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Stewart Reeves submits:
By JAMES E. LIVINGSTON&JAY VARGAS&HARVEY BARNUM&ROBERT MODRZEJEWSKI October 3, 2022
As Marines and Medal of Honor recipients, we believe the intangibles that make the Marine Corps exceptional are under attack and at risk of being overrun.
There is nothing particularly glorious about sweaty fellows, laden with killing tools, going along to fight. And yet — such a column represents a great deal more than 28,000 individuals mustered into a division. All that is behind those men is in that column, too: the old battles, long forgotten, that secured our nation . . . traditions of things endured and things accomplished, such as regiments hand down forever.
— Colonel John W. Thomason, Fix Bayonets (1926)
Colonel Thomason knew that Marines are not defined solely by their weapons and equipment, but more broadly by their history, culture, traditions, and warrior ethos. These intangibles make United States Marines unique. These almost mystical attributes are fragile, only ever one generation away from extinction. Traditions of things endured and things accomplished are the foundation of Marine Corps combat effectiveness. Without close attention to and nurturing of these qualities, the Corps will lose its identity.
Sadly, we believe the Marine Corps is on that path. Why? The current senior leadership did away with many weapons in order to procure anti-ship missiles. This new warfighting concept consisted of small packets of Marines landing on atolls in the South China Sea with the mission of sinking Chinese warships. This defensive strategy was sold as innovative and necessary to transform the Marine Corps for 21st-century warfighting. It is more likely to relegate the Marine Corps to irrelevance. The history, traditions, culture, and ethos of the Marine Corps are being dangerously and needlessly eroded. Unless this trend is reversed, the Marine Corps we knew and loved will cease to exist
Many, arguably most, former Marines, ourselves included, find it increasingly difficult to recognize our Marine Corps. The organization in which we served is being radically altered with little or no apparent appreciation for unforeseen consequences. The unnecessary cutting of force structure, coupled with the ill-advised jettisoning of combat multipliers such as tanks, cannon artillery, assault amphibious vehicles, heavy engineers, aviation, and logistics before replacement capabilities have been procured, will perilously weaken the flexibility and lethality of forward-deployed Marine Air Ground Task Forces and the ability of the Marine Expeditionary Forces to task organize for combat across the spectrum of conflict. We fear that soon Marines will no longer be able to pride themselves on being “most ready when the nation is least ready.”
The Marine Corps is being undermined by a corporate approach to personnel management where civilian “best practices” are replacing our traditional values of the “needs of the service” and by a narrowly defined focus on long-range rockets and missiles to win future battles. Some of the changes have been directed by elected and appointed officials. However, most of the injuries to our glorious Corps have been self-inflicted, such as the unnecessary discarding of tanks and the deep and harmful cuts in cannon artillery.
We’re not opposed to change. The Marine Corps has always changed to remain relevant in a changing world. But so many of the changes planned or already made have been poorly thought out. In some cases, the manner of implementation has done almost as much damage as the changes themselves. In our opinion, the rush to radically transform the institution has altered the very fabric of the Corps by shredding combat capabilities and trampling history, tradition, culture, and ethos.
Marine Corps history is embodied in its regiments. Marines have always taken immense pride in their regimental histories, at times even defining themselves by the regiments in which they served. With a cavalier disregard for this special bond, Marine Corps leadership recently discarded the name of one of the Corps’s most storied regiments, the Third Marines. The Third Marines we knew no longer exists. Its name has been indifferently changed to the Third Marine Littoral Regiment; this experimental, one-dimensional unit lacks the flexibility, lethality, and supporting arms required to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver. The same humiliation awaits the Fourth Marines (an infantry regiment) and Twelfth Marines (an artillery regiment), legendary regiments whose names have been immortalized defending our nation and are etched in blood. Regimental designations are Marine Corps history, sources of pride for all Marines. And casing the colors of the Eighth Marines (an infantry regiment in the Second Marine Division) for the sole purpose of offsetting the costs of current and future force developments was as poorly thought out as the naming protocols and restructuring of the infantry and artillery regiments in the Third Marine Division.
Marine Corps tradition is “we take care of our own.” Leaders have always looked out for their Marines and their families. The harried rush to toss aside tanks took priority over the well-being of many Marines and their families. The tankers, mechanics, and their families were simply sidelined and forced to make the best they could of what was left of their careers. To a lesser degree, others similarly affected had the rug pulled from underneath them. With few options available, many tankers and other comparably unfortunate Marines joined the Army or another service.
Marine Corps culture is built on the primacy of infantry. Marines have always taken pride in the motto “Every Marine a rifleman.” Force Design 2030, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, Stand-in Forces, and Talent Management 2030 — the planning documents that have laid the foundation for the corps’s new doctrine — deemphasize infantry skills Specialists are the new coin of the realm. The deactivation of three infantry battalions and reductions in the number of Marines in the remaining infantry battalions are the best indicators that Marine infantry is no longer seen as the point of the warfighting spear. Long-range precision rockets and missiles and new organizations in which Marines watch computer screens and push buttons to engage the enemy have replaced the rifle and the infantryman as the ultimate arbiters of future battles. To support these new warfighting concepts, Marine infantry has been stripped of the support needed to close with and destroy the enemy. You have to experience, as we have, a life and death struggle against overwhelming numbers of a determined enemy to know the compelling impact of a wall of close and continuous artillery fire, immediately available close air support, and, at times, tanks. We know first-hand that combined arms win battles that would otherwise be lost. We also believe that close combat, where winners and losers are ultimately decided, is being virtually, but mistakenly, ignored as a relic of the Industrial Age.
Marine Corps warfighting ethos is exemplified by “First to Fight” and “In Every Clime and Place,” rallying calls rapidly becoming empty words. The Marines will soon be little more than a regionally focused afterthought. The misguided divestiture of proven and necessary warfighting capacity has seriously (and, unless corrected, fatally) emasculated the Marine Corps’s capabilities to fight and win across the spectrum of conflict. The narrow tailoring of forces for a backwater role (Stand-in Forces) in the Western Pacific, a concept devoid of rigorous experimentation and validation, comes at great cost. Simply stated, the Marine Corps is no longer the nation’s premier 911 force, ingloriously ceding that distinction to the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps.
In closing, we want to be perfectly clear. We believe the warfighting dominance and those intangibles that make Marines unique are under attack and at risk of being overrun. The unwise jettisoning of too many tools in the Marine Corps’s toolbox of capabilities and the wholesale gutting of others have virtually destroyed its utility for major combat operations. Operating forces have been hollowed out under the illusion of returning the Marine Corps to its naval roots. While reductions in force structure and equipment can be added back at the cost of great time and expense, culture and ethos, once lost, are gone forever. Force Design 2030 and Talent Management 2030, no matter how well intended, are blueprints for disaster.
James “Jim” Livingston is a Major General, USMC (Retired). He was awarded the Medal of Honor while serving as the Commanding Officer, Company E, Second Battalion, Fourth Marines during the Battle of Dai Do; Jay Vargas is a Colonel, USMC (Retired). He was awarded the Medal of Honor while serving as the Commanding Officer, Company G, Second Battalion, Fourth Marines during the Battle of Dai Do; Harvey “Barney” Barnum is a Colonel, USMC (Retired). He was awarded the Medal of Honor while serving as the Commanding Officer, Company H, Second Battalion, Ninth Marines during the Battle of Ky Phu on Operation HARVEST MOON; Robert “Bob” Modrzejewski is a Colonel, USMC (Retired). He was awarded the Medal of Honor while serving as the Commanding Officer, Company K, Third Battalion, Fourth Marines during Operation HASTINGS.
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