Retiring the Best Brains WAR IN THE GULF

May 20, 1991

A book published months before the Persian Gulf war had much to do with how it was conducted. "Warfighting," issued over the signature of Marine Commandant Alfred Gray as "FMFM-1," laid out a cogent strategy of speed and maneuver that emphasized surprise and de-emphasized smashing ahead regardless of opposition. It was largely written by Col. Mike Wiley, 51, who was recently passed over for promotion.

"Warfighting" recommends rapid troop movements and flanking tactics, enabling Marines to out-smart the enemy, maneuvering around obstacles rather than engaging in bloody, frontal assaults.

Many Army officers read "Warfighting" and absorbed its lessons before the gulf war. Some called for such a field manual re-shaping Army combat tactics. Navy officers and members of other services commented favorably in Proceedings, the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute, and indirect-approach, maneuver warfare later proved itself on the battlefield as Marines in Kuwait and Army troopers swept around and overwhelmed surprised Iraqi defenders.

It is thus puzzling that Colonel Wiley is being forced into retirement. A Vietnam veteran, he emerged from that conflict with deep misgivings about the straight-ahead, grind 'em down approach his superiors used. David Hackworth, the most-decorated U.S. soldier in Vietnam, resigned his colonel's commission with similar misgivings and wrote a book to spell out his feelings. Colonel Wiley remained in uniform, distilling his ideas and working for change within the system. In 1988, he revised the official Marine operations field manual that formally altered the corps' war-fighting doctrine.

A retired Navy officer with knowledge of the case said he thought Colonel Wiley would have been passed over and mustered out in any case, despite rewriting the Marine Corps' strategy, because he had not completed all the career steps a good officer should take in his climb to general. Even accepting that at face value, however, a promotional system that rewards ticket-punching and punishes innovations that save American lives and rapidly advance American objectives is flawed. Retiring your best brains after a performance like Desert Storm is hardly a way to encourage independent thinking in the ranks of young officers.

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