Monday, January 28, 2013

Living History

When I was a teenager, I lived in State College, Pennsylvania. Also living in State College at that time, and living there still today, is an older gentlemen by the name of Gerald Russell. Colonel Gerald Russell, USMC (ret), youngest battalion commander during the Battle of Iwo Jima, to be exact. He is a living legend, a treasure trove of experience and historical knowledge.

Colonel Russell, however, is not the focus of this essay. The focus is any and every living former Marine Corps battalion commander, particularly those who have commanded a battalion in Iraq or Afghanistan. Just like Colonel Russell, the value of whose experience no one would question if he were to present those experiences in a speech or in writing, we have battalion commanders who have commanded in war, and whose experiences can be captured and passed on to another generation of leaders.

“Sir, the Private is Fine!”

by LtCol Walter F. McTernan III, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired) 

In 1975-7 I served as a series commander at the legendary Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris, Island, South Carolina, a highly motivating assignment. Every night just before taps the series commander would hold a nightly “health and comfort” inspection of each recruit. This usually perfunctory inspection consisted of a quick walk by each recruit, who while otherwise at a correct position of attention, would hold out his hands for inspection. The series officer would focus on glancing at the recruits’ feet (with an eye out for blisters) and checking hands (both front and back) for blisters and general cleanliness. As the series commander would inspect each recruit individually, the trainee would ritually shout out, “Sir, the private is fine!!!”

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Women in Combat Arms

by Andrew Lubin

Let’s get something straight: the courage and commitment of women Marines are not an issue.
From helo pilots to up-gunners to crew chiefs to running convoys; Women Marines have participated in more combat in Iraq and Afghanistan than in any American war – and they’ve performed admirably.

But SecDef Panetta’s announcement opens the worlds of infantry, artillery, and armor to women for the first time, and the commentators, blogs, and discussion boards are extremely unhappy; ‘using the military to push social engineering’ is one of the more polite phrases used. Are they correct?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


  The Commandant in his 2010 Planning Guidance explicitly states his goals for the Marine Corps University.  He wants to: “develop [the] Marine Corps university (MCU) into a World Class institution.”

If our MCU is to be world class, then we must recognize the excellence of those who teach at our University.  To accomplish this we need to place books written by the MCU faculty on the Commandant’s reading list.  This was done recently for a short period of time in 2012, several books from one particular faculty member did appear on the list: Dr. Bruce Gudmundsson’s Stormtroop Tactics and his updated edition of John English’s On Infantry.  Neither, however, made the cut on 2 January, 2013, and that is an absolute travesty.

Though I have not read On Infantry , I have read Stormtroop Tactics.  A fascinating read!  You must read it in conjunction with Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel, and Rommel’s Attacks. Both Junger’s and Rommel’s books are on the CMC’s Reading list, and are incredibly engaging personal accounts of their experiences in WWI.  They describe experiences of battles where good ol’ Ernst & Erwin used the Stormtroop tactics that would provide the basis for the blitzkrieg in WWII.  Dr. Gudmundsson’s book contextualizes and explains the details of these Stormtroop, or “assault,” tactics described by the two German Officers. Without Dr. G’s book to frame the narratives of Junger & Rommel, Storm of Steel, and Attacks are merely good yarns that provide little more than a suggestion of the attitude one might take toward war.

Stormtroop Tactics provides a professional account of the practical beginnings of our maneuver warfare heritage.  It details the initial movements toward a more mobile mindset in the German Army, a mindset that ultimately created the conditions that allowed them to sweep through Europe like a knife cuts through butter.  The Germans accomplished in six weeks (much thanks to aggressive Generals like Rommel) a land grab that the Allies took five years to reverse.  The underpinnings of this significant feat are well worth understanding.  Stormtroop Tactics paints the picture, describing the practical application of their lessons.  It is the answer key to what are otherwise a handful of anecdotes, free to be misinterpreted or misapplied at will.

As LtGen Breckenridge, USMC, said in 1934, “I want our officers to be original, and to confidently assert themselves by speech and pen.  To stand up and speak, and to sit down and write; and in between times to read and reason.  As a result of that activity they will speak and write.  Someday a Mahan will emerge from the [Marine Corps] crowd.”  Am I saying Dr. G is the next Mahan?  Maybe not, but what I am saying is that by supporting our own, marketing our thinkers to both the Marine Corps and the world, we are getting ever closer to creating an environment that can and will produce that next Clausewitz, that next Mahan, that next Boyd.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Observing Mali

File:Pedro del Valle.jpgFellow Artillerist Captain Brett Friedman has written an excellent article on Operation Serval, an operation being conducted by France in Mali. 

Like myself, and the rest of us, he can only read about this in the news, from journalists.  Maybe at some point we'll be able to examine reports from the French themselves.  Would it not be nice if we could send our own observers to sit and watch the operation unfold?  The decisions the French make?  The decisions they don't make?  If we did this, we could have an after action review written by someone who thinks like a Marine, writes like a Marine, and knows what issues Marines are interested in, simply because the one writing is a Marine.

Crazy idea?  Well, another fellow artillerist, LtGen Pedro del Valle, in the late 1930s "participated as an observer with the Italian Forces during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The experiences which del Valle gained as an observer led him to author the book "Roman Eagles Over Ethiopia" where he describes the events leading up to the Italian expedition and the complete movements of combat operations by the Italian Army under Generals De Bono, Badoglio, and Graziani." 

Granted, then-LtCol del Valle was the Assistant Naval Attache attached to the American Embassy in Italy.  So he was already there, and what else would he do?  What else indeed.  If there isn't, there should be a program to send Marine observers (just two perhaps)  to conflicts our allies have invested ground troops in.  Especially if they've committed Marines, or a MAGTF, as the French have now done in Mali.  We could see how our allies conduct business, perhaps even learn from their mistakes, or their successes, and bring that back to enhance our own understanding of how we as a Marine Corps can deal with current and future, low and high intensity conflicts.  If there is a program, where can I sign up?

Operation Serval

I want to preface this post by saying that I’m in no way an expert on Mali, or Africa, or France, or anything really. The purpose is to summarize a conflict that Marines should be paying attention to as professionals, not to pass judgement on France’s decision to intervene in Mali, and to highlight parallels with how the US projects force overseas.

First, the background. Mali has been facing an Islamist rebellion that is “linked” to Al-Qaeda for quite some time, but events came to a head after the rebels seized a strategic point that threatens the line of communication between Mali’s north and south regions. Read Joshua Foust at for a good summary of events so far. Also, read Daveed Gartenstein-Ross for a look at some of the second and third order effects.

Although there seems to be a coalition of Islamist groups as described by Foust, the forces employed by the rebels seem to be standard. Their maneuver forces consist of irregular troops armed with small arms, mostly transported by pickup truck. They most likely also have machine guns and technicals. They lack is air defense, significant indirect fires, and armor, so combined arms is beyond their reach. Their strategic end seems to be the establishment of an Islamic state in Mali, although they have yet to do so in the territory they do control.

There is a coalition arrayed against the rebels but thus far France is taking the lead. They have already conducted airstrikes on rebel positions from regional air bases. These air strikes imply that French military intelligence is effective at locating and confirming rebel positions. French ground forces at this time include 750-800 troops, but that number is expected to increase to 2,500 total troops. Units include French Marines, legionaries, and special forces, including a unit of tanks and other armored vehicles. The coalition France has formed includes non-combat support from the UK and the US, as well as other regional partners like Algeria. Their strategic end seems to be to preserve the legitimate government of Mali in Bamako and its territorial integrity.

From French statements, they plan on this being a short intervention. This makes sense because the order of battle above tells only part of the story. What the French task force will do is halt rebel gains, thus depriving them of the initiative and demoralize their troops. This is already happening as rebel forces are retreating in the face of French air strikes. Simultaneously, rebel failure will reinforce the morale of the significant number of Malian troops and units from allied African nations. Mali is already conducting a counterattack against rebel forces and prior rebel successes see to have convinced the Taureg rebels that the government in Bamako is preferable to islamist rule. In short, Operation Serval is an example of offshore balancing. With a minimal investment, France and other Western nations are already balancing the scales towards the Mali government in order to protect their interests in the region. Once the rebels have been knocked down, it will be up to the Malian military to keep the boot on their neck. To this end, France and other countries are already moving to provide training and assistance to the Malian military, as well as humanitarian aid to displaced civilians. This is in stark contrast to Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, where the US ignored these inevitable requirements until well after they were needed.

The French response shows that the MAGTF construct is valid even outside of amphibious operations. France has had to cobble together a balanced military force to stem the tide of rebel advances in Mali. While France certainly has to the assets to produce their own air ground task force, they are now surely scrambling to work out command and control issues and each component has not worked or trained together towards a single objective up until this point. USMC MAGTFs short circuit this otherwise necessary period of acclimation when disparate military units are joined by joining them ahead of time. If the US had decided to intervene in Mali, the Marine Corps provides a comparable force that has already trained together during their workup under clear command and control relationships in accordance with long-standing doctrine. Raymond Pritchett’s remark that France found itself in need of a MAGTF is clearly correct. The French task force is expected to reach 2,500 troops. A typical MEU provides around 2,200 troops that includes maneuver, fire support, and aviation units and their combat service and support enablers, meaning that the force can sustain itself for a period of time. French leadership is probably examining what kind of combat power it needs and how it can be supported. In this situation, US leadership would only have to task a MEU as the questions regarding support are already answered. France’s eventual intervention will most likely look similar to an American MEU.

Despite the fact that the US is perhaps better prepared to respond to unforeseen crises around the world, Marines can certainly garner lessons from Operation Serval. Mali is exactly the kind of crisis for which a forward deployed MEU is designed, and France’s success or failure can inform their employment. To keep up with this conflict, follow the blogs Sahel Blog (h/t @texasinafrica) and al-Wasat. Information Dissemination, an indispensable read for many reasons, will most likely cover naval issues as well.

* I wrote this post before the hostage situation in Algeria, so that is not covered.

Monday, January 14, 2013

New Year's Resolutions for Marines: A Postscript

Thanks to all who checked out my blog entry entitled, “New Year’s Resolutions for Marines.” I especially want to thank Marine Sergeant Stan Mitchell of Alpha 1/8 circa 1999, who provided some great feedback and insight on training Marines with some specific recommendations on things to do and just as importantly things not to do while in the field. I do have to say I was more than a little disappointed that Sgt Mitchell was the only one to come back on the blog. Not that I thought what I wrote was good or even worthy of response . . . though I did think the piece did have some clever and “pithy” commentary on ‘Marineisms,’ and some of our shortfalls, as both individuals and an institution. Now I am aware, from my large and capable editorial staff, that there some “cyber sidebars” on Twitter and other forums used by our more technologically endowed Marines who had some strong views on what I had presented, particularly in the area of training. Upon hearing this I offered up to an intermediary to provide my personal email for those who wanted to discuss off line their thoughts. One Officer, an Army Officer, did contact me and we had a good exchange of thoughts on training tasks, higher taskings and finding “white space.” But sadly, no Marines.

King for a Day

 The ancient Romans had a grand holiday in mid-December, they called it the Saturnalia.  The festivities lasted a full week, and all sorts of debauchery and frivolity filled each day.  One fun twist of the status quo the Roman’s permitted was the reversal of roles between slave and owner, servant and master, subordinate and senior.  It was not unusual during the festival that the master of a household could be caught serving his servant his meal.  It must have been a good time, at least for the servants.

What if, once a year, the Marine Corps were to consider this idea or something similar?  I don’t mean that everyone should begin worshiping Saturn.  Nor am I talking about the debauchery and frivolity I mention above.  No, I am simply asking about taking this concept of ‘role reversal,’ and using it, after some modification to the details, to reward, develop and educate junior officers as emerging leaders within our Corps.
A battalion from an infantry regiment, as its busy operations and training schedules might allow, could identify the optimum period (day, week, month) of the upcoming year to hold Operation SATURNALIA.  Over the course of the year leading up to the “Operation SATURNALIA”, the Battalion Commander devises a battalion level tactical scenario, possibly aided and assisted by existing TDGs or case studies.  The scenario will be used for executing Operation SATURNALIA, with no pre-ordained solution.  The Battalion Commander gives a simple, “Here’s the enemy, here’s his composition, here’s the current situation and here’s your Regimental Commander’s task and intent.”

In the month immediately preceding Operation SATURNALIA, each company-size unit within the battalion provides the name of their chosen Lieutenant, who will then stand for a board.   The board will be composed of the Battalion CO and any 3 additional Battalion Commanders from any regiment or separate battalion.  If feasible, the Regimental CO of the battalion conducting the operation will sit in as the tie breaking vote.

After the board, the battalion commanders decide which Lieutenant was both the most confident, most decisive, and most competent tactically.  The decision is immediately publicized.  Here is where the Roman role reversal comes in, but with one glaring difference.  The Lieutenant and Lieutenant Colonel do not switch places; the Lieutenant merely takes the Battalion Commander’s place for Operation SATURNALIA. 

For the conduct of the board, the only officers allowed in the room are the Commanders, and one of the 4-5 lieutenants being boarded.  The boards will only last 2 – 2 ½ hours, each Lieutenant getting 30 minutes.  As the Lieutenant enters the room, his time starts.  Immediately one of the sitting battalion commanders verbally gives him a platoon level tactical scenario, with an associated tactical question.  If he answers it satisfactorily, another battalion commander then gives him a company level tactical scenario.  The third gives another company level situation, and time permitting the fourth provides a battalion-level tactical decision question. 

If at any point that the lieutenant shows indecision, or gives unsatisfactory answers, the battalion commanders can, within the time limits, develop the given scenario as if they were an enemy reacting to a hesitant platoon or company commander.  If a Lieutenant gives a confident and quick answer as to what he’d do, and if it is acceptable, even if it isn’t the best, the commanders have the opportunity to either move on to the next scenario, or give the enemy’s response. Each scenario, however, should not last longer than ten minutes, so that the Lieutenant has an opportunity to demonstrate tactical proficiency and potential competency beyond the platoon level.

In order to prevent a company commander from offering a lower rated Lieutenant, and to get more “buy in” from the Company Commanders, if a Lieutenant does not perform well, then his Company Commander can be  summoned to the board  himself.  The commanders then present the Captain with the same scenarios and he is questioned for his responses.  This might prove sufficient incentive to ensure the Lieutenant chosen is both competent and well-prepared.

The battalion commander gives the winning Lieutenant the tactical scenario and the regimental CO’s task and intent for the battalion.   There is no five paragraph order provided.  Just an abbreviated situation, and a simple task, and intent.  The exercise will be up to a week long, and the Lieutenant is given up to three weeks to prepare the battalion for the “fight.”  The commander  during the three weeks of the planning phase, and the one week in the field, will act as supervisor and mentor to the Lieutenant “battalion commander,” and will provide weight to the Lieutenant’s decisions when he deals with outside agencies, and the battalion staff. 

In a widely disseminated photograph, Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy throws a hand grenade on March 29, 2003, after his convoy was fired on outside a small village south of Baghdad, Iraq. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
This experience will provide our best Lieutenants the opportunity to learn how to plan and execute a battalion field exercise from a battalion commander’s perspective.  It also brings them out of the platoon and company pigeon-hole to gain a broader perspective of why and how things are decided the way they are at the battalion level.  It would undoubtedly be enjoyable, it would be a public recognition of excellence, and could assist in retaining our best and brightest.  As King for a day, a Lieutenant will receive an invaluable lesson in battalion tactics and leadership, a lesson that will hopefully endure through the day he receives his own battalion as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Resolutions for Marines

Marines . . . . Happy New Year!!!! Welcome to the year 2013 . . . in the Chinese calendar the year of the Snake . . . . 

It has become common practice as we enter the New Year to make resolutions of what we are going to change or do better in our lives or in how we interact with others, both socially and professionally. From losing weight or eating less to doing more exercise, the New Year presents an opportunity to recommit to those acts and behaviors we know are better for us and those around us. So, in the spirit of the New Year the following are some recommended resolutions specifically designed for Marines of various ranks and billets.