Updated: Nov 11, 2022
Marines of the III Marine Amphibious Force in 1968.
How do militaries react to national defeat? How do they critique their role in that defeat and institutionalize the lessons of their experiences? Lost wars don’t necessarily lead to learning and reform—or the right kind of learning and reform. As military historian Edward Drea has argued, “The way an army interprets defeat in relation to its military tradition, and not the defeat itself, will determine, in large measure, the impact an unsuccessful military campaign will have on that institution.” When nations lose badly, some militaries learn from their losses and seek to improve their shortcomings. They pursue an honest appraisal of their performance, warts and all. The traditions and culture of these organizations allow for learning, perhaps even require it. Militaries like these are “good losers.” When other nations lose, however, some militaries refuse to truly acknowledge the failure or do so superficially, placing blame on politicians or the public. In either case, they learn little from the experience and set their sights instead on another purpose, perhaps another enemy. For them, lost wars become a bad nightmare, something to forget. These militaries are “poor losers.”
Today, the U.S. Marine Corps stands at the crossroads of good and poor losers. America lost Afghanistan, and Iraq remains dependent on US forces. These are national failures. The Marine Corps by no means holds primary responsibility for either, but it did help steer their course. The last time the Marine Corps experienced national failure of this magnitude was Vietnam. Its response then reflected that of a poor loser. To date, the Corps has yet to publicly share plans or demonstrate a strong desire to critically review its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. If it isn’t careful, the Corps could find itself once more on the path of the poor loser.
After America’s loss in South Vietnam, the Marine Corps chose not to critically evaluate, debate, or codify its experiences from that war. Like the US Army, its leaders refocused on Europe and other places where conventional combat, its preferred kind of warfare, might break out. To be fair, Congress largely dictated the Corps’ refocusing. But Congressional dictates or not, the Corps showed no burning desire to learn from Vietnam. As one retired Marine colonel, a junior officer in the final years of the Vietnam War, put it, “There was...a general determination never to get involved in another counterinsurgency war. The emphasis switched to combat against the Russians in Europe or possibly North Korea. Many colonels and above believed that the warfighting skills of the Corps had been degraded by the wide range of combat environments in Vietnam…” The comments of a senior Army officer during the Vietnam War capture well the sentiments of many senior Marines following it: “I'll be damned if I permit the United States Army, its institutions, its doctrines, and its traditions to be destroyed just to win this lousy war.” The war the Marine Corps fought was not the one its leaders, bred in the battles of World War II and Korea, wanted to fight. Many of them were just as soon happy to move on from it.
It’s true that the Marine Corps’ Vietnam experience gave rise to significant reforms in its organization, recruiting, training, and equipment. The post-war period also witnessed the Marine Corps’ maneuver warfare movement and its associated reforms in doctrine and education. These reforms brought many positive changes, to be sure, but none resulted in comprehensively studying the Vietnam experience, debating it, or codifying it in the Corps’ organization, doctrine, schools, or personnel system. The war served as the impetus for change but not the focus of it. This had deadly effects for the Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Marines died and many more were wounded as their organization relearned how to fight insurgencies, reinvented combined action platoons, and grappled with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), once the bane of Vietnam veterans.
Marines in 2009 Afghanistan contend with an IED explosion.
One could easily stop here and ask, “Why would the Corps so closely study Iraq and Afghanistan if it’s preparing to fight China in a Pacific war, a war likely to look very different?” That future war, in fact, may not look as different as you think. The Chinese could employ or support insurgencies or guerrilla forces. Chinese troops and their clients could use IEDs. Marines could find themselves working with allied commanders constrained by national law, local host-nation forces of dubious quality and motivation, and corrupt officials at every level of friendly foreign government. In all these areas and more, Iraq and Afghanistan provided the Marine Corps with an unimaginable amount of experience. To discount this experience or fail to learn from it will only produce unnecessary Marine casualties in a fight with China.
If the Marine Corps is serious about learning from Iraq and Afghanistan, it will likely assign a leading role to the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned (MCCLL), which is charged with collecting, analyzing, and disseminating lessons learned. But the Corps’ lessons learned process appears broken. In July 2018, the commanding general of Training and Education Command, under which MCCLL falls, said as much when he made “Clos[ing] the Lessons Learned Loop” a priority in his commander’s guidance, stating that,
"We have elements of a lessons learned loop in place already… but we do not have a routine method of tracking, triaging, developing a fix, enforcing that fix, documenting what has been done and closing out lessons learned to ensure that they actually are learned instead of being just observed and reported. We also do not have adequate means to gather data, analyze it to identify trends, then enable them to be corrected."
Despite the general’s efforts, the lessons learned process remains largely as it has been. To learn from Iraq and Afghanistan, or any future war for that matter, the Marine Corps must address this deficiency.
While fixing its lessons learned process, the Marine Corps could also benefit from examining a model of what good losers do. The defeated German army after World War One (WWI) provides a useful, albeit imperfect, example here. In the first half of the 20th century, the German army regularly showed ineptitude in strategy and tended to think it could solve non-military problems by military means. So, what could the Marine Corps really learn from it? After all, the Germans lost two world wars. Besides committing the false cause fallacy here, this view ignores the fact that the German army also displayed occasional brilliance in learning from its failures and that this learning contributed to many of its victories, particularly those at the beginning of World War II. Any military organization looking to learn from failure would benefit from a close study of the interwar German experience. Now, on to our example.
A little over a year after WWI ended, General Hans von Seeckt, then the head of training, operations, and plans for the now-skeletal German army, issued a directive on learning from the last war. “It is absolutely necessary,” he wrote, “to put the experience of the war in a broad light and collect this experience while the impressions won on the battlefield are still fresh and a major proportion of the experienced officers are in leading positions.” To do this, von Seeckt’s directive created 57 committees and subcommittees tasked with critically analyzing the German military experience. The committees looked at tactics, equipment, field regulations, and military concepts. Topics studied included everything from leadership of large units and tank warfare to flamethrowers, troop morale, military justice, and the German military weather service.
German General Hans von Seeckt
Von Seeckt charged the committees to write short and concise reports on their topics and consider four questions.
What new situations arose in the war that had not been considered before the war?
How effective were our pre-war views in dealing with the above situations?
What new guidelines have been developed from the use of weaponry in the war?
Which new problems put forth by the war have not yet found a solution?
Von Seeckt selected and appointed by name 109 serving and former officers to the committees. This included the foremost experts in their fields. Colonel Georg Bruchmüller, Germany’s best artillery officer, went to the Artillery Committee. Major General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who led a brilliant guerilla war against the Allies in German East Africa, served on the Committee for Colonial Warfare. Others unmatched in their experience and expertise served on the committees for mountain warfare and tank warfare.
Each branch inspectorate of the German army was also expected to produce studies on its branch’s experiences in the war. So, too, were the Weapons Office and nearly every department in the German Defence Ministry. Between these organizations, over 400 of Germany’s best and brightest officers, both active and retired, found themselves carefully studying and writing on the war.
But the Germans didn’t stop there. In 1920, the training section of the German army commissioned a further 29 studies. That same year, the German Air Service followed von Seeckt’s lead and initiated its own program to analyze and report on the air war experience. Participants included more than a hundred airmen, senior leaders, and many former squadron commanders. By mid-1920, between the original committees and the new training section and Air Service studies, over 500 of Germany’s best military leaders were hard at work learning from the war. Imagine if the Marine Corps assigned over 500 of its best and most experienced veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, active-duty and retired, to critically study and write practical reports on those wars.
While most of the German studies have been lost, we know the surviving ground forces reports served as the basis for the army’s new warfighting regulations and guidelines, which began entering publication in 1921. The most important regulation, Leadership and Battle with Combined Arms (hereafter Leadership and Battle), even took some of the exact wording from studies. From here, the German army debated these documents before most elements accepted them enthusiastically. It also created training programs to imbue its forces with the concepts found in the regulations. In 1933, the German army replaced Leadership and Battle with another regulation, Troop Leadership. The new document, though better written and reflecting the evolved tactics and weapons of the time, remained largely unchanged, both in spirit and form, from Leadership in Battle. Troop Leadership would serve as the principal tactical regulation for the German army until its defeat in 1945. Dr. James S. Corum, an American military historian and the former Dean of the Baltic Defence College, asserts in his book The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform that “Most of the tactics used…[by the Germans in] 1939 and 1940 sprang directly from those developed by von Seeckt and the…committees after World War I and expressed in Leadership and Battle.”
The victorious Allies, by contrast, also studied their war experiences but far less comprehensively or with as many of their best officers. The British War Office, for instance, detailed B.H. Liddell Hart, then only a twenty-four-year-old lieutenant with little combat experience, to rewrite the British infantry tactics manual. After Hart wrote a chapter the War Office disapproved of, the office replaced the chapter with one from an older and outdated publication.
If the Marine Corps wanted to approach its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan as a good loser might, what could it do? Here are six ideas.
1) Publicly commit the Marine Corps to a critical and comprehensive examination of its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, it’s said nothing substantial on how it plans to examine its last two wars. A public declaration would get the attention of Marines, Congress, and the American people.
2) Fix the Corps’ lessons learned process. Until the Marine Corps does this, it can’t learn much of anything.
3) Create committees of highly experienced Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, active and out of uniform, to study all major tactical and operational aspects of the wars. As a starting point, the Marine Corps could pose von Seeckt’s questions to the committees. They could also investigate other questions like “What do twenty years of war tell us about Marine infantry tactics? Did Marines practice their warfighting doctrine as spelled out in its Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication-1 Warfighting? “How might the Chinese and Russians use our Iraq and Afghanistan experiences against us?”
4) Host symposia on experience for every military occupational specialty (MOS). These events would help capture techniques, procedures, and other useful small-unit level items of interest that could be later integrated into training, curricula, and regulations.
5) Task the Marine Corps History Division (HD) to help capture the tactical and operational experiences and lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, with a focus on creating practical materials and tools for today’s Marines. For instance, the HD in cooperation with Training and Education Command could produce decision-forcing cases, wargames, practical how-to manuals, training guides, and other useful materials.
6) For the next two years, repurpose the Marine Corps’ professional military education schools to study, analyze, and learn from Iraq and Afghanistan. Students could focus on those aspects of the war most pertinent to them. Captains could study operations at the battalion level and below, sergeants could study platoon operations and below, and so on. This effort could involve archival work, veteran interviews, and presentations of findings and recommendations.
The Marine Corps faces a choice in how it responds to America’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan: as a good loser or a poor one. In the years after Vietnam, despite many reforms and positive changes, it chose the latter. The Corps’ Vietnam experiences eventually disappeared, and Marines not yet born would bear the heavy price of that decision in Iraq and Afghanistan decades later. By seriously studying, critiquing, debating, and institutionalizing its recent experiences, the Marine Corps can reduce casualties in future wars, including one with China. To do this, however, it must first fix its lessons learned process. For a model of what a good loser does, the Marine Corps can look to the German army’s committees, reports, and regulations of the Interwar Period. So, Marine Corps, what will it be?
Author Bio: Easton is a defense critic living on the East Coast of the United States.
 Conrad C. Crane, “Avoiding Vietnam: The U.S. Army’s Response to Defeat in Southeast Asia,” U.S. Army War College Press, September 2002, v, https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/814/. Hereafter ‘Crane, “Avoiding Vietnam.”’
 See James Webb, “Iraqi military still dependent on US, coalition military in ISIS fight: watchdog,” November 2021, https://news.yahoo.com/iraqi-military-still-dependent-us-175557889.html.
 Col Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret), “Back to the Future: a firestorm brewing,” Marine Corps Gazette, web edition, January 2020, WE 29-30, https://mca-marines.org/wp-content/uploads/Back-to-the-Future.pdf.
 George C. Herring, “Preparing Not to Refight the Last Year: The Impact of the Vietnam War on the U.S. Military,” After Vietnam: Legacies of a Lost War (editor Charles E. Neu), Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, pg 58-59, https://www.amazon.com/After-Vietnam-Legacies-Lost-War/dp/0801863325.
 Along with this question, the point is often made that the US military can’t know for sure against whom it’s going to fight or where or under what conditions. It must then choose between preparing for the most dangerous but unlikely opponent (China) and a range of more likely but less dangerous opponents (like guerilla fighters or terrorist groups).
 U.S. Marine Corps, “Public Web site for the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned,” November 2021, https://www.tecom.marines.mil/Units/Divisions/Policy-and-Standards-Division/Marine-Corps-Center-for-Lessons-Learned/.
 Major General William F. Mullen, “TECOM Commander’s Guidance,” Training and Education Command, U.S. Marine Corps, July 2018, 4.
 Von Seeckt would become the army’s commander a year later in 1920.
 James S. Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform, University Press of Kansas, 1992, 37. https://www.amazon.com/Roots-Blitzkrieg-Seeckt-German-Military/dp/0700606289. Hereafter “Corum.”
 Corum, 37.
 Corum, 37.
 Corum, 38.
 Corum, 38.
 Corum, 38.
 Corum, 38-39.
 Corum, 39.
 Corum, 50 and chapter three.
 Corum, chapter four.
 Corum, 199-200
 Corum, 199.
 Corum, 50. If Marines are shocked by what the German army did in defeat, they might blush over its response to its first victory in World War Two (II). In 1939, after smashing the Polish military in the war’s opening stages, the German army embarked on another campaign—one of serious self-critique. It sought to collect as much tactical and technical experience from the war as possible and use it to improve doctrine and training. From the highest levels of command, German leaders were expected to provide brutally honest critiques of their troop’s performance, and the higher one went up the chain of command, the more critical the reports got. While German military leaders believed the performance of their troops confirmed the core concepts of their approach to warfighting, they found faults and deficiencies across the organization, deeming their wartime success “insufficient and inadequate.” It’s hard to imagine the victorious Marine commanders of Operation Desert Storm, a lopsided victory as ever but one still marred by operational, organizational, and doctrinal problems, responding like this. By contrast, the German reports criticized frontline commanders for often exaggerating the enemy’s strength and failing to send accurate, concise reports. Troops didn’t adequately perform reconnaissance and security missions and fought below expectations at night and in heavy terrain. Infantry and tanks failed to consistently work together well. Units were careless in camouflaging their positions and movements. The list goes on. From here, the Germans took their studies of the Polish campaign and used them to create an arduous training program over the winter of 1939-1940, which dramatically improved combat readiness across the army. It was this army, steeped in the lessons of von Seeckt’s committees and regulations and further improved by its careful study of the Polish Campaign and subsequent training program, that fought and beat the French army in 1940, then considered the best in the world. Of course, the German army ossified soon after this. It fell victim to its own success and hubris. Examinations as honest and thorough as Poland would not happen again. Even so, the German army between the Polish and French campaigns offer the Marine Corps much to learn. For more on the German response to Poland, see Williamson Murray, “The German Response to Victory in Poland,” in German Military Effectiveness, Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co. of America, July 1992, 231, https://www.amazon.com/German-Military-Effectiveness-Williamson-Murray/dp/1877853119. For what the Marine Corps can still learn from Operation Desert Storm, see LtCol Kenneth W. Estes, USMC (Ret), “Learning Lessons from the Gulf War,” Marine Corps Gazette, Vol. 82, Issue 11, November 1998, 92.
 For a potential model for this recommendation, see J.J. Ashcroft, “Symposiums on Experiences,” Marine Corps Gazette, Vol. 59, Issue 9, September 1975, 44-45.