Global Policy Forum

Marines Rediscover a 1940s Manual


By Greg Jaffe

Wall Street Journal
April 8, 2004

When Maj. Matthew Chisholm shipped out to Iraq in February, he stuffed his dogeared copy of the "Marine Corps Small Wars Manual" -- a 64-year-old guide to battling guerrillas -- into his backpack. "I brought it as a checklist or mental nudge," says the civil-affairs officer. "(It) pretty much describes the intent of everything I do over here: rebuild schools, roads and police stations."

It also describes a lot of things Maj. Chisholm isn't likely to see. Dozens of pages are dedicated to the care and feeding of pack mules. "Never feed fresh grass to an overheated animal," it warns. Some passages are, at the same time, naive and patronizing: "Inhabitants of countries with a high rate of illiteracy have many childlike characteristics ... eliciting the untarnished truth from them requires patience beyond words." Another section covers the "killing and dressing of game," warning that meat cooked after rigor mortis has set in will be tough unless it is first boiled in vinegar.

In its three-week drive to Baghdad last year, the U.S. military relied heavily on satellite-guided bombs and supersonic jets. But now it is looking to this anachronistic book for some answers. The 446-page manual was born out of three decades of hard-won experience. From 1898 to 1934, the Marines fought a number of small wars, in the Philippines, Cuba, Honduras, China, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. They clashed with guerrillas, built constabularies and held elections. Then, in 1940, a group of Marines set out to capture in writing the lessons of those battles.

One year after their book was finished, the U.S. found itself embroiled in World War II, and the manual was forgotten. The manual was classified until 1972. Thus, in Vietnam, where it might have been useful, it wasn't widely distributed and wasn't much read.

Now, it is popping up everywhere. Last month, the Marine Corps passed out copies to all officers headed to Iraq. William Luti, an adviser to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and one of the architects of the Iraq war, keeps a copy on a coffee table in his Pentagon office. He praises the book for its keen recognition that in small wars support of the locals is far more important than raw firepower. "One of the visionary aspects of this work is its focus on the social and psychological aspects of small wars," Mr. Luti says.

Democrats cite it, too. "We know how to fight wars like Iraq. We even have a how-to guide in the Marine Corps's Small War Manual," Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee insisted last October at a hearing on Iraq reconstruction.

Some soldiers and Marines say the fat book has been mythologized by a military that is struggling with change. "It's cited more often than it is actually read," says Lt. Col. Richard Lacquement, who served with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. Col. Lacquement suggests that at a time when the U.S. military has been pulled into an unfamiliar and complex guerrilla war, the book harks back to the Banana Wars in Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1920s and 1930s. "The idea that we have a history of doing these sorts of missions well is comforting for a tradition-minded organization like the military," he says.

Others say the book has caught on because there are so few alternatives. "The Small Wars Manual is so popular today not because of its excellence -- although much of it is very good -- but because it has little serious competition," says Army Maj. John Nagl, who is deployed near Ramadi, the site of some of the fiercest fighting since the end of the war, and is the author of a history of modern counterinsurgency. In the absence of anything better, the book has become must reading for muddy-boot troops. Before he embarked last week on a four-day mission to track down enemy fighters raining mortars down on a U.S. base near Fallujah, Marine Corps Capt. Adam Strickland reread the sections of the manual that discuss how to cordon off an area infested with enemies.

Even the much-derided mule sections are proving useful in Iraq, he says. Marines still keep a handful of mules in California to practice using the animals to carry gear into war. "Unfortunately Marines get hung up on the pictures of the donkeys with rockets on their backs, but what is ironic is that we search every donkey we see here for that exact reason," he writes from Iraq. And well they might. Last November, insurgents packed rockets into a donkey cart and fired them at the Iraq Oil ministry.

In Afghanistan, Army Lt. Col. Raymond Millen, who helped write training guidelines for U.S. troops working with the new Afghan National Army, spotted the manual on a colleague's bookshelf. For him the sections on building local constabularies proved prescient. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. efforts to build native armies were plagued by desertions. Recruits complained of poor pay and lousy equipment. At first, U.S. officers worried about the message they'd be sending if they paid young soldiers more than most Iraqis and Afghanis earn.

Eventually, the U.S. raised salaries. But had U.S. officers studied the "Small Wars Manual" earlier, some missteps might have been avoided. "In establishing an organization of native troops, attempts should be made to provide better clothing and shelter and food than native civilians of the same social class. This is ... an important morale factor," the book notes.

The Marine Corps earlier this year completed a draft update to the original "Small Wars Manual" -- a project that had progressed in fits and starts for almost a decade. One of the manual's principal authors, retired Lt. Col. Noel Williams, was working on the document in the Pentagon on Sept. 11 when a jet struck close to his office. Smoke and fire damage forced him to move out of the building and finish his draft at a nearby annex.

One addition is a section that focuses on how the enemy has changed. When the original manual was written, insurgents were motivated primarily by nationalism and confined attacks to a single country. Today's enemies are often driven by religious fervor and a desire to wreak havoc world-wide, the update notes. Also, weaponry is potentially far more powerful. And information technology has increased enemies' reach "to a global scale."

In addition to the printed manual, Col. Williams created a "Small Wars" Web site where soldiers and Marines can post hints on everything from avoiding roadside bombs in Iraq to surviving at high altitudes in Afghanistan. "I wanted to give Marines the ability to print off the most current and relevant postings and then stuff them in the pockets of their cargo pants," he says.

In February the Marines gave 100 copies of the draft update to officers heading for Iraq and asked them to make suggestions for improving it based on their real-world experience. But, Col. Williams says, "The original will still be on the shelf. We'll still use it."

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