28 October 1997

“Not Like Yesterday!”

Anthony F. Milavic

Major, United States Marine Corps, (Retired)

Over the past several months, the Commandant of the Marines Corps, General Charles C. Krulak, has argued publicly for the necessity of change in the Marine Corps: (1) before the National Press Club on October 10, 1997; and (2), more recently, in a January 19, 1998 edition of the Navy Times-Marine Corps edition article entitled, “Not Like Yesterday.” As the “not like yesterday” historical example, he used the destruction of three Roman legions under the command of Quintilius Varus at the hands of Germanic tribes in A.D. 9. The Commandant could not have cited a better example to illustrate the perils of disregarding intelligence: Varus rejected the intelligence that one of his German auxiliary leaders was his enemy and failed to appreciate the effects of weather and terrain on operations; as a result, he led his force of approximately 30,000 to annihilation.

Earlier in A.D. 6, Tiberius left Germany for another campaign leaving Quintilius Varus as Legate of the Rhine Army, a force of five Roman legions and auxiliaries.  In the summer of A.D. 9, Varus was passing a quiet summer in garrison with three of his legions, auxiliaries and the dependents of his troops near what is now Minden/the river Weser. One of his auxiliary leaders was Arminius, chief of the Cherusci--a Germanic tribe. Arminius had served under Tiberius against revolts in Pannonia and Illyricum, learning first hand Roman tactics, capabilities, and limitations and winning for himself Roman citizenship and equestrian rank. In September, Varus prepared to move from summer to winter quarters in Ariso. Shortly before leaving, Arminius told Varus of a local uprising and suggested that he take a circuitous route to his winter quarters to quell this minor disturbance. In spite of numerous intelligence reports that this was a ruse and Arminius planned to attack him in route, Varus rejected the reports and, according to the ancient historian, Cassius Dio, “ . . . reproved [the reporters] for being needlessly alarmed and for slandering his friends.”

So, Varus left his summer garrison with a force of approximately 20,000 legionnaires and auxiliaries accompanied by “ . . . many wagons and pack animals, as they would for a journey in peace-time; they were even accompanied by women and children and a large retinue of servants [approximately 10,000 non-combatants], all these being factors which caused them to advance in scattered groups.” He led this force on a route selected by Arminius to put down a revolt staged by Arminius. Dio continues by describing the march conditions: “The shape of the mountains in this region was irregular, their slopes being deeply cleft by ravines, while trees grew closely together to a great height. In consequence the Romans, even before the enemy fell upon them, were hard pressed by the necessity of felling trees, clearing the tracks and bridging difficult stretches....Meanwhile a violent downpour and storm developed, so that the column was strung out even further; this caused the ground around the tree roots and the felled trunks to become slippery, making movement very dangerous, and the tops of the trees to break off and crash down upon them creating great confusion . . . the Roman troops were not advancing in any regular formation, but were interspersed at random with the wagons and the non-combatants.”

To ensure the success of his operation, Arminius accompanied Varus as his men served as guides for the Roman column to their preselected ambush position; the night before the attack, the Germans slipped into the night to join their comrades. The subsequent battle lasted several days resulting in, as the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus writes, “[The Roman army] was exterminated almost to a man . . . ” The plot of Arminius was carefully laid. He made use of Varus’ friendship and naivete “ . . . as an opportunity for treachery, sagaciously seeing that no one could be more quickly overpowered than the man who feared nothing, and that the most common beginning of disaster was a sense of security.”--Velleius. 

Unfortunately, Varus had little experience as a tactical commander; he was more a bureaucrat than a soldier, having served as the proconsul in Africa then the Legate of Syria before coming to Germany to serve under Tiberius. In fact, Velleius described him as a man “ . . . more accustomed to the leisure of the camp than to actual service in war.” He had little experience in working with what is called today, “combat intelligence”--knowledge of the enemy, weather and terrain. Correspondingly, there are United States Marine commanders who are, today, also suffering from an absence of experience in using intelligence. The August 11, 1997 issue of the Navy Times-Marine Edition reported that intelligence captains’ billets were manned at 59%, or, manned at the lowest level of any occupational field in the Corps. This problem of undermanning was reiterated in a December 29, 1997 Navy Times-Marine Edition article by Gidget Fuentes. Our 911 force is in training without sufficient intelligence officers. There is a long standing Marine dictum, “Intelligence drives operations.” However, Marine commanders can not drive with intelligence if they have no drivers. 


I take heart in the Commandant’s message that we can make the mistakes of Quintilius Varus and ignore the implications of change. Or we can learn from history and prepare now for the inevitable battles that are to come. Varus had little experience in intelligence and failed when his inevitable battle came. I look confidently to the Commandant to assure that no Marine commander goes into battle without first training with his own experienced intelligence officer by erasing the Corps’ current intelligence officer deficit.

Semper Intelligence Drivers,

Anthony F. Milavic

Major USMC(Ret)