Sir, Who Am I? An Open Letter to the Incoming Commandant of the Marine Corps
Multiple Personality Disorder: a disorder that is characterized by the presence of two or more distinct and complex identities or personality states, each of which becomes dominant and controls behavior from time to time to the exclusion of the others.
President Donald Trump recently announced Lt. Gen. David H. Berger to be the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps. With the question of who the next commandant is answered, I have an existential question for Lt. Gen. Berger: Sir, who am I?
While seemingly dramatic, it is an essential question for a Marine Corps that finds itself at a crossroads of multiple personality disorder and questioned relevance on Capitol Hill. While relevance is in the eye of the beholder, you own our identity.
The Marine Corps can have a plurality of identities (marines as winged naval aviators, for example), but they must synergize around a central premise, or big idea. For without this big idea organizing principle, “no amount of acquisitions, execution, dedication, motivation, or even innovation can compensate” to enable the organization’s success.
In the interwar period before World War II, this unifying big idea was opposed amphibious operations. Through this forward-looking lens, marines melded the schemas of the great warriors of Belleau Wood, the small warriors of the banana campaigns, and the originalist ship’s company and naval base defenders into a coherent vision to meet the United States’ future security needs. They took the best aspects of each – the ability to maneuver divisions and corps, the tactics of air-ground operations, and naval integration, respectively – to deliver an essential capability. This large-scale opposed amphibious operations big idea remains the anchor point for the service’s force design foundation, even if tweaks at the margins have been made over the decades based on various contingency operations.
However, with the end of major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – focused primarily on counterinsurgency – and the return to great power conflict, our Marine Corps has now adopted many disparate identities, while retaining one major antiquated one, in an attempt to remain relevant. This fact was highlighted by the Senate draft language of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which openly questioned the direction of the Marine Corps.
At Headquarters Marine Corps, I have heard and read a dizzying array of what we are doing, pursuing, and becoming to validate those Senate Armed Services Committee concerns. Not much of it is coherent: general purpose force, expeditionary advanced base operations force, paced against a specific threat, no pacing threat, applicable to all combatant commands, urban/megacities, jungle, sea control, forcible entry operations, amphibious, expeditionary, naval, crisis responders, contact force, blunt force, surge force, heavy, light, etc. I could go on, but it’s starting to feel absurd. This list does not denote complexity, but multiple personality disorder. The sheer number and conflicting nature of these identities is unsustainable and only mortgages the future effectiveness of the Marine Corps in the defense of America.
I pose a single question to drive our identity: Are we naval in character or purpose? If it’s the former, then we can continue to be anything we want and just continue using funny words for windows, walls, and water fountains. We can continue to say we’re naval yet be a second land army instead of opening landward options for the joint force. We can fight in megacities despite the fact that the Second Battle of Fallujah required the equivalent combat power of a Marine division to control a five-square mile city against 4,500 insurgents. We can continue to train in Norway for an arctic/mountain fight against Russia or North Korea without programs of record for squad stoves or over-the-snow vehicles. We can continue with the idea of the Marine Corps as a middleweight force, while maintaining tank battalions and procuring bigger and heavier vehicles – such as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and Amphibious Combat Vehicle. We can continue to incur opportunity costs with standing, crisis response Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTF) for Africa and the Middle East. And we can continue to operate, preaching that the infantry is the basis for the organization with the rest of the MAGTF in support, all the while spending exponentially more on other elements of the MAGTF aside from the infantry. And, if we do this, we will continue our march to irrelevance and eventual extinction.
Instead, if the Corps is naval in purpose, then our paradigm will radically shift as the mission of naval forces, reinforced again recently by the undersecretary of the Navy, is sea control tied directly to protect U.S. interests and those of our allies and partners. Infantry – with either 13 or 15 marines per legacy rifle squad with no ability to affect enemy fleets – gives way to new “infantry” and new “artillery” with anti-ship neutralization and destruction capabilities – whether land-, air-, or sea-based – as our organizing principle. We can develop amphibious concepts for the missile-age that do not require 30 amphibious ships (plus numerous surface combatants and auxiliaries, transporting two Marine Expeditionary Brigades), to loiter well within the enemy weapons engagement zone to land marines ashore while we provide “protection” to our Navy shipmates. We can stop creating redundant capabilities – such as MARFORCYBER or MARSOC – that other services provide the joint force. Namely, we can get back to the majority of our Title 10 mandate instead of organizing around the catch-all “…such other duties as the President may direct.”
Lt. Gen. Berger, please choose a single core attribute: a distributed littoral force, a sea control/denial force, a general purpose force, a small wars force, a heavy mech force, etc. Next, name two or three distinguishing attributes that – in accordance with the National Defense Strategy – differentiate the Corps from the other services and their roles in the National Defense Strategy. Finally, choose two or three enduring attributes that nest but expand the core and the distinguishing attributes’ applicability to the mission sets you envision marines undertaking. Ideally, these should again nest under the core and distinguishing attributes, but use this space for any outliers. These attributes are the lowest priority when it comes to investing time and resources.
After identifying this comprehensive vision of what marines of the future will be and do, publish an authoritative strategy outlining this multi-layered identity with explicit prioritization and an implementation plan. Staff this amongst your general officers, senior executive service members, and key colonel-level combat developers, listen to their feedback, and assess their willingness to implement it. Then retire those who will refuse to say “aye aye, sir” and execute your vision. Our nation does not have the time for half-hearted incrementalism or the frozen middle. Please don’t put us through another Marine Corps Force 2025 where we tried to decide how we should organize, train, and equip without a clear identity. With the strategic guidance now available from our civilian leadership, which was not published in 2016 when Marine Corps Force 2025 began, a clear identity is now possible and represents a once-in-a-century chance to re-invent the Marine Corps.
I do not make these recommendations lightly, but the Marine Corps is running out of time to be everything-to-everyone or satisfy the latest “revolution” in military affairs. The window to salvage the readiness of legacy forces, while designing the future force, is rapidly closing. We cannot dabble in “modernization” without a vision any longer and provide our Nation the most ready, lethal force it requires. Without purposeful action, someone else will dictate who and what we will become: see Section 1041 of the draft National Defense Authorization Act for the what, or the recent presidential budget submission for the how. Our history demonstrates that marines can envision what the United States needs to face the challenges of the future. We just need a coherent, inspired identity to implement.
Major Leo Spaeder is a MAGTF planner currently serving at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate, Combat Development & Integration, Headquarters Marine Corps. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the United States Marine Corps or Department of Defense.