Saturday, January 14, 2012

500 Words or Less

DOCTRINE  and the Tyranny of Words
Our doctrine is a collection of a relatively small set of universal truths about war.  Our doctrine is not a list of useful solutions to particular problems.  However, we as Marines often use the term “doctrine” to refer to more than these universal truths, these timeless principles we enshrine in our Marine Corps Doctrine publications. When a Marine uses the term ‘doctrine’ he often does so in reference to techniques and procedures, things that are not ‘doctrine.’  In the case of discussing techniques and procedures a Marine would be better served in using the term ‘convention.’

Instead of referring to our fire support control measures as matters of doctrine, we should identify them as conventions. The same goes for support relationships, specific tactical terms, reporting procedures, etc.  All of these are relatively arbitrary and matters of convention, they describe our particular answers to specific problems we’ve encountered in war.  They are conventions we use, and should be referred to as such since there is little timeless about them.
So what’s the big deal? The word “doctrine” carries psychological force that Marines use to gain the silence of any subordinate or peer who tries to think or act unconventionally. This will result in killing fruitful developments.  After all, how can you argue with, “I understand, but doctrine is doctrine, and we must adhere to doctrine. You want it changed? Contact MCCDC”?
On the other hand the term “convention” bears much less pressure on the psyche.  It is also a more accurate description of the tactics, techniques and procedures found in our Marine Corps Warfighting Publications. Calling a practice of ours “convention,” makes it easier to avoid hang-ups about violating it, or modifying it when the situation demands such circumvention. While doctrine carries the force of a centralized approving authority, convention gives you a sense that it’s a mere practice developed from past experience, one that might need changing as technology develops and we face new threats.
If what I have said here is off-base or misguided, I point you to MCDP-1 which states clearly that doctrine “does not consist of procedures to be applied in specific situations so much as it sets forth general guidance that requires judgment in application. Therefore, while authoritative, doctrine is not prescriptive.” It is descriptive, and doctrine is doctrine.


  1. I think you are on the mark. If anything, we do a poor job of following our own doctrine. I have a hard time reading MCDP 1 or some of our better MCWP series of publications and think we do a good job of practicing what we preach. Kind of ironic actually.

  2. Having worked around some of the Doctrine gentlemen at MCCDC (and having had my eyes gloss over in "lostness" several times when they were trying to explain to me the heirarchy of Joint and USMC doctrines and how everything else we publish maps back to those sources) I now cringe when I hear people throw the word around to refer to everything from Marine Corps directives and orders to small unit TTPs. Heck, I even heard a guy use the "D" word to try and explain why all hands need to call in for accountablity half-way through 96 hour liberty periods.

    I like the last paragraph of the blog which describes straight out of MCDP-1 what doctrine is not. To steal a scene from that 90's movie where the main character is asked to "define irony"; maybe I'll ask any "D-bomb" droppers to "define doctrine" before they continue speaking.