Shortly after the end of World War II, there was a movement to unify the U. S. military services. Perhaps the most salient point in this discussion was that the continued existence of the Marine Corps was called into question. In a now-famous speech (at least among Marines) before the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Alexander A. Vandegrift, proclaimed, “The bended knee is not a tradition of our Corps. If the Marine as a fighting man has not made a case for himself after 170 years of service, he must go.” At the time, Vandegrift was asking Congress to save the Marine Corps from bureaucratic dismemberment. Today, the effectiveness of the Corps is being sapped by the very Congress which once provided it support. Perhaps worse still, no recent Commandant has even had the courage to offer a dissenting military opinion. The bended knee actually does seem to be a new tradition among the Corps’ senior leadership. Perhaps it is time to consider casing the colors and letting the Corps slip into history with its proud legacy intact, rather than wait for the current rot to run its full course.
For the last several decades, warfighting capability and effectiveness have slowly lost out to budgets and politics as key considerations for senior Marines. An unmistakable sign of this transition came when Headquarters, Marine Corps moved from the Naval Annex to the Pentagon. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq added massive infusions of cash which contributed little to the Corps’ combat capability and may have actually hastened the decay by accustoming several generations of Marines to large budgets (and saddling them with equipment and physical infrastructure which now must be maintained).
Senior Marines, rather than remaining politically neutral and offering their best military advice, tacked with the shifting political winds in an effort to ensure they were on the “right side of history”. No matter how destructive to combat effectiveness, there seemed to be no idea Marine generals would balk at so long as it meant political favor and a continued flow of money.
For example, opening all combat arms jobs in the Marine Corps to women passed almost unremarked. Never mind that the Marine Corps had commissioned an experiment which had demonstrated that integrated units did not perform as well as non-integrated units. This information was politically undesirable and was therefore ignored by Marine generals who did not want to raise a fuss over something which their political leadership had clearly signaled they desired. It seems strange that not a single senior Marine (or, to my knowledge, senior officer from any service) has offered a protest or threatened to resign over something as important as the continued combat effectiveness of the units they command. Why not? The reasons are complex. Many senior officers convince themselves that resigning would do nothing; someone else would quickly be found to carry out the desired policy. It is an unfortunate fact that this is probably true, but it does not absolve those who implement such destructive policies of responsibility.
I have serious concerns about the Marine Corps’ ability to fight a tenacious, determined, and resourceful enemy – to say nothing of a Fourth Generation Warfare opponent for which the Corps is entirely unprepared and unsuited. I do not believe I am alone in my views. There are still a lot of great Marines serving today, but their efforts are being undermined by leaders whose primary qualification for their role is their willingness to nod vigorously whenever a politician speaks.
Given such circumstances, perhaps it would be better for the Corps to fade away or be dissolved into the other services than to continue its sad decline. Perhaps it would be a better fate for the Marine Corps to cease its existence on its own terms rather than to come to an ignominious end after demonstrating a lack of capability. This may well one day be the Corps’ fate unless a future Commandant can find the strength and relearn the lesson that the bended knee should not be an acceptable pose for a Marine.