The Marine Corps has built its legacy around the successes of 20th-century combat operations; this heritage, however, also includes lesser known engagements (small wars) that comprise nearly 200 landings in 57 countries from 1800 to 2017.1 These periods of low-intensity conflicts, interrupted by well-known combat operations, have resulted in more than 240 years of relationships forged by Marines with foreign populations. These relationships have been enabled by Marines exposed to geopolitical matters, cultural nuances, and sometimes violent combat, but more enduringly, they have required a refined understanding of the unchanging human dimension.
Although innate for some, the skills required to navigate this dimension are not taught to the rank-and-file in formal Marine Corps schools. Marines enter these institutions with a variety of social backgrounds and experiences. An institutional agenda to recruit from populations of natural leaders, relationship builders, and influencers is the Marine Corps modus operandi; however, this is a desire rather than the rule. Nevertheless, these efforts have led to fielding an effective combat force earning well-deserved institutional and national allure. Internationally, the Corps’ reputation can be attributed to both the humanity and compassion Marines demonstrate, in addition to their ability to wage war.
To ensure continued success abroad, the Marine Corps must integrate relationship-building training and education through thoughtful and creative means. This need has been identified by Marines who best understand the importance of relationships: foreign military advisors, civil affairs Marines, security cooperation planners/practitioners, etc. The units these Marines belong to are responsible for cultivating relationships with multinational partners and nesting these efforts with service, theater, and national-level strategic guidance. This topic may seem counter-cultural given the Corps’ combat-oriented, infantry-centric way of life; however, the Marine Corps is an organization most consistently utilized in small wars and stabilization activities.
The Marine Corps’ Role
To inject some institutional honesty regarding the Marine Corps’ purpose as an expeditionary force in readiness, open up your copy of Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1-0, Marine Corps Operations. This publication describes the Corps as “a ready force that fills the void between special operations forces and heavy ground formations.” To summarize these tasks, Operations mentions military-to-military engagements, crisis response, power projection, littoral maneuver, and irregular warfare as “interrelated tasks that Marine Corps forces must be able to perform.”Given this broad list of tasks, the Marine Corps must continue to prioritize its adaptability and balance as a warfighting institution prepared for the range of military operations. Requirements for Marines to build relationships are not going away; however, a renewed focus on human capital investment does not equate to diminished combat readiness.
Investment in Human Capital
The MOC’s vision of the Corps’ role in the future has created a need to reinvigorate basic training, military occupational specialty progression, professional military education, and pre-deployment training. The Small Wars Manual states that Marines of “all ranks [must] be familiar with the language, the geography, and the political, social, and economic actors involved in the country in which they are operating.” Instead of being common to all ranks, however, familiarization of the topics described in the manual are viewed as niche and only required of intelligence experts or the Corps’ small population of foreign area/regional affairs officers and foreign area staff noncommissioned officers.
To expand cultural, language, and geopolitical familiarization, the Marine Corps has chartered the Center for Advanced Operational Culture and Learning (CAOCL) and its Regional, Culture, Language Familiarization (RCLF) program as the all rank solution for integrating cultural considerations across all military capabilities: doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities. The by-rank computer-based RCLF distance-learning course categorizes the world into regions assigning Marines a specific subregion to study. One current problem is that key RCLF concepts lack organizational reinforcement and integration of key knowledge and skills into unit training programs. For training to be useful, Marines must be able to see how RCLF information can be applied lethally or non-lethally to a specific problem. To have enduring effects, RCLF concepts must continue to be institutionalized and integrated through training and readiness manual updates, continued incorporation into foundational publications such as the Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP) 5-10 (Marine Corps Planning Process), and embedded into formal schools and exercises. Human skills and relationship-building application is far more useful and practical as illustrated in the MOC’s initial vignette; however, these training opportunities are not as accessible as CAOCL’s online RCLF program.
Marine Corps advisor training, such as the Marine Advisor Course taught at Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group, CAOCL, and the civil affairs family of courses offered at the Marine Corps Civil-Military Operations School, provide the foundation to build relationships and solve complex problems. This training develops not only better problem solvers, but also better human beings who gain skills such as active listening, cross-cultural communication, and social perspective. These skills not only are vital for Marines to accomplish tasks abroad, but also invaluable for building relationships with fellow Marines, family members, and future colleagues.
The Marine Corps already teaches these skills in a number of ways across different organizations as specialties. To eliminate redundancy and the current brain drain of talented academic experts, the Corps should bring these entities under one authority and conduct a front-end analysis to decide what all Marines need by way of human skills. Development of a curriculum from existing programs of instruction dynamically delivered, demonstrated, and applied is the next step. Advanced human skills can be trained under a formal school or collection of schools consolidated under Training and Education Command, Combat Development and Integration, or a rechartered Irregular Warfare Command/Small Wars Center. Currently, the organizations teaching human skills and the Marine Corps stand to gain through sharing and apprising skills common to all irregular warfare and stability operations disciplines.
A Tactically Proficient Strategic Force
MCDP 1-0, Marine Corps Operations explains that “Marines can adapt quickly across an extraordinary range of military operations with the organizational design and training to transition seamlessly between these operations.” Although adaptable, the majority of Marines are not trained in the skills required across this operational range. Marines most frequently are involved in foreign engagement, security cooperation, and civil-military operations, yet few receive formal training to perform these activities. Increased investment in soft-power capabilities with relationship-building-skills proficiency as the centerpiece can improve the Marine Corps’ ability to accomplish its missions.
The term “strategic corporal” has become cliché, but a number of testimonies exist where 19- to 25-year-old corporals and sergeants have operated autonomously in areas such as Helmand province. In many instances, Marines essentially served the Afghan people as unofficial council members, public works officials, arbiters, police chiefs, and diplomats. Until recently, these small-unit leaders received minimal formal or informal training for these duties. Given the current range of military operations, the service is obligated to train Marines in the tasks they are assigned to accomplish. Providing Marines with the training and education they need to be successful reduces both risk to the mission and to the force.
Investment in human skills is low-cost which, could pose a problem because integration of human skills across the Corps does not carry a large price tag or the ability to be constructed in a legislator’s home state. Human skills do, however, require time to develop, and the Marine Corps may not have the patience to see through research for this kind of project. In addition, metrics of success in relationship-building are difficult to construct and measure. Often when these efforts are successful in the variety of ways that exist, it is the war not fought, or the conflict avoided that must be credited to the efforts of well-planned, coordinated, and executed relationship-building efforts.
Regardless of the direction the Marine Corps takes, human skills are a common thread woven throughout the fabric of the service. Few Marines are adequately trained in these skills, but the benefits of integrating them into training programs will benefit the Marine Corps in the long term if instituted at the basic level and followed up with additional training during professional military education and region-specific deployment training. This effort is timely as the Marine Corps continues to decide how to improve its capabilities in warfighting and efficiency during a period of peacetime. Advocates of increased human skills integration across the Corps, heed this call.
1. United States Marine Corps. Small Wars Manual (Washington, D.C.: Skyhorse Publishing, 2009) 18, 41.