The Man Who Started to Transform the Marine Corps Leaves with 'No Regrets at All'

The 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David H. Berger, speaks
The 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David H. Berger, speaks to over 200 commanders and sergeants major at the Commandant's Combined Commandership Course on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, April 17, 2023. (Rachaelanne Woodward/U.S. Marine Corps)

The Marine Corps' top officer -- the man who has overseen a sweeping and much-debated transformation of the branch -- is unapologetic as he moves through his last days in office.

"When you're a service chief ... you have a moral imperative to make sure you set in place what's going to be needed five, six, seven years in the future," Gen. David Berger, the Marine Corps' 38th commandant, told reporters in one of his last official interviews in office on Wednesday, less than two weeks before he becomes a civilian.

"I have no regrets at all," Berger said.

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When Berger took the reins of the Marine Corps in 2019, the seeds of transformation had already been sown, but it was under his tenure that the hard work of transforming the branch -- dubbed Force Design 2030 -- started to take place.

In March 2020, he released the first Force Design 2030 guidance. In July, 2020, the Corps began shutting down its tank battalions, and Marines in those units were reshuffled around the service or moved to the Army. The transformation also meant the shedding of heavy artillery, aircraft and Marines from combat units.

The move proved to be unpopular with senior, retired Marines and observers who would proceed to write editorials and articles about the decision throughout his tenure. They blasted the plan as making the Marines "much less capable" and alleging that Berger was "ignoring the unpredictability of war itself."

"I wish they would have the trust in all Marines," Berger said, alluding to the fact that the transformation was not solely his doing.

"Those people have a lot of information, and I'm pretty sure they're making great decisions," Berger added.

Yet the move did go over well with Congress, which would reward the Marine general with support, funding and political cover.

In addition to selling a vision of a Marine Corps that was returning to its historical roots as an island-hopping, fast-reaction force, Berger also pulled off funding much of the transformation by shedding loads of heavy equipment. The practice -- commonly referred to as "divest to invest" -- was risky.

In 2022, Berger told reporters during a press event that it required "a compelling argument why that investment made sense."

In contrast, the Navy's efforts to pull off a similar move -- shed its aging fleet of cruisers and other ships in order to make room for other expenses -- has been blocked by Congress on several occasions. Then-Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., blasted the move by proclaiming that "the Navy has no strategy" in a series of tweets.

During a confirmation hearing for Berger's replacement in June, Gen. Eric Smith said he would accelerate the changes that Berger began.

What has seen less progress has been the accompanying transformation of policies aimed at individual Marines.

In late 2021, Berger said he wanted to take the Corps in a direction that treated Marines "like human beings instead of inventory," but those efforts have been far less sweeping compared to the dramatic switch of ditching all the tanks.

There have been promises of fewer transfers around the country, efforts to get more money for barracks and easier reenlistments, but even Berger said that he's letting his successor "focus on the people, the training -- keep that at the centerpiece."

"Initially, you have to address the equipment issues, because they're the longest term, the longest to get rid of, the longest to bring what you need on," he explained.

Berger also admits that the culture of the service still needs attention, too. Although he didn't deal with a scandal on the scale of Marines United -- a private social media group of mostly Marines that shared nude images of service members without their consent -- there were still public problems with sexism and misogyny. The Marines also drew headlines for their prominent participation in the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Four active-duty Marines, three enlisted and one officer, were arrested for their role in the insurrection.

Although the Marine leader said the Corps was in "a good place" in terms of being a welcoming service, he quickly added that they're "not where we need to be."

"If I was here 20 years, I'd probably tell you the same thing 20 years from now because if there's one Marine that feels like they don't fit in, we have work to do," Berger said.

He told reporters his plans after retirement are to focus on family and not do anything for at least a few months -- though he did say he's considering writing a book.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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