What Kind of Marine Corps Is This?

By Charles J. Dunlap Jr.

What makes this particularly remarkable is that UNITAF, though 38 times larger, was able to facilitate the delivery of only four times the tonnage of Provide Relief. Indeed, before the first U.S. Navy SEAL set foot on the shores of Somalia to begin Restore Hope, the worst of the starvation had passed.

The success of Provide Relief must be attributed to Marine leadership. Planned by Marine General Joseph P. Hoar, then Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Central Command, the initial JTF staff was headed by another brilliant Marine, Brigadier (now Major) General Frank Libutti. When the operation entered Phase II in early November 1992, the JTF was led by yet another gifted Marine flag officer, Brigadier (now Major) General Paul Fratarangelo.

These commanders faced a difficult and delicate leadership challenge. Though the operation was headed by Marines, nearly two-thirds of the assigned forces were Air Force personnel. This dichotomy became even more pronounced during Phase II when, despite the overwhelming size of the Air Force component, all but a handful of the JTF staff were replaced by Marines drawn from I Marine Expeditionary Force. During this phase (for which I served as the JTF's staff judge advocate and plans officer), meticulous care was taken to ensure congenial relations among the services (the task force also included U.S. Army soldiers and U.S. Navy sailors). Particular deference was paid to Air Force sensibilities in a number of areas, including the Air Force practices of housing personnel in the best available quarters and paying per diem whenever possible.

It is no secret that the Air Force likes to treat its people well. The old joke that the first thing the Air Force builds at a base is a club and a golf course contains a lot of truth. The Air Force culture is shaped by the way its mission is performed-not by individuals armed with a personal weapon going toe-to-toe with similarly equipped opponents as is so often the case with the sister services; rather, it is performed by pilots who, ensconced in complex and unforgiving machines, attack enemies who are hundreds, if not thousands, of feet distant.

The Air Force way of war affects the service in a number of ways. Blue-suit officers, for example, have always had closer relations with their enlisted personnel than those in other services. Because the Air Force, unlike the other services, has officers doing the bulk of the fighting, there was never a need to develop the studied social distance so necessary for officers (as in the Marine Corps) who must order enlisted subordinates into battle.

Moreover, the Air Force enlisted force differs in many ways from that of the other services. Its personnel need not be as physically capable as, for example, a Marine rifleman who must be prepared to spend trying periods in austere conditions in the field. Instead, the emphasis in the Air Force is on personnel with the enormous technical skill necessary to keep the increasingly intricate flying machines in the air.

Long ago, the Air Force found that the best way to keep its troops productive is to treat them well. A pilot or technician with a comfortable place to live off-duty was more likely to be prepared to perform specialized aviation related tasks. General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force leader known for his aggressiveness and combativeness, also pioneered the establishment of hobby shops and other recreational facilities on Air Force bases, believing that such benefits would pay dividends when it counted-in the air. Empirical evidence of the advantages of this approach for air forces were not widely available until the early 1980s, when General William Creech headed Tactical Air Command. During this period, General Creech quantified the direct effects on mission performance occasioned by quality-of-life enhancements by citing positive statistics including improved sortie rates and a decrease in accidents. His initiatives, described in the 1985 best-seller, A Passion for Excellence, by management gurus Tom Peters and Nancy Austin, became the envy of business and government.

After the Marine leadership of UNITAF took charge, the convivial relationship among the U.S. armed services in Kenya was threatened. (Although putatively a joint command, UNITAF was largely a Marine operation.) Pushed by the physical circumstances of Somalia, field conditions were declared for forces there. The problem arose when UNITAF extended the field conditions determination theater-wide, thus terminating the per diem pay and subsistence allowance that JTF Provide Relief had up to then enjoyed. The reason, the implementing message declared, was to ensure "uniformity and equity" of the forces. Of course, to anyone who had been to both Kenya and Somalia, the idea of establishing "uniformity and equity" between the two locations was absurd. In an exquisite example of poor timing, the unwanted communique arrived on Christmas Day.

The effect on morale was immediate and negative. To the Air Force personnel (and many of the Mombasa-based Marines), the decision was little more than an irrational effort by misguided Marines to needlessly impose their culture on another service. It was taking money on which their families-rightly or wrongly depended. Furthermore, the idea of a distant headquarters that only recently had arrived in theater dictating a policy that ought to be decided by the commander on the scene was an affront. One of the important lessons of the Beirut bombing that the Marine leadership of Provide Relief understood-but that the UNITAF Marines apparently did not-was the concept of deference to the judgment of the on scene commander. Only that commander can fully appreciate what is necessary and appropriate to carry out the mission. For months the Marine commanders who had actually been on the scene in Kenya had supported the Air Force approach to feeding and housing the task force.

We must remember that for months prior to Restore Hope, Air Force C-130 crews Hew-unarmed and virtually alone-into remote airstrips all over Somalia. These sites Baidoa, Bardera, Belet Wen, Wajir, and more-were the same places where the Marines of UNITAF went only when protected by huge phalanxes of heavy weapons, armored vehicles, and assault helicopters. This isn't a question of who had the courage to go there-it is a question of service culture.

The execution of the field conditions decision degenerated into low comedy. Because UNITAF failed to deploy a field messing capability to Mombasa, Marine contracting officers made deals with hotels to provide two of three daily meals. Thus, instead of patronizing Mombasa's low-cost eateries as they had done for months, troops now on "field conditions" crowded into some of Mombasa's most exclusive and expensive restaurants. Because there was no incentive to do otherwise, servicemen and women often dined on the specialty of the house, including steak and lobster. In this way, the unenlightened UNITAF leadership supposed, "uniformity and equality" with troops in Somalia was established; in reality, it was farce.

It can be convincingly argued that the troops were not using all their per diem money on food as intended. True, troops on per diem economizing on meals to save cash is a time-honored military custom, and in Kenya they preferred cash to the enhanced cuisine. Given that deployed personnel cannot work the second jobs that so many need to make ends meet, the decision to forgo steak and lobster is understandable. The net effect of UNITAF's decision was to take money from young American military personnel (and their families) and put it into the hands of foreign restaurateurs.

The UNITAF decision also did not take into account that a significant portion of the Provide Relief's air component was drawn from Reserve and Guard units. The active forces depend on Reservists and Guardsmen volunteering for operations. Given our virtually insatiable demand for airlift, the removal of the small incentive of per diem could become a factor. This is particularly so considering that their colleagues deployed elsewhere in the world continued to draw per diem.

Some argue that "field conditions," even as implemented in Mombasa, still are cheaper for the government than per diem. Even so, dollar cost should not always be the determining factor in a military operation. For example, the claim goes that Marine units can support themselves for up to 30 days. But from the very beginning of Restore Hope, that assertion seemed suspect as frantic Marine officers demanded that water be airlifted hundreds of miles to the port of Mogadishu. Although it is incredibly expensive to supply water via airlift, it was accomplished-often at the expense of relief flights-presumably because a rational reason for the urgent requests overshadowed the cost. The point is that the Marine commanders on the scene in Somalia determined that this was the best way to supply water notwithstanding the apparent capability to do so more cheaply using the ships sitting offshore.

Likewise, early in Restore Hope, Marine officers scrambled around Mombasa in search of starch to be airlifted to Mogadishu for the UNITAF senior staff. To Air Force personnel, the idea of starching utilities in a place like Somalia is ludicrous. Yet a crisp uniform is a cultural totem in the Marine Corps. Furthermore, a fastidious appearance projects an image of confidence and a sense of control amid chaos that can translate into very real operational advantages. In difficult situations like Somalia the medium is, quite often, the message.

Placing everyone on field conditions may make sense in a Marine-only operation. After all, the nature of the Marine Corps seldom affords another option. The Marine Corps is intended to operate in the field, often far from the fixed airfield resources that sustain Air Force operations. Thus, to place Marines on field conditions even when alternatives exist may fit with Marine philosophy. The Marine way is to treat people harshly to obtain disciplined performance, while the Air Force approach is to treat people well to obtain willing performance. Both approaches have their merits and fit with the respective service cultures and missions.

I never met a single young Marine who supported the notion that by making it worse for Americans in Kenya, morale in Somalia would improve. Likewise, I never met a Kenya-based airman who begrudged the imminent danger pay that troops in Somali drew. American troops just don't think that way; they may want a better deal for themselves, but they draw no pleasure simply from making life more unpleasant for others.

Questions of uniformity and equity should not be considered in the abstract, as UNITAF evidently did in this case. Rather, the question should be: To what extent will a particular decision enhance or degrade the mission? This is especially true when the decision alters the way an already successful mission is conducted. In the military context, uniformity and equity mean little if the mission fails. As we examine the denouement of the U.S. military effort in Somalia, we should consider the extent to which the many decisions that were made, both large and small, affected the outcome.

UNITAF's field conditions decision surely is among the smallest, but it is one that unnecessarily undermined morale at a critical time and left hundreds of airmen with a negative picture of the Marine Corps. It reinforces unflattering stereotypes that do not serve the cause of jointness. In a single ill considered message, UNITAF undid months of hard work by the Marines on JTF Provide Relief s staff to accommodate and maximize its air component.

What kind of Marine Corps is this? It is a great Marine Corps, one whose proud traditions and singular culture cannot be replicated. The lesson of this footnote on Somalia is that an operation is not made "joint" by forcing all the services to heed the customs of one. Rather, jointness succeeds when each service is allowed-in its own idiosyncratic way-to bring its attributes to bear in a synergistic manner on the problem at hand. It is respect for such service uniqueness that makes the U.S. military a force second to none.

 

 
 

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