Fraud or Fuzziness? Dissecting William Owen's Critique of Maneuver Warfare

See William Owen, "The Manoeuvre Warfare Fraud," in Small Wars Journal. Also published in August 2008, Vol 153, Vol 4. Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Journal.

As a very minor contributor to a couple of the Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication "White Books" outlining Maneuver Warfare and having once been a professor teaching Maneuver Warfare for American Military University, my attention was caught by William F. Owen's piece, "The Manoeuvre Warfare Fraud," if nothing else than for its catchy title. One might expect it to get a fair amount of visibility due to its controversial thesis. Owen is rightly frustrated with the maneuver warfare concept, especially since he appears to rely on the U.S. Marine Corps publications FMFM-1 and its successor, MCDP-1 Warfighting as the best contemporary articulation. But to characterize the concept as a fraud? A perversion of the truth perpetrated on the U.S. military in order to deceive it? There are indeed difficulties with the maneuver warfare concept, but to label it a fraud seems a bit much. Owen argues that the "the community it was intended to serve" embraced maneuver warfare uncritically. So who is to blame—the advocates who maliciously perpetrated the concept or the U.S. Marine Corps that accepted it so naively and so readily?

Establishing Context and Widening the Lens

From the outset, Owen takes aim at the "maneuver versus attrition" dichotomy that permeates much of the early maneuver warfare writings. This is a fair criticism given that the context which fueled the maneuver warfare and defense reform movements—the experience of the Vietnam War—has long since been lost. It is hard for maneuver warfare to stand alone without that context; the prop of "attrition warfare" grows increasingly thin as collective memory of "body counts" and other purely quantitative indices of battlefield success have faded away. It was ironic at the time that an organization such as the U.S. Marine Corps would embrace the maneuver warfare concept, given its heritage of bloody successes such as Belleau Wood in World War I, Tarawa and Iwo Jima in World War II, Hue City and Khe Sahn in Vietnam. The U.S. Army was also introducing the maneuver warfare concept into its "AirLand Battle" doctrine; embracing it was perhaps more natural, given the Army's focus and history.

Indeed, what is immediately striking about Owen's critique is that it is so narrowly confined to the U.S. Marine Corps and, what is more, to the keystone document that was FMFM-1 and now is MCDP-1 Warfighting. A highly respected U.S. Army author, LTC Robert Leonhard, wrote one of the definitive books on the subject, The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle (1994), characterizing U.S. Marine practice of the concept as being in one of two schools—the German maneuver warfare style (as opposed to the Soviet school counterpart). If Owens is dismissive of the notion that there are separate styles or forms of warfare, one wonders how he would judge Leonhard's careful characterization of the two maneuver warfare schools, which he differentiates in how they practiced command and control. I would also strongly recommend Leonhard's 2000 book, Principles of War for the Information Age, in describing the idea of spectrum ranges and justifying styles of operations.

Owen is certainly correct in pointing out that, compared to the volumes written on maneuver warfare subjects, works explicitly focused on attrition as a concept comprise a fairly small collection. While an AMU Professor conducting a 400-level Maneuver Warfare course, I was interested in developing a companion course entitled Attrition Warfare, but it never came to fruition because of a lack of suitable textbooks.

But I would disagree with Owen that there is not enough of a discussion of attrition warfare or that such a spectrum exists does not stand analysis. MCDP 1-3 Tactics and MCDP 6 Command and Control provide a good deal of additional conceptual detail (and examples). There are also case studies and Tactical Decision Games available in the Marine Corps to illustrate historical approaches and the advantages as well as disadvantages of a more "maneuverist" approach as opposed to an "attritionist" one. Even with 20 years of Maneuver Warfare doctrine behind them, U.S. Marines do not appear to have any discomfort or unfamiliarity with regard to employing attritional methods. What's difficult is knowing which style works best in what kinds of situations. One wishes for the insight and mental agility of General U.S. Grant who showed his mastery of one style of war in the Vicksburg campaign of 1863 and quite another in his drive towards Richmond in 1864. William Owen is right when he argues that these styles are not competing, but complementary.

Perpetuating the Concept

Owen intends his argument to convince the reader that the U.S. Marine Corps accepted the maneuver warfare concept based "largely on ignorance and a lack of intellectual rigor." Unfortunately he does not establish his case, which is based on brief surveys of a number of writers and ideas, Sir Liddell-Hart, Sun Tzu, John Boyd, Bill Lind, and Richard Simpkin. He might have made a better argument through a discussion of how maneuver warfare became U.S. Marine Corps doctrine; a chapter within Terry Pierce's Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies: Disguising Innovation and Fideleon Damian's recent Kansas State University master's thesis entitled, The Road to FMFM 1: The United States Marine Corps and Maneuver Warfare Doctrine, 1979-1989, would have given him some good insights and possible foundation for his argument.

Certainly maneuver warfare has had its share of advocates and advocacy; few with academic credentials are much taken with the "marketing materials." Unfortunately the most vocal critics have not mounted arguments with impressive intellectual force either; a good example by a very prominent Army officer, Daniel P. Bolger (now an army Major General) within Richard D Hooker Jr's Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology, is fairly representative. The most thoughtful critic of "German School" maneuver warfare is BG Shimon Naveh in his book In Pursuit of Military Excellence: The Evolution of Operational Theory as he lambasts WWII German practice of field initiative as being more "personality-driven" tactics for the sake of career advancement or battlefield glory.

Despite this, maneuver warfare—whether Soviet or German school--has a very rich intellectual tradition behind the military "bumper stickers;" it just takes a good bit of research and study to ferret this out. While Owen is quick to point out that John Boyd--one of the "significant advocates" of maneuver warfare--was influenced by Liddell Hart, Lawrence of Arabia, and Sun Tzu, he doesn't explain how Boyd was misled by those "inaccurate translations and interpretations" as he claims he was. A very close reading of Franz Osinga's formidable Science, Strategy, and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, the best and most comprehensive book we have on Boyd's concepts, do not show any evidence that Boyd fell victim to the problems Owen points out in his critiques of Liddell Hart and Sun Tzu.

Perhaps most telling are Owen's criticisms of William S. Lind, the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) process, and the concept of reconnaissance pull. One wonders if the author even understands the latter two subjects of discussion. Boyd's concept of fast transients—refined into the decision cycle (or OODA Loop) idea—was derived from his air-combat maneuvering experience and expanded to encompass command and control in violent conflicts. Designing command and control processes to take less time in any and/or all stages of the OODA process while minimizing degradation to quality in information and decisionmaking confers advantages in combat. The OODA Loop itself is not meant to be unique to maneuver warfare as the author seems to claim. What is different is that maneuver warfare aims to shorten the OODA Loop of the friendly force—and lengthen it for the enemy—as the best way to throw that enemy into chaos and confusion. The chess discussion, as Owen articulates it, does not clarify his complaint to any degree. Regarding reconnaissance pull, what makes it best for decentralized command and control is that units finding gaps tell neighboring and follow on forces where to go instead of waiting for the commander to do it. But Owen doesn't even recognize this. "Recon push" or "command push" is less about telling the recon units where to go and how to do business. It is more about what happens after the recon units find the gaps. Commanders make the decisions on who will exploit those fleeting opportunities—and when. But you'd never know this from reading the author's descriptions.

More Misunderstandings of What Maneuver Warfare Is...and Is Not

Owen seizes on one of Sun Tzu's aphorisms as being a central tenet of the maneuver warfare. Maneuver warfare advocates do not suggest that this style of war will be bloodless, contrary to what the author indicates. A quick check on casualty statistics for some of the cases often used as illustrations by maneuver warfare advocates--the German 1918 Michael Offensive, the France 1940 campaign, Afrika Korps and Israeli mechanized operations in the desert—will put paid to that notion. It's not that maneuver warfare will lead to small casualties. Neither Soviet nor German School advocates can make that claim. What they do insist is that friendly casualties suffered are more than compensated for by disproportionately larger amounts of leverage against the enemy compared to more attritional methods.

Owen's lack of familiarity with maneuver warfare literature is most telling in his observation that "[If] MW was in fact valid, operations could be practiced using detailed orders as opposed to mission command..." This is precisely what the Soviet school maneuver warfare advocates argued, and the best expression of this is found in Naveh's book as well as Leonhard's chapter entitled "The Death of Mission Tactics" in his masterful 1996 treatment, Fighting By Minutes: Time and the Art of War. Leonhard himself was working hard in the late 1990s as part of the Army's Warfighting Evaluation efforts to achieve the kind of "digitized" network that Owen suggests could enable a "fully networked coherent common operating picture" that "could make mission command unnecessary."

Assessing the Criticisms

This points out perhaps the biggest limitation of the maneuver warfare concept and one that Owen unfortunately does not really address. What do we mean by maneuver warfare, really? While the author takes issue with the MCDP 1 definition, he misses the real problem. Certainly there's legitimate concern that focus on "fancy maneuver" in peace shortchanges demands for "weight of shell" in war. But nobody argues vociferously against operating at higher tempos or having better focus against enemy weaknesses instead of strengths. Nobody disagrees that shattering enemy cohesion and will is a good thing when you can do it. Most of the criticisms regarding maneuver warfare have to do with command and control. It's a question of how much centralization and decentralization you need, how to achieve it, how to balance it, and—perhaps most difficult of all—how to transition back and forth between centralization and decentralization when circumstances demand it. There's a fair amount of worry about subordinate leaders exercising "inappropriate initiative." Marine Corps eagerness to get at the Iraqis as fast as they did in the Persian Gulf War unhinged the campaign concept and threatened to chase the defenders out of Kuwait before the U.S. Army's "Hail Mary" left hook could trap and destroy them (see Michael Gordon and LtGen Bernard Trainor, The Generals' War). That may have been partly due to the culture of maneuver warfare that had begun to take root—with too much focus on independent initiative and possibly not so much focus on keeping with the commander's intent and campaign concept.

So perhaps it's not that the maneuver warfare concept is a fraud. It's more that the maneuver warfare concept is fuzzy, even given the extensive literature we have on it. For military minds and lawyer-like analysts and academics who like to have a great deal of precision in terminology, meaning, and application, the maneuver warfare concept falls short, even nearly twenty years after its adoption.

Relevance to Small Wars Journal Readers

The real and lasting contribution of the maneuver warfare clique was to engender more thinking about "the Art of War" in general and not just maneuver warfare in particular. The debate over the maneuver warfare concept—fuzzy as the term was—and whether the USMC should adopt it heightened concern over military judgment and simultaneously raised the level of discussion. Marine General Anthony Zinni argues in his book, Battle Ready, that prior to ascendance of the Marine Corps' prime advocate for maneuver warfare, General Alfred Gray, it was rare to hear officers above the rank of captain talk about tactics. It is hard to believe it was once that way in the Corps, especially now.

It is perhaps worth asking ourselves the question whether our current excellence in counterinsurgency operations was enhanced or inhibited by a maneuver warfare culture in the USMC. Given that maneuver warfare was a reaction to perceived tactical missteps in Vietnam, it is tempting to assess the former and not the latter. But only history (and future historians) will be able to judge.

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Comments

I read Mr. Owen's article a short time ago. It's provocative. One thing I've learned from this site is that I really shouldn't try to plant myself in the "maneuver" or "attrition" camp. The more I look at it, the more unfitting those titles are, in so far as creating an artificial dichotomy for tactical approaches.

This is an excellent reply with excellent comments. I'll be looking to survey and read the items mentioned above. Very enlightening and humbling to see articles like this. While many titles I see are ones that I've read or at least examined in a cursory fashion, I have seldom reached the depth of understanding I find posted by others on this site.

Good to see Rob Leonhard's work get a plug here. What I have not seen from any of the "Small Wars" crowd (e.g. Petraeus, McMaster) is any attempt to tie their work back to OODA or recon-pull. Clearly, the fog of war is a real problem in stabilization ops, particularly when one's intelligence capabilities are not at all satisfactory...reversion to attrition strategy - and tactics - is all too easy in such an environment. One common fallacy of maneuver warfare ala Liddell Hart and Lind - as well as the stabilization ops concepts of the likes of Rupert Smith and (sometimes) Petraeus and McMaster - is the notion that the operation center of gravity may not require a violent denouement. This is the bastardized form of maneuver warfare that one sometimes sees. A perusal of the first chapter (esp. "Wars of Opinion) of Jomini's Art of War might put paid to the idea that 19th century classics aren't worth reading.
Be that as it may, the Army doctrine of maneuver warfare, at any rate, had very strong guidelines as to the relationship between initiative and commander's intent, and I believe that doctrine is sound. Richard Simkpin's book, "Human Factors in Mechanized Warfare" did a good job of summarizing alternative command and control philosophies. Citino's "The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich" did a great job of deconstructing Auftragstaktik in relation to the, ummm, less than disciplined command culture of the Prussian Army and its successors. It is tough to watch our Bundeswehr colleagues struggling to learn how to do stabilization operations, but even there, the aversion of the FRG public to casualties and the low level of public support for ISAF in the Bundesrepublik only tighten the tension in which these our allies must operate. Since the German military tradition does well in reflecting on its experience and transforming that experience into theory, it would be interesting to read what they have to share and how their experiences impact their philosophy of command.

I don't think any thinking person has a problem with maneuvering faster than the enemy.

My problem with the Maneuverists (which is the same problem as I have with the 4th generation crowd, who are often the same people) is their very one-way hubris.

No matter how well a campaign or engagement is executed, the say that you didn't do it right if you actually had to kill someone or destroy something. Instead, you're supposed to run around the enemy so fast that he gets dizzy and gives up before you need to kill or destroy (attrition).