Summary: An organization’s destiny rides on its leaders’ decisions on those rare occasions when the future calls. Their response puts the organization on the path to success – or decay. Sometimes that happens on the field in battle. Sometimes it’s a call to action, to serve by growing. After 9/11 the future called the US Marine Corps, and they refused. They might not get another opportunity.
Here’s a timely, insightful, and provocative article: “Can the Marines Survive?“, Lloyd Freeman (Lt Col, USMC), Foreign Policy, 26 March 2013.
The author is a Marine infantry officer, and has served three combat tours, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He currently serves as the Deputy Executive Assistant in the Expeditionary Warfare Division of the U.S. Navy.
Following the 9/11 attacks, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approached the Marine commandant and asked if the Marines could take on a special operations role within the Department of Defense.
For the secretary, it seemed logical. The Marine Corps is designed to operate independently when necessary; it can sustain itself with a well-oiled logistics organization, and it even has its own air wings. At the time, most special operations forces resided in the Army and in Navy Special Warfare and there was an emerging shortage of operators. The Corps could have filled the gap in special forces that existed right after 9/11.
Instead of taking taking this bold path to the future, the USMC attempted to become a second Army, putting their investment capital in the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (see Wikipedia) and the VTOL version of the F-35. The first has been canceled; the F-35 limps forward with costs skyrocketing and inferior performance (See “Marine F-35 Jump-Jet PR: Caveataxpayer Emptor“, Time, 27 March 2013).
These failed programs, burning much of their R&D funding, are less important for the USMC’s future than their loss of the “elite ground forces” niche in the minds of the American public — now owned by the Special Operations Forces. This bumps the USMC decisively into the “second Army” market niche. When budgets get cut, the second source gets cut first.
Result: the Marines have a small slice of the exiting future for US ground forces — Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) — when they could have had almost the whole pie.
Can the USMC recover from this? It will take more creativity and insight than USMC’s leadership has shown so far.
Destiny offers the Marines two choices
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
— “The Road Less Traveled” by Robert Frost (1929)
For More Information
(a) About Special Operations Forces: “What’s So Special About Special Ops? SEALs and Rangers are no answer to our military woes.“, William S. Lind, American Conservative, 26 September 2012
(b) Posts about Special Operations Forces:
- The men of US Special Operations Command are heroes. But are their deeds heroic?, 15 August 2011
- Expanding the size and scope of our Special Operations Forces, an alternative to learning from our failed wars, 3 November 2013
(c) Other posts about the US Marines Corps
- Why a Marine Corps?, 23 August 2010
- Another perspective on the future of the Marine Corps, 24 August 2010
- Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps, 7 September 2010
- Defining the Marine Corp’ Strategic Concept, 29 September 2010
- The Marine Corps Today, Tonight, and Tomorrow, 21 February 2011
- Looking back on USMC thanksgivings, reminding us of things for which we should be grateful, 24 November 2011
- Father Vincent Capodanno and the Meaning of “Sacrifice”, 4 December 2011
- Old Corps? New Corps? It Doesn’t Matter as Long as it’s Marine Corps!, 11 December 2011
- Fortune Favors the Brave – Marines aboard the USS Constitution, 18 December 2011
- I’ll Be Home for Christmas – Marines in WWII, 2 December 2011