How the Strong Commandant System Caught Up with the Marine Corps

U.S. Marines with Marine Barracks Washington
U.S. Marines with Marine Barracks Washington conduct pass in review during the Passage of Command, Sept. 24, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Hailey D. Stuart)

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Forty years ago, I was the speech writer for the commandant of the Marine Corps. One of my additional duties was to write speeches when a retired commandant came on active duty to stand in for the current commandant when he could not attend a big event. I would also be tapped as the traveling aide for the former commandant.

One day, I was escorting Gen. Leonard Chapman, who had been the 24th commandant. On our flight to the speech site, I had the temerity to ask a question. I had always been fascinated that -- unlike the other service chiefs, each of whom had a variety of competing constituencies -- the commandant of the Marine Corps had virtually unlimited power over the Corps, matched only by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. I asked him why he thought that had come about.

He gave it some thought for a moment.

"We grew from an organization that was less than a regiment in size to the nearly 200,000 Marines we have today [1983]," he said. "The commandant has always been seen as a super-regimental commander. That has been a strength, but it is also a potential weakness. If we ever get a truly bad one, it could destroy the Corps."

It has taken four decades, but his pessimistic prediction may have come true. Gen. David Berger, who recently retired, may well be the commandant who doomed the Corps.

There have been several transformational commandants in the storied history of the Marine Corps. Chapman would not claim to be one of them. However, during the nadir of the Vietnam War, when the other services were lowering standards to increase recruitment, Chapman doubled down.

Readers of a certain age will remember Marine Corps recruiting slogans such as "We never promised you a rose garden" and "Nobody likes to fight, but somebody has to know how."

A few years later, in the wake of a weak commandant, Medal of Honor recipient Gen. Lou Wilson stopped by Hawaii during a swing through the Pacific and reiterated Marine Corps values as the all-volunteer force kicked in. I was a company commander at the time. Under pressure to recruit and retain less-than-quality Marines, Wilson said, "We would have a quality Corps if all that was left was him, the sergeant major, and the flag and the Bible."

He and Chapman saw the Marine Corps through the worst of Vietnam and its post-war doldrums. They paved the way for the future.

Other 20th-century commandants recognized threats and opportunities facing the Corps and acted decisively using that absolute power in a transformational way. The first was Gen. John Lejeune.

Following World War I, many critics of the Marine Corps claimed that it was merely a second land army and was expendable, despite its exemplary performance in combat. Lejeune pushed the Marine Corps toward a more traditional naval mission in pursuit of amphibious operations in an anticipated war with Japan. That vision paid great dividends in World War II battles such as Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Iwo Jima.

During the period of military angst following Vietnam, there was much hand-wringing about the military being too unimaginative to fight outnumbered against the forces that the Soviet Union could bring to bear against the U.S. and NATO. Over the objections of the sitting commandant, Navy Secretary James Webb selected Al Gray as the next person to head the Corps.

Gray wasted no time in imprinting his vision of maneuver warfare on the service as a doctrine for fighting outnumbered and winning. He also created the concept of turning the forward-deployed Marine Corps Amphibious units into Marine Expeditionary Units Special Operations Capable, or MEU (SOC), to deal with the growing terrorist threats and other operations short of war worldwide. That vision proved its worth in real war during Operation Desert Storm, as well as evacuation operations of American citizens in Somalia and humanitarian operations in Bangladesh and the Philippines.

By the mid-1990s, other threats arose, requiring new ways of thinking and the potential use of innovative technologies. When he became commandant, Gen. Charles Krulak expanded the small Marine Corps Experimental Unit into the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, which examined emerging threats such as urban warfare, as well as nuclear, chemical and biological (NBC) weapons. Believing basic training not to be challenging enough, he instituted a capstone recruit training event -- "the Crucible" -- that recruits had to survive to earn their Eagle, Globe and Anchor insignia. That foresight paid off in places like Fallujah, Ramadi and Helmand province in Afghanistan.

Change can be disruptive, and most transformational commandants were followed by successors who institutionalized the reforms while keeping the ship on a steady course. Commandants such as Robert Barrow, Carl Mundy and James Conway kept the organization advancing while resisting attempts by civilian administrations to force the Marine Corps to adopt trendy progressive reforms like decriminalizing drug use; they believed that the combat readiness of the Corps would be degraded by such notions.

Having a strong commandant at the helm proved to be critical in the superb performance of Marines in wartime operations as well as peacetime emergencies. No matter how large or small the mission, the Marine Corps was ready.

It should be noted that the transformational commandants did not divest the service of existing capabilities. In the case of Lejeune, Gray and Krulak, the new mission and capabilities were additive; many came by spending other people's money.

Unfortunately, Chapman's fear of a misguided commandant came to pass with the elevation of Berger in 2019. For whatever reason, Berger believed that the Marine Corps needed radical change. He resurrected the fear of the Corps being seen as a second land army in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan and directed a change to concentrating on deterring or fighting a naval war with China called Force Design 2030 (FD 2030).

To buy the anti-ship missiles needed to fight this war -- which probably won't happen -- Berger divested many of the capabilities that had allowed the service to contribute to big wars while still serving critical roles in pop-up crises that have traditionally made the Marine Corps useful to the nation. This came to a head when Berger had to admit to top military leadership that the Marine Corps could not respond to an evacuation mission in Sudan and a disaster relief crisis in Turkey. For the first time in its storied history, the Marine Corps had to say, "Sorry, we can't do the mission."

The transformational commandants of the last century used war gaming and field experimentation to test their new concepts. In the case of the development of amphibious operations, literally hundreds of war games were conducted at the Naval War College, combined with several force-on-force fleet exercises. Bad ideas were discarded, and good ones tested. The same was true of Gray's development of maneuver warfare and Krulak's urban projects.

Berger's efforts are opaque because the few war games he sponsored were classified. One major field experiment was conducted, and the scenario has been criticized as being biased to favor the defending FD 2030 team. There is no public data to intellectually justify the billions in divestment of capabilities to buy the new toys Berger wanted.

At the present time, the Marine Corps does not have a confirmed commandant. Berger's anointed successor is pending congressional confirmation, which is held up over a non-military matter. If, and when, he is finally confirmed, the new commandant will have to be his own man, able to reevaluate the damage to the Corps done by his predecessor. Even if he decides to reverse course, it will take at least a decade to repair the Berger legacy. A strong commandant system works, but only if the person selected is wise, not delusional.

-- Gary Anderson retired as chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. He lectures on War Gaming and Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

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