Eric Button

Warfighting: Book Notes

arfighting is a 1989 U.S. Marine Corps document. It’s 77 pages of articulate war strategy and doctrine, written by four-star general A. M. Gray. Here are my notes.


Book is short by design—not intended as a reference manual, but a cover-to-cover read.

Doesn’t contain specific techniques or procedures, but rather broad guidance. Requires judgement in application.

This is guidance for a way of thinking, not just guidance for combat.

Chapter 1: The Nature of War

“In war the chief incalculable is the human will.” —B. H. Liddell Hart

“Positions are seldom lost because they have been destroyed, but almost invariably because the leader has decided in his own mind that the position cannot be held.” —A. A. Vandegrift

War Defined

State of hostilities that exists between/among nations characterized by use of military force.

Mutual imposition of wills.

Object of war: impose our will on enemy.

Means to that end: organized application or threat of violence by military force.

Absolute war/peace rarely exist.

War encompasses covert hostilities which barely reach threshold of violence.


War appears simple, but becomes extremely difficult.

Friction: “the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult” (Clausewitz)

Friction is the force that resists all action: makes the simple difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible.

Enemy seeks to resist our will and impose his own will on us

This dynamic interplay is what makes war difficult and complex, and very high friction.

Friction may be mental (indecision) or physical (terrain must be overcome).

Friction may be external (ie weather or enemy) or may be self-induced (lack of clear goal, lack of coordination, unclear plans, complex org relationships or complex comms)

Because war is a human enterprise, friction will always have a psychological as well as physical impact.

“While we should attempt to minimize self-induced friction, greater requirement is to fight effectively within the medium of friction.

“The means to overcome friction is the will; we prevail over friction through persistent strength of mind and spirit.”

“Positions are seldom lost because they have been destroyed, but almost invariably because the leader has decided in his own mind that the position cannot be held.”

Only through experience can we appreciate the level of will required in war; training can never fully duplicate level of friction found in real combat.


A source of friction, but worth it’s own section.

All actions in war take place in uncertainty—the fog of war.

Unknowns about: enemy, environment, own military even.

We can never eliminate uncertainty; war makes certainty possible; all actions will be based on subpar information.

At best: determine probabilities. But it’s the improbable actions that often have greatest impact on war’s outcome.

In uncertainty: develop simple, flexible plans, plan for contingencies, develop SOP’s and foster initiative among subordinates.

Risk is inherent in war, and is related to gain. Greater gain potential usually = higher risk.

Acceptance of risk doesn’t mean acceptance of foolishness.

Part of risk: chance—a universal characteristic of war.

Chance creates psychological friction.

Chance affects all parties; so view chance not only as a threat but also an opportunity that should be exploited when able.


Each episode in war is a temporary scenario requiring an original solution.

No episode can be assessed in isolation, but rather viewed as a “fluctuating fabric” of activity.

Success depends in large part on ability to adapt to changing situation.

It is physically impossible to maintain high tempo of activity indefinitely, but there are times when limits should be pushed.

As a result, tempo of war will fluctuate from intense activity to non-combat periods of information gathering, replenishment or redeployment.


War naturally gravitates to disorder.

Disorder can never be eliminated.

By historical standards, modern battlefield is particularly disorderly.

Extended range weapons have increased dispersion between units, straining limits of positive control and exposing gaps and flanks.

Best we can hope for: to impose general framework of order on the disorder, to prescribe general flow of action rather than control each event.

Must seek to generate disorder for enemy.

The Human Dimension

War is a clash between opposing human wills, so necessarily there’s a human dimension.

War must consider danger, fear, exhaustion, privation.

But these effects vary greatly by case.

An act that may break the will of one enemy may only serve to stiffen the resolve of another.

“No degree of technological development or scientific calculation will overcome the human dimension in war. Any doctrine which attempts to reduce warfare to ratios of forces, weapons, and equipment neglects the impact of the human will on the conduct of war and is therefore inherently false.”

Violence and Danger

War should never be romanticized.

Means of war is force, applied in form of organized violence.

Violent essence of war will never change.

“Since war is a violent enterprise, danger is a fundamental characteristic of war. And since war is a human phenomenon, fear—the human reaction to danger—has a significant impact on the conduct of war. All men feel fear. Leadership must foster the courage to overcome fear, both individually and within the unit. Courage is not the absence of fear; rather, it is the strength to overcome fear.”

Leaders: study fear, understand it, prepare to cope with it.

Courage takes many forms (stoic courage vs. fierce courage from high emotion)

Strong leadership which earns respect and trust of subordinates can limit effects of fear.

Leaders should develop unit cohesion and self-confidence of individuals within unit.

In this environment, Marine’s unwillingness to violate respect/trust of peers will overcome personal fear.

Moral and Physical Forces

War: interaction between moral and physical forces.

(Moral means non-tangible aspects to war, e.g. psychology)

Moral forces: difficult to grasp, impossible to quantify.

Cannot easily gauge moral forces such as resolve, conscience, fear, esprit, but they exert greater influence on outcome of war than the physical.

Example: fires often do more “moral” damage than they do physical.

Because moral forces are difficult to measure, it’s tempting to exclude from study of war—but this is a mistake.

The Evolution of War

Drastic changes in nature of war are result of major developments such as rifle and railroad.

Technology is major evolution catalyst.

First belligerent to exploit a technological development gains significant advantage.

Art and Science of War

“The conduct of war is ultimately an art, an activity of human creativity and intuition powered by the strength of the human will. The art of war requires the intuitive ability to grasp the essence of a unique battlefield situation, the creative ability to devise a practical solution, and the strength of purpose to execute the act.”

Chapter 2: The Theory of War

War as an Instrument of Policy

War does not exist for its own sake; it’s an extension of policy with military force.

Therefore, the original policy aim must be determinant guiding conduct.

War must serve policy.

Aim in war: achieve our will.

Immediate requirement: overcome our enemy’s ability to resist us (a product of enemy’s physical means and strength of will).

We must either eliminate their physical ability to resist, or destroy will to resist.

Means in War

At national level, war involves use of all elements of national power: diplomacy, military force, economics, ideology, tech, culture.

Must not consider military force in isolation of other elements.

The Spectrum of Conflict

Conflict falls on a spectrum, from restrained to intense (e.g. nuclear war).

Where conflict falls on spectrum is determined by:

  • policy objectives
  • military means available
  • national will
  • density of fighting forces or combat power on battlefield

In general: greater density = more intense conflict

A modern military capable of high intensity war may not be well prepared for “small” low-intensity war (guerilla warfare).

Levels of War

Strategic level

Focus on national policy objectives.

applies to peace as well as war

National Strategy: national power overall

Military Strategy: military force

Therefore, military strategy is subject to national strategy.

Tactical Level

Application of force to defeat enemy at particular time/place

Can be thought of as art and science of winning engagements/battles.

Includes use of firepower and maneuver, integration of different arms, immediate exploitation of success to defeat enemy.

Technical application of combat power consists of techniques/procedures to accomplish tasks within a tactical action.

There’s an overlap between tactics/techniques.

Tactics: product of judgment and creativity

Techniques/procedures: generally performed by routine

Operational Level

Art of winning campaigns.

Links the strategic and tactical levels.

Use of tactical results to attain strategic objectives.

Includes deciding when/where/under what conditions to refuse battle.

Offense and Defense

Each includes elements of the other

Offense: striking power

Where we seek to impose design on enemy.

Defense: resisting power

Aim of resisting enemy’s will

Defense is inherently the stronger form of combat.

While defense is stronger form of combat, the offense is the preferred form, as it’s where we can pursue a positive aim.

We resort to the defensive when weakness compels.

An effective defense must assume an offensive character, striking at the enemy at the moment of his greatest vulnerability.

The decisive element of defense is the counterattack; therefore offense is integral component to concept of defense.

Also, defense integral to offense, as offense cannot continue indefinitely.

Concentrating forces for the offense often means taking a defensive position elsewhere. Therefore, defense is integral part of offense.

Culminating Point: as advance increases, weakness of offensive force usually increases, and balance tips in favor of defender. Attacker must revert to defense. This is the moment most vulnerable to counterattack.

No clear division between the offense and defense, and we should not attempt to impose one artificially.

Styles of Warfare

Two essential components of combat: fire and movement.

Once cannot exist without the other; they’re complementary and mutually dependent.

Movement allows us to bring fires to bear, and fires defend our ability to move in face of enemy.

Two styles of warfare: attrition style (based on firepower), or maneuver style (based on movement).

Both styles can exist simultaneously.

Example: island-hopping during WWII was attrition battles within a maneuver campaign.

Attrition Warfare

Seeks victory through cumulative destruction of enemy’s material assets by superior firepower and technology.

Attrition approach: methodical, almost scientific. Gauge progress in quantitative terms such as terrain captured, body counts, etc.

Attritionist seeks battle under any/all conditions to exact maximum toll on enemy.

Centralized control, focus on procedure/techniques

Greatest necessity: numerical superiority

At national level, war becomes as much an industrial as a military problem.

Maneuver Warfare

Stems from desire to circumvent problem and attack from position of advantage rather than meet straight on.

Goal: application of strength against selected enemy weakness.

Relies on speed and surprise.

Tempo is often most important weapon.

Need for speed necessitates decentralized control.

Object of maneuver includes shattering enemy’s cohesion, organization, command and psychological balance.

Success depends on ability to identify/exploit enemy weakness.

Skill trumps numbers

Therefore, maneuver places high value on military judgment

While potential success is often disproportionate to effort made, failure carries disproportionate risk of catastrophe.

Combat Power

Combat power: the total destructive force we can bring to bear on our enemy at a given time.

Some are easily measured (number of troops) while some less so (effects of surprise).

Concentration and Speed


Convergence of effort in time and space.

Doesn’t apply only to combat forces, but to all available resources (intelligence, logistics, preparation, etc.)

Willingness to concentrate at decisive place/time necessitates strict economy and acceptance of risk elsewhere.

Concentration applies to time as well as space. Decisive location, but also decisive moment.

Physical concentration (massing) makes us vulnerable to enemy.

Therefore, a pattern: disperse, concentrate, disperse…


Also applies to both time and space.

Relative speed is what matters

Speed over time is tempo: consistent ability to operate fast.

Speed is a weapon.

Speed allows us to seize the initiative and dictate terms of combat.

Speed provides security, is prerequisite for maneuver, surprise.

Speed is necessary for concentration of forces at decisive time/place.

Cannot maintain high tempo indefinitely, so pattern develops: fast/slow/fast

Concentration * speed = momentum

Surprise and Boldness


Not essential that we take enemy unaware, but in a manner for which they are unprepared.

Desire for surprise is basic to almost all operations

Surprise is a multiplier of strength because of the psychological component.

Surprise can decisively affect outcome of combat far beyond physical means available.

It is a mistake to depend on it alone for margin of victory, as it depends on enemy’s expectations and preparedness.

Means doing the unexpected thing, which is often more difficult.

Does the anticipated advantage gained compensate for certain loss of efficiency in executing?


“Boldness must be granted a certain power over and above successful calculations involving space, time, and magnitude of forces, for wherever it is superior, it will take advantage of its opponent’s weakness. In other words, it is a genuinely creative force.”

Must be tempered with judgment.

Exploiting Vulnerability and Opportunity

Seek to strike where most vulnerable.

Avoid his front, seek out flanks and rear where he doesn’t expect us and where psychological effect is greatest.

Destroy that which is most critical to enemy

“We should focus our efforts on the one thing which, if eliminated, will do the most decisive damage to his ability to resist us. By taking this from him we defeat him outright or at least weaken him severely.”

Most critical object may not be most vulnerable—not an easy decision.

Enemy’s most critical vulnerability will rarely be obvious; may have to exploit all vulnerabilities to find an opportunity.

Initial action in war is rarely the decisive one.

Ability to take advantage of opportunity is function of speed, flexibility, boldness and initiative.

Chapter 3: Preparing for War

“The essential thing is action. Action has three stages: the decision born of thought, the order or preparation for execution, and the execution itself. All three stages are governed by the will. The will is rooted in character, and for the man of action character is of more critical importance than intellect. Intellect without will is worthless, will without intellect is dangerous.” —Hans von Seekt

During times of peace the most important task of any military is to prepare for war.


Key to any plan is a clearly defined objective.

Must plan a campaign to reach objective within specified time.

Unity of effort is as important during preparation for war as it is during conduct of war.


[Marines-specific content]


While authoritative, doctrine is not prescriptive.


Must be skilled at “getting things done” while at the same time conversant in military art.

“Resolute and self-reliant in their decisions, they must also be energetic and insistent in execution.”

Military profession is a thinking profession.

“Boldness is an essential moral trait in a leader, for it generates combat power beyond the physical means at hand. Initiative, the willingness to act on one’s own judgment, is a prerequisite for boldness. These traits carried to excess can lead to rashness, but we must realize that errors by junior leaders stemming from over-boldness are a necessary part of learning. We should deal with such errors leniently; there must be no “zero defects” mentality. Not only must we not stifle boldness or initiative, we must continue to encourage both traits in spite of mistakes. On the other hand, we should deal severely with errors of inaction or timidity.”

Trust is an essential trait in leaders.

Trust must be earned, and actions that undermine trust must be dealt with strictly.

“Trust is a product of confidence and familiarity. Confidence among comrades results from demonstrated professional skill. Familiarity results from shared experience and a common professional philosophy.”

Until a command has been made, each subordinate should consider it his duty to provide their opinion. When decision has been reached, junior must support it as if it was his own.

Yes-men will not be tolerated.


Purpose of training is to develop forces that can win in combat.

Training is the focus of effort during peacetime, but must not stop at commencement of war.

“Because we recognize that no two situations in war are the same, our critiques should focus not so much on the actions we took as on why we took those actions and why they brought the results they did.”

Professional Military Education

All commanders should consider professional development of their subordinates a principal responsibility of command.


[USMC-specific content]

Chapter 4: The Conduct of War

The Challenge

To identify and adopt a concept of warfighting consistent with the modern battlefield, that encompasses the broad range of battlefields, enemies and fluidity of war.

Maneuver Warfare

Doctrine based on rapid, flexible, and opportunistic maneuver.

Maneuver: exists in time, not just space.

“Maneuver warfare is a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a series of rapid, violent, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which he cannot cope.”

Aim: render the enemy incapable of resisting by shattering his moral and physical cohesion rather than to destroy through incremental attrition.

“The greatest value of firepower is not physical destruction—the cumulative effects of which are felt only slowly—but the moral dislocation it causes.”

Enemy must be made to see his situation not only as deteriorating, but at an ever-increasing rate. Ultimate goal is panic and paralysis.

Once gained or found, an advantage must be pressed relentlessly and unhesitatingly.

We must be ruthlessly opportunistic

Actively seek out signs of weakness against which to direct all available combat power.

When decisive opportunity arrives, we must exploit it fully and aggressively, pushing ourselves to the limits of exhaustion.

In order to appear unpredictable we must avoid set rules and patterns which inhibit imagination and initiative.

In order to appear ambiguous we should operate in a way that leaves multiple routes of action possible

Philosophy of Command

In order to achieve the speed required, command must be decentralized.

Subordinate commanders must make decisions on their own initiative based on understanding of senior’s intent.

“Our philosophy must not only accommodate but must exploit human traits such as boldness, initiative, personality, strength of will, and imagination.”

Implicit communication is key; involves using minimum of well-understood phrases or even anticipating thoughts of others.

Key people should talk directly to one another when possible, rather than through communicators or messengers.

We should communicate orally when possible because we communicate also in how we talk.

Commander should command from well forward to gain firsthand view of combat and an intuitive appreciate for situation.

This allows commander to exert personal influence at decisive points and to avoid delays in communication.

Only by physical presence—by share danger and privation—can commander fully gain trust and confidence of subordinates.

Command from front does not equate to over-supervision of subordinates.

Maneuver warfare is unusually disorderly due to speed and decentralization. We must be prepared to thrive in chaos, uncertainty, friction.

Must not strive for certainty before we act.

Must not try to maintain positive control over subordinates

Decentralized system requires leaders at all levels to demonstrate sound and timely judgment.

Shaping the Battle

Since our success is not based on attrition, we must conceive vision of how we intend to win.

First requirement: establish intent (what we want, and how)

Must identify critical enemy vulnerability

Then determine steps necessary to achieve.

Try to shape events in a way that allows us several options

Decision Making

If we fail to make a decision out of lack of will, we have willingly surrendered the initiative to our foe.

Any decision is generally better than no decision.

Whoever can make and implement his decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage.

“We must have the moral courage to make tough decisions in the face of uncertainty—and accept full responsibility for those decisions—when the natural inclination would be to postpone the decision pending more complete information.”

Don’t squander opportunities while trying to gain more information.

We must have the moral courage to make bold decisions and accept the necessary degree of risk when the natural inclination is to choose a less ambitious tack, for “in audacity and obstinacy will be found safety.” Finally, since all decisions must be made in the face of uncertainty and since every situation is unique, there is no perfect solution to any battlefield problem. Therefore, we should not agonize over one. The essence of the problem is to select a promising course of action with an acceptable degree of risk, and to do it more quickly than our foe. In this respect, “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

Commander’s Intent

Two parts to a mission: the task to be accomplished, and the reason, or intent.

Intent is predominant, as it is more permanent and continues to guide action, regardless of shifts in task.

Focus of Effort

Of all the efforts going on within our command, we recognize the focus of effort as the most critical to success.

Focus forces us to concentrate decisive combat power just as it forces us to accept risk. Thus, we focus our effort against critical enemy vulnerability, exercising strict economy elsewhere.

“Each commander should establish a focus of effort for each mission. As the situation changes, the commander may shift the focus of effort, redirecting the weight of his combat power in the direction that offers the greatest success. In this way he exploits success; he does not reinforce failure.”

Surfaces and Gaps

Surfaces: enemy strengths

Gaps: enemy weaknesses

Whenever possible, exploit existing gaps. Failing that, create gaps.

Expect enemy to portray surfaces as gaps, and vice versa.

Gaps are usually fleeting, and require a quick and flexible response

We must seek out gaps through aggressive reconnaissance.

Combined Arms

Full integration of arms in such a way that in order to counteract one, the enemy must make himself more vulnerable to another: a dilemma for the enemy, and a no-win situation.