A World War II manual for sowing mayhem in occupied countries strongly resembles today’s Marine Corps administrative processes.
The Central Intelligence Agency declassified in 2008 a World War II–era document on sabotage. The “Simple Sabotage Field Manual” was written and distributed by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1944 to pro-Allied workers in Nazi-occupied territory to suggest ways to disrupt the Nazi war machine. The manual covers sabotage in many forms, from malicious destruction at a factory to the unnecessary bureaucratization of simple tasks. Among other things, it highlights basic actions anyone can perform to undermine an organization from within. Over time, much of the booklet’s advice appears to have found its way into the Marine Corps’ administrative processes.
As the Marine Corps has decreased its pace of combat over the past decade, its inefficiency has increased. The idea of doing more with less is a fallacy and a physical impossibility. Individual Marines and the service as a whole have become bogged down with administrative tasks that steer focus away from important tactical and personnel development. Training at larger unit levels has become predictable and unchallenging, and new ideas struggle to grow under the shade of Marines set in their ways. In short, the Marine Corps faces self-imposed obstacles that bear a strong resemblance to those the manual recommends.
Sabotage from Within
Many ideas in the OSS manual may seem recognizable in today’s Marine Corps. For example, would-be saboteurs should “insist on doing everything through ‘channels.’ Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.”1 I was in a squadron in which the pilot functioning as the S-6 (communications and information technology staff officer) called the help desk for some computer matter. The “helper” refused to provide aid—because that task was required to be routed through the proper channel by the squadron S-6. He then referred our S-6 to himself and said he needed to be the one to process the request. Eventually the issue was resolved, but many hours were wasted.
On another occasion, our unit was scheduled to operate from a temporary facility and needed internet connectivity. The building had all the appropriate hardware but required a contract to connect. The S-6 submitted the appropriate forms ahead of the exercise but found on arrival that the internet had not been turned on. He called headquarters, which referred him to the next higher level. Every level continued to refer him higher, until he eventually reached a general officer in the Pentagon who was willing to approve the request. The next day, and for the rest of the exercise, the internet worked. Our higher echelons were upset the S-6 had called so high up, despite the fact they gave him implicit permission by continually referring him up the chain. He embodied the “message to Garcia” zeal of Lieutenant Andrew Rowan and met our squadron’s need, but he hurt a few feelings along the way and wasted a lot of time.
Another suggestion from the manual may have a familiar ring: “Multiply the procedures and clearances
involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.”2 The government travel charge card provides a lot of flexibility when it comes to individual travel, but it creates a large bureaucratic footprint, especially for group travel. When a unit travels to an exercise together and uses the same lodging, it should be able to submit a single payment and group voucher against the centrally billed account. Requiring every Marine to execute an individual claim dramatically lengthens the approval process and costs countless hours at all levels as a single group submission becomes 100 individual ones.
The manual describes another obstacle readers may recognize: “Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw.”3 At The Basic School, Marines learn the importance of the 70-percent solution, reflecting General George Patton’s axiom that “a good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” Ask yourself: would your commanding officer ever accept a 70-percent plan? Probably not.
Does this affect Marines’ ability to train how they fight? How perfect does a brief have to be? Who will be upset if some briefing slides use different font sizes? Yes, a good-looking brief can be an outward manifestation of the briefer’s attention to detail. But attention to the details of the operation itself are more important. The Marine Corps should not relax its high standards—but it eliminated polished boots and starched utilities so it could focus on tactics instead of laundry.
The “Simple Sabotage Manual” offers many more ways to damage an organization from within: “Multiply paper work in plausible ways. Start duplicate files”; “Demand written orders”; “Make ‘speeches,’ [and] talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate ‘patriotic’ comments.”4
It is truly unsettling.
Repairing the Damage
Training needs to allow for failure—and it does, at lower levels. In the Marine Corps martial arts program, Marines learn to fight multiple opponents at once, not so much to succeed in a particular bout as to learn to focus and prioritize. This is not to suggest the Marine Corps should practice failure, but it is important to learn to operate while feeling tactically overwhelmed.
Excessive administrative burdens take Marines’ focus off warfighting. (U.S. Marine Corps/Hannah Hall)
Imagine a Marine expeditionary force (MEF) exercise in which the MEF faced a surprise significant enough to result in immediate amphibious withdrawal after the assault. Or consider a training scenario during which someone has forgotten to deploy aircraft close to the front prior to an operation. In today’s training environment, the civilian simulator operators typically would simply “teleport” the missing aircraft into the fray; this negates the lack of communication among the staff. Better would be to acknowledge the mistake, blame it on the “fog of war,” and force the Marines to exercise with the error. Mistakes happen, and Marines do themselves a disservice by glossing over the chance to learn from them in training.
Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller wants to find a cost-effective solution to the problem. As he told the Marine Corps Times last year, “What I’m looking for is a simulation where a battalion or squadron commander or a regimental or a group commander or a division, wing, or MEF or a corps commander can go in and not have to put thousands of people on the battlespace and in the air and actually get them to do a repetition.”5 Although there already are 11 large-scale “virtual” wargames each year, the Corps is looking for something accessible to lower-level commanders. If what the Commandant likens to the Star Trek “holodeck” comes to fruition, it will be a great resource—as long as commanders are willing to practice the tough scenarios.
Another roadblock to success is the value the Corps places on output over efficiency. Many Marines work well beyond normal hours, trying to reduce the ever-mounting volume of work. But the truth is the work will never be complete. There will always be something more to do. The sabotage manual suggests that managers can “lower morale” if they are “pleasant to inefficient workers [and] give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.”6
Commanding officers should focus praise and high fitness-report marks on those who work most efficiently, not those who are willing to work themselves to death. Time-critical situations require Marines who can process an immediate call for fire accurately. Teaching Marines at all levels to operate efficiently will encourage healthier mental and physical habits, especially if we reward their efficiency with time off. These healthy habits will strengthen individual Marines, which in turn will strengthen the Corps.
The Accidental Saboteur
There are many reasons why the Marine Corps has come to operate the way it does, and most of them originate in good intentions, not deliberate OSS-style sabotage—rules and limits often result from accidents or instances of abuse. But the mentality that places the rules above the reasons they exist often prevents Marines from helping Marines. It wastes time and disrupts the work-life balance Marines say is important.
The sense that things cannot or will not change also can prevent new ideas from spreading in both the tactical and administrative realms. To function at the highest level, the Marine Corps needs to remove roadblocks. Allowing for failure—and being willing to investigate its causes—will mean rooting out broken processes. In this way, the Marine Corps can disrupt the self-sabotage that bears too much resemblance to the deliberate mischief and mayhem advocated for in the OSS manual.
1. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), “Simple Sabotage Field Manual” (Washington, DC: Office of Strategic Services, 1944), 28.
2. OSS, “Simple Sabotage,” 30.
3. OSS, “Simple Sabotage,” 29.
4. OSS, “Simple Sabotage,” 28.
5. Jeff Schogol, “Top Marine General: Commanders Need a ‘Holodeck’ for War Games,” Marine Corps Times, 20 September 2017.
6. OSS, “Simple Sabotage,” 29.
Captain Jasperson is serving at the 5th Marine Regiment as the assistant air officer, deployed with Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force–Crisis Response–Central Command.