From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, the U.S. Marine Corps has valiantly and reliably served and protected the nation and its interests for more than 240 years. “Americans will always want a force that looks the enemy in the eye,” wrote John Fannin in the Marine Corps Times. One “who can see the bared teeth and the ferocity of our worst enemy and deliver the fight to that enemy.” The Marines have always been that force.
Yet, as individual Marines continue to battle in places few Americans can find on a map, the Marine Corps as an institution is fighting and losing a larger war right at home. A failure to shore up ethical lapses, modernize its culture to align with society as a whole, and establish a battle rhythm in the fight for public opinion, risks crippling the service and its ability to serve the nation. It may even put in jeopardy the existence of the Marine Corps itself.
The causes of these problems are many and varied, but it is hard not to see in them the larger issue that Marine Corps leaders are forgetting the lessons of their forefathers, such as Victor “Brute” Krulak. A decorated Marine (and the father of the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps), Krulak joined the Marine Corps in 1934, reaching the rank of lieutenant general before retiring in 1968. A Naval Academy graduate, he had a long and successful career, including service during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam and as special assistant for counterinsurgency activities on the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1962 to 1964. He was also instrumental in adopting both Higgins boats for amphibious operations during World War II and, later, helicopters in combat.
Forgetting Iwo Jima
As his biographer Robert Coran notes, in October 1957, Krulak wrote a response to a letter from then–Commandant Randolph Pate that asked, “Why does the U.S. need a Marine Corps?” Krulak argued that:
the United States did not need the Marine Corps; the Army and Air Force could do anything the Marines could. The Marine Corps flourished, he said, because of what “the grassroots of our country believes we are and believes we can do.” . . . He ended by saying that although America did not need the Marines, it wanted them. But, he warned, if Marines ever lost the ability to meet the high, almost spiritual standards of the American people, “the Marine Corps will then quickly disappear.”1
Krulak was right, of course. America does not need a Marine Corps. But at the time, memories of Pacific campaigns and the flag raising on Iwo Jima were fresh in people’s minds. America wanted a Marine Corps.
Things are different today. It has been 75 years since the end of World War II, perhaps the last time the Marines—and the nation—had a decisive victory. We did not have one in Korea. We did not have one in Vietnam. Any illusion that we had one in Iraq in 1991 has long since been disabused—we are back there and apparently unable to leave. We are still in Afghanistan, too. Americans no longer have a mental image of a victorious Marine Corps.
What do they remember?
They remember the Haditha Massacre in November 2005, in which 24 unarmed civilians were murdered and all the Marines involved were let off without charges, save one who received a rank reduction and pay cut. They remember losing the moral high ground in the war against terrorism, not simply from the murders of innocent noncombatants, but from the Marine Corps’ inability or unwillingness to hold those involved accountable.
They remember then–Commandant James Amos’ opposition to the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented openly gay Americans from serving their nation, and General John Kelly ludicrously saying “Marines will die” if the repeal took place. They remember that the Marine Corps’ opposition to repeal was not only in stark contrast to the view of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Joint Chiefs, but also to the nation’s feelings. Public opinion surveys have shown a dramatic rise in the percentage of Americans that accept gay marriage, not to mention gay rights in general or laws to protect them.
They remember Raheel Siddiquis, the Marine recruit hazed and abused to the point of committing suicide at Parris Island in 2016. Recruit Siddiquis’ death was tragic, but his situation not unique. Twenty Marines and staff members were ultimately investigated for repeatedly hazing, assaulting, and discriminating against recruits on the basis of their religious beliefs. Two dozen hazing investigations took place at Parris Island between 2014 and 2017, with about half proven true.
They remember Marines United, the 30,000 person Facebook group that demeaned, degraded, and shared nude photos and sexually explicit videos of female service members. They understand the concept of “the invisible war,” the challenges of being female in a military service that does not truly accept women or treat them as equal. They read the headlines about Brigadier General Norman Cooling and his treatment of female subordinates. They are all too familiar with information about the alarming level of sexual assault in the Marine Corps, which is far higher than in general society and growing at a faster rate than within the other military services.
They know all these things would not exist in the same organization without a fundamental cultural rot in the Marine Corps. When memories of victory on the battlefield are replaced by beliefs that the Marine Corps no longer reflects the views and opinions of the people it has a duty to represent and protect, and instead fails to uphold its own ethical and moral standards, then the people will begin to repeat Pate’s question: Why does the U.S. need a Marine Corps?
Forgetting Ribbon Creak
On the night of 8 April 1956, Staff Sergeant Matthew McKeon, a Parris Island drill instructor, marched his platoon of 74 Marine recruits into Ribbon Creek, a waist-high body of swampy water near the recruit depot. Tidal currents got the best of the recruits, and six men died that night. McKeon was charged with involuntary manslaughter and other crimes. Beyond the tragic deaths of the recruits, the incident caused public uproar, raised the question of whether the Marine Corps was lying about what took place that night and more broadly during training, and led to intense media coverage and a congressional investigation:
Later that year, tragedy struck again, this time under Krulak’s command:
Barely six months after Ribbon Creek, Krulak had lost eleven Marines in another training accident. How he handled the incident is an example of the public relations axiom, “Tell the truth. Tell it all. And tell it quickly.” Krulak sent immediate messages to the [Commanding General Fleet Marine Forces Pacific] and the Commandant telling them what happened. He ordered that a press release be written omitting no details. . . . He contacted his subcommanders and told them that when reporters called, they should answer every question truthfully and completely. He even contacted reporters in Japan and at major American newspapers and invited them to fly out to see him, and he provided helicopters to take local reporters to the scene.2
Tell the truth. Tell it all. And tell it quickly. Three pieces of advice the Marine Corps seems to have forgotten. Unfortunately, it consistently fails to quickly respond to public outcry at the same time that technology is enabling anyone with a Twitter account to share facts, opinions, or lies. When the Marine Corps is silent, or takes too long to coordinate a response to an incident or news report, these voices fill the void, and become the official message.
The issue is not limited to Twitter or other forms of social media, and technology is not solely to blame. The Department of Defense recently went more than a year without a Pentagon spokesperson holding an on-camera briefing to the American public. According to defense reporters, off-camera updates are becoming equally rare.
Information has become a weapon in today’s world. The Marine Corps must learn to communicate in a way that engages with the public at the same speed or faster than the public consumes information. Today, the Marines Corps fails to do so. To borrow from John Boyd’s famous OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop, civilians are deciding and acting on rumor and speculation while the Marine Corps is still observing and orienting. The public opinion environment is no different than that of the battlefield—when someone gets and stays inside your OODA loop, you no longer control the engagement.
When the number of ethical and moral lapses continue to increase at the same time as the Marine Corps struggles to quickly respond—telling the truth, telling it all, and telling it quickly—the result is a perception that identified problems are standard operating procedure and the Marine Corps is not concerned about them.
Forgetting the U.S. Marine Corps
In June 2019, outgoing Commandant Robert Neller was profiled by NPR and asked what he worries about. His answer was telling. It was not about ISIS, or China, or making Marines more lethal on the battlefield: “[A]re we going to be able to change fast enough?” he responded. “Are we going to have reliable, consistent funding to increase the readiness and the capability of the fight? Are we still going to be able to recruit?”
The Commandant was right to be worried. The Marine Corps has failed to keep pace with broader changes in American society: Respect for women, acceptance of gays, transparency, and communications. Coupled with high-profile ethical, moral, and legal failings in combat and at home, the Marine Corps is in a tough spot. It risks losing the support of the American people, and with it potential recruits and funding from elected representatives increasingly skeptical of military leaders and their motivations, and who have a keen awareness of mission duplication with the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
The biggest fight the Marine Corps faces today is not in Iraq or Afghanistan, it is within itself. It is the fundamental question of what the Marine Corps is, what it stands for, and if the public wants it to continue to exist. If Marine Corps leaders cannot, or do not, answer that question fast enough, the war for its future is lost.
1. Robert Coram, Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine (New York: Back Bay Books, 2010), 246–47.
2. Coram, Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, 242.