On OCT. 23, 1983, a U.S. Marine battalion deployed at Beirut's International Airport as part of a multinational peacekeeping force suffered one of the worst surprises in American military history at the hands of a lone terrorist armed with a truckload of high explosives. Some 241 Marines were killed in an attack whose success the Pentagon's own commission of inquiry, headed by retired Adm. Robert Long, attributed in large measure to professional military negligence. Even the gate to the battalion compound had been left open.

The ineptitude displayed by Marine Corps senior officers both in Beirut and in subsequent efforts to disavow responsibility for the disaster there came as no surprise to the authors of this article, although it did shock many of the Corps' congnal supporters. We have witnessed similar displays of incompetence in at least a dozen Marine Corps peacetime field exercises over the last decade.

Because of the concerns raised in our minds by these exercises, we have, together with like-minded Marine officers, been active for several years in an effort to effect fundamental changes in the way the Marine Corps thinks about and prepares for combat. This effort has sought to alter the Marine Corps style of warfare, to educate Marine officers in thinking creatively in combat rather than simply following "cookbook" recipes and formulas, and to teach them to out-think their opponents -- an ability tragically missing in Beirut.

We believe that the Marine Corps desperately needs to make these changes if it is to be effective in combat.

The central issue in this reform effort has been the Marine Corps' style of warfare, which has remained basically unchanged since the Pacific island campaigns of World War II.

The reform movement seeks to transform the Corps' style of warfare from one based on firepower and attrition to what is known as "maneuver warfare." Firepower/attrition warfare is just what its name implies: warfare where victory is sought by applying firepower to the enemy -- bullets, shells, bombs -- to kill its personnel and destroy its equipment. The object is to kill the enemy faster than it kills you, so you still have some forces left by the time the enemy is exhausted.

In firepower/attrition warfare, strategic victory is sought by accumulating tactical victories. Tactics are generally linear, centrally controlled, and frontal. Attacks are made by pushing a front line forward, trying to keep it straight even as it moves. Defenses are based on holding a line, with the defender trying to put his strongest forces directly in front of the enemy's main attack. A good example of firepower/attrition warfare is the Battle of Verdun in World War I -- a battle that lasted longer than six months and cost more than 700,000 dead and wounded.

In the past, the Marines along with the other branches of the American armed forces have been able to practice firepower/attrition warfare and win. They had overwhelming superiority in materiel and usually in manpower at the local level as well. Equally important, the American public was willing to accept the casualties that go along with this style. Today, the United States no longer enjoys a superiority in quantity of men and weapons. Nor does the American public appear more willing than our potential enemies to accept high casualties.

In Vietnam firepower/attrition warfare proved costly in terms of casualties and ultimately ineffective when American society turned out to be much more sensitive to casualty figures than North Vietnam.

Today, the Marines will need to follow a different style of warfare to fulfill their mission -- whatever that mission may be.

Maneuver warfare seeks to defeat the enemy by shattering his cohesion -- his ability to act effectively as a total, organized force. The central goal of maneuver warfare is to disrupt the physical cohesion of enemy units and the mental poise of enemy commanders by presenting them with surprising and dangerous situations faster than they can deal with them.

Maneuver warfare depends for its success, among other things, on the decentralization of authority. Subordinate officers are given much greater freedom to show initiative and to make their own decisions based on their superiors' intent -- the result he wants. As a result maneuver warfare tends to encourage strength of character, imagination and willingness to take responsibility in officers and non-commissioned officers.

Strategically, maneuver warfare tries to win not by accumulating tactical victories, but through the "operational art" -- by using tactical events, which may be battles or refusals to give battle, victories, or sometimes even defeats to strike directly at the enemy's strategic center of gravity. The Communist Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968 -- tactically a defeat, but operationally a victory -- is a good example of the operational art. The Viet Cong's ability to launch the offensive at all destroyed the Johnson administration's strategy that claimed to see the "light at the end of the tunnel," shattering what remained of the American public's support for the war.

Tactics in maneuver warfare are non-linear, decentralized and opportunistic, the goal always being to throw strength against enemy weakness. Attacks are pulled by reconnaissance around the enemy's strong points and into his rear, to destroy his artillery, headquarters, communications and logistics. The attackers continue the push ever deeper into hostile territory, leaving enemy combat units bypassed, encircled and useless. Maneuver warfare defenses often let the enemy break through -- much like a screen play in football -- then hit him in the flank or rear when he least expects it.

The difference between firepower/attrition and maneuver warfare is well illustrated by the answer each gives to the question, "What is the purpose of the rifle?" In firepower/attrition warfare, the answer is, "To kill." In maneuver warfare, it is "To suppress the enemy -- to make him keep his head down -- while you go around behind him."

Maneuver warfare is not new. The first clear case in recorded history was the battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C., when Thebes defeated Sparta by a surprise thrust into the right flank of the rigid Spartan phalanx. In modern times, maneuver warfare was best exemplified by the German Blitzkrieg in World War II. Maneuver warfare was also used quite successfully by the Japanese in the Singapore campaign and Gen. George S. Patton in World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur at Inchon and the Israelis in their Sinai campaigns of 1956, 1967 and 1973.

Although the Marine Corps used elements of maneuver warfare on several of the Pacific islands, World War II generally pushed the Marines toward a firepower/attrition style of war. Islands such as Iwo Jima left little alternative, and Japan, with one-tenth the GNP of the U.S. and most of its army stuck fast in China, was vulnerable to firepower and attrition.

As a result, the frontal assault nature of many of those island campaigns became enshrined in the Corps' tactics. Many Marine veterans of Vietnam remember the casualties caused by those frontal assaults -- frontal assaults that would never have occurred under a doctrine of maneuver warfare.

Ironically, the Marine Corps initially pursued an innovative policy -- employing a unique blend of military and civic action conducted by "combined action" companies and platoons -- aimed at exploiting the political as well as the military weaknesses of the Viet Cong. The program was abandoned, however, when the U.S. military arrived in strength in Vietnam and adopted the search- and-destroy policy aimed at confronting the enemy head-on -- when he could be found.

When the debate over firepower/attrition vs. maneuver warfare began in the United States in the mid-1970s, the Army was hostile to maneuver advocates. But the Marine Corps proved open. The Corps' primary professional journal, the Marine Corps Gazette, published a lengthy exchange on the subject. Small groups of Marine officers began meeting to study maneuver warfare.

A dramatic breakthrough came in 1981 when the 2d Marine Division proclaimed maneuver warfare as its doctrine, established a maneuver warfare board comprising junior officers to promulgate the new concept, and undertook a series of maneuver- warfare field exercises at Ft. Pickett, Va.

The training quickly became characterized by uncertainty, rapid change, surprise and counter-surprise -- just like real combat. In such an environment, 2d Division Marines began to see how opportunities for maneuver present themselves in war, learned how to move quickly to exploit them and learned it could be more effective to slip around an enemy than attack him frontally. Junior officers in particular took to the new approach, since the decentralization maneuver warfare demands made them real commanders instead of just pipelines for orders from above and reports from below.

The debate over and experimentation with maneuver warfare helped engender a broad reawakening of interest in the art of war among Marines. Marine officers began reading military history and theory, writing on both for the Gazette, and offering thoughtful, constructive criticism of Marine Corps policies and practices. At Quantico, Va., the Marine Corps schools began to shake off the intellectual lethargy that followed Vietnam. A few instructors and department heads began to question the schools' focus on formats, procedures and rigid school solutions, arguing instead for a curriculum that would teach officers how to think creatively both in and about combat.

Throughout the Corps, individual officers, most of them fairly junior, began raising a wide range of issues aimed at making the Corps in the 1980s what it had been in the 1920s and 1930s -- when it pioneered the development of amphibious doctrine: a creative, innovative institution where brains are regarded more highly than biceps.

By the early 1980s, these efforts added up to a reform movement from below. The commandant at the time, Gen. Robert H. Barrow, allowed this movement to develop, although he did not lead it. Many Marines, and many civilians interested in the well- being of the Corps, looked to his successor, Gen. Paul X. Kelley, to provide the leadership from above the movement would need to succeed fully.

Kelley had given many people inside and outside the Corps the impression that he was sympathetic to the need for change. Many believed he would build on the groundwork laid by his juniors.

These expectations have proven sadly misplaced. Instead of being a time of reform and renewal, the last two years have seen a virtual counter-reformation, led from the top. None of the anticipated changes has been inaugurated. Worse, the prevailing spirit seems to be one of denying that anything is wrong, that any problems exist. In a recent interview, Kelley was asked if the Corps had any problems. He replied, "There are no major problems," an answer that would have left anyone familiar with the Corps incredulous even without the evidence of Beirut.

Not only has none of the anticipated changes been undertaken, the groundwork laid in previous years is being systematically dismantled for reasons that continue to mystify the authors and many Marines active in the reform effort. Instead of adopting maneuver warfare as doctrine, the Corps now downplays it in the schools. One student recently failed an exercise for outmaneuvering a dug-in enemy beach defense instead of assaulting it head-on. The faculty told the student that because he had a 3-1 numerical superiority over the enemy, he should attack head on. His concern about casualties rendering his force ineffective for further actions was disregarded.

The future of maneuver warfare in the 2d Marine Division -- permitted to experiment with maneuver warfare by Barrow -- appears bleak. The current commandant, in speeches to Marines, has repeatedly denounced "little groups that meet in people's basements in Washington," i.e., the groups of Marine officers that have sought to explore and spread the maneuver concept. The commanding general at Quantico has gone so far as to forbid subordinates to invite a number of civilian spokesmen for maneuver warfare -- including one of the authors -- to the base.

Equally damaging to the Corp's future has been the failure to move forward in reforming Marine education. In "Mandate II," the Heritage Foundation recently recommended a number of reforms to Marine Corps education, including: "The curriculum should emphasize tactics, operations and military history, rather than techniques, procedures and terminology" that fail to teach the student to think creatively in combat; "Allow the (school) directors to select the best Marine Corps officers as instructors"; "Develop formal tests that must be passed as a prerequisite to promotion", and "Make 'free play' technical and operational exercises (which simply define an objective and leave it to the participants to decide how to accomplish it) a regular part of Marine training."

Marine Corps Headquarters has given no indication that any of these reforms are even under serious consideration.

None of the other issues often identified by reformers within the Corps as needing urgent attention seems to be on the docket. The commandant has moved to improve personnel stability by prescribing two-year tours for battalion commanders, but personnel turnover at all other levels remains high. No major changes in training appear to be in sight. The Corps' force structure remains centered on line infantry -- essentially static fortress troops without fortresses. Officer quality continues to be measured more in terms of physical fitness and administrative and courtier skills than knowledge of the military art. "Read Less, Run More" remains the Corps' unofficial motto.

Most worrisome of all the actions and inactions of the Marine Corps' senior leadership has been an assault on the essence of the Corps as an institution. The commandant has been preaching a doctrine of "followership" to Marine audiences, a doctrine that, as one retired Marine colonel wrote in a letter to one of the authors, "seems to come across as an ill-camouflaged thrust for greater personal loyalty, conformity and blind obedience."

Such personalist loyalty is antithetical to an institution where loyalty traditionally has been to goals, not individuals. If, as many Marine officers fear, "followership" means that officers who conform to the party line and proclaim the Corps is without problems will be promoted and that those who seek to identify and correct the problems will be passed over, the institutional damage will be severe.

The current policy of glossing over deficiencies instead of fixing them and of suppressing arguments for reform -- what one Marine lieutenant colonel calls the "whited sepulcher" policy -- is dangerous to the Marine Corps. By ignoring problems in areas such as officer education, training, and doctrine the Corps risks future Beiruts, possibly on even larger scales.

Rejection of fundamental change also risks the Corps' institutional future. The Marine Corps has always faced periodic attempts by the Army to absorb it and will undoubtedly face similar attempts in the future. If current policies continue, the argument for letting the Army absorb the Corps may gain overpowering strength.

Unlike the Marine Corps, the Army now is engaged in a serious, sincere effort at self- reform. Many Army platoon and company commanders saw Vietnam as a defeat. These officers, now reaching the rank of colonel and brigadier general, are spearheading a drive within the Army to ensure that the Vietnam experience will not be repeated.

Not only has the Army abandoned its earlier opposition to maneuver warfare, it has adopted it as doctrine and issued a first-rate new field manual to promulgate it. Unlike the Marine Corps, the Army has begun educating staff officers in the art of war -- not just staff procedures -- in an innovative and highly professional second year course at its Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth.

The Army's internal reform movement is by no means certain of success at this point, but the effort is real. If it succeeds while the reform movement in the Marine Corps is crushed, the result may well be an increasing gap in military effectiveness between the Army and the Corps, a gap in the Army's favor. Although issues of military effectiveness traditionally have been overshadowed in Congress and the press by the politics of defense budgets, politicians will eventually sense that something is seriously wrong, especially if the Marines suffer another another military debacle resulting from professional lethargy and incompetence. The strong support for the Corps on Capitol Hill that has saved it from past takeover bids could disappear.

That would be unfortunate, not only for the Marine Corps but for the nation. A combat effective Marine Corps is an indispensable tool for a nation that, like ours, is by geography a maritime power and that historically has needed a sea-based ground combat force.

The Marine Corps has a long and honorable history of inventiveness and innovation, most dramatically in the case of its development of amphibious warfare in the 1920s and 1930s, when common wisdom said amphibious assaults were impossible. The current support by so many younger Marine officers for reform shows that same spirit can be recaptured. The opposition to self- criticism and change comes not from the Corps at large, but from Marine Corps Headquarters. It is time for Marines and friends of the Corps to warn that Headquarters of the potential consequences of its policies.