Russell’s Century-Old Plea for the Marine Corps, Updated for 2019
In 1916, The Marine Corps Gazette published Maj. John Russell’s “A Plea for a Mission and Doctrine.” In that article, he discussed the lack of a defined Marine Corps mission, and consequently any doctrine that could guide Marine leaders in the execution of that mission.
This article kicked off a flurry of public discussion by leaders across the Corps, lighting a fire to thoughts that had been developing for quite some time. Notably, Col. Eli Cole and other senior Marine officers published many of their recommendations in a subsequent Gazette article that year, “Discussion on ‘A Plea for a Mission and Doctrine.’” These leaders, including a young Capt. Earl “Pete” Ellis, articulated their own suggestions on what they understood what the Corps’ mission was, and how to develop a body of doctrine to support it. Primarily, they believed that the mission of the Marine Corps was interdependent on the mission of the U.S. Navy, with an emphasis on seizing advanced bases. They advocated for doctrine that incorporated this interdependence, and for training that accounted for the changes in warfare they were witnessing in their time. Shortly thereafter, Ellis published Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia in 1921, the Joint Army-Navy Board approved the amphibious assault mission for the Marine Corps in 1922, and Maj. Gen. Commandant Ben Fuller ordered the study of the organization of an advanced base force in 1928 to support War Plan Orange, which anticipated a potential war with Japan.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. The Marine Corps has endured several crises wherein it faced dissolution or absorption into the Army or the Navy. Fortunately for the Corps, it was able to articulate its relevance to national defense and maintained its status as a force that America might not need, but one that America definitely wants.
A similar problem is playing itself out today, and it was articulated perfectly in Leo Spaeder’s “Sir, Who Am I?” Here, Spaeder asked the incoming commandant Lt. Gen. David H. Berger whether the Marine Corps is naval in purpose or character. Answering this question may permit the Marine Corps to determine how it is manned, trained, and equipped, and determine service equities for decades to come. Spaeder argues that if the Marine Corps is naval in character only, then this need not inform its mission or doctrine, though it would erode the Corps’ significance to national defense. If, however, the Marine Corps is naval in purpose, then this will drive it toward the mission of sea control and allow it to focus resources and appropriate innovation toward that end, while making a meaningful contribution toward national defense and ensuring the Marine Corps’ viability.
This identity crisis has not arisen from lack of effort by senior leadership to dictate priorities. The Marine Corps Operating Concept, released in 2016, provided guidance on how the Corps would operate and fight through 2025 and beyond. On its surface, it directed the Marine Corps to fully leverage the Marine Expeditionary Force to support naval maneuver, reinvigorate its emphasis on maneuver warfare, and integrate information warfare into its combined arms approach. Taken at face value, this offers the service a unifying purpose that supports naval campaigns, and a pair of tightly defined foci that will support this endeavor on the modern battlefield. But its laundry-list of sub-tasks is often contradictory and spreads the efforts of the force too thinly. This leads to a service that is simultaneously trying to fight as a distributed force while compositing increasingly large and complex headquarters, working on integration with special operations forces while fielding Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Forces that will only deploy in their entirety or not at all, and reinforcing close combat lethality while placing more of its limited resources against Marine Forces Cyber Command. The Marine Corps can either do a few things really well, or it can try to do everything, but poorly.
In the spirit of Russell’s plea, I implore all the stakeholders in the future of the Marine Corps to do their due diligence in providing our senior leadership with meaningful recommendations on how the Marine Corps should determine its purpose, character, and mission.
To defend everywhere is to defend nowhere. Similarly, to train for everything is to train for nothing. It is essential to the survival of the Marine Corps to focus its efforts on a handful of critical functions that it can meaningfully accomplish and which fulfill its Title 10 responsibilities. And if it cannot do that, or has no adequate mission to fulfill, then it will have failed to prove its utility to the nation and deserves dissolution.
My own recommendation is to go all in on the Marine Corps’ primary Title 10 responsibility, inferring its primacy because it is listed first among the several statutory requirements imposed upon it: “to provide fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with supporting air components, for service with the fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.” Notably, Title 10 does not dictate how the Marine Corps must fulfill this responsibility, opening up many possibilities on how to employ the force to achieve this end. We are limited only by our imagination.
This grants the Marine Corps the freedom of action to go so far as to divest itself of the historical service equities and to slay its sacred cows. To wit, how do the nearly two decades of counterinsurgencies the Corps has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan relate to a naval campaign? How has mortgaging the future of the service in the notoriously unreliable and prohibitively overbudget F-35B Joint Strike Fighter ensured its long-term capability to seize naval bases? Is the deployment of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Forces, built out of hide from already overtaxed Marine Expeditionary Forces, preparing the Corps to succeed in the next naval campaign, or reinforcing its ability to act as a redundant land army? These do fall under the catch-all of “such other duties as the President may direct,” but the very next line of this law states, “However, these additional duties may not detract from or interfere with the operations for which the Marine Corps is primarily organized.” These duties are clearly naval in purpose.
Developing the doctrine for the ways to pursue this, whether through the form of sea denial, dynamic force employment, or Marine warbot companies, will be difficult. Given the rapidly changing security environment, and new challenges to conventional doctrine, creating appropriate doctrine for the future is a tall order. Those who have contributed their ideas to date are limited by competing responsibilities and the limits of their own training, education, and experience. One person can’t do it all. Where can the Marine Corps find a body of experienced practitioners of amphibious warfare with subject matter expertise across the range of occupational specialties needed to develop this new doctrine?
History provides us another radical precedent. During academic year 1932–1933, the Marine Corps Schools, comprising the historical ancestors of today’s Expeditionary Warfare School and Command and Staff College, shuttered their doors, and merged students and staff into a single body of researchers and writers to develop a comprehensive amphibious doctrine. Their labors culminated in the publication of the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations, which would ultimately be tested during the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific theater of operations during World War II. Today, the Marine Corps has itself a captive audience of captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels attending resident education at its formal schools, under the tutelage of experienced instructors and researchers. Any amount of this talent can be tapped and transformed into a think tank to commit to the problem of developing the doctrine the Corps so badly needs to fulfill its purpose in the next conflict. The Corps does possess small intellectual cadres like the Ellis Group, which grapples with emerging naval warfighting challenges. However, the absence of published doctrine that categorically addresses the future operating environment as described in the Marine Corps Operating Concept indicates the need for dedicating more intellectual capital toward this problem. More of the Corps’ best and brightest attending its schools can be dedicated full time to resolve this challenge and write the Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, and the Tentative Manual for Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment. And if this is not what the Marine Corps should be doing? If the seizure and defense of advanced naval bases is not how the Corps should be employed for the defense of the nation? If the Corps should be a second land army, or a small wars force, or a light-weight force that bridges capabilities between special operations forces and general purpose forces? Then, as radical as it seems, the law should be changed to that end. This will permit the service to justifiably pursue those missions, and contribute to the defense of the nation in alignment with the direction it has received from the lawmakers who allocate the funds that sustain it.
And if there is no meaningful mission for the Marine Corps, this may indicate that the law should be changed to abolish it outright.
On what is perhaps a promising note, in 1936 Maj. Gen. Commandant John Russell, having risen to the senior office in the Corps, published in the Gazette his “Final Report of Major General Commandant.” In that piece, he captured the principal events marking his tenure as the commandant. This included commentary on the development of The Tentative Landing Operations Manual, The Tentative Manual for Defense of Advanced Bases, and The Small Wars Manual. Each of these documents helped focus the Corps on the role it would play for decades to come — one primary, naval role and a secondary, small wars role — keeping it relevant to the nation it served. This gives precedent that a “coherent, inspired identity” can indeed inform a coherent, meaningful doctrine. If past is precedent, there is hope that the Marine Corps can change in time to fight and win the battles of the future.
Brian Kerg is a Marine C2 Officer, Foreign Security Forces Advisor, military historian, and a member of Ender’s Galley. He is currently attending the MAGTF Communications Planner’s Course. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the United States Marine Corps or Department of Defense.