The minimalist approach of Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1, Warfighting, is quite different from historical doctrines that sought to tackle contemporary challenges. In his Proceedings article, “To Innovate, Doctrine Is More Important Than Technology,” Marine Corps Major Scott Humr tried to wed MCDP-1 and Major Earl Ellis’s 1930s island-hopping strategy formulated for war against Imperial Japan.1 These two approaches to doctrine, however, are poles apart.
Three Waves of Doctrine
Ellis’s island-hopping concept sought to create a plan for a potential threat in a theater that would pose unique problems. He focused on problem-specific solutions, not institution-level guidance. In fact, with the exception of early Cold War nuclear strategy, the concept of organization-wide doctrine is a relatively recent phenomenon.2
Historian Russell Weigly introduced the concept of an “American way of war” in 1973, followed by the RAND Corporation’s Jack Snyder coining the term “strategic culture” in 1977. Termed the first wave of international and security studies, these doctrines tended to focus more on culture at the national level than on the military itself.
In the 1980s, the second wave of strategic thinking emerged: the “postmodern interpretation,” much of which focused on discourse as opposed to the individual cultures of the nation’s institutions. In the 1990s, the third wave of doctrine began to focus more on the individual service branches, with each writing doctrine best suited to its own cultural personality.3
The Corps’ Identity Crisis
The second and third waves coincided with the Corps’ internal conflict between what were called the small wars and the rapid deployment force (RDF) schools of thought. The small-wars model subscribed to the idea that low-intensity conflicts were what the Marine Corps would most likely be engaged in following the end of the Cold War, and therefore doctrine and training should reflect that limited level of engagement. This was opposed to heavy reliance on “pre-positioning and the massive logistical requirements that were the hallmark of the Army,” which students of the RDF model sought to embrace.4
Each concept was championed by its respective Commandant. General P. X. Kelley, a proponent of the RDF model, placed a large order for the Army’s new main battle tank, the M1 Abrams, in pursuit of his goal to make the Marine Corps more logistically heavy and capable of waging larger conflicts. His successor, General Alfred Gray, initially sought to reverse this, canceling much of the order and working toward a Marine Corps more oriented toward small wars. His aims were derailed by the first Gulf War, however, as RDF concepts such as maneuver war, heavy logistical support, and large-scale ground operations factored heavily into the routing of Saddam Hussein’s forces in Kuwait.
General Charles Krulak sought to bring Marine Corps doctrine back toward the small-wars model, but he only contributed to the Corps’ identity crises by creating an ambiguous doctrine that allowed the RDF and small-wars factions to continue to jostle for control.5
The current Commandant, General David Berger, is again moving doctrine in the direction of the small-wars model by seeking to better integrate the Corps with the Navy and limit the use of large war utilities such as tanks.
Flexible or Directionless?
Some theories on military doctrine contend that organizational doctrine is intentionally vague. The hypothesis is that organizational doctrines are formulated to “maximize resources, prestige, and autonomy” and that all changes in doctrine are expected to assist in these goals, with the primary focus being to ensure continuity and stability.6
This propensity toward the generic is reflected in MCDP-1. The “Bible” of the Marine Corps spends quite a few pages defining relatively simple terms, then lays out the concepts of attrition and maneuver warfare. But the concepts themselves are fairly vague, emphasizing speed and relative speed, as if being relatively faster than the enemy is something armies do not already know and an average person would not surmise.7
In addition, the revolutionary concept of maneuver warfare is not that revolutionary. World War I is the primary example of attrition warfare, but that actually was a consequence of a failed maneuver war. The German Army pushed through Belgium to march on Paris, avoiding the bulk of French defenses, but it had to abandon its plans when it was needed to reinforce the Western Front. Trench warfare resulted from a maneuver war that went on too long.
No military sets out to thrust the entire might of its army against the predominant strengths of its enemy, yet MCDP-1 seems to say that seeking out the enemy’s vulnerability is nothing short of revolutionary.
The generic tendencies of MCDP-1 are born of the three waves of doctrine and the subsequent battle between the two schools of thought that dominate the Marine Corps. As such, the document regurgitates a lot of military philosophies without providing any real direction for future armed conflicts. This lack of direction or specificity is often attributed to its flexibility. Jack Snyder in The Ideology of the Offensive explains this as “organization ideology.” He reasons that the formation of rational doctrine is the result of rational calculation, and that “deviations from rationality are the result of the biases that comprise organizational ideology.” In other words, the culture of an institution is used to explain doctrine that appears irrational.8
In some theories, this is called “gap doctrine,” or military policy where rational thought is meant to bridge the void in logic or provide instruction. The issue then becomes the culture of the Marine Corps, which often does not permit much in the way of flexibility in practice as opposed to in theory. Snyder explains that, in ambiguous doctrine, it is the permissive condition that allows ideology to dominate rationality, meaning that the doctrine, being ambiguous, defaults to the commander in charge, which in a way is more doctrinal void and improvisation than flexibility.
MCDP-1 makes more sense when put into context. Alone, it reads like a book written by someone with no idea what they are talking about. But in context, it tells a story of organizational confusion and a lack of direction. As war is an extension of both policy and politics, this should not be too surprising, but it is disappointing. Future Marine Corps doctrine perhaps should be less institutionally focused and more situationally aware, anticipating future conflicts and the best method by which to win them, much as Major Ellis did prior to World War II.
1. MAJ Scott Humr, USMC, “To Innovate, Doctrine Is More Important than Technology,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 12 (December 2018).
2. Austin G. Long, The Soul of Armies: Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture in the US and UK. Cornell Studies in Security Affairs (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2016), 7, 13.
3. Long, The Soul of Armies, 14
4. Long, 173.
5. Long, 174.
6. Long, 7.
7. Department of the Navy, MCDP-1, Warfighting (1997), 39–41.
8. Long, The Soul of Armies, 15.