13 keys to keeping your faith in the Marine Corps, beginning with learning how to reconcile the ideal with the real
- 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. Col. Victor Bunch, USMC
Best Defense guest respondent
I’d like to address the series of posts by junior Marine Officers with a rejoinder that may put their concerns into some perspective. My own experience is probably not uncommon and may be instructive. With an eye on the practical benefits of career military service, I nonetheless joined the Marine Corps for mostly idealistic reasons that are well-known to any Marine: I wanted to join a storied brotherhood that exemplified the best in warrior virtues.
True to the recruiting poster’s promise … the Corps wasn’t a “rose garden”. I had pre-conceived notions about what the USMC would be like, and my initial experiences didn’t align precisely with those expectations. As I grew older in the Corps, I saw its faults. The bureaucracy was maddening and the Marines were not ten-foot tall Spartans. I encountered some questionable leadership and policies/practices that didn’t quite make sense.
Fortunately, my initial commanding officers were refreshingly honest and open-minded in their career counseling. The mentorship and advice I received as a young officer provided me with the knowledge that allowed me to evaluate and reconcile my experiences in the context of the “real” world vs. my “ideal”. More important than the immediate impact of that counsel was its persistent value. I still continue recycle and rebroadcast much of that advice to my junior officers. Furthermore, as I gained more experience, I began to more clearly see and internalize collective conventional institutional wisdom circulating through our best officers–time-tested wisdom informed by talented people and inculcated in the Corp’s values. Finding that wisdom allowed me to rediscover the true spirit that animates the Corps and realize anew why it and its Marines remain special in an unvarnished world.
The following is a distilled list of some basic advice garnered from my experiences and my mentors intended for junior officers struggling with the contradictions in their Marine Corps experience.
1. First — and most importantly — understand that you only “know what you know” about the Marine Corps from a limited exposure. Avoid making sweeping judgments without attaining a broader and deeper view. The hard truth is that your entry-level expectations were probably somewhat unrealistic (unless you had previous enlisted experience). Your initial skepticism is natural and healthy. We all experienced it. It is not unlike the evolving estimation of our parents as we grow. As youngsters, we tend lionize them, then as teens we begin to see (and seek out) their faults, and as adults be begin to understand them and their life choices better. In the end, they are still special — even though they’re not perfect. Take some time to better understand the Corps better before you judge it unworthy.
2. Get that broader view from other senior officers. Cast your net widely. Seek mentorship and advice within and from outside your chain of command. A diversity of experience and advice will accelerate your assimilation, better inform your first big decision (whether to stay or separate) and help determine the most appropriate vector for your career choices.
3. Tread carefully if you challenge “old” ideas and practices. Sometimes, there are sound institutional reasons for them that aren’t readily apparent. On the other hand, sometimes there aren’t and they should be challenged! Think, read, create, innovate and speak truth to power … but don’t be rash or over-emotional. When in doubt, seek advice/opinion from a safe mentor outside your chain of command and/or write for publication! You will find that the Corps’ leadership values tactful, considerate and loyal dissent.
4. Don’t be deterred if you observe bad leadership. (See #1 and #2) If you still hold military service as a virtue, believe in Marine Corps values and truly care about serving your enlisted men and women, then you owe it to yourself and them to persist. After all, if all the “good people” separate from your service, who will lead our next generation? You can only make a difference from within. If you love it, make it better. It’s still your Marine Corps.
5. A career in the Corps is not for everyone. It will demand much of you and your family in both peace and war. If your heart isn’t in it, then you should probably leave. Regularly evaluate your options. Some of you may have readymade careers waiting on the outside, but many of you will have equally unrealistic expectations about life is in the “Civ Div”, too. The grass isn’t always greener. Many of my company-grade peers that left the Corps in the roaring 90s were unpleasantly surprised at what they encountered in the civilian workplace. A good number of them attempted to come back. The real value of a Marine Corps career is the opportunity to work with people who share similar values and develop life-long friendships bonded by shared experience and sacrifice. There’s a sense of community within the Corps that’s hard to replicate.
In order to balance the ledger, I’ll offer the following tidbits for current and future Senior Officers:
1. Understand that your junior officers’ reality is their perception of their immediate surroundings. Put yourself in their shoes. If all you knew of your service is what you’ve seen in the last few years, what would consider the “norm”?
2. Toxic leadership in your organization will have an inordinate impact on junior officers. Though you may be able to compartmentalize the inimical behavior of other (peer or superior) leaders as an anomaly, the junior officer may believe it is condoned.
3. Provide the junior officer the benefit of your personal and professional experience. Explain your motives for joining — but more importantly — explain why you’ve stayed. If you care about the health and future of your service, you should continually make effort to recruit to retain the best officers. Furthermore, encourage your officers to seek mentorship/advice from other senior officers who may have different experiences or insight into a different career path or occupational specialty.
4. Don’t be afraid to be candid about the drawbacks to service. All our services have their quirks and weaknesses. Arm your subordinates with the knowledge that allows them to recognize and understand the dysfunctions and how to either circumvent or navigate them.
5. Fight the urge to be defensive when junior officers question the value of their service or career options. As you employ tips #3 and #4, encourage them to frequently evaluate all their options. After all, a career in the armed forces isn’t suitable for everyone. But we shouldn’t want our best and brightest to unnecessarily burn bridges, either. The grass isn’t always greener … but you assist them in clearly evaluating both sides before letting them jump.
6. Encourage initiative and bound it loosely within the limits of safety and decorum. Let your junior officers innovate. This is only effective if you’ve given good guidance and provide constructive feedback!
7. Be open to new ideas. When a standard practice or procedure is questioned, don’t reply with automated (negative) response. Listen. Even if the suggestion or complaint is unsound or unfounded. Conversely, if you cannot defend the efficacy of the aforementioned practice/procedure, perhaps you should listen more closely
8. Employ Socratic PME — whether it’s a battle study, a tactical problem or discussion about a leadership issue. Give your junior officers voice to express new ideas and opinions with your direction and guidance. Teach them, and don’t be afraid to learn from them. You might just inspire the next Pete Ellis, Alfred Thayer Mahan, John Boyd or John Nagl!
LtCol Victor J. Bunch is the current CMC Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The views presented here are his own and do not represent those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.