We’re getting out of the Marines because we wanted to be part of an elite force
After eight years at Foreign Policy, here are the ten most popular Best Defense posts.
Next month, this column will be moving to another platform. But before we go, in celebration of eight happy and productive years at Foreign Policy, here are the most popular items ever to run on the Best Defense. This item, which originally ran on January 4, 2013, is number 7.
By “yet another Marine LT”
Best Defense department of the JO exodus
Why are we getting out? It’s about the low standards.
We joined because we wanted to be part of an elite organization dedicated to doing amazing things in defense of our nation. We wanted to make a contribution to something great, to be able to look back at a decisive chapter in American history and say “yeah, I was part of that.” We joined the Corps because if we were going in to the fight, we wanted to serve with the best. We wanted the kind of job that would make our friends who took soulless, high-paying corporate jobs feel pangs of jealousy because we went to work every day with a purpose.
It causes a deep, bitter pain to acknowledge that I don’t think this is the organization in which I currently serve. The reason we’re getting out is because the Marine Corps imposes a high degree of stress, yet accepts Mission Failure so long as all the boxes on the list are checked.
I’m talking about the Field Grade Intelligence Officer in Afghanistan who didn’t know who Mullah Omar was. I’m talking about a senior Staff NCO in the intelligence community who could not produce a legible paragraph. I’m talking about a Battalion Commander who took pride in the fact that he had done zero research on Afghanistan, because it allowed him to approach his deployment with “an open mind.” I’m talking about contractors, some of whom were literally paid ten-fold the salary of my junior Marines, who were incapable of performing basic tasks and functionally illiterate. The problem is not so much that these individuals pop up every now and then, as every organization has its bad eggs, but rather that we see them passed on through the system, promoted and rewarded. If we are truly the elite organization we claim to be, how do we justify the fact that we allow these individuals to retain positions of immense influence, much less promote through the ranks? How do we justify this endemic tolerance for mediocrity or outright incompetence?
If you really want to know what an institution values, don’t look at its mottos or mission statements. Look at how it spends its resources, especially its human capital. Economists call this “Revealed Preference.” When I was in the midst of a time-critical project aimed at mapping insurgent networks in Helmand, I was told to put the project on hiatus so I could organize a visit from General Allen. The implicit message was that a smooth itinerary and content General were more important than catching an insurgent cell before they left for Pakistan. How else was I supposed to interpret this? In my opinion, it’s not so much that the Marine Corps doesn’t value ideas, but that — when the chips are down and careers are at stake — it values appearance and conformity more than winning. The implicit message — what the Marine Corps reveals by its actions — is that it’s okay to fail to provide any added value, so long as the PowerPoint slides are free of typos, no serialized gear is lost, and everyone attends the Sexual Harassment Prevention training
The biggest issue is that few are willing to acknowledge Mission Failure because doing so is considered “unprofessional,” especially for a lieutenant. As an Army Special Forces veteran I worked with was fond of saying, “you get what you incentivize.” As it currently stands, there is an overwhelming incentive for officers at all levels to simply keep their units looking sharp, turn in rosy, optimistic assessments, keep off the XO’s radar and, above all else, keep from rocking the boat. No matter what becomes of your battlespace, eventually the deployment will end and you can go home. Why risk casualties, a tongue lashing or missed PT time when the reward might not come for years down the road? Why point out that the emperor has no clothes when everyone one involved is going to get their Navy Comms and Bronze Stars if we just let him keep on walking down the road.
We should be better than this. I have found several of the comments and reviews of your latest book baffling. We can quibble about the merits of Marshall’s management techniques or the specific metrics by which we should measure officer performance. But can’t we unanimously agree that sub-par commanders should be weeded out, especially in an organization that calls itself “the finest fighting force on the face of the earth?” The practice of actively relieving (and eventually separating) leaders for under-performance is no panacea, but shouldn’t it at least be a starting point?
I don’t want to be misunderstood. The most extraordinary and talented people I’ve ever met are still serving in the Corps. I live in a wonderful area, I’m well-paid and generally like the people I work with. Given the chance, I would happily deploy again. But looking down the road at what the billet of a Field Grade officer entails, I have to wonder whether the sacrifices will be worth it. Maybe they will. I’ve seen some Field Grade officers who love their jobs and feel like they’re serving a purpose. But I’m not sure I’m willing to take the gamble.
I was told at The Basic School that the most important role as a leader is to say, when everyone is tired and ready to declare victory and just go home, “guys, this isn’t good enough, we have to do better.” I simply don’t see enough leaders willing to say, regarding the things that really matter, “guys, the last eleven years weren’t good enough, the nation needs us to do better.”