Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest, Second Co-Honorable Mention
Those men on the line were my family, my home. They were closer to me than I can say, closer than any friends had been or ever would be. They had never let me down, and I couldn't do it to them. I had to be with them, rather than let them die and me live with the knowledge that I might have saved them. Men, I now knew, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory or any other abstraction. They fight for one another. Any man in combat who lacks comrades who will die for him, or for whom he is willing to die, is not a man at all. He is truly damned. –William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War
Though often taken for granted and misunderstood, loyalty is the cornerstone of unit effectiveness and the success of the Corps. We commonly refer to the Marine Corps as a "band of brothers" and proudly portray our history of selfless acts of heroism under fire. We wave our flag, toast our Semper Fi, and revel in our esprit de corps—all under the pretense of an unwritten code of loyalty to the Corps and to each other. It is no lie; it does exist. I have seen what a tight, loyal unit can do in combat or under pressure in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, I also have seen what disloyalty can do to a unit when the resultant distrust threatens mission accomplishment and destroys morale. Several assumptions illuminate the delicate relationship between loyalty and ethics:
Ethical standards, including loyalty, are a product of one's upbringing. Generally, integrity, honesty, courage, and loyalty are the building blocks of an individual's ethos, the code of ethics by which he or she lives. This moral code is shaped and influenced—both positively and negatively—throughout a person's life by parents, relatives, friends, teachers, pastors, and other role models. Character, which can be thought of as a person's moral reputation, is the cumulative effect of an individual's code of ethics.
Certain professions, especially those involving the special trust and confidence of the American people, require a higher moral standard than the rest of society, and they seek to screen applicants more thoroughly.
Loyalty means different things to different people. In a general sense, loyalty is defined as a faithfulness to commitments or obligations, or an adherence to a sovereign, a government, a cause, or the like. It connotes sentiment and the feeling of devotion that one holds for one's country, creed, family, and friends. In a military sense, loyalty is defined by the Marine Corps Performance Evaluation System as "the quality of rendering faithful and willing service, while accepting one's duties and responsibilities with selflessness. This evaluation is a measure of loyalty to the unit, the Marine Corps, and the Nation, not just to seniors."
In practice, loyalty means different things to different people. Every individual must balance the competing demands of various kinds of loyalty—to self, to family/friends, to one's unit, to the Corps, to country, and to God—and each of us will determine our priorities differently, based on our own unique moral code.
Even within the military, loyalties are not equal in depth and will vary in priority from person to person and from rank to rank. This is understandable. A 19-year-old lance corporal's perception of loyalty will be different from that of a 40-year-old lieutenant colonel. Loyalties tend to shift as we mature and gain experience. When a Marine marries and begins to have children, his loyalties to the Corps and to country will begin to conflict with his loyalty to his young family.
The U.S. government's Code of Ethics states that "any person in government service should . . . put loyalty . . . to country above loyalty to persons, party, or government department." The naval service, through its Core Values Charter, states that we remain dedicated to the "core values of honor, courage, and commitment to build the foundation of trust and leadership upon which our strength is based and victory is achieved." The Charter only mentions loyalty to nation, but it certainly implies loyalty to our Marines.
As leaders, it is important that we recognize that there are fundamental differences in perceptions of loyalty.
High ethical standards are not necessarily a requirement for loyalty or trust. Inner-city gangs and organized crime syndicates are organizations based on loyalties, trust, and commitment to the group. High ethical standards are seldom a requirement for membership in these groups and, in fact, are not too common. The ingredient that makes these groups so effective is their fierce loyalty to one another.
The Marine Corps should not, of course, adopt gang standards, but there is a lesson to be learned about the power of loyalty. A unit's strength is forged from this power. As French theorist Ardant du Picq noted:
Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely.
Marines and leaders of Marines need to have a mutual feeling of commitment to be successful as a fighting force. High ethical standards, although desired and sought, are not a requirement for this bond. The American people want their military leaders to have high moral standards for obvious reasons, but I think that Marines, in general, would prefer a leader who has made an ethical mistake or two in his life but who is 100% committed to their welfare and the welfare of their families. The zero-defect mentality of recent years seems to have assumed a zero-moral-defect mentality as well.
A large part of the problem in the ethical debate today is that we have forgotten that judgments about what is unacceptable behavior are somewhat subjective. There are actions and behaviors that clearly are wrong, there are those that clearly are right, and there are some that are not clear at all. In recent history, actions or behaviors in the "fringe" area were tolerated—or at least were forgivable. Today, however, with all the recent service-related ethical scandals, public outcry has forced the services to demonstrate flawless ethical behavior. Unfortunately, this knee-jerk reaction has created many "morally righteous" leaders who, as they seek to purge their commands of what they consider to be unethical behavior, have forgotten that the people who make up the Corps are human.
Leaders must continue to set the example with appropriate behavior. High ethical standards, however, do not directly affect the combat effectiveness of a unit as long as there is a mutual loyalty and trust between the leaders and the troops.
Disloyalty undermines cohesion and unit effectiveness. Disloyalty can destroy a unit from within. Energy is wasted on petty bickering and finger pointing, resulting in low morale and low productivity. In the Marine Corps, this usually is just written off as a leadership failure.
For a unit to function effectively, all members must be loyal to one another and to their leadership. This does not imply that we should look the other way if ethical indiscretions occur; they must be reported through the chain of command in a proper manner. But a faithful Marine who has been loyal to his unit and to his fellow Marines deserves a fair shake and should not be the subject of a witch hunt. Ethical violations that pose a threat to unit effectiveness must be dealt with swiftly and firmly—especially when they involve those in leadership positions, who are expected to set the example.
Loyalty has the potential to compromise integrity. The downside to strong loyalties is the possibility that loyalty to the unit could be placed before the loyalty an individual has to himself. In other words, a person may be so committed to his unit that he is willing to compromise his own integrity for the good of the group.
For example, consider the company gunny who "finds" new mattresses for his Marines in the barracks, or a motor transport mechanic who steals repair parts to get his battalion's vehicles running. In these cases, does the leader simply run non-judicial punishment on these individuals? They misused their loyalty to their unit, but do they know that? Do they know where that line is? We must be aware that we have Marines who are willing to break rules for their units and for their leaders. In their minds, the benefit to the unit was worth the risk to their personal careers.
The bottom line is this: The loyalty of a Marine is the highest honor that can be bestowed on a leader. It is not something that should be taken for granted, abused, or betrayed. In my view, it is more important than high ethical behavior in forming a tight, cohesive unit.
We want our Marines to take the moral high ground, but as they mature, some occasionally may fall short of this high standard. It is our duty to educate our Marines regarding acceptable ethical behavior and to seek counsel for those who have faltered. We, as leaders, must set the example. We also must not forget that we are human, and that human beings make mistakes.
Captain Ormerod is a student at the Amphibious Warfare School at Quantico. He most recently served as Assistant Inspector-Instructor, 4th Reconnaissance Battalion, 4th Marine Division, at San Antonio.