By Colonel (ret'd) Pat Stogran
When I approached Scott Taylor with a proposal to produce “The Armchair Colonel” as a monthly column, my intention was to introduce readers to military doctrine with a view to considering, critically and objectively, the efficacy of Canada’s intervention today in the Middle East. To date we have discussed numerous concepts, from the military planning process to the powers that perceptions have in conflict. The discussion in these articles is cumulative, so for those readers who would like to get caught up on my previous submissions can have a look at them at www.espritdecorps.ca/the-armchair-colonel/
I first read William Lind’s Maneuver Warfare Handbook when I joined 1 PPCLI as a rifle company commander in 1990. It was a revelation to me as a warrior. Up to that point in my career, strategy and tactics as taught and practiced in the Canadian Army were very prescribed and predictable, so much so that we would train day in and day out, night and day, conducting operations using checklists! Consequently, our tactics, as an Army, were constipated (see my reflections of a German Colonel who faced Canadians in Italy in WWII in Volume 23, Issue 10). Sure, we considered the lay of the land in our plans, but from my very first experiences as a platoon commander using first generation laser engagement simulators on our small arms, I knew something was missing. Years before, the first time one of my platoon attacks was assessed not by an instructor or senior officer for my adherence to fundamentals and principles but from the directed fire of a living, thinking enemy force inflicting simulated casualties on my assault force and firebase, I realized there was something more to combat than skills, drills, and procedures. There was an element of the cunning or guile of the commander in the creative application of tactics that had long since been squeezed out of our doctrine and training.
As I understand it, the United States Marine Corps was first to embrace the concept of “manoeuvre warfare.” As such, it was not meant to be synonymous with movement, although the skilful movement of mechanized forces was fundamental in the application of the doctrine back in the day. The word manoeuvre was used more in the sense of the other definition offered in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, that being the “adroit and clever management of a airs often using trickery and deception.” The intent of manoeuvre warfare is to effect defeat by repeatedly attacking weaknesses rather than strengths in order to shatter the enemy’s moral cohesion (in the psychological not the ethical sense of the word), not the detailed destruction of their physical capabilities. The antithesis of manoeuvre warfare is referred to as “attritional warfare.” According the USMC FMFM 1 Warfighting, the attritionist “seeks battle under any and all conditions, pitting strength against strength to exact the greatest toll from his enemy.” This brings to mind Field Marshall Haig’s “brilliant strategy” of pouring troops frontally over the parapets in the First World War in order to exhaust Germany’s ability to generate soldiers and materiel to fight. I use a bit of artistic licence in that historical metaphor in order to reinforce the fundamental difference between manoeuvre and attrition as strategies.
The martial art of judo is often used to illustrate the theory of manoeuvre. In a judo match, the skilful competitor exploits opportunities presented by the opponent’s shifts in balance or commitment to a particular technique in order to use the opponent’s own weight and strength against them. I don’t like that analogy because, as “the gentle art,” judo lends the impression that successful manoeuvre is a bloodless endeavour. Physical destruction remains an important ingredient of manoeuvre warfare, calling for close combat with the enemy but at a time, place and level of intensity of our choosing. For that reason, when I was attached to the Australian Army’s Land Warfare Centre I preferred to hold up Muhammed Ali’s “Thrilla’ in Manila” to illustrate true manoeuvre. Muhammed Ali won that fight on the moral plane, so to speak, through the use of his self-described “rope-a-dope” strategy.
An attritionist strategy à la WWI would have seen Ali standing toe to toe in the centre of the ring, trading punch for punch with the brutally powerful George Foreman. I also submit that had Ali “floated like a butterfly” as he was apt to do, it would also have been a battle of attrition. That was exactly the strategy George Foreman was anticipating, so he undoubtedly had prepared to deal with it. He didn’t expect Ali to lay up against the ropes; indeed, nobody did! Angelo Dundee and Bundini Brown in Ali’s corner were pleading with him to get off the ropes. However Ali, the superior manoeuvre pugilist, won that fight inside the head of his opponent. Yes, he took a beating — that is unavoidable in the ring just as it is in battle — but compare the outcome of that fight to the war of attrition that was waged in the three superfights between Ali and the powerful Joe Frazier. Ali came out ahead in their third and final match, but he was hospitalized with serious trauma injuries and, I seem to recall, was of a mind to give up boxing due to the beating he had endured at the hands of Smokin’ Joe. It had been a gamble to lure Foreman into “punching himself out,” but Ali’s Fingerspitzengefühl — a German term literally meaning finger tips feeling in the sense of intuitive flair or instinct that is highly relevant in manoeuvre warfare — made the day.
So-called “manoeuvre warfare” as a concept compared to “attrition warfare” was clever packaging that operationalized B.H. Liddell Hart’s strategy of the indirect approach and Sun Tzu’s acme of generalship. It was born of an era of Industrial Age mechanized warfare fever, though, and so it seems to have been abandoned as we transitioned against the new foe posed by a global insurgency. Granted, the physical manifestation of the tenets of manoeuvre back in the day was in terms of adroit and clever manipulation of armoured and mechanized assets to defeat a similar threat, but I would submit that the tenets and intent of manoeuvre, the clash of wills in both the psychological and physical domains in order to shatter the enemy’s moral cohesion, still apply today against an “asymmetric threat.”
Another marketing label, asymmetry describes the transnational criminals and international terrorists who have been empowered by the modern technologies we are facing today. As the Information Age threat has morphed into a form that could, to some degree, negate the distinct advantage that industrialized nations have in large scale, synchronized WWII-style warfare, it means that the tenets of manoeuvre must be applied in a different way. But, as USMC Colonel (ret’d) John C. Studt quotes B.H. Liddell Hart in the forward to the Maneuver Handbook, “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.”
In future articles I intend to delve into the tenets of manoeuvre with a view to contextualizing them in terms of the 21st century threat that we are facing in the Middle East and around the world today. Until then, I invite readers to share your thoughts with me. Unlike the military, where the best course of action is always the one proposed by the senior rank present, in “The Armchair Colonel” I am open to all sorts of ideas and any kind to comments.
Based on the description that I have offered herein, do you think our nation is engaged in a campaign of manoeuvre or one of attrition? The person who offers the most thought provoking commentary will receive a complimentary copy of my book Rude Awakening: The Government’s Secret War Against Canada’s Veterans