In a previous essay, I suggested that maneuver warfare, the official warfighting doctrine of the U.S. Marine Corps, is fading from that organization. Though once the intellectual and cultural lodestar for the post-Vietnam generation, maneuver warfare lacks vitality in our present age. It’s become dogma, a codified belief Marines ritually acknowledge and affirm from time to time. Despite no mass revival on the horizon, the maneuverist camp continues to gains new converts, people who seek to keep the flame lit by joining this interminable struggle. But why? And how?
How does one “get into'' maneuver warfare? Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication-1, Warfighting isn’t the gateway drug. Its predecessor, the revered Fleet Marine Force Manual-1 Warfighting (FMFM-1), and accompanying Fleet Marine Force Manual 1-3 Tactics aren’t, either. Graduating from a Marine Corps school is no guarantee, nor is subscribing to professional journals. Some people seem to stumble into it alone through history books, leadership tomes, or a sense of curiosity. But most commonly, old maneuverists recruit or inspire new maneuverists.
Although the individual paths to maneuver warfare vary, a common first step for old and new maneuverists alike is reading Bill Lind’s Maneuver Warfare Handbook. The “Lindian Branch” of maneuver warfare is purposefully adversarial, almost designed for the cynical company-grade officer. For many of my peers, reading Bill Lind removed the scales from our eyes. Some of this is because, as a polemicist, Lind’s narcissism is veiled as an invitation to join a subversive club. Accounts of him showing up in military dress for exercises (despite never serving in uniform) or being banned from places like Quantico add to his mystique. Reading Lind as a junior officer is like sneaking into a bar underage: You know it's wrong but once you’ve flashed that fake ID and committed to the experience, you feel powerful no matter the consequences. Lind pulls no punches. He attacks the officer corps - particularly general officers - and portrays the American military tradition as a mix of inept and mediocre philistines, always in the shadow of German brilliance. Despite his harsh words, he inspires the pursuit of knowledge and a hunger for professional development. No fledgling maneuverist wants to be guilty of the charges Lind levels at the officer corps.
A Gateway for Many to Maneuver Warfare: Bill Lind's Maneuver Warfare Handbook
Lind compels you to read more, not just to understand where his ideas come from, but also to avoid being labeled an anti-intellectual or a dunce. His article “A Canon for the Officer Corps” is foundational for would-be maneuverists, containing books such as The Enlightened Soldier, Seeds of Disaster, Stormtroop Tactics, The Breaking Point, Command or Control, and a smattering of Martin van Creveld. To avoid reading these works only brings Lind’s derision:
Were the American military intellectually serious, our services would require that the canon be read by all officers, at least by the time they are majors. (I would recommend before commissioning.) But it is not. The canon, while not called that, was previously listed in order on the official Marine Corps Commandant’s Reading List. In the latest version, all the books are gone. The Corps’ new motto, it seems, is lege minus curre magis—read less, run more.
The initial appeal of Lind is his provocation, but once you’ve read his canon, you’re grateful for the foundation he prescribes. The pursuit of knowledge affirms what you already know and builds, until everywhere you look, you see institutional ills solved by a prescription of maneuver warfare. You know what others do not, and see plainly what most can’t. Armed with new knowledge, most of your debates begin with “If only….” Alas, a danger lurks in narrow reading.
Lind’s branch of maneuver warfare cultivates appreciation for the Germans at the expense of the American, British, and French military experience. Everything Lind praises the Germans for is downstream of a distinct martial culture and that is the point. This raises questions of practicality. You may wonder why Lindians obsess over the Germans given that Deutschland lost - twice. Sure, you can glean lessons from the vanquished (and we certainly did), but there’s a shelf life to any claim that begins and ends with “because the Germans did it.” It reminds me of the Richard Pryor line, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”
When you awaken to see that only a handful of peers followed the maneuver warfare white rabbit, or that “fixing the personnel system” and instituting “trust tactics” are impractical prescriptions for lasting change, you’re not worse for the journey - but you’re no closer to an answer, either. After years in the “Lindian Camp,” I realized that cynics rarely build anything; they only reveal problems. My turn from Bill Lind coincided with a realization that the world as you want it to be is not the world as it is. Lind and the German crowd are right that martial culture matters. But they are wrong to assume Americans could - or should - be like the Germans.
The late Colonel John Boyd is a doorway to maneuver warfare for many others, either through the Robert Coram biography or the endless references to his work by smart people. It's safe to call this “Boydian Branch” the higher form of maneuver warfare. Boyd’s branch is purposely interdisciplinary, and by my estimation, less likely to fade with time than Lind’s approach. Boyd relied on mathematics, philosophy, physics, anthropology, psychology, and history as a theorist. There are numerous articles and books that trace Boyd’s connection to the Marine Corps, such as Marine Major Ian Brown’s A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare, but no single volume has succeeded in explaining Boyd or his ideas.
Major Ian Brown's A New Conception of War
Because he wrote so little, the common way to access Boyd is through cyphers. The many close friends and associates who preserve Boyd’s memory – such as GI Wilson, Chuck Spinney, and Chet Richards – speak of his towering brilliance and idiosyncrasies. Until recently - and much to the credit of Major Brown - there was scant primary source material available on Boyd. Besides his limited papers, Boyd’s ideas are usually interpreted for us because he didn't make it easy to understand his ideas. As a result, we often get the simplified OODA Loop and vapid affirmations that whatever Boyd said must be right. Just like the Lindians rely on the “if only” phrase, Boydian’s employ a “because Boyd” qualifier.
If there's to be a revival of maneuver warfare, I suspect it will come via the Boydian branch. His ideas are appealing, in part, because of how impenetrable they seem. Some people stand in awe of what they must work to understand; others seek shortcuts. Which raises the questions: Do we understand Boyd, or has the Marine Corps succumbed to shortcuts? It remains to be seen if, given the evidence of the past twenty years, we failed to translate Boyd’s concepts into practice or if his concepts cannot be practiced at the scale required.
Whether from the Lindian or Boydian strands (or unmentioned others), maneuver warfare - beyond anything else - is a provocation; an invitation to know. It provides a roadmap for learning while incentivizing application. Even if maneuver warfare continues to fade into irrelevance, it's epistemological rocket fuel for the curious professional. Gather enough true believers capable of convincing others on the merits of the ideas, and a movement is born. Well-timed and well-placed movements may lead to change. This is the roadmap for reform.