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A US Marine combat veteran explains “Warfighting,” the how-to manual for the US Marines, and its practical application in Ukraine.
By Tecumseh Court
“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”
I suspect many Cosmopolitan Globalist readers, who not unreasonably thought the kind of war we’re now witnessing had faded into history, have given little thought over the course of their careers to the day-to-day business of war. I know some of you personally, am a paying subscriber, and sense many readers and writers in this group have been more professionally focused, perhaps, on the interplay of diplomacy and military threats to achieve strategic objectives.
I’ve been a combat leader in the US Marine Corps. I was in Kyiv and Odessa in 2014, although not as a Marine, about two weeks after the Russians occupied Crimea. I’ve been reading the same dispatches as you have since this war began, but I’ve been looking for clues from a different perspective.
For those with a military background, please forgive the simplifications and doctrinal liberties to come. My purpose is to orient Cosmopolitan Globalists to the environmental factors, simple and complex, that will determine the war’s outcome, and help them better understand the news reports, personal dispatches, and partisan claims now emerging from Ukraine, from a military perspective.
My intent is to get novices up to speed as quickly as possible. As I write, Kyiv, Odessa, and Kharkiv are under siege, and the outcome is far from certain. You don’t have time to attend a military staff college or plow through a reading list to fully understand the burden that every able-bodied Ukrainian now carries. What follows is at best an imperfect education in warfighting. (But a good plan executed swiftly is better than a perfect plan delivered too late, as brave Ukrainians are showing us.)
WHY “WARFIGHTING” MATTERS
If you’ve never heard of Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication-1, Warfighting, it is well worth a glance. Published in 1989 (and at the time controversial among Marines), the small book is mandatory reading for every infantry Marine, officer and enlisted alike. After more than three decades, it remains a basic how-to for professional warriors. As a philosophical treatise and the Bible of the Marine Corps, it shaped the way two generations of military leaders worldwide understand and practice warfare.
Why does a warfighting philosophy matter? First, Russian commanders (although not many soldiers) have probably read and studied Warfighting in an effort to know their enemy. They have their own warfighting philosophy, refined by combat experience—a viewpoint that places far more emphasis on terror, brutality, and violence—but they are confronting a Ukrainian adversary that has proven surprisingly adept in adopting warrior ways of their own.
It’s been said and should be restated: The courage we’ve seen from the Ukrainians defending their homeland is legendary. I spent years studying warfighting in theory before applying it in practice. From petrol attendant to president, the Ukrainians have learned and applied its essential elements in days. Every word ever written about valor, fortitude, and sacrifice has been brought to life. If through some pathetic combination of cravenness or cruelty you can’t bring yourself to say, “I stand with Ukraine” … go fuck yourself.
“ … AS THREE IS TO ONE.”
Friction. Uncertainty. Fluidity. Disorder. Complexity. These section headers in Warfighting’s opening chapter introduce readers to the nature of war. As media reports have shifted from one skirmish to another, interpretations of success or failure swirl like sports broadcasters forecasting “momentum” during a match. In part, this is because the outcome of recent wars has seemed overdetermined by military superiority. It’s no secret that Russia’s martial machine, in manpower and materiel, exceeds Ukraine’s by orders of magnitude.
The primary variable influencing war’s outcome is as complex as it is simple: the will to fight. Yes, Ukrainians need equipment, supplies, and basic tactical skills. But risking one’s life—even, and perhaps especially, when conscripted—is not easy. The will to fight matters above all. Can Ukraine maintain it? Women preparing Molotov cocktails in Dnipro, central Ukraine’s largest city, are offering their answer.
“The moral is to the physical as three is to one,” said Napoleon. In this case, “moral” doesn’t suggest a religious or pious quality, but the admixture of a grasp on reality and the abstract intangible of morale. Rational calculation (if Putin wins, I die) combined with the spiritual (everything I love and value is threatened) leads Ukrainians to conclude that fighting a violent, terrifying enemy matters above all else. Ultimately, the will to fight is an immeasurable variable. Like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, you know it when you see it.
American combat leaders, when applying warfighting philosophy to decisions, recite the mantra, “Maintain the moral high ground.” From the strategic to the tactical level, Russian military units have demonstrated the willingness to kill; but reports of soldiers seeking Ukrainian women on Tinder in their mysterious free time suggest a less disciplined force then their leader might desire.
In audacity and fiction, the Kremlin’s propaganda pronouncements compete with Baghdad Bob’s. Landmarks lit up with Ukrainian colors and social media hashtags might not seem like much, but everywhere except in Russia and China, the moral high ground is Ukraine’s to lose. And, if victory is possible, Ukraine must hold that intangible terrain—at all costs.
CENTERS OF GRAVITY
Warfighting’s second chapter, covering the theory of war, explores two connected concepts advanced by Prussian military scholar Carl von Clausewitz. The first, centers of gravity, are those which, “if eliminated, would bend the enemy most quickly to our will.” These extend across strategy, operations, and tactics. They might be terrain, relationships, or intangibles like morale.
For now, let’s consider what Russia appears to see as Ukraine’s strategic center of gravity: the Ukrainian head of state. Russia is gambling much of the war’s outcome on massing enough combat power to take out President Volodymyr Zelensky, having determined this would reduce both the ability and will of Ukrainians to resist. Bizarrely, it appears the Russians have borrowed from the United States’ 2003 playbook against Saddam Hussein. The Kremlin seems to have miscalculated not just Zelensky’s response to Russia’s war machine, but that of hundreds of other Ukrainian oligarchs, generals, ministers, and authorities at the national, regional, and local level—not to mention Ukraine’s grandmothers.
For this reason, every nightly video of Zelensky proving that he lives—and remains in Kyiv—is as significant militarily as machinery and manpower: part fireside chat, part halftime speech. Miraculously, the former comic and actor, whose path into politics was as unexpected and circuitous as the titular character in the 1993 movie Dave, has demonstrated battlefield leadership to rival any wartime leader in recent centuries. Events demanded Zelensky overnight become FDR and Patton combined. He proved up to the task. Many expected him to flee under pressure; after all, his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, did precisely that in 2014, leaving behind a palace filled with imported marble, Italian crystal, precious woods, and ill-gotten zoo animals. We recently watched Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani weigh the odds and decide to get while the getting was good. It was far from clear, a week ago, that the world would rally as it has to support Ukraine.
Now a furious Germany is rearming, announcing plans to become one of the world’s most significant military powers. The European Union, for the first time in its history, is pouring lethal aid into Ukraine. Foreigners are arriving to join Ukraine’s volunteer army. The Russian economy has been flatlined by sanctions. The Russian army has yet to achieve a single serious strategic goal. There are many reasons for this, but above them all is Zelensky’s courage and heroism; it is not just Ukraine’s morale he has elevated, but that of the entire cynical and dispirited free world.
The theoretical corollaries to centers of gravity are critical vulnerabilities. On identifying the centers of gravity, combat leaders ask, “Where is the enemy vulnerable?” A critical vulnerability, according to Warfighting, is that which, “if exploited, would do the most significant damage to the enemy’s ability to resist us.” For example, if Ukraine’s strategic center of gravity is its head of state, several critical vulnerabilities are evident. They merit narration.
The most obvious critical vulnerability is his physical proximity to enemy territory. The Belarussian border is 150 kilometers away, and Russia’s supply line through Chernobyl will likely remain intact. Russia’s early seizure of Hostomel Airfield offers them a second resupply option on Kyiv’s doorstep, and the Russians may have held back operationally experienced units for a second attack wave. It’s difficult to see how Ukrainian forces can interdict Russia’s capacity to bring combat power to bear against the enemy.
On the positive side, the Russians have failed, thus far, to exploit an obvious critical vulnerability: the divisions among Ukraine’s fractious elites. As Cosmopolitan Globalist readers probably know, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was until quite recently President Zelensky’s sworn enemy; in mid-January, Zelensky accused the billionaire of “high treason” and leveled against him numerous criminal charges.
But just before the Russian invasion, Zelensky and Poroshenko, along with Ukraine’s leading oligarchs, buried the hatchet in a public display of national unity. At the time, it was difficult to determine if the rapprochement was just for show. But during the siege of Kyiv, Poroshenko backed Zelensky on CNN while brandishing an AK-47 and manning a checkpoint. Militarily speaking, there are far worse ways Ukraine’s political leaders could compete than by seeing who can show the greatest physical courage under fire.
CAN THE STATE HOLD?
How should this knowledge of centers of gravity and critical vulnerabilities influence our analysis? Functionally, the Ukrainian head of state is represented through military commanders, along with ministers, regional authorities, oblast leaders, police captains, mayors, and myriad figures of real and imagined importance. Given Zelensky’s elevated importance to Ukraine’s will to fight, a question many should be asking—including Zelensky—is how the Ukrainian state will hold if the worst happens and he, and Kyiv, fall?
Has anyone been designated—the vice president, a military commander, or another figure—as his successor? Would his cabinet and senior leaders swiftly recognize him?1 Is the successor safely far from Kyiv? Will the oligarchs support him? Would the Ukrainian people rally behind him? Would NATO?
The moment when Zelensky publicly responded to offers of evacuation by saying he needed “ammunition, not a ride,” was critical to Ukraine’s fight. His calm, courageous presence in Kyiv, even the possibility of his martyrdom, may be precisely what enables Ukrainians to keep fighting and keep their state. But strategically, the state of Ukraine cannot depend on a single man. Zelensky must have a designated successor, and he should now be in a major city that can serve as a rallying and resupply point for his forces. This might be Lviv or could even be Dnipro. But it needs to be as far away from Kyiv as possible.
In Part II, we will move from strategy to tactics. Up next, we’ll discuss the skills that the Ukrainian men and women who are now being issued AK-47s and conscripted to defend their homeland must acquire. This takes us to Warfighting, chapters three and four, where we go from the nature and theory of war to its preparation and conduct.
Tecumseh Court is an American combat veteran.
Letter to the editor
From a reader who requests anonymity
The CG tone is becoming emotional on [the subject of Ukraine]. This is obviously understandable, as it’s all but impossible not to be moved by the bravery and spirit of the Ukrainians, and it is about as clear a case of good-guys-vs-bad-guys as could be imagined in our fallen world. I think that what the educated population of the West needs more than anything from a sophisticated publication at this moment is informed judgment. Here are some key issues I think it would be useful to consider:
1. Independent of Putin, any regional power that has sufficient military capability will try to prevent distant powers from stationing military forces on their border. Isn’t this the essence of the Monroe Doctrine, as an example? It’s not 1995 anymore—does NATO really have the power to force Russia to accept this at a cost that we will actually bear? The last phrase is crucial, because Russia can make that very, very costly.
2. Vivek’s article on SWIFT was a good example of explaining why various actions that feel good might not be in the interest of the US, but I don’t think went far enough. And where was this consideration when evaluating whether doing this, even in a limited way, while obviously in the interests of Ukraine, actually serves US interests? I assume that the limited SWIFT ban was an attempt by the US government not to be seen as preventing this action, but doing it in a way that minimized damage to dollar primacy. Where is the analysis of how US national debt at 130 percent of GDP makes this a vital US interest—far more important in cold-blooded terms than what happens in Ukraine. I wish the US had been more fiscally responsible over the past several decades, but it has not, and this has implications for what courses of action are rational today.
3. I think that influential media figures calling for Putin's forcible removal—or in an obviously winking way, speculating on it—are extremely irresponsible when discussing a potentially unstable and paranoid autocrat in charge of a nuclear-armed power. Backing Russia generally, and Putin specifically, into a corner is almost certainly a very dangerous game that seems to me to have vastly more downside than upside for the US. Which gets to ...
4. You have in the past few years repeatedly (and correctly) been warning that nuclear weapons have not magically gone away. Whether we like it or not, the fact that Putin has command authority over 6,000 nuclear warheads and the ability to deliver them basically anywhere on earth means that Russia has enormous power that it can use to get some of what it wants. Consider the insanity of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The twitterati seem to think this is some kind of force field. They are so hubristic that they think the US just has air supremacy over the entire planet, not caring that what they are advocating is actually large-scale aerial combat with Russia, something we carefully avoided for the last 75 years. At what point do enough Russian soldiers being killed by Javelin missiles supplied by the US become a casus belli for the Russians? There are now small numbers of retired US special forces operators volunteering to serve in the international brigade for the Ukrainians, to much acclaim. If this drags on, how likely is it that these become “retired volunteers” that seem to spend a lot of time in Langley, VA? Would we believe this of Russian “retired volunteers” fighting in some third-party conflict? How does this lead the Russians to perceive this and react? One of your authors casually indicated that he thought US active participation in this war was inevitable if the war lasted 30 days. This is all war fever. The US engaging in a war with Russia over the Ukraine could only happen through insanity, accident or miscalculation.
5. What is the end-game and a strategy to get there? Serious consideration of this has been notably absent from the high-profile discussion in the media. Do you really think that without committing NATO troops Ukraine can win the war? Or is the goal to turn this into a new Vietnam for Russia and fund a multi-year insurgency in the middle of Europe? What are the ways that could go wrong? How realistic is it that Russia will proceed beyond Ukraine and why? And so on, almost ad infinitum. Ultimately, what is the stable order that we are trying to get to—that we have the means to achieve? Barring global war, this means figuring out something the Russians can live with and helping them accept it without rubbing their faces in it.
6. Finally, even this whole conflict with Russia over Ukraine shouldn’t be seen in isolation, as tempting as it is to have tunnel-vision on such a dramatic event. The key strategic US and Western rival is China. The nightmare scenario for the West is a China-Russia-India bloc. Western reactions are obviously pushing Russia into an alliance of convenience with China for reasons you know well, but also note that India has conspicuously avoided condemning Russia, I assume because of long-standing defense ties with Russia. As in all wars and cold wars, maintaining focus on the key adversary usually requires making lots of compromises with countries that you otherwise don't like a whole lot. I think it would be very helpful for CG to consider this as well.
Claire—We’ll reply to these questions in turn, tomorrow; meanwhile, the essay above suggests some but not by any means all of the answers.
We are assuming it would be a man because as of now, no woman in the Ukrainian government or military would be a logical successor.