Schmitt wrote well, distilling the best parts of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu into prose accessible to the Marines who would do the actual fighting

Monday, June 13th, 2022

In 1989, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps Alfred M. Gray reenergized the post-Vietnam Marine Corps with the publication of Warfighting:

Thirty-three years later, the thin manual is known today as Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication One and still canonizes the fighting philosophy of the Marines. But Warfighting has always been controversial. It was written quickly and quietly, by one Marine captain working directly for the Commandant and with minimal input from the broader Marine Corps. Gray’s approach — jamming through innovation against strong headwinds — seems echoed today by Commandant David H. Berger’s efforts to change the design of the Corps with an audacious document called Force Design 2030 (FD 2030), a fact that seems somewhat ironic given the stiff opposition he faces from some of Warfighting’s most ardent advocates.


Al Gray remains a Marine Corps icon. Gray was an enlisted Marine; a veteran of combat in Korea and Vietnam who once walked into a minefield to save a wounded Marine. He was one of the Corps’ great mavericks, the kind of Marine who dared to break rules, and succeed greatly, in an organization known for rigid standards. As commandant, Gray typically wore camouflage utilities rather than dress uniforms and regularly punched enlisted Marines in the chest — hard — to show affection. Warfighting was Gray’s vision and he bent rules and ignored the conventions of the Marine Corps’ often mind-numbing bureaucracy to bring it to life.

Gray was an impatient intellectual in a Corps suffering through a post-Vietnam anti-intellectual malaise. Commanding the 2nd Marine Division in the early 1980s, he declared maneuver warfare the official doctrine of his division. Then-Lt. John Schmitt was a platoon commander in 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. He remembers being called to the base theater at Camp Lejeune along with every officer in the 2nd Marine Division, where Gray declared, “Maneuver warfare is the doctrine of Second Marine Division. Get on board or get left behind.” Though already a “maneuverist,” Schmitt could not have known how much that day would affect his future. Gray kept pushing forward with the maneuver warfare concept and in 1987 when he became commandant, he wasted no time cementing maneuver warfare as the Corps’ foundational doctrine, though years later he would say he regretted using the word doctrine instead of philosophy. It’s an important distinction as Warfighting is more about how Marines should think about warfare than how they should execute warfare.

In another maverick move, Gray ignored the line of colonels outside his office lobbying for the task of composing the document and assigned just one junior officer — then frocked Capt. John Schmitt — to write Warfighting alone and responsible only to Gray, an experience Schmitt now describes as “pretty surreal.”


As Schmitt was drafting Warfighting, building upon bottom-up momentum generated by informal Marine study groups, Gray brought Marine allies such as Van Riper and Cols. Michael Wyly and Patrick “Paddy” Collins to Quantico, Virginia, in what became known as the “Quantico Renaissance.” He also availed himself of outsiders like William “Bill” Lind and legendary Air Force Col. John Boyd to help plant his flag in the chest of an intellectually stultified Marine Corps. Lind was a controversial figure, an Ivy League scholar of German history with no military experience, a gap that did not prevent him from claiming to have started the debate over maneuver warfare in the 1970s. Boyd was best known for describing the OODA loop, an air-to-air combat concept he broadly applied to ground war theories. Lind and Boyd were both fans of the closely related German military concepts of Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” and Auftragstaktik, or mission command, and of Liddell-Hart’s belief in the indirect approach to warfighting.

Gray gave Schmitt minimal guidance. In fact, Schmitt says, Gray refused to give any direct guidance. Instead, the commandant spoke in parables, Schmitt recalled to Task & Purpose.

“I would ask him what he thought and he would look at me and say, ‘Let me tell you a story about Little Al Gray.’ What he was doing was maneuver warfare,” said Schmitt. “He made sure I understood his intent, but he left it up to me to figure out how to accomplish the mission.”

Gray met with Schmitt only twice during the writing process, then signed off on the draft with only one change. Where Schmitt had written within the introduction a charge for every Marine to read Warfighting, Gray inserted, “…and re-read.” If Warfighting had turned out to be just another military document; written, published and largely ignored, this would still be a remarkable story. But it wasn’t remotely ignored.

Schmitt wrote well, distilling the best parts of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu into prose accessible to the Marines who would do the actual fighting. Warfighting has since spawned a series of equally compelling, readable Marine Corps doctrinal publications, or MCDPs, on everything from campaigning to leadership to intelligence. Schmitt had a hand in many of these as well. Taken together, the books anchor Marine Corps training and education. But when it comes to institutional change, the messenger matters as much as the message.

Getting an organization of 200,000 people to buy into a book like Warfighting requires salesmanship, a painful lesson Commandant Berger is now learning two years into the life of FD 2030. Gray’s acolytes, including Van Riper, pushed hard to get Marines to adopt all aspects of maneuver warfare. The hard push was only partially successful.


Van Riper, Schmitt, and others in Gray’s inner circle needed all the help they could get in selling Warfighting in some parts of the Marine Corps, but while they were energizing Marines with the best parts of Warfighting, Bill Lind was alienating Marine leaders well-positioned to undermine Gray’s initiative.

It is hard to find Marines who served in the 1980s or 1990s who have fond memories of Bill Lind. Even before Gray ascended to commandant, Lind wrote an article in The Washington Post calling senior Marine officers inept for failing to prevent the 1983 Beirut barracks attack and personally criticized then-Commandant P.X. Kelley for refusing to embrace his ideas about war and tactics. In the same article, he described war as an intellectual chess match, taking the idea of winning without fighting to an unrealistic extreme. According to Lind, the purpose of a rifle is not to kill, but to suppress the enemy so he can be outmaneuvered. That notion didn’t wear well in a Marine Corps culturally centered on good old-fashioned rifle killing at close range.

Gray and Lind were both enamored of German military concepts from the world wars. But Lind pushed the German example to the point that it became repellent, often showing up unannounced and wearing an ersatz German officer’s uniform at Marine planning sessions, exercises, and training schools like the Infantry Officer Course. Lind had the often-infuriating habit of telling even the most talented Marine officers they were wrong or simply stupid before quoting German Wehrmacht doctrine to set them straight. Many of these officers — all aware that Lind had no actual military experience and that the Germans had lost both world wars — went on to become colonels and generals. They remembered Lind’s words and demeanor and could not have helped associating it with maneuver warfare, a lingering resentment well documented in Marine Corps War College professor Jim Lacey’s 2014 article, “The Continuing Irrelevance of William Lind.”


  1. Hoyos says:

    Part of the problem is really poorly defined or impossible goals for the military. When the goals are measurable, like “overthrow the Taliban”, we did that fast. When the goal was “turn Afghanistan into a modern democracy”, that is not something that would have been possible for anyone really. Restoring the Afghan monarchy and making it a more harmless or free place might have been possible. But we ideologically can’t.

    The author of the Irrelevancy of Bill Lind was right that we have a tremendous record of tactical and operational victories. But again on the strategic level we don’t know what we’re doing but that is more policy, not really the military’s fault, albeit I would expect some generals to know that and tell the truth.

  2. Michael Towns says:

    “albeit I would expect some generals to know that and tell the truth”

    Know it? Yes. Tell the truth? No. At the flag officer level, it’s rank politics all the way down. We haven’t had a “truth telling” general since Patton.

  3. Goober says:


    Excellent. As a non-military man (4-f and then some), I always feel like I’m doing a Dunning Krueger when I speak on all matters military. However, in this one case, I feel like I’m pretty correct when I say that I agree with you.

    The overriding failure of the US military since 1945 has been a failure to clearly articulate an achievable goal. And ultimately, without that, you cannot have a strategy. Without that, you get in-fighting amongst the higher ranks because nobody seems to know what they’re doing. MacArthur approaching the Yalu and then advocating for nukes is a perfect example of this – most politicians and a good portion of the military brass thought that pushing the NORKs back into NORKland was good enough, but nobody actually bothered to decide where to stop, so we just… kept going, with the result being a completely unintentional escalation of the war. This lead to a situation where US troops were in a very provacative position that we probably didn’t need to be in if we’d had a clearly articulated goal from day 1. Vietnam is another good example. I mean, need I say more? Vietnam is the poster child for “let’s go in and do something to accomplish something, we’ll figure out what, exactly, eventually”.

    Then you get Iraq 1, which was, IMHO, a rare exception to this rule. Our goal was to put Saddam back into Iraq, so we did that and stopped. Goal achieved. You can quibble on whether that the was right goal or not, but at least we had an achievable goal and achieved it. You already covered A-stan and Iraq 2.

    Ultimately, I again restate that I’m no military man, but just being the business man that I am, I can clearly see that no matter how professional, motivated, prepared, and well-equipped your team is, if you don’t actually know what you’re actually trying to accomplish, then amazingly enough, you’ll never actually accomplish anything.

  4. Lucklucky says:

    The USA is good with the stick, but not good with the carrot.

    You can’t win a war only with kinetic action if the objective is to democratize Afghanistan, since that is not a kinetic objective.
    You need ideology, propaganda, and education. You need to change the people of Afghanistan, if you want to change Afghanistan.

  5. Altitude Zero says:

    I’ve always found the “Wehrmacht-worship” of many military analysts likr Lind simplistic, misleading and off-putting, but after tracking down the Lacey article in Small Wars Journal, he's at least as off base as Lind. Lacey's attitude seems to be "The US military is the bestest and coolest and baddest-assed fighting force in the world – Hoo-ah! Ignore the fact that we've won exactly one war in the last sixty-nine years, because…reasons" and this just won't cut it. The fact that the US military tends to win overwhelming tactical and operational victories, but ends up repeatedly getting beaten strategically by non-peer competitors would seem to indicate that something is surely wrong. It may be our top political leadership, it may be those who set strategic doctrine in the military, it may be that the US way of war trades long-term strategic value for short-term success, I don't know. But Lacey's argument that the medical team is great, but that the patient somehow usually ends up dead is even worse than Lind strutting around pretending to be Colonel Klink. At least Lind is trying to find out what is wrong, even if I do think he's barking up the wrong tree.

  6. Jim says:

    “Many of these officers — all aware that Lind had no actual military experience and that the Germans had lost both world wars — went on to become colonels and generals.”

    That’s true. Those American colonels and generals were so right. The Germans had lost both world wars.


    While fighting on two fronts against adversaries cumulatively ten times their number…

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