Mars Learning: The Marine Corp’s Development of Small Wars Doctrine, 1915-1940

U.S. Marines are caricatured as anti-intellectual, hyper-aggressive warriors. Indeed, marines self-indulgently deride themselves as ‘knuckle-draggers’ and pride themselves on their bloodthirsty reputation. But marines are intellectuals. The low-brow stereotype hides a legacy among the Corps’ officers of scholarship and a drive toward improving the profession. This very legacy is the crux of Keith Bickel’s thesis in Mars Learning: The Marine Corps’ Development of Small Wars Doctrine, 1915-1940. Through a detailed analysis of the Corps’ participation in small wars in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, Bickel identifies how the Corps’ officers developed the doctrine that culminated with the publication of The Small Wars Manual by the United States Marine Corps 

Mars Learning admirably addresses a gap in the scholarship on marines, namely: how did they develop the small wars doctrine? Covered elsewhere is the participation of marines in the conflicts during World War I and just prior to the start of World War II. A natural result of the conflicts is the publication of The Small Wars Manual, which captures the hard-earned lessons from these wars. But doctrine does not write itself. Chief strengths of Mars Learning are Bickel’s examination of how the Marine Corps bought and developed doctrine at the start of this period and his re-appraisal of the production and promulgation of formal and informal doctrine through 1940. He identifies the surprising trend that, despite fighting three insurgencies in geographically and socially similar situations over two decades, senior leaders did not sponsor nor publish formal doctrine in Marine Corps Schools until after these wars ended. Instead, through an exhaustive review of primary sources, Bickel shows junior officers published informal doctrine in The Marine Corps Gazette, shared in letters and monographs, borrowed and plagiarized from outside sources; otherwise transmitted by those with small wars experience.

Bickel further tracks how this informal doctrine received the Corps’ imprimatur. The story is compelling; the focus of commandants throughout this period was on the Corps’ role in landing operations over and above its role in small wars. Bickel identifies a culture open to thought and criticism that was supported by the Corps’ senior leaders; another key factor leading to the publication of The Small Wars Manual.  

If Mars Learning has a shortcoming, it is the one-sided lens through which this story is told. This is a Marine Corps story told through the primary sources left behind by the Marines who lived it. The view of the Corps’ enemies is decidedly absent, and it was their actions that compelled the Corps to learn to fight in this tradition. In fairness, Bickel notes his deliberate decision to lean on Marine Corps sources, and a view from the insurgents’ side would demand an entirely different book. Ultimately, Mars Learning is required reading for the historian intent on understanding the Corps’ culture of bottom-up refinement and how its small wars doctrine was produced.


Brian Kerg is a prior-enlisted mortarman, communications officer, and nonresident fellow with Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare. He is currently a student at the School of Advanced Warfighting in Quantico, Virginia. Follow or contact him on twitter @BrianKerg.

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