What is the purpose of a military organization? Is it to look good in parades? To provide role models for America’s children? To be a photo backdrop for politicians?
Every Marine knows that the Corps’ purpose is none of those things. The Corps’ purpose is to fight and win the Nation’s battles. Nothing more, nothing less.
Uniforms, customs, courtesies, and the like are useful only to the extent that they support the discipline that leads to victory on the battlefield. They are not ends in and of themselves.
We have been in continuous conflict for over a decade. No one has complained about the combat prowess of Marines. To the contrary, everyone—from the Commandant to civilian leadership to the general public—salutes the Corps’ efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other contingency operations.
Yet, somehow, our senior leadership says we have been falling short, that we need a “reawakening.” The term “reawakening” implies that the Corps has been asleep, falling short of a standard.
Of which standards are Marines falling short? They haven’t lost on the battlefield. They have succeeded at their assigned missions in combat, yet they are told that they aren’t good enough, that their predecessors were better.
Is this so-called reawakening just the enforcement of standards that have always existed? That hardly requires a media campaign. We’ve had all manner of standards for years. Enforcing existing regulations is a simple matter of telling commanders to do so.
This is about something bigger. This is about defining what a “peacetime” Marine Corps should be.
First, “peacetime” is a relative term. Today’s multipolar world will afford no rest for the Corps, despite the withdrawal from Iraq and drawdown in Afghanistan. While combat deployments will no longer be as predictable as in the recent past, any Marine can reasonably expect to take part in combat operations or military operations other than war during some part of his service.
More importantly, we can’t tell Marines that they have done a great job fighting abroad, yet are now falling short in garrison, because there should be no difference between the two. The only reason the Marine Corps exists is to fight abroad. Everything else is background noise.
The areas in which Marines are allegedly falling short—what are those, exactly? Disciplinary issues? Is there any actual evidence that Marines are any more prone to misconduct than in the past? In fact, numbers of courts-martial have been declining for years.1 It’s likely only the media coverage of problems in the Marine Corps that has increased, creating a false impression of a wider pathology and not the problems themselves.
As another example, those who believe today’s Marines are less disciplined in military appearance should look back at the not-so-distant past, to the heroes we often look to as a benchmark of military excellence. Everyone has seen photographs of LtGen “Chesty” Puller in his Service Alphas. The greatest Marine in history would have failed even a cursory uniform inspection today; likewise for pictures of most World War II Medal of Honor recipients—cocked covers and at least three inches of hair in Brylcreemed glory. Having the shortest high and tight is not necessarily an indicator of military excellence.
When we look to the past, whether 10 years ago or 50, we often look nostalgically to a better world that never really existed. We pretend that the past was better, for no other reason than that we have forgotten the bad and long for what seemed to be right.
That is where we are entering dangerous territory with the reawakening. We are making substantive changes to the Corps because of a perception that something is wrong.
Some of those changes are cosmetic, like wearing Charlies on Friday. Others are more substantive, such as arming unit duties and increasing the number of duties in the barracks. The common denominator is a sense that a decade of war has somehow damaged what Gen James F. Amos refers to as the “spiritual health of the Corps.” Our small unit leaders, our NCOs, have been failing, at least according to the 35th Commandant.
If anything, the opposite is true. Junior Marines and NCOs are succeeding in the raison d’être of this organization. Marines have been fighting and winning counterinsurgencies at the tactical level—the most small-unit intensive type of warfare there is. The failings of America’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the extent they exist, mostly fall at the feet of large unit leaders, not small. If the Marine Corps’ spiritual health is in danger, then we are looking at the wrong spirit. The Marine Corps’ shortcomings are those of generals, not sergeants.
Judging the success of our small unit leaders by any measure other than success in tactical combat operations is like buying a Corvette and complaining about how it’s not very good at hauling fertilizer.
We are looking at hardened Marines who have done everything we asked of them in combat operations and complaining that they don’t look good in uniform, that they smoke and drink too much.
We don’t have a Marine Corps in order to have Friday parades. We have a Marine Corps to win battles. If success in war isn’t our most important metric, then what is?
Our leadership says we need to reawaken the Corps, but it was actually reawakened in 2001. Marines who joined since then did it for the pay and adventure, as people have since time immemorial, but they also joined knowing that signing up meant a ticket to a combat theater. Those who reenlisted since then did it knowing the same. To say that war has lowered our standards is to spit in the face of what the Corps is. Our Corps was founded during the war that started our Nation. War is our only reason for being, and being ready for war is the only standard we need concern ourselves with.
How should we keep ourselves ready? Not by REawakening, but by staying awake.
We cannot lose those small unit leaders who have been at the forefront of our success in Iraq and Afghanistan. While in Afghanistan last year, I recently had the pleasure of working with a sergeant who led nearly every one of his company’s convoys during a 6-month deployment. He had reached 10 years of service, and this enlistment was almost certainly his last. The Marine Corps plans to forfeit his vast experience of that deployment and several previous because it would rather trade him for a recent high school graduate with 12 weeks of boot camp and about 9 more at the School of Infantry. We need to keep more, not fewer, of the sergeants, staff sergeants, lieutenants, and captains who have led Marines in combat.
We need to make our initial training tougher. While the Crucible was a great step forward, that was introduced nearly 20 years ago. We need to toughen our training, and more to the point, boot more recruits and officer candidates during initial training rather than with first-term attrition, after spending many thousands of dollars on MOS training. Right now, the fastest way off Parris Island is to graduate. The fastest way off the island should instead be not making the standard expected of a United States Marine. Those who fail our standards didn’t come from nowhere. They were the same ones who had issues at boot camp and Officer Candidates School.
That said, how do we keep our current Marines on track and keep a combat edge sharp in garrison?
We do it by subordinating everything else to combat readiness. If the Marine Corps needs to sacrifice at an altar, it should sacrifice at the altar of combat readiness, not at the altar of political correctness.
We have recently relieved many commanders. Most have been relieved for personal failings. Even in an era of conflict, we relieve commanders for minor personal infractions, while leaving in place those who fail their units. Save for flagrant misconduct, if a commander is relieved, it should generally be for failing in combat or for not meeting training and readiness standards, not for zipper malfunctions.
We must dispense with adding another MarineNet class or unit training requirement for every problem du jour. Before adding another class on sexually transmitted diseases, nutrition, or the like, we need to ask, “Will this save a Marine in combat?” If the answer is “no,” then that class needs to be stricken or replaced with courses on combat skills or threat areas. Private industry doesn’t waste time telling employees how to do things that don’t directly affect job performance and neither should we. If a skill doesn’t help save Marines or kill an enemy, than we shouldn’t concern ourselves with it.
A prominent part of the reawakening is increasing duties in the barracks, adding firewatches to each floor. This is one-size-fits-all thinking. American military doctrine holds that decisions should be made at the lowest level. Individual regiment- and group-level commanders should decide their duty requirements based on unit needs. A barracks at an entry-level MOS school may need an intense duty regimen. A small command may need less. Marine colonels are certainly capable of making this determination for their units.
The most visible part of the reawakening is “Charlie Fridays.” Junior enlisted often call these “no-work Fridays.” Our job is to fight, not to look pretty. If we truly need a day to recenter ourselves, then we make Charlie Fridays into “Combat Fridays.” Productivity already falls on Fridays now. Let’s get something more out of that lost work than dry cleaning bills. Have every unit do at least an hour of unit PT—legitimate PT that pushes Marines. Then follow that with an hour of classes on, or practical application of, combat skills. Alternatively, they can use that time to reinforce their warrior ethos via martial arts hand-to-hand combat, albeit a martial arts program with more roundhouse kicks and fewer pedantic life lessons snuck in. This training would foster a great deal more unit cohesion and small unit leadership than merely playing dress-up one day per week. If we really believe that “every Marine is a rifleman,” then let’s honor that belief for at least 2 hours a week instead.
The reawakening isn’t revitalizing the Corps. It is administrivia writ large. We don’t need to reawaken our leadership lostfrom a decade of war. We need to keep the combat focus gained from a decade of war. Put the reawakening to sleep and keep our combat focus awake.
1. Headquarters Marine Corps, Staff Judge Advocate of the Marine Corps, Marine Corps Legal Services Military Justice Report, Fiscal Year 2012, Washington, DC, February 2013.