Editor's Note: The following letter and those that come after it were forwarded to the Warfighting Society. Written in response to Major General Julian Alford's thought-provoking article on the future of US Marine Corps infantry in the June 2021 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, they feature a dialogue between two Marine officers: Courtney Massengale, an Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) veteran, mid-career field grade officer who doesn’t write and lurks on Twitter, and Sam Damon, an OIF/OEF veteran, mid-career field grade officer who writes and tweets frequently. We made minor edits to the letters for readability. They have otherwise been left untouched.
I read the latest Gazette article you sent me from General Alford. I love Alford. I still remember him appearing mysteriously at Range 400 to clear a SAW malfunction during the attack when we were at IOC. That man would fit in any era of the Marine Corps. He’s some combination of Mark Twain and Magnus Ver Magnusson. A slow talking Southerner with an eloquent pen who deadlifts 1000 lbs. There isn't a grunt alive who wouldn’t sing his praises.
The 4-block littoral force paper is clever, sneaky even. He writes inspiringly about the legacy of the infantry man, his hallowed place within the Corps, and the necessity to preserve his status as the sine qua non of our institution. The future is bright if only we reform!! I buy it. I mean, we have to, right? The Marine Corps ain’t fighting land campaigns in the desert for at least two or three more generations, not until future politicians dream up a new way to sell nation-building to voters. Nah, we are in the great power competition era and that means China (until it means Iran or Russia).
EABO [Expeditionary Advanced Based Operation], LOCE [Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment], distributed ops….all make sense. I don’t know how we are going to pull it off but the concepts seem plausible. It has to, right? We are literally using Japan's WWII playbook: own a shitload of islands (make deals with allies/clients to get onto the islands) and partner with the Navy to control or deny the sea around these islands. Once you take away the technological changes between 1941 and 2021, the plan isn’t that different. We should emphasize that more, don’t you think? Sure, Japan lost, but boy did we pay a price to earn that W! So, I’ll buy the idea behind EABO and LOCE and distributed operations - it mostly worked for Japan.*
So we’re on islands now, or will be. We’ll spread out all over the place and disperse in companies or platoons or squads like an arcade whackamole. So much dispersion that any Chinese ship will be wary of approaching and hesitant to launch missiles for fear of dry holes or an in-kind response. On a larger scale - and this is key - the distributed Marine Corps is now the blunting force of American hard power in the Pacific. Berger’s offer to the Joint Forces is for us to be Gandalf in the proverbial Mines of Moria, a shit load of dispersed Marines with some credible weapons collectively screaming, “You Shall Not Pass!!!” to the Chinese Balrog.** Just like the grey wizard, we sacrifice ourselves to preserve the war-winning forces (bombers and carriers) and buy them time to grab the rest of the Forces of Good to smash the enemy. We are signing up for the Alamo and Berger is our Davy Crocket.
Though our death is near guaranteed by a tsunami of Chinese missiles, which is actually a pretty baller way to go, I’m still with this plan. The Navy will finally get a chance to justify those WWII letterman jackets they’ve been wearing to every reunion since 1950.*** Sure, despite the promise of Multi-Domain Battle, the Army is too heavy to move itself anywhere and the Air Force hasn’t solved how to land without paved runways and hourly FOD [foreign object debris] walks. Hey, at least the Marine Corps has a plan to preserve our sister services' expensive stuff.
A Chinese Dong-Feng 26 medium-range missile with launcher
Back to the Alford article. My lying eyes almost missed his brilliance. He’s really turning it up to “11” here. I need to bring in some Jane Austin to compete. Consider Alford’s vision for the future grunt compared to the early 19th century leisure class’s conception of an accomplished woman.
Alford on the Future Infantry Marine
This infantry force must be built to win with both superbly trained Marines and precision weapons. The Marines in these infantry formations must have a higher physical standard than the rest of the Corps, as measured by our fitness tests, swim qualifications, the obstacle course, and an infantry endurance/tactics assessment course. The Marines must also possess raw intelligence similar to those in the reconnaissance, the Rangers, or special forces. Additionally, the Marines in these formations must be paired with a personal initiative to pursue academic education in the art and science of war through civilian and/or military schools. These infantry Marines must be expert shots, capable of employing all weapons in the battalion, and proficient with the equipment and procedures for directing all forms of tactical MAGTF and naval fire support.
Mr. Bingley: Well I think it's amazing you ladies have the patience to be so accomplished.
Caroline: What do you mean, Charles?
Mr. Bingley: You all paint tables and play the piano and embroider cushions. I never heard of a young lady but people say she's accomplished.
Mr. Darcy: The word is indeed applied too liberally. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen women in all my acquaintance that are truly accomplished.
Caroline: Nor I, to be sure.
Elizabeth: Goodness, you must comprehend a great deal in the idea.
Mr. Darcy: I do.
Caroline: Absolutely. She must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages to deserve the word. And something in her air and manner of walking.
Mr. Darcy: And, of course, she must improve her mind by extensive reading.
Elizabeth: [slams her book shut] I'm no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder at you knowing any.
Mr. Darcy: Are you so severe on your own sex?
Elizabeth: I never saw such a woman. She would certainly be a fearsome thing to behold.
In the spirit of Elizabeth Bennett, I’ve never seen such a grunt. Where would we get them? What’s interesting about this vision for the future is the stream of unfalsifiable claims justifying the need. For starters, who is going to argue for a dumber, fatter, immature, less proficient grunt? I mean, of course we want fitter, smarter, and more mature grunts (unless they are too clever and question vital things like the chain of command and military customs and courtesies, and haircuts….like every SF dude I’ve run into). Why does EABO require these super grunts?
MARSOC Marines in Afghanistan, 2010
From what I gather, we need super grunts because future war is harder. There is no iron mountain of logistical support. The islands are jungle labyrinths. The distributed nature of future fighting increases the weight of individual and collective decisions (no one is there to bail out bad initiative). Future technology will be so complex that mere expertise in Fortnight gaming and quad lane training cannot handle the buttonology. That’s all well and good. Like I said, I’m not saying no to smarter, fitter, and more mature Marines - if we can get them.
No one can answer this question: If future wars are decided by precision guided munitions fired from over the horizon, why does a grunt need to be SOF-like? Wouldn’t an 18 year old die just as gloriously as a 26 year old? What am I missing here?
*One of my favorite movies is Moneyball. I put it in the same category as Jaws where the movie is better than the book. I get a bigger kick thinking how influential that movie/book is in modern discourse and thinking DESPITE the fact that Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s never won a World Series. You can’t survive a conversation with a MCU [Marine Corps University] student without some asshole referencing a “Moneyball approach to solving problem x”.
**I used this LOTR [Lord of the Rings] metaphor to successfully explain EABO to a room of LCpls and Cpls. They reacted negatively to the idea on several grounds: 1) they felt they were bait 2.) they didn’t like being bait. Being the worm on the hook for the Chinese Flounder may be a tough sell to those with “03” at the beginning of their MOS.
***I personally feel the Navy will rediscover a marital spirit at sea when the time comes, but they’re presently the Uncle Rico service in the DOD.