MARINE BARRACKS WASHINGTON — A Monday morning ceremony marking the end of Gen. David Berger’s four years as commandant involved all the usual trappings.
It had the music and marching onto the Marine Barracks Washington parade field, the passing of the Corps’ official battle colors, and the reading of Berger’s orders to relinquish command and retire.
But as Berger passed the colors to Assistant Commandant Gen. Eric Smith, the ceremony’s narrator did not read orders for Smith to take command of the service. And the “Home of the Commandants,” the nearly 220-year-old white house at the end of the parade field, will sit empty upon Berger’s departure.
For the first time since 1910, there is no Senate-confirmed commandant of the Marine Corps at the helm of the service.
While Smith and his wife, Trish, won’t be moving their boxes into the house quite yet, he will have the powers of a confirmed Marine commandant.
“To make sure that there is no confusion: All orders, directives and guidance in effect this morning remain in effect, unless I direct otherwise,” Smith told the crowd attending Berger’s retirement ceremony. “Further guidance to the force will follow.”
Federal law required Berger to step down Monday, four years after he became commandant.
Berger, who has been a Marine since 1981, has said he plans to spend time at the family farm with his wife, Donna, as well as with his four sons and his grandchildren, before deciding what work may come next.
The lack of Senate confirmation means Smith, who was nominated in May to become the 39th commandant, will perform the duties of the No. 1 and No. 2 Marines simultaneously, without a set person to whom he can delegate tasks.
The White House hasn’t yet nominated the next assistant commandant, who also would be subject to the hold on nominations by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama.
Tuberville has single-handedly blocked hundreds of general-officer promotions in protest of a Pentagon policy that gives troops leave and travel expenses to help them access out-of-state abortions. Neither the Pentagon nor Tuberville shows signs of backing down.
The Senate does have a possible workaround: voting on individual nominees one by one, rather than relying on unanimous consent of senators to speed them through in batches. But that would require several weeks of Senate floor time for the five nominees for the Joint Chiefs of Staff alone, Defense News previously reported.
In the role of acting commandant, Smith told reporters June 29, he also won’t be able to release the planning guidance, which lays out the commandant’s strategic vision for the Corps.
Berger’s planning guidance, from 2019, played an important role in the service’s past four years by setting the stage for Force Design 2030 ― the 2020 plan to prepare the Marine Corps for conflict with a technologically sophisticated peer like the Chinese military.
“I can give guidance to the force as the acting commandant, but it does not carry the same weight, quite, as commandants’ planning guidance,” Smith said.
Until Smith gets confirmed, he will still be called “assistant commandant of the Marine Corps,” or “ACMC” (pronounced “ACK-mack”) for short, he emphasized Monday during his remarks at the ceremony.
“That is my title, and one that I’m proud of,” Smith said. “You can also say ‘Devil Dog,’ ‘leatherneck,’ ‘Marine’ or ‘Trish’s husband.’ I respond to all — probably most proud of the last.”
Smith said after the ceremony that he is the first acting commandant since 1910, when Maj. Gen. George Elliott aged out of the job and the Marine Corps did not have a replacement ready. Maj. Gen. William Biddle became commandant three months later.
As acting commandant, Smith will focus on continuing the overhaul of the Marine Corps while making sure the force is ready to respond to global crises, he said.
Smith has been a vocal supporter of Force Design 2030. At his June 14 confirmation hearing he called for the Corps to speed up that modernization as the budget allows.
Following the ceremony Monday, Smith said that he would not wait until his formal confirmation in order to go fast.
“I still retain the authorities of the office of the commandant, so as far as budgetary, experimentation, changing formations, I can still do all that,” he said. “And those things that are working well for us — long-range fires, et cetera — we will move faster on them as long as we have a defense budget.”
Force Design was widely embraced by the Corps, the Pentagon, Congress and industry — but it attracted its share of opposition, especially from a group of retired general officers who thought Berger was changing the Marine Corps for the worse.
Retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper Van Riper said that the pushback had nothing to do with Berger as an individual and everything to do with the nature of the reforms.
Asked what the group thought of Smith’s call to accelerate the modernization and if they’d continue to be as vocally against Force Design under the new leader, Van Riper said the “retired community desires to support General Smith in every way possible if he intends to rebuild a Corps able to respond globally as a combined arms force in an age of precision munitions.”
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow for defense programs at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said that although Force Design 2030 was Berger’s brainchild, Smith was perfectly positioned to continue and accelerate it.
In his 21 months as assistant commandant, Smith had to get into the weeds of programs and budgets, and work closely with his counterparts on the joint staff, Wood noted.
“While you could say Gen. Berger is kind of the idea [guy], making the argument — who is actually doing the grunt work and seeing where the obstacles are at and how to make sense of all this? That’s been Gen. Smith the entire time,” Wood said. “So I think there’s a natural progression.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who presided over the ceremony, and Berger both called for the Senate to confirm the next commandant, though they didn’t call out Tuberville by name.
“Smooth and timely transitions of confirmed leadership are central to the defense of the United States, and to the full strength of the most powerful fighting force in history,” Austin said in a speech on the barrack’s parade field.
“I’m with you, Mr. Secretary,” Berger said in a speech that followed. “We need the Senate to do their job so we can have a sitting commandant that’s appointed and confirmed. We need that house to be occupied.”
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.