MCDP 1: Warfighting by Major John Schmitt

My Score – 10/10

This book is one of the best business books of all time. Just substitute “warfighting” for “business building” and you’re set.


MCDP is Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication. Consider it “Book #1” for USMC thinking and operating.

Written by Major John Schmitt, MDCP 1 is considered essential reading and study by all Marines.

You can listen to a podcast with him here: #10–John Schmitt • Controversy & Clarity (

Student handout and study guide/TLDR: UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS (


  • Most concepts in warfighting are directly applicable to business.

  • Impressive yet simple writing. Major John Schmitt has a gift.

  • Oriented around action, much needed in this day and age.

  • Short and punchy.


  • I got a huge kick out of this entire book. There was not a lot of fluff, as the author did not have to fill a certain number of pages or sell anything, as is the case with most books. (Not really a con, but the closest thing I could come up with) Very hard to come up with a con for this book.

Favorite Quotes

Not only must we not stifle boldness or initiative, but 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. We will not accept lack of orders as justification for inaction; it is each Marine’s duty to take initiative as the situation demands. We must not tolerate the avoidance of responsibility or necessary risk.

“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 Seeckt

The combination of speed and focus adds “punch” or “shock effect” to our actions. It follows that we should strike with the greatest possible combination of speed and focus.

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  • All words below are directly from the book. All in italics are mine.

  • I cannot express enough the importance of switching war for business in the below highlights. It all applies, and very well.


Very simply, this publication describes the philosophy which distinguishes the U.S. Marine Corps. The thoughts contained here are not merely guidance for action in combat but a way of thinking. This publication provides the authoritative basis for how we fight and how we prepare to fight. This book contains no specific techniques or procedures for conduct. Rather, it provides broad guidance in the form of concepts and values. It requires judgment in application.


If we cease to refine, expand, and improve our profession, we risk becoming outdated, stagnant, and defeated.

Chapter 1: The Nature of War

“Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.”1—Carl von Clausewitz

“In war the chief incalculable is the human will.”2—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.”3—A. A. Vandegrift


The very nature of war makes certainty impossible; all actions in war will be based on incomplete, inaccurate, or even contradictory information.

War is intrinsically unpredictable. At best, we can hope to determine possibilities and probabilities. This implies a certain standard of military judgment: What is possible and what is not? What is probable and what is not? By judging probability, we make an estimate of our enemy’s designs and act accordingly. Having said this, we realize that it is precisely those actions that seem improbable that often have the greatest impact on the outcome of war.


Success depends in large part on the ability to adapt—to proactively shape changing events to our advantage as well as to react quickly to constantly changing conditions.


If we are to win, we must be able to operate in a disorderly environment. In fact, we must not only be able to fight effectively in the face of disorder, we should seek to generate disorder and use it as a weapon against our opponent.

The Human Dimension

Because war is a clash between opposing human wills, the human dimension is central in war. It is the human dimension which infuses war with its intangible moral factors. War is shaped by human nature and is subject to the complexities, inconsistencies, and peculiarities which characterize human behavior. Since war is an act of violence based on irreconcilable disagreement, it will invariably inflame and be shaped by human emotions.

War is an extreme trial of moral and physical strength and stamina. Any view of the nature of war would hardly be accurate or complete without consideration of the effects of danger, fear, exhaustion, and privation on those who must do the fighting.7 However, these effects vary greatly from case to case.

No degree of technological development or scientific calculation will diminish 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 flawed.

Violence and Danger

Leaders must study fear, understand it, and be prepared to cope with it. Courage and fear are often situational rather than uniform, meaning that people experience them differently at different times and in different situations. Like fear, courage takes many forms, from a stoic courage born of reasoned calculation to a fierce courage born of heightened emotion. Experience under fire generally increases confidence, as can realistic training by lessening the mystique of combat. Strong leadership which earns the respect and trust of subordinates can limit the effects of fear. Leaders should develop unit cohesion and esprit and the self-confidence of individuals within the unit. In this environment, a Marine’s unwillingness to violate the respect and trust of peers can overcome personal fear.

Physical, Moral, and Mental Forces

Although material factors are more easily quantified, the moral and mental forces exert a greater influence on the nature and outcome of war.11This is not to lessen the importance of physical forces, for the physical forces in war can have a significant impact on the others. For example, the greatest effect of fires is generally not the amount of physical destruction they cause, but the effect of that physical destruction on the enemy’s moral strength.

Chapter 2: The Theory of War

“Invincibility lies in the defense; the possibility of victory in the attack. One defends when his strength is inadequate; he attacks when it is abundant.”2—Sun Tzu

“Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuver, the less he demands in slaughter.”3—Winston Churchill

Having arrived at a common view of the nature of war, we proceed to develop from it a theory of war. Our theory of war will in turn be the foundation for the way we prepare for and wage war.

The Spectrum of Conflict

A modern military force capable of waging a war against a large conventional force may find itself ill-prepared for a “small” war against a lightly equipped guerrilla force.

The Levels of War

Strategy involves establishing goals, assigning forces, providing assets, and imposing conditions on the use of force in theaters of war. Strategy derived from political and policy objectives must be clearly understood to be the sole authoritative basis for all operations.

The lowest level is the tactical level.11Tactics refers to the concepts and methods used to accomplish a particular mission in either combat or other military operations. In war, tactics focuses on the application of combat power to defeat an enemy force in combat at a particular time and place.

There is a certain overlap between tactics and techniques. We make the point only to draw the distinction between tactics, which requires judgment and creativity, and techniques and procedures, which generally involves repetitive routine.

The operational level of war links the strategic and tactical levels. It is the use of tactical results to attain strategic objectives.12 The operational level includes deciding when, where, and under what conditions to engage the enemy in battle—and when, where, and under what conditions to refuse battle in support of higher aims. Actions at this level imply a broader dimension of time and space than actions at the tactical level. As strategy deals with winning wars and tactics with winning battles and engagements, the operational level of war is the art and science of winning campaigns. Its means are tactical results, and its ends are the established strategic objectives.

Initiative and Response

All actions in war, regardless of the level, are based upon either taking the initiative or reacting in response to the opponent. By taking the initiative, we dictate the terms of the conflict and force the enemy to meet us on our terms.

We normally associate the offense with initiative: The most obvious way to seize and maintain the initiative is to strike first and keep striking.

Styles of Warfare

The attritionist tends to gauge progress in quantitative terms: battle damage assessments, “body counts,” and terrain captured. Results are generally proportionate to efforts; greater expenditures net greater results—that is, greater attrition. The desire for volume and accuracy of fire tends to lead toward centralized control, just as the emphasis on efficiency tends to lead to an inward focus on procedures and techniques. Success depends on an overall superiority in attritional capacity—that is, the ability to inflict and absorb attrition. The greatest necessity for success is numerical and material superiority. At the national level, war becomes as much an industrial as a military problem. Historically, nations and militaries that perceived they were numerically and technologically superior have often adopted warfare by attrition.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is warfare by maneuver which stems from a desire to circumvent a problem and attack it from a position of advantage rather than meet it straight on. Rather than pursuing the cumulative destruction of every component in the enemy arsenal, the goal is to attack the enemy “system”—to incapacitate the enemy systemically.

Maneuver relies on speed and surprise for without either we cannot concentrate strength against enemy weakness. Tempo is itself a weapon—often the most important. Success by maneuver—unlike attrition—is often disproportionate to the effort made. However, for exactly the same reasons, maneuver incompetently applied carries with it a greater chance for catastrophic failure. With attrition, potential losses tend to be proportionate to risks incurred.

Speed and Focus

Of all the consistent patterns we can discern in war, there are two concepts of universal significance in generating combat power: speed and focus.

Speed is rapidity of action. It applies to both time and space. Speed over time is tempo—the consistent ability to operate quickly.18 Speed over distance, or space, is the ability to move rapidly. Both forms are genuine sources of combat power. In other words, speed is a weapon. In war, it is relative speed that matters rather than absolute speed. Superior speed allows us to seize the initiative and dictate the terms of action, forcing the enemy to react to us. Speed provides security. It is a prerequisite for maneuver and for surprise. Moreover, speed is necessary in order to concentrate superior strength at the decisive time and place.

The willingness to focus at the decisive place and time necessitates strict economy and the acceptance of risk elsewhere and at other times.

The combination of speed and focus adds “punch” or “shock effect” to our actions. It follows that we should strike with the greatest possible combination of speed and focus.

Surprise and Boldness

Boldness is a source of combat power in much the same way that surprise is. Boldness is the characteristic of unhesitatingly exploiting the natural uncertainty of war to pursue major results rather than marginal ones. According to Clausewitz, 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.”20Boldness is superior to timidity in every instance although boldness does not always equate to immediate aggressive action. A nervy, calculating patience that allows the enemy to commit themselves irrevocably before we strike them can also be a form of boldness. Boldness is based on strong situation awareness: We weigh the situation, then act. In other words, boldness must be tempered with judgment lest it border on recklessness.

Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities

We ask ourselves: Which factors are critical to the enemy? Which can the enemy not do without? Which, if eliminated, will bend them most quickly to our will? These are centers of gravity.21 Depending on the situation, centers of gravity may be intangible characteristics such as resolve or morale. They may be capabilities such as armored forces or aviation strength. They may be localities such as a critical piece of terrain that anchors an entire defensive system. They may be the relationship between two or more components of the system such as the cooperation between two arms, the relations in an alliance, or the junction of two forces. In short, centers of gravity are any important sources of strength. If they are friendly centers of gravity, we want to protect them, and if they are enemy centers of gravity, we want to take them away.

We want to attack the source of enemy strength, but we do not want to attack directly into that strength. We obviously stand a better chance of success by concentrating our strength against some relative enemy weakness. So we also ask ourselves: Where is the enemy vulnerable?

we should focus our efforts against a critical vulnerability, a vulnerability that, if exploited, will do the most significant damage to the enemy’s ability to resist us.

Center of gravity and critical vulnerability are complementary concepts. The former looks at the problem of how to attack the enemy system from the perspective of seeking a source of strength, the latter from the perspective of seeking weakness. A critical vulnerability is a pathway to attacking a center of gravity. Both have the same underlying purpose: to target our actions in such a way as to have the greatest effect on the enemy.

Creating and Exploiting Opportunity

By exploiting opportunities, we create in increasing numbers more opportunities for exploitation. It is often the ability and the willingness to ruthlessly exploit these opportunities that generate decisive results. The ability to take advantage of opportunity is a 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.”1—Hans von Seeckt

“It is not enough that the troops be skilled infantry men or artillery men of high morale: they must be skilled water men and jungle men who know it can be done—Marines with Marine training.”2—Earl H. Ellis

All peacetime activities should focus on achieving combat readiness. This implies a high level of training, flexibility in organization and equipment, professional leadership, and a cohesive doctrine.


Our doctrine does not consist of procedures to be applied in specific situations so much as it sets forth general guidance that requires judgment in application. Therefore, while authoritative, doctrine is not prescriptive.


The military profession is a thinking profession. Every Marine is expected to be a student of the art and science of war. Officers especially are expected to have a solid foundation in military theory and a knowledge of military history and the timeless lessons to be gained from it.

Leaders must have a strong sense of the great responsibility of their office; the resources they will expend in war are human lives.

Not only must we not stifle boldness or initiative, but 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. We will not accept lack of orders as justification for inaction; it is each Marine’s duty to take initiative as the situation demands. We must not tolerate the avoidance of responsibility or necessary risk.

Ready compliance for the purpose of personal advancement—the behavior of “yes-men” or “yes-women”—will not be tolerated.


Critiques are an important part of training because critical selfanalysis, even after success, is essential to improvement. Their purpose is to draw out the lessons of training. As a result, we should conduct critiques immediately after completing training, before memory of the events has faded. Critiques should be held in an atmosphere of open and frank dialogue in which all hands are encouraged to contribute. We learn as much from mistakes as from things done well, so we must be willing to admit mistakes and discuss them. Of course, a subordinate’s willingness to admit mistakes depends on the commander’s willingness to tolerate them. 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.

Chapter 4: The Conduct of War

“Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness”1—Sun Tzu

“Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”2—Sun Tzu

The Challenge

The challenge is to develop a concept of warfighting consistent with our understanding of the nature and theory of war and the realities of the modern battlefield. What exactly does this require? It requires a concept of warfighting that will help us function effectively in an uncertain, chaotic, and fluid environment—in fact, one with which we can exploit these conditions to our advantage. It requires a concept with which we can sense and use the time-competitive rhythm of war to generate and exploit superior tempo. It requires a concept that is consistently effective across the full spectrum of conflict because we cannot attempt to change our basic doctrine from situation to situation and expect to be proficient. It requires a concept with which we can recognize and exploit the fleeting opportunities that naturally occur in war. It requires a concept that takes into account the moral and mental as well as the physical forces of war because we have already concluded that these form the greater part of war. It requires a concept with which we can succeed against a numerically superior foe because we cannot presume a numerical advantage either locally or overall. Especially in expeditionary situations in which public support for military action may be tepid and short-lived, it requires a concept with which we can win quickly against a larger foe on their home soil with minimal casualties and limited external support.

Maneuver Warfare

The Marine Corps concept for winning under these conditions is a warfighting doctrine based on rapid, flexible, and opportunistic maneuver.

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

By our actions, we seek to pose menacing dilemmas in which events happen unexpectedly and more quickly than the enemy can keep up with them. The enemy must be made to see the situation not only as deteriorating, but deteriorating at an ever-increasing rate. The ultimate goal is panic and paralysis, an enemy who has lost the ability to resist.

Inherent in maneuver warfare is the need for speed to seize the initiative, dictate the terms of action, and keep the enemy off balance, thereby increasing their friction. We seek to establish a pace that the enemy cannot maintain so that with each action their reactions are increasingly late—until eventually they are overcome by events.

We must be ruthlessly opportunistic, actively seeking out signs of weakness against which we will direct all available combat power. When the decisive opportunity arrives, we must exploit it fully and aggressively, committing every ounce of combat power we can muster and pushing ourselves to the limits of exhaustion.

Besides traits such as endurance and courage that all warfare demands, maneuver warfare puts a premium on certain particular human skills and traits. It requires the temperament to cope with uncertainty. It requires flexibility of mind to deal with fluid and disorderly situations. It requires a certain independence of mind, a willingness to act with initiative and boldness, an exploitive mindset that takes full advantage of every opportunity, and the moral courage to accept responsibility for this type of behavior. It is important that this last set of traits be guided by self-discipline and loyalty to the objectives.

Philosophy of Command

We must therefore be prepared to cope—even better, to thrive—in an environment of chaos, uncertainty, constant change, and friction. If we can come to terms with those conditions and thereby limit their debilitating effects, we can use them as a weapon against a foe who does not cope as well.

Shaping The Action

Through shaping, commanders gain the initiative, preserve momentum, and control the tempo of operations. We should also try to shape events in a way that allows us several options so that by the time the moment for decisive operations arrives, we have not restricted ourselves to only one course of action.

Regardless of the sphere in which we operate, it is essential to have some vision of the result we want and how we intend to shape the action in time and space to achieve it.


Time is a critical factor in effective decisionmaking—often the most important factor. A key part of effective decisionmaking is realizing how much decision time is available and making the most of that time. In general, whoever can make and implement decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage. Decisionmaking in execution thus becomes a timecompetitive process, and timeliness of decisions becomes essential to generating tempo.

We must have the moral courage to make tough decisions in the face of uncertainty—and to accept full responsibility for those decisions—when the natural inclination would be to postpone the decision pending more complete information. To delay action in an emergency because of incomplete information shows a lack of moral courage. We do not want to make rash decisions, but we must not squander opportunities while trying to gain more information.

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.”7

Mission Tactics

One key way we put maneuver warfare into practice is through the use of mission tactics. Mission tactics is just as the name implies: the tactics of assigning a subordinate mission without specifying how the mission must be accomplished.8 We leave the manner of accomplishing the mission to the subordinate, thereby allowing the freedom—and establishing the duty—for the subordinate to take whatever steps deemed necessary based on the situation. Mission tactics relies on a subordinate’s exercise of initiative framed by proper guidance and understanding.


Maneuver warfare is a way of thinking in and about war that should shape our every action. It is a state of mind born of a bold will, intellect, initiative, and ruthless opportunism. It is a state of mind bent on shattering the enemy morally and physically by paralyzing and confounding them, by avoiding their strength, by quickly and aggressively exploiting their vulnerabilities, and by striking them in the way that will hurt them most. In short, maneuver warfare is a philosophy for generating the greatest decisive effect against the enemy at the least possible cost to ourselves—a philosophy for “fighting smart.”

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