The Marines United scandal has exposed the disturbing fact that many Marines past and present view female Marines as lesser creatures, suitable for exploitation and never to be truly accepted as full-fledged members of the Corps. This stunning misconduct presents a stark moral fork in the road for Marine leaders of all ranks. They have but two choices: to finally recognize the depth and pervasiveness of this intractable “boys club” culture and stamp it out for good, or to remain complicit by once again taking half-hearted actions that bury the problem of an unofficial Marine culture of rampant sexism – one that utterly violates the Corps’ values of honor, courage, and commitment. In this epic battle for the soul of the Marine Corps, the service’s leaders must once and for all choose the forces representing the future and permanently reject those whose prejudices belong in the distant past.
The details of the current scandal are staggering and deeply disturbing. On March 4, a Marine combat veteran revealed the existence of a secret, invitation-only Facebook group called Marines United, which both solicited and shared photos of naked female Marines. The group, formed in 2015, included more than 30,000 active duty or former male Marines and their affiliated Navy corpsmen. Other services have struggled with online harassment of military women, but none to this magnitude. In addition to salacious photos, the site included countless vicious misogynist comments promoting everything from sexual assault to sharing of revenge porn photos of female Marines. Without a hint of irony, the group’s code of conduct prohibited threats, harm, or harassment – an astonishing statement, as if these photos and comments did not inherently constitute offensive and threatening behavior.
The Marine Corps leadership was slow to react to this discovery and even slower to condemn it. The Marines were reportedly informed of this site nearly two months ago and apparently did little to respond. The day after the story broke, Gen. Robert Neller – the Marine Corps Commandant – issued a terse statement describing the incident as “distasteful.” On March 8th, Neller released a video statement calling the incident “embarrassing to our Corps, to our families and to our nation.” He attributed the illicit photo site to “some Marines…who have acted selfishly and unprofessionally through their actions on social media.” By March 10, mounting public pressure prompted Neller to hold a Pentagon press conference to address the issue. He urged the female Marines victimized by the site to come forward and “trust us” to find and punish the perpetrators, and announced the formation of a task force to look at the problem. He clearly but belatedly stated: “This is our problem, and I own it.” Last week he testified before Congress, promising to “take action to correct this stain on our Marine Corps.”
Yet, illicit web sites that host tens of thousands of his Marines as participants represent the symptom, not the problem. Neller’s real problem is not the unquestionable fact that huge numbers of current and former Marines think it is acceptable to contribute demeaning and offensive commentary against women in uniform. And it is not, as he suggested, that there is some “subculture” among Marines that finds it acceptable to view their fellow Devil Dogs as predatory targets. At the root of all this is a Marine Corps riven by two conflicting cultures: an official culture that purports to embrace the notion that Marine women can be warriors every bit as fierce, deadly, and competent as men; and a deeply entrenched unofficial culture that believes the enduring crux of Marine battlefield success (and thus being a Marine) has been and always will be the fundamentally masculine esprit de corps of all-male squads, platoons, and companies fighting together in infantry combat. In this culture, male bonding is the secret sauce that turns men – and only men – into true Marines capable of perpetuating the battlefield glory of the Corps. In this view, women – even if they are Marines – can never share in that unique brotherhood because their very presence will destroy it. As a result, female Marines can never be seen as anything other than second class citizens.
The evidence is overwhelming that the Marine Corps has long been the service most resistant to fully integrating its female members. We could write numerous columns (and articles and books) about all of the ways in which that is true, but here’s just a small sampling. The Marine Corps is the only service that continues to segregate all of its basic training for new recruits by gender. By failing to recognize that separate is inherently unequal, the service reinforces the idea that male-only units fight together and that women are held to a different (and arguably lower) standard. Unlike the Army, the Marine Corps excluded women from all support positions in infantry regiments and battalions during the recent wars, thus reinforcing the message that women are tangential to the core mission of the service. And most notably, the Marine Corps was the only service to request an exception to the recent policy allowing women to serve in combat units, based largely on a controversial study whose methodology was widely discredited – so much so that then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus openly questioned whether Marine leaders had compromised the effort from the start.
Yet by far the most damning fact is that the leadership of the Marine Corps has known about online victimization of female Marines for years and has repeatedly refused to take any responsibility for ending such behavior. When sites similar to Marines United were revealed in 2013, then-Commandant Gen. James Amos framed it as a problem with social media. But then, just as now, social media was not the problem. Rather, it was simply the means through which this offensive behavior proliferated. Instead of strongly condemning such behavior as an unacceptable violation of the Marine Corps values, Amos absolved the Marine Corps of any institutional responsibility by stating that “Marines are responsible for all content they publish on social networking sites, blogs, or other websites.” A 2014 report on these same websites led to an almost identical response from the Marine Corps, which was equally ineffective. Both were profound leadership failures by the most senior leaders of the Corps. Little wonder, then, that these sites continued to flourish.
Some younger Marine veterans, frustrated by the lack of responsiveness by Marine Corps senior leaders, are taking matters into their own hands by going online to attack these sites. Many of these young Marines have served side-by-side in combat with female Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan and are deeply outraged that male Marines are attacking and exploiting their female comrades. Some of them are now pursuing the ever-shifting offending websites while publishing the names of participants they unearth. They see their efforts as a battle for the future of the service, aiming to cause cultural change in a Marine Corps whose senior leadership has consistently failed to address the problem.
Marines United must become the Marine equivalent of the Navy’s 1991 Tailhook scandal – so publicly shameful that it finally forces the service to confront an institutional culture that tolerates and excuses pervasive sexist attitudes, behavior, and misconduct. The first step must be a thorough investigation that tracks down all active duty and reserve Marines who were participants and holds them fully accountable for their behavior – through criminal prosecution where appropriate, and through administrative punishments otherwise. After Tailhook, the Navy effectively ended the careers of 14 admirals and almost 300 naval aviators who were involved. The Marine Corps must act just as decisively against those implicated in the investigation, with penalties including fines, reductions in rank, bars to promotion and reenlistment, and even separation from the service.
But these steps, while critical, will ultimately be insufficient. A scandal of this magnitude demands a deep and honest examination of the ways in which the unofficial culture of the Marine Corps undermines the official culture. As Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green has said, “Ultimately we must take a look in the mirror and decide whether we are part of the problem or the solution.” As the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Neller bears primary responsibility for leading the Corps in that hard look in the mirror. He must lead an honest but tough conversation among Marine leaders at all levels that addresses the following questions:
- How is it possible that over 30,000 current and former Marines have supported variations of this offensive site for years in a total repudiation of Marine Corps values? What are we doing wrong that has allowed this to be seen as acceptable by so many Marines?
- What policies, traditions, and customs – what parts of Marine culture and lore – work to undermine the message that all Marines are equal team members and warriors? How should those parts of our culture be changed while preserving the warrior ethos of the Corps?
- Since only 7.7 percent of Marines are female – by far the smallest percentage of any service – how can the Corps ever change the dynamics of our culture where men vastly dominate every environment, and still entirely occupy many Marine specialties?
- Which leaders truly believe all Marines serve equally as warriors, treat female Marines accordingly, and strongly support and mentor their development? How can they be empowered and advanced to accelerate cultural change in our Corps? More importantly, how can their positive example become the standard for all Marine leaders?
- Which leaders tacitly (or even publicly) support the unofficial “male only” culture? How can they be rooted out or re-trained to embrace the values of our Corps they now clearly reject? How can we prevent junior leaders from being corrupted by such destructive beliefs that undermine our cohesion and trust?
- How do we send the unequivocal message that any expression of sexism or misogyny is an instant career-ender? What examples do we need to make to ensure, this time, that our claims for “zero tolerance” are actually backed up by actions that are taken seriously?
- How do we get our veterans community on the right side of our culture and not continue to be significant sources of unacceptable behavior and sexist attitudes toward women in the Corps?
The U.S. Marines have a famed history as America’s “first to fight” force, built upon the ties that connect Marines to one another on every battlefield – as strong today as at any time in their 242-year history. But as one Marine recently told us, “it’s time to choose.” The Marine Corps must move swiftly and decisively to stamp out the unofficial culture that led 30,000 of its current and former members to act in such despicable ways. Choosing a culture that demonstrably values and respects its women warriors every bit as much as its men is the only legitimate path forward. In doing so, the Marine Corps will continue to earn the respect of the nation, live its values, and assure its future as one of the most prestigious fighting forces in the world.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.
Image: Gunnery Sgt. Katesha Washington