Another Perspective on Marine Corps Special Operations
My copy of Always Faithful, Always Forward has not yet arrived, so I am relying on Billy Birdzell’s review of Dick Couch’s latest book as my frame of reference for this response. Obviously some of Billy’s comments will gain clarity once I have read the book for myself, but based on having a different vantage point than him I thought I would offer some additional thoughts.
In my opinion, the relationship between Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the Marine Corps just prior to 9/11 would best be described as dormant, but in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, both commanders at the time (General Charles R. Holland and General James L. Jones, respectively) re-established formal relationships in the form of the USMC-SOCOM Warfighters. In and of itself, the Warfighters would address through working groups topics such as improved interoperability, shared technology, and increased communications between the organizations. But the official stance from the two subsequent commanders (General Bryan Brown and General Michael Hagee, respectively) was that there was no requirement for a component. As Billy points out, the decision was largely political. And though he addresses some of the inter-service drama, one truly needs to go back to the inception of SOCOM to gain a more accurate perspective of the decisions that echo today. I was not there for those discussions in the 80s, but the same team working the SOCOM Warfighter conducted interviews and oral histories with General Alfred Gray and General P.X. Kelley, who both figured prominently then. The Marine Corps has well documented reasons for not providing forces to SOCOM at that time so I won’t belabor them here. From the seats I have occupied I would submit that perhaps insufficient critical thought was devoted to determining how the creation or existence of MARSOC was going to be delineated or deconflicted with the other SOCOM components in order to reduce unnecessary friction or duplication of effort (and would offer that this may bear resemblance to challenges within SOCOM at its inception?).
I’ll diverge slightly from Billy’s narrative regarding the need for additional Foreign Internal Defense (FID) capability as being one of the principal drivers of MARSOC’s creation. It wasn’t part of the early discussions for a couple of reasons. The creation of the Foreign Military Training Unit had nothing to do with MARSOC, which didn’t exist at the time. The Marine Corps had been picking up missions such as the Georgia Train & Equip mission on an ad hoc basis, and the creation of a single unit would significantly improve meeting these requirements in a more professional manner. Though now a core competency of MARSOC, I’d have to disagree with both Dick Couch and Linda Robinson that FID will become “increasingly” important. To argue such implies that it hasn’t remained continuously important throughout the past decade and then some. Though it may not have been dominating headlines as kinetic operations have, FID has remained a more common task across the span of SOCOM ever since 9/11 (my opinion based on personal knowledge of SOF operations…no other source cited). Also, the original proposals for MARSOC in 2004-2005 had long lead times for developing a component, and did not include the transition of standing Marine Corps’ forces. It wasn’t until a decision was made to slide operational capability to the left by a few years that the Corps was left with no choice but to pull standing units to be the basis of the component (1st Force, 2d Force, FMTU, 4th MEB (AT)).
Separately, MARSOC had a lot of assistance in devising some of its programs from the ground up. Major General Eldon Bargewell and numerous other Army SOF experts figured prominently. Many of the original lessons from training FMTU//MSOAG (Marine Special Operations Advisory Group before becoming a Battalion) became the foundation that remain as the individual training course for Marine special operations today.
And who knows – something tells me T.E. Lawrence might have surprised us all. Having now seen Marines of every size and shape and from virtually every field of endeavor (even members of the Marine Corps band!) I will be the first to admit that physical prowess, intellectual aptitude, and tactical acumen alone are not necessarily the best indicators of success at Assessment & Selection.
Colonel Neil Schuehle was a member of the USMC team tasked with managing the USMC-SOCOM relationship from 2002-2005 and the commanding officer of the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion from 2006-2008. He is currently the commanding officer at the Marine Special Operations School. The views expressed are his own.