The View From Olympus: Why Did the Marines Stop Thinking?

Contrary to the stereotype of the “dumb Marine”, from the mid-1970s into the early 1990s the Marine Corps was intellectually the most lively of the U.S. armed services.  The intellectual ferment brought dramatic change to the Marine Corps in its adoption of maneuver warfare (aka 3rd Generation war) as doctrine.  But since that time, the Marine Corps’ intellectual light seems to have flickered out.

The June and July issues of the Marine Corps Gazette show the extent of the Corps’ downward slide.  Both month’s magazines feature a renewed focus on maneuver warfare.  Each contains one important article, in both cases written by Staff NCOs, the theme of which is that the Marine Corps does not actually do maneuver warfare, it just talks about it.  The Staff NCOs are correct; the changes to the personnel system, education, and training maneuver warfare required were never made.  The other articles on maneuver warfare, while generally sound, could all have been written thirty to forty years ago–and in fact were in terms of their content.  It is good the Corps is reviewing this material, but hardly counts as intellectual progress.

One article in the June Gazette does include some new thinking, and surprisingly it is written not by a captain but by the Marine Corps’ Commandant, General David H. Berger.  In it, General Berger acknowledges that the day of large-scale amphibious landings like Tarawa and Iwo Jima is past, at least against serious opposition.  Boldly, the Commandant writes,

The force we have today, with the notable but operationally insufficient expectation of rotary-wing vertical envelopment, is an incrementally-advanced, higher-tech version of that same 1930s solution.  We now must recognize that time has flowed on.  Our problems today, in terms of threat, geography, and technology. . . are not those of the 1930s.

For a Corps that has hung its hat on large-scale amphibious operations for the better part of a century, this is daring.  I would add that the importance of the Marine Corps’ ship-borne strategic mobility remains.

But after this intrepid start, the Commandant’s article dribbles off into strategic irrelevance in the form of pretending we will fight a conventional war with China and a dog’s breakfast of force structure changes with no discernible logic to connect them.  This is not the Commandant’s fault; it reflects the reality that an organization that stopped thinking thirty years ago can’t suddenly do it again.

So why did the Marine Corps stop thinking?  The most important answer is: too much money.  When I began working with the Marine Corps in the 1970s, it prided itself on not spending much.  Marines knew they could not buy a future, they had to think one up for themselves.  This began to change in the mid-1990s, and I watched, sadly, as money and the quest for even more money swamped everything else.  The vaunted “Warfighting Lab” soon focused not on experiments to improve combat performance, but on inventing justifications for more programs and money.  A friend who was involved at the time in setting up the “Commandant’s War Room” said to me, “The only war discussed in it is the budget war.”  Poverty begets thinking, while a flood of money washes it away.  The Marine Corps’ senior leadership forgot that in the end, Midas starves.

A second reason for the Corps’ intellectual retreat is that the personnel system did not and does not reward intellectual achievement.  It makes no effort to identify Marine thinkers early in their careers, develop them carefully and place them in billets where they can use their talent to greatest effect.  On the contrary, it drives them out by misusing them in jobs the average cabbage could do.  A Marine officer’s PFT score is more important than his ability to think.  Perhaps our future enemies will challenge us to a Marathon (with us playing the Persians?).

Third, over the almost-fifty years I have observed the Marine Corps, I have watched bureaucracy grow like kudzu in July.  It now enmeshes everything, to the point where all the Marine Corps can produce is more bureaucracy, more and more elaborate processes and briefings with glitzy graphics and no intellectual content.  Process has been substituted for thinking, and the two are not the same.  Now, when a Commandant needs a new strategic role for the Marine Corps, all he gets is endless process.  No wonder the poor man seems lost. 

In my next column, I will suggest what the Commandant might have said if he had a Prussian general staff advising him.  I’m thinking Max Hoffman is exactly the right man for the job.