A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE is a dangerous thing. No knowledge is even worse.
This rubric came to mind as I read an article in a recent edition (Outzook, July 28) of The Washington Post. Written by William Lind and Jeffrey Record, the piece reproves the Marine Corps for various presumed shortcomings, but mainly for "adhering to a style of warfare which has remained basically unchanged since the Pacific Island campaigns of World War II." The authors declare that the Marines are wedded to something termed "firepower/attrition warfare," which they view as bad, whereas they propose that the Corps mend its ways and adopt "maneuver warfare," which the authors see as good.
Firepower/attrition warfare is portrayed as "warfare where victory is sought by applying firepower to the enemy -- bullets, shells, bombs -- to kill its personnel and destroy its equipment." Maneuver warfare, on the other hand, is described as seeking "to defeat the enemy by shattering his cohesion . . . -- by using tactical events, which may be battles or refusals to give battle, victories, or sometimes even defeats to strike at the enemy's strategic center of gravity." All of which is quite simple, clearly stated -- and wrong.
The truth is, neither firepower alone, nor maneuver without firepower, is likely to be decisive. They do not represent two contending forms of offensive combat. They are, and can never be more than, coordinate elements of a single operational whole. Lind and Record seek to exemplify their novel compartmentation of warfare in a simple example: "The difference between firepower/attrition and maneuver warfare . . . " they say, "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.'"
I asked five Marine colonels a single question: "You are confronted with a powerful enemy strong point. How do you handle the situation?" The responses were all variants of the same thesis: "Drench it with fire while maneuvering around its flanks."
All of which casts some doubt on the Lind-Record assertion that "the frontal assault nature of many of those (World War II) island campaigns became enshrined in the Corps' tactics." Indeed, we know that the Marines developed the amphibian tractor just to make it possible to land where conventional landing craft could not go, and thus to bypass strongly defended areas. They developed the assault helicopter for the same purpose and were the first force in the world to use it in Korea to maneuver around enemy strength. They pleaded, unsuccessfully, with MacArthur not to land against the North Koreans' strongest defenses at Inchon, but to maneuver around them by landing 30 miles to the south. And theirs was the only real effort to maneuver in the entire Vietnam war, in their 72 amphibious landings.
No, there is no case that Tarawa and Iwo Jima have become "enshrined in the Corps' tactics." There is a far more persuasive case that they fight their battles with sound professional judgment, in exactly the way Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and Stonewall Jackson envisioned.
Then, taking departure from its fragile operational premise, the essay launches a quiver of errant arrows at presumed Marine misdeeds, misadventures and misbehavior:
Concerning Vietnam -- "Many Marine veterans of Vietnam," they recount, "remember the casualties caused by those frontal assaults . . . ." They do indeed. A third of a million Marines served in Vietnam and most of them are still resentfully mindful that the process of floundering around in the hinterland seeking the opportunity to come nose-to-nose with North Vietnamese units was not of the Marines' doing but a product of Gen. Westmoreland's strategy.
The Marines knew that the war resided mainly with the people, a fact that Lind-Record apparently knew also: "The Marine Corps initially pursued an innovative policy -- 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 weakness of the Viet Cong," but then they say: "The program was abandoned . . . ." which is quite untrue. In fact, their efforts among the people were pursued with apostolic vigor as long as the Marines were in Vietnam, and they did it in the face of apathy, opposition and pressure by Westmoreland's headquarters to do other things.
Concerning the Marines' educational system. The essay delivers a general attack on what is taught in the system, how it is taught and the professional quality of those who do the teaching. The criticisms seem quite incompatible with the limited military experience and combat background of the authors.
Concerning the basic Marine Corps organization. "The Corps force structure remains centered on line infantry," the authors say, as if this were something bad -- inconsistent with combat reality. In fact, "line infantry" as the authors term it, launched into the battle in helicopters, tracked or armored vehicles is still the ultimate figure in the battle. German Gen. Heinz Guderian, an effective practitioner of mobile and motorized operations, said it well in 1939: "Victory is only complete when infantry dismounts and makes its physical presence felt. Nothing has quite the impact of the coherent determined infantry unit."
One reassuring observation in the Lind-Record essay is that young Marine officers are now found "raising a wide range of issues" affecting their Corps' operational behavior.
I hope so. I do hope so. Progress in military affairs has ever been the product of the curiosity, impatience and iconoclasm of youth. Were this not true we might still be using the phalanx, the ramrod or the hollow square. If young Marines are indeed challenging the status quo I can only declare that they are behaving in the tradition of their forebears, and wish them well. By Victor Krulak; Victor Krulak, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, was commanding general of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, during the Vietnam War.