Smashing Idols: Drill

Military Drill: Where did it come from? What is its purpose? Is it still relevant?


“The military mind should not accept things for no better reason than that they are so stated…”

-Colonel James C. Breckinridge, USMC, 1929[1]

This article represents the first in a series of pieces that challenge long-held beliefs in the U.S. Marine Corps. The series title, “Smashing idols,” takes its name from an article about Admiral William Sims, a twentieth-century innovator who introduced modern gunnery to the U.S. Navy and implemented the convoy system during World War One. The phrase “smashing idols” refers to Sims’ disdain and frequent challenging of long-held practices and traditions.[2] My aim here is not to see these beliefs and traditions abolished but to bring awareness to their origins, generate discussion, and explore ways of how they can be adapted to better support the development of Marines for maneuver warfare and Commandant’s Planning Guidance.

This article addresses military drill. Specifically, it looks at three long-held beliefs surrounding drill within the U.S. Marine Corps. The first belief is that the best military units in history demonstrated mastery of drill.[3] The second belief is that the characteristics instilled through drill directly contribute to effective battlefield performance.[4] The third belief is that frequent drilling is necessary to maintain a high level of discipline after entry-level training.[5] The historical record and experiences of other successful combat forces tell a different story, however. Indeed, mastery of drill is not a reliable predictor of combat success, the characteristics instilled through drill can hinder combat performance, and there are more practical means to maintain the discipline and esprit of a unit than drill.

To address each belief, one must first understand the origins of modern drill. Modern drill traces its history back to sixteenth-century Europe, where cultural ideas and musket technology influenced the revival of drill by the Dutch and its later adoption by other European militaries.[6] The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment influenced seventeenth and eighteenth-century military leaders, who sought to impose rational and scientific forms on military operations. Military thinkers of the day viewed aesthetically pleasing and geometrically linear formations as evidence of a professional and enlightened military.[7] Musket technology also required massed bodies of troops to cross open ground against opposing cannon fire to reach effective engagement ranges. Militaries expected their troops to bear the enemy fire during this movement.[8] In order to sustain such an approach, militaries recognized the need to impose moral order on these troops. Militaries trained in drill to instill obedience and restraint and ensure their troops would not break ranks.[9] Drilling and the subsequent suppression of the individual produced certain psychological benefits by developing primary group cohesion, esprit de corps, and group identity.[10] However, military leaders always intended drill as a means to suppress the individual for the sake of unit efficiency. Instant, unthinking obedience, machine-like performance, and restraint over fears were always the goals.[11]

Contrary to popular belief, many high-performing units and militaries throughout history have eschewed drill. The Israeli Defense Forces are one of the best-known and best-documented examples of a military that disdains drill and other ceremonial disciplines but has a record of superior battlefield performance.[12] The Australians during both world wars and the Finns during the Russo-Finnish War provide other illustrative examples.[13] Conversely, many units and armies considered to be the “ideal” of discipline and drill throughout history did not perform well or suffered greatly because of their reliance on drill and consequential loss of initiative and creativity.[14]

Additionally, drill runs counter to the characteristics and values necessary for success on the modern battlefield. It inculcates habits and ways of thinking at odds with both the Marine Corps’ philosophy of maneuver warfare[15] and the Commandant’s Planning Guidance.[16] How? First, drill conditions warfighters to act in a group and leaves individual troops unprepared for the mental rigors of operating alone or in small groups on a modern battlefield. The “herd instinct” formed by drill is detrimental to the current requirements of warfighters.[17] Second, drill stifles thinking and initiative at the individual level. It can result in what British military theorist and historian B.H. Liddell Hart called “tactical arthritis.”[18] Third, drill conditions troops to order, neatness, and predictability—all conditions conspicuously absent on today’s battlefields.[19]

Despite the adverse effects of drilling, drill still provides some benefits to a unit regarding discipline and group psychology—esprit de corps. However, other paths to these benefits exist that do not require the use of drill. Practical exercises, challenging and realistic training, and team events like wargames or sports can instill discipline and breed the psychological benefits that drill provides. These different activities also help cultivate initiative, develop critical thinking, and are more closely relevant to modern-day combat, maneuver warfare, and the Commandant’s Planning Guidance.[20]

In 1978, the Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan attended the Camp David Conference. Dayan had previously served in the famed Haganah, as the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, and as the Defense Minister. He had also witnessed U.S. Marines in combat in Vietnam and noted the Marines as “excellent fighters, bold, courageous, dauntless…”[21] However, in his memoirs, Dayan recalled a day where the attendees of the conference observed a parade performance by Marines:

I, too, clapped my hands in appreciation of their accomplished performance, but somewhere within me I felt a certain distaste, even anger and humiliation, at this use of combat troops as marionettes… The soldier’s job is to fight, and does not do battle – at least not today – in straight and regular ranks and with fixed rhythmic movements… It is true that the fighting man is called a soldier and the men in an army wear uniform clothing, but battle demands of every man that he exert to the maximum his individual capability, and not that he move his legs and swing his arms like a robot at the press of a button. [22]

Drill is an idol worth challenging, especially considering its harmful effects on thinking and initiative.[23] The history of drill in the U.S. Marine Corps is a proud one, and this is not entirely unfounded since drill used to be closely tied to tactics. However, Minister Dayan’s comments point out the paradox between drill and combat preparation. Marines need to begin asking hard questions about what drill should look like in the twenty-first century and the age of maneuver warfare.[24] Within what context should modern Marines teach drill? Do the benefits of drill outweigh its costs, or should more practical exercises be used to cultivate the same benefits? Which units should retain high levels of proficiency in drill? 8th & I? The Recruit Depots and Officer Candidate School? Infantry battalions? Should drill even be practiced after recruit training, or does it take away from training time? Marines must ask these questions, challenge accepted practices, and, if necessary, smash idols.

Author Bio: David Kerby served six years as a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. His experiences include time as a rifle platoon commander, rifle company executive officer, mountain warfare instructor, and Officer-In-Charge of the Mountain Leader Section at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. He has previously written on warfighting and light infantry operations. Mr. Kerby is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in History at Middle Tennessee State University, where he is studying the history and application of discipline within the U.S. Marine Corps.

[1] Colonel James C. Breckinridge, “Some Thoughts on Service Schools,” Marine Corps Gazette, December 1929, Vol. XIV, No. 4, 231-238.

[2] Benjamin Armstrong, “‘Uncovering Deficiencies and Smashing Idols’: A Reminiscence of Service with the Gun Doctor,” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, February 10, 2015, https://blog.usni.org/posts/2015/02/10/uncovering-deficiencies-and-smashing-idols-a-reminisence-of-service-with-the-gun-doctor.

[3] “It is no coincidence that among the units famous for ceremonial prowess and spit-and-polish are also to be found some of the world’s most redoubtable fighting formations.” – United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Order 5060.20: Marine Corps Drill and Ceremony Manual (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters Marine Corps, 2019), ii, https://www.marines.mil/News/Publications/MCPEL/Electronic-Library-Display/Article/1867417/mco-506020-cancels-mco-p506020/.

[4] “The precision and attention to detail that drill and ceremony demands directly contribute to success on the battlefield.” – Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black, SMMC Memo 02-20, https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/145/SMMC%20Memo_02_20_%20Non%20Negotiables%2019%20Nov%202020.pdf.

[5] United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Drill and Ceremony Manual, ii.

[6] John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (New York: Westview Press, 2003), 18; Martin van Creveld, The Culture of War (New York: Presidio Press, 2008), 122.

[7] John A. Lynn, Battle, Chapter 4.

[8] Ibid., 128, 155.

[9] Ibid., 155.

[10] Ibid., 156.

[11] For more on the consequences of drill, see Lynn, Battle, 155; Peter F. Owen, To The Limit of Endurance: A Battalion of Marines in the Great War (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 5; William Lind and Gregory Thiele, 4th Generation Warfare Handbook (Kouvola: Castalia House, 2015), 116; United States Marine Corps, Drill and Ceremony Manual, ii, 1-2; Martin Samuels, Command or Control?: Command, Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918 (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd, 1995), 118-119; Anthony Kellett, Combat Motivation: The Behavior of Soldiers in Battle (Boston: Kluwer, Nijhoff Publishing, 1982), 219; and Eitan Shamir, Transforming Command: The Pursuit of Mission Command in the U.S., British, and Israeli Armies (Stanford University Press, 2011), Chapter 3.

[12] For specifics on IDF performance, see John A. English and Bruce I. Gudmundsson, On Infantry: rev. ed. (Westport: Praeger Publishes, 1994), 167-169. For more on Israeli disdain for drill and ceremonial disciplines, as well as an outline of their training, see Reuven Gal, A Portrait of The Israeli Soldier (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1986).

[13] On the Australians and their superior performance in combat and disdain for drill, see Denis Winter, Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War (Penguin Books, 1985), Chapter 2; and Anthony Kellett, Combat Motivation: The Behavior of Soldiers in Battle (Boston: Kluwer, Nijhoff Publishing, 1982), 138. On the Finns and their impressive battle record and lack of focus on drill, see William R. Trotter, A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40 (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991), 40-42.

[14] Martin van Creveld addresses the Prussian failure at Jena-Auerstedt, attributing it partly to over-reliance on drill. See Martin van Creveld, The Culture of War (New York: Presidio Press, 2008), 355-362. The Soviet Army during the 1939 Winter War provides another example, as their troops suffered for lack of initiative and creativity; see, again, in its entirety Trotter, A Frozen Hell. For more on units that demonstrated mastery of drill but suffered because of it, see the following sources in their entirety: Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918 (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1989); Martin Samuels, Command or Control?; John A. English, On Infantry (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1981); Peter F. Owen, To The Limit of Endurance: A Battalion of Marines in the Great War; and John Keegan and Richard Holmes, Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle (New York: Viking, 1986), 44.

[15] See United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1: Warfighting (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters Marine Corps, 1997); United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-3: Tactics (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters Marine Corps, 1997); United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 7: Learning (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters Marine Corps, 2020); and William S. Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook (Milton Park: Routledge, 1985).

[16] “Our command and control processes and systems must reflect our maneuver warfare philosophy. Decision making that focuses on speed and creating tempo, mission command that focuses on low level initiative, simple planning processes and orders writing techniques that are measured by the quality of the intent, all require a command and control system that is flexible, adaptable, and resilient. We will always focus on people over systems…” pg. 9; “Achieving this endstate requires a force that can create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration, thanks to mobile and low-signature sensors and weapons. Our desired endstate also requires elite warriors with physical and mental toughness, tenacity, initiative, and aggressiveness to innovate, adapt, and win in a rapidly changing operating environment,” pg. 12; “The complexity of the modern battlefield and increasing rate of change requires a highly educated force,” pg. 16; “…our Marines must be comfortable with chaos, comfortable with mission tactics, and comfortable operating in a highly distributed manner across any potential battlefield. While I support this conclusion, I am convinced that attempts to regiment every minute of every day to remove as much friction and potential chaos from the individual Marine while in home-station is counter productive. We will never create a natural comfort with distributed operations and mission tactics if we continue to impose the most inflexible and overly structured architecture at home-station. This must change,” pg. 16; “Wherever possible, training will be progressive and practical in nature,” pg. 17. For more, see General David H. Berger, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/%2038th%20Commandant%27s%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700.

[17] English, On Infantry (1981 ed.), 219-220; Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics, 22.

[18] English, On Infantry (1981 ed.), 5, 221; English and Gudmundsson, On Infantry: rev. ed., 1; Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics, 22,87; Owen, To The Limit of Endurance, 18, 208; Charles E. White, The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militärische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (Westport: Praeger, 1989), 9; Samuels, Command or Control?, 98; Winter, Death’s Men, Chapter 2.

[19] Lynn, Battle, 120-123; Owen, To the Limit of Endurance, 208.

[20] For numerous examples of exercises that can replace drill and the benefits of doing so, see: Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics, 87; English, On Infantry (1981 ed.), 221; Lind and Thiele, 4th Generation Warfare Handbook, 40; H.J. Poole, The Last Hundred Yards (Emerald Isle: Posterity Press, 1998); and Gal, A Portrait of The Israeli Soldier.

[21] Moshe Dayan, Breakthrough: A Personal Account of the Egypt-Israeli Peace Negotiations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1981), 169.

[22] Ibid., 169-170.

[23] In 1911, the Infantry Drill Regulations used by the Marine Corps composed only 392 pages (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.31951002026001h&view=1up&seq=5). In 1980, the Marine Corps Drill and Ceremonies Manual only spanned 219 pages (NAVMC 2691, https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a112862.pdf). However, the current Drill and Ceremonies Manual spans 534 pages, surpassing even the 1911 regulations when drill was still used in combat (MCO 5060.20, https://www.marines.mil/News/Publications/MCPEL/Electronic-Library-Display/Article/1867417/mco-506020-cancels-mco-p506020/). Additionally, the modern Drill and Ceremonies Manual is listed on www.Marines.mil as required reading. Drill has clearly grown into an idol.

[24] Or, as others may argue, in the era of 4th Generation Warfare. See Lind and Thiele, 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. Regardless, initiative, creativity, and critical thinking at the lowest level are an integral part of success for fulfilling the Commandant’s Planning Guidance.



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