- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor (USMC, ret.)
Best Defense voice of experience
Of course any hierarchical and conservative institution can be resistant to change and unwelcoming of out-of-lane independent thought. But I believe the Marine Corps has a pretty good record of being an exception, i.e. many officers in the chain encourage that sort of thinking and help get a subordinate’s message a hearing at a higher level.
I was the recipient of such support from the time I was a new lieutenant and over the years came to expect it. And I don’t think I was an exception. Let me cite some milestones in my career:
1952 — Korea — 2d Lt. Rifle Platoon Leader — We were taking unwarranted patrol casualties following prescribed techniques. I proposed some changes to the Bn. CO during a visit to my platoon. He rejected them out of hand, but the S-3, Maj. J.K. Hogan, accompanying him, saw merit in my ideas and successfully went to bat for me and overcame the CO’s resistance.
1953 — 8th Marines — 1st Lt. At an Officers Call I argued that the USMC triangular organization was less effective than a square formation in the embryonic days of helicopters. The Regt. CO Col. DeWolf Schatzel (one of the notorious "Chowder Society" members in the Unification fight) encouraged me to put my arguments in writing and submit it to the Marine Corps Gazette. It was published as "The Triangle and the Square." It was a voice crying in the wilderness, but I was encouraged, not discouraged by my seniors.
1960 — 1st Recon Bn Capt. Company Commander — Upon returning from exchange duty with the Royal Marines, I argued for the adoption of some of the deep penetration recon techniques the Brits were using against the EOKA insurgency in Cyprus as being ideal for Vietnam, which was looming on the horizon. My proposals were opposed by some within the Recon community, but supported by Lt. Col. Hank Woessner, Bn CO and subsequently by the CG, Maj. Gen. Jim Masters. The techniques were expanded, improved, and served as the precursor for the successful Sting Ray operations in Vietnam.
1968 — MC Command & Staff College — Maj. Instructor — I recommended and sold a series of out-of- the-box "creative thinking" initiatives as part of a curriculum change to the senior instructor, who supported it and passed it to Maj. Mike Ryan, the director, who then carried the ball and won over the director of the ED Center and the hated school solution "Yellow" was minimized (I hope it has remained so).
1970 — Vietnam — Lt. Col. CO 1/5, Quick Reaction Force — Over the vehement opposition of the ADC, the CG, Maj. Gen. Chuck Widdecke (a tough SOB if there ever was one) overruled him and supported a new attack SOP/technique that I proposed to introduce.
Needless to say, the more senior I became, the easier it became to have my voice heard. But the point is that throughout my career senior Marine Corps leaders welcomed and were open to new ideas — and along the way, most of the officers between me and the decision-makers were a help, not a hindrance.
To repeat, I think my experience is more representative than those who have been frustrated by what they categorize as a closed-minded Marine Corps bureaucracy.
Lt. Gen. Bernard "Mick" Trainor (USMC, ret.) is a veteran of combat in Korea and Vietnam, a former military correspondent for the New York Times, and co-author of several books on the military, most recently Endgame.