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From War to Peace—and Back

By Second Lieutenant Colton Oviatt, U.S. Marine Corps

Dealing with the Situation

So how do we tighten discipline? We must reinforce pride in our standards, our history, and our traditions; we must fight the complacency that has begun to show in recent years. To be a service characterized by readiness, we must be sure we are doing everything as best we can, being “brilliant in the basics.” From the simplest task of properly maintaining spaces, uniforms, and equipment to training exercises and through deployments (many of which will likely be conducted in a low-intensity capacity), we must ensure that we do not allow our level of discipline to degrade. If we do, we are also risking the degradation of our readiness to respond effectively when called on to do so.

This challenge falls on officers in particular. It is not enough that they simply demand a high level of discipline from their Marines. Doing so would risk creating cynicism within units and would run counter to our goals as a service. Rather, in addition officers must also embody that same level within themselves and be involved in the lives of their Marines. An effective officer leads from the front; this concept applies both on the battlefield and in garrison.

By maintaining high standards within themselves, officers can inspire their Marines with a desire to embody those same standards. By being involved with their Marines and truly getting to know them, officers can also know how to inspire and motivate their people to perform at and maintain a higher standard. Reinforcing this culture of self-discipline in everything we do will ensure that our Marines are prepared physically and mentally for any task they may be asked to accomplish. As we transition to a peacetime Marine Corps there is a great deal of uncertainty in where we will go next, but if we maintain a high level of discipline we will certainly be ready to do whatever is demanded of us by the American people.

Our forces face the demands of a high operational tempo combined with a drawdown in numbers. In the face of this challenge, it is vital that officers maintain flexibility in training as they prepare for a variety of operations. The Marine Corps alone is facing a loss of 20,000 personnel in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, despite this reality the world continues to remain unstable.

We as a nation face the rise of new threats in the Middle East, the presence of ongoing conflicts in Africa, and confrontational relationships with Russia and China. Furthermore, while services like the Army have a vastly different operational tempo in peacetime as opposed to war, the Marine Corps is an expeditionary force that meets a high demand constantly. So even though we are transitioning to a peacetime posture, our operational tempo will continue to be demanding, and Marines will be tasked with a variety of deployments in the coming years. They will also be responsible for a wider range of military operations than many Marines were exposed to in the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan. For example, we will see a move back to our roots as more Marines deploy with the Navy in Marine expeditionary units, particularly in the Western Pacific.

We will also continue to see deployments with special-purpose Marine air-ground task forces—for operations such as humanitarian aid and assistance—and with our allies, such as what we see in our current response to the Islamic State threat in the Middle East. This wide variety of missions is demanding, and it is also a break from the general experience of the wartime years. That interval largely consisted of deployment and workup cycles focused on Iraq and Afghanistan. As we transition away from those efforts, officers may be tasked with training their Marines in new skills that were not previously in a typical workup cycle.

‘Strategic Corporal’

Many of these new duties will require Marines to operate in a variety of capacities over the course of the same mission. Then–Marine Corps Commandant General Charles Krulak, in his essay “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three-Block War,” stresses this idea. In it he describes a fictional mission where a Marine unit is involved in an operation that involves humanitarian aid that quickly makes a turn for the worse as potential for combat develops. The decisions on which the fate of the mission rests would, by its very nature, General Krulak concluded, rely on the “actions of a young Marine leader . . . our strategic corporal.” 5 If we want our Marines to be successful when faced with these challenges, it is important that our officers remain knowledgeable in a variety of skills to facilitate effective training. When schooling and training opportunities become available, we must take advantage of them so Marines can be equipped with the tools they need to succeed in this operational environment.

This applies both to unit-wide training opportunities as well as ensuring our enlisted Marines are completing their professional military education, not only to prepare them for the leadership challenges that come their way, but also so we can continue to facilitate their advancement. The bottom line is that the world is still dangerous and unstable, and at any moment a severe crisis may require Marines to respond very suddenly. This has always been the case, and it falls on the leadership of the Corps to be prepared when a great task suddenly comes before us so we are able to quickly adapt for mission accomplishment. If the Marine Corps is to remain the nation’s “911” force, it is of vital importance that we maintain a high level of mental, physical, and doctrinal flexibility.

Our officers must also be creative when it comes to management of resources. Even with budget cuts and a financial recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan represented “years of plenty.” As we engaged in these conflicts, especially in the earlier years, funding was relatively abundant, ensuring that equipment and resources were available to our leadership. General Amos pointed this out when he said that the “military has been in the midst of a culture of plenty.” 6

Dealing with Reality

This period of abundance is ending, and it presents a significant challenge for our leadership. Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald L. Green emphasized this point in his statements before the House Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans’ Affairs on 25 February: “With the current fiscal climate, we may have to take risk in many areas, to meet our responsibilities we prioritize near-term readiness while assuming risk in our hometown stations, modernization, infrastructure sustainment, and quality of life programs.” 7 With fiscal austerity a reality, our officers must be up to the task of managing finite resources while still enabling their Marines to accomplish their missions, as well as continuing to provide for their welfare. Success in this management will require a high level of flexibility and ingenuity regarding how training is conducted to ensure we are efficient with our resources. It may require cutting corners in certain areas—such as fewer live-fire field exercises, or less major temporary additional-duty training evolutions. Ultimately, it will fall on the officer leadership to carefully weigh and decide what is and isn’t vital while still ensuring readiness within their units.

Maintaining high motivation and a sense of purpose in our Marines is vital to being a force in readiness. A large population of our current Marine Corps joined during a time of war. Most remember where they were on 9/11, and there was a clear purpose behind why they were training for and fighting the war on terrorism. In fact, it is likely a safe bet that most of the company-level leadership has little to no experience in a “peacetime” Marine Corps, due to the fact that we have been at war for almost 14 years (which is within the amount of time in service for most company-level leaders).

Therefore, as we transition from this period of war, many Marines may feel frustrated or unhappy that they can no longer do what they joined the Marine Corps to do. This can lead to a loss in motivation, which is detrimental to the readiness of our units. While it may seem to many that we have lost some purpose, that could not be further from the truth. The fact is, the Marine Corps is constantly engaged around the world in both peace and war and has been since it was founded. Throughout its history, the Corps has participated in hundreds of military actions and conflicts encompassing the entire range of military operations. 8 For example, in the years between the first Gulf War, which ended in 1991, and the beginning of the war on terrorism, which began in 2001, the Marine Corps participated in operations in Somalia for three years in Operations Restore Hope, Restore Hope II, and United Shield. Marines also conducted Operation Silver Wake in March 1997, where they performed an evacuation of nearly 900 U.S. citizens from the embassy in Albania. More operations were conducted throughout the decade, in places like Haiti, and other locations in Africa.

‘Ready and Able’

All of these are proof that even when no large-scale conflict is occurring, our Marines are constantly being tasked with operations to ensure national security and stability around the world. While such conflicts and operations do not generally require large force commitments, they still demand Marines who are ready and able to respond to the call. It is important for officers to ensure their troops understand that every task they undertake is important and has value for the security of the nation. It is equally crucial that the officers themselves buy into and support the missions they are undertaking. Officers who are enthusiastic about their work will naturally pass that enthusiasm to their subordinates as well. With buy-in to the missions and an understanding that they are valuable services to the nation, we can ensure that we maintain a high level of motivation in our Marines to work and train and thus ultimately be ready to respond to any crisis at a moment’s notice.

The Marine Corps needs to remain as ready as ever to respond to the nation’s call. Maintaining this high level of readiness is a task that falls on our leadership, and there is little doubt that they are capable and ready to carry it out. Ultimately, the most important mindset for our leaders is one that prioritizes the Marine Corps as a people-driven organization. Ultimately, every task we strike out on is accomplished by our Marines. The officer must be a servant leader who cares for the welfare of his or her Marines, and devotes his or her time to the progress of those Marines. Above all else, by caring for the welfare of our Marines and seeing that they have the tools they need, we will ensure the success of the institution as a whole. As the Corps and its operations change through this transitional period, our contribution and value to the nation remain the same. We will continue to be a force in readiness, willing and able to respond to the nation’s call wherever it takes us.

1. Jim Michaels, “Commandant Calls for Renewed Focus on Discipline,” Editorial,  USA Today , 27 October 2013.

2. Hope H. Seck, “New Data Shows Marine Corps Has Highest Rate of Sexual Assault against Women,”  Marine Corps Times , 4 December 2014.

3. “Inspector General of the Marine Corps,” U.S. Marine Corps, 16 March 2015.

4. Adam Westlake, “Drunk U.S. Serviceman Breaks into House, Punches Child in Okinawa,”  Japan Daily Press , 2 November 2012. Graham Bowley and Matthew Rosenberg, “Video Inflames a Delicate Moment for U.S. in Afghanistan,” The New York Times , 13 January 2012.

5. GEN Charles C. Krulak, USMC, “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War,”  Marines , January 1999, .

6. Jim Garamone, “Marine Commandant Describes Progress in Afghanistan,” DoD News , Department of Defense, 18 February 2011.

7. Tyrone C. Marshall Jr., “Senior Enlisted Advisors: Uncertainty Affects Quality of Life,”  DoD News , Department of Defense, 27 February 2015. 

8. Richard F. Grimmett, “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2009,” Congressional Research Service, 27 January 2010.

Second Lieutenant Oviatt, a native of Fallon, Nevada, is a 2015 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.


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