“The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!”
— Eleanor Roosevelt
In 1945, after four years of war, the First Lady captured the essence of the Marine in a single statement of praise. She understood that Marines who have been in combat can seem utterly depraved, yet remain highly committed, lethal warriors.
Today, Commandant of the Marine Corps General Amos doesn’t seem to agree.
His idea, his so-called ‘Reawakening’, seems to be founded on the idea that thirteen years of war has undermined the character of the Marine Corps.
It is certainly understandable to be concerned about slips in discipline; a terminal lance corporal who has a permanent ‘fuck-off’ attitude just because he has a CAR or Purple Heart shouldn’t be tolerated. NCOs never should have let discipline slip to that point in the first place, and perhaps they need refreshers on maintaining discipline while not on a FOB in Afghanistan.
But it is counterintuitive to say that the purpose for the Marine Corps’ existence - combat - has undermined what it means to be a Marine. That’s like saying too much swimming damages a duck. To be frank, the idea that the Commandant of the Marine Corps would have a problem with how Marines come home from war, as the warriors they become after doing what they were born to do, is patently disturbing.
What exactly does the Reawakening consist of?
According to the Commandant, nothing new really. Simply a return to enforcing regulations already in place.
Well, not quite.
For example, forcing sergeants and corporals who have been living out in town on BAH to return to the barracks isn’t a standing regulation. It’s a new, highly inconvenient measure that will throw NCO morale into a downward spiral and greatly disrupt barracks life. General Amos’ idea might be that the presence of NCOs will minimize bad behavior in the barracks, but I somehow doubt the barracks are currently turning into Animal House-style orgies every night.
What this measure will actually do is significantly impact the quality of life for NCOs and make staying in the Marine Corps less appealing.
In fact, every Reawakening measure seems designed to make re-enlistment less appealing. In particular, enforcing such strict weight standards so as to refuse to allow any measure other than the inherently flawed ‘tape test’ to test body fat is forcing out muscular Marines over their weight due to muscle, not fat. Forcing out Marines who can run a first class PFT and still look sharp in their uniform but are technically out of regs because the ‘tape test’ says they have too much body fat is a travesty, pure and simple.
Then again, forcing Marines out of the Corps is the real reason for the Reawakening.
There may be a facade of ‘returning to standards.’ The Commandant may even believe Marines have all become barbarians. But the reality is that General Amos is being forced by budget cuts to trim the Marine Corps from 202,000 Marines to at least 182,100. The numbers could even go as low as 174,000 or 150,000 depending on the final military budget currently under debate in Congress. Getting down to those numbers means forcing good Marines out and discouraging good Marines from re-enlisting.
And that means losing experience and institutional knowledge.
Far from being a negative for the morale or character of the Marine Corps, thirteen years of warfare has created a generation of Marines who have only ever fought, instead of only ever training to fight. I came into the Marines in the mid-90s when the First Gulf War was a distant memory and the only stories of conflict in Vietnam came from some extremely crusty Sergeants Major. War wasn’t on any horizon and constantly training for a game you’re pretty sure you’ll never play is a tedious effort. A sense of complacency always exists.
There is no complacency when Marines train today in 2014.
Combat is a very real specter hovering over every exercise, every range. Even with the war in Afghanistan winding down, in every unit there are senior lance corporals, corporals and sergeants who have been deployed and fought and know how to get the young Marines fresh out of bootcamp up to speed on how to stay alive when the bullets start flying.
The budget cuts and General Amos’ Reawakening will, within a matter of a few years, utterly wipe out that institutional knowledge and the force will be back to being made up of combat virgins.
Will we still win wars? Of course.
But the cost will be a little heavier. We will certainly lose lives that could have been saved had experienced Marines still been in the Corps.
Instead of the Reawakening’s ham-fisted (and disingenuous) approach to forcing out Marines to meet new budget restraints, the Corps should take a measured, studied approach to weeding out bad actors. Marines who really have lost all discipline and should return to civilian life can be identified fairly easily at the company and battalion level.
By all means, kick them out.
But Marines who have a wealth of knowledge and experience can be identified at the unit level as well. And even if they don’t fit General Amos’ poster boy idea of a what a Marine should look like or act like, the Corps should have enough foresight to know these Marines need to be retained.