option we have. I don’t expect all Marines to know and understand it because it does not easily lend itself to understanding. It’s not a panacea – it’s not the universal remedy for all warfighting challenges but does provide a useful framework. Those who do understand it, who translate the conceptual into reality, can be transformative within their organizations. A competent practitioner makes everyone around him better. There are always “islands of excellence,” but whether or not practicing maneuver warfare is the cause of that excellence or merely correlated with it is a different question. After all, there were manueverists on battlefields well before 10 November 1775. I assert that maneuver warfare increases the odds of individual and collective excellence - but if we struggle to understand and teach maneuver warfare, that advantage becomes meaningless. Perhaps most damning of all, you don’t need to be a student of maneuver warfare to get promoted, succeed, or - dare I say - be a good Marine. I’ve known plenty of great Marines who suffer psychic pain at the mention of any “little white books” (Marine Corps Doctrinal Publications), which leads me to this key insight: Maneuver warfare is only hard to understand if you try to understand it.
If the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy is maneuver warfare, then a Marine is likely to believe he understands and applies maneuver warfare without studying it. Our schoolhouses teach it, the Marine Corps Gazette publishes articles about it, and MCDP-1 is quoted in all of General Berger’s white papers. It’s acceptable - expected even - to LARP (live action role play) maneuver warfare during planning conferences, field exercises, and officer calls but normal to leave it behind during work hours and for much of the Global War on Terror. This is why true believers - the manueverist pearl clutchers - are doomed to endless crusading and permanent disappointment. “For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” I say to you all now that there is no great Corps-wide revival for maneuver warfare - it’s had its day in the sun. Prove me wrong.