Writing in the Washington Post this past September, the usually insightful columnist George Will claimed that America’s ongoing messy missions in Iraq and elsewhere had generated tension within its Corps of Marines. “No service was better prepared than the Marines for the challenges of post-invasion Iraq,” he concluded, “yet no service has found its mission there more unsettling to its sense of itself.”
It is not that the Corps did not want to be in the fight, or that it had better things to do. But its naval character has taken a back seat to fighting the virulent resistance in an extended land campaign, and some core competencies are waning. Today, on the institution’s 232nd birthday, we should amplify Mr. Will’s observations with a deeper understanding of the Corps’ past and most likely future.
The Marines have a unique institutional culture drawn from over two centuries of storied campaigns and selfless service. The most relevant cultural characteristic is what I call their expeditionary ethos. This ethos is the most critical contributor to the Corps’ success in combat, especially in the Small Wars and complex contingencies, where the Marines excel. Any astute student of military history can see the roots of this ethos emerging from the Corps’ Small Wars period in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Marines were routinely deployed in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. These were protracted expeditions, some lasting decades, where the Marines established a range of government institutions and local police forces. It is this Small Wars experience that is the foundation for the success the Marines have had in Iraq.
Many military organizations use the term “expeditionary” to describe themselves or to label distinct units. Marines believe “expeditionary” encompasses far more than a mission involving actions beyond U.S. borders, the official definition. To a Marine Leatherneck the term connotes much more than the ability to deploy overseas quickly. The expeditionary ethos is an institutional belief system that ensures a unit can deploy rapidly, arrive quickly, and begin operating upon arrival. Supplies, equipment, and infrastructure are limited to operational necessities; “nice to haves” are ruthlessly carved out. Such “come as you are” attitudes are embedded in the force design of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force construct, which integrates ground units with aviation and logistics support forces.
From the day recruits join the Corps, they understand that they are going to deploy and that they must be mentally and physically ready. The Corps is famous for its physical readiness, but the intellectual aspect is just as important. Marines are imbued with the notion of doing more with less, of fighting and prevailing in an austere operational environment. They are prepared to use their own initiative and readily solve problems on their own with a minimum of guidance. Marines do not look for explicit guidance, formal doctrine, or tactical templates or checklists. They are eager to apply their creativity to unforeseen problems, without doctrine or clear guidance. This produces a mental outlook that thrives in ambiguity and uncertainty, preparing Marines to adapt to the conditions found once they arrive. Fixed schedules, perfect intelligence, guaranteed support arrangements, and sunny weather are not expected. Murphy’s Law is built in the mindset of Marines.
Because of this expeditionary mindset, Marines are constantly prepared to adapt to new situations, and mentally agile enough to create innovative solutions to unanticipated circumstances. They do not expect the enemy to conform to templates or rigid formation, their only expectation is the need to adapt and win. This institutional culture is the basis for the Corps’ success in such contingencies in the past and will continue to give the Marines an edge in tomorrow’s inevitable contingencies, as well.
Current operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pacific demonstrate the broad range of possibilities for which our Corps must be prepared. There is nothing new to this and nothing to unsettle anyone who understands the breadth of Marine history or the well-honed crisis response toolkit the Marine Corps provides to the regional Combatant Commanders. Some in Washington would like to see the Marines specialize more and take on tasks for which the Army may be better suited. The Corps’ Commandant, General Jim Conway, has stressed that the Marines have been prepared in the past because they recognized that true readiness required a multidimensional force that is well-trained, broadly educated, and properly equipped for employment in all forms of warfare.
This balanced approach is wise given today’s emerging operational demands. The emerging security environment is going to emphasize forces that can shift between various forms of warfare, and most likely engage in all forms of warfare at the same time. The diffusion of modern weaponry around the world poses a greater degree of lethality to modern contingencies, meshing irregular tactics with advanced conventional weapons into what strategists around the world are calling multi-modal or “hybrid wars.” A force prepared to address hybrid threats would have to be built upon a solid professional military foundation and a modular force structure, but it would also place a premium on the critical cognitive skills to recognize or quickly adapt to the unknown. In particular, American military units would have to be prepared for very adaptive or protean opponents and asymmetric tactics and technologies.
The nature of such hybrid conflicts will also demand uncompromising small unit leadership, tactical cunning, and creative decision makers at the NCO and junior officer level. These leaders must be trained and educated to conduct decentralized missions and rapid decision making under the highly ambiguous and complex conditions of battle. They must be acutely aware of and sensitive to unique cultural factors and their influence on military operations
Dampening the prospects for instability and responding to emerging crises in the heavily urbanized littorals is the Corps future. This era will exploit the Marines’ experience at operating from the sea, as well as its expeditionary readiness. It is readily apparent that the emerging environment and the Corps’ expeditionary ethos and skill set are suited for each other.
The Marines understand their role as an expeditionary force, and that their sense of identity will always remain linked with its Navy partners. The new Maritime Strategy that General James Conway signed in October with his counterpart Admiral Gary Roughead, the new Chief of Naval Operations, reflects this enduring relationship. But the Marines are leaning forward, adapting old training regimens and implementing new educational initiatives to prepare for another era of protracted expeditionary operations and Small Wars. They will continue to march to the sound of the guns, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, and fight at sea, from the sea, and ashore as needed.
If you see a Marine on November 10, wish him or her Happy Birthday, and hope that more like them will continue to serve our nation in the future. Without such young people, willing to sacrifice their lives in some dark alley halfway around the globe, the chances of preserving stability in the meanest streets would be insurmountable. Today’s Marines measure up to the Corps’ legacy, a modern breed tempered in the crucible of combat against an elusive enemy. With such battle hardened stock, the Marine Corps will enjoy many more anniversaries and continue to defeat our adversaries, assure our allies, and honorably serve our nation as they always have. You can count on it.
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