A custody fight between a parent and grandparents.
That was how former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work framed the increasingly intense discussion about the future of the Marine Corps at a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies panel discussion in Washington.
Using this narrow and legalistic framing, he argued that the child ― in this case the U.S. Marine Corps ― belonged to the commandant, and that the grandparents, the retired Marines pushing back against planned structural changes, should cease contending for custody of the child.
While cute and somewhat clever, the legal custody fight analogy diverts attention from a much more serious matter, namely both proponents and opponents of Force Design 2030 may be losing sight of bedrock first principles.
First off, it is not a commandant’s Marine Corps; the Marine Corps belongs to all Marines past and present, living and dead. It is all of our Marine Corps.
It became our Marine Corps the moment we earned our eagle, globe and anchor. It will remain our Marine Corps for the rest of our lives.
On a moral/ethos level, we, all of us, love and care for the Marine Corps. That commitment, that ethos, can sometimes be underappreciated or misunderstood. Yet it is our touchstone. We must never lose that commitment, that sense of ownership.
While some few of us at any one time may have some legal authority over elements of the Marine Corps, we, all of us, have moral authority; it is our Corps; we care about it; we should not allow anyone to make us feel that caring for our Corps and sometimes questioning its path is somehow “not our job.”
And, although some few may see this keen sense of belonging as a problem, it is truly one of the Corps’ strengths. Consider how many corporate executives would give much to have their employees think, work, and act with our sense of commitment.
Second, positions held are not career steppingstones; they are temporary occasions for serious, self-sacrificing stewardship.
Stewards live with an unrelenting sense of what came from the self-sacrifices of the past. The respect, the power, the lives and the capabilities that they hold in the present all came from the physical and intellectual efforts, and in some cases the heroic self-sacrifices, made by others: Marines, parents, teachers, coaches, pastors and priests and patriots of every occupation.
Our ethos must continue to develop Marine leaders and commanders who not only understand but, by every action, manifest that they live with deep awareness of that legacy. The veterans that made us U.S. Marines and mentored us throughout our lives provided living, consistent examples of respect for our legacy.
We learned that if Marines of their caliber spent time developing a capability, then we had a sacred duty to understand why that capability, that training, that character, that skill set was needed. We learned to seek the experience, counsel and wisdom of those of all ranks who went before us. And it was not hard for us to do. We wanted to learn from those who went before us. We wanted to be good stewards.
Number three, our legacy and heritage include hosting rigorous and professional discussions about our Marine Corps, writ large and inclusive of all Marines, all those who have served with Marines, and all who love and care for Marines.
We saw this during the adoption of maneuver warfare doctrine. In the schoolhouses, the media and around the Corps itself, difficult and complex discussions about the theory took place.
Regrettably, the discussion about Force Design 2030 and the future of our beloved Corps is degenerating into a partisan street fight, complete with much disinformation, straw man characterizations of opposing positions and slanderous ad hominem attacks.
We need to move the discussion from a gangland street fight to a rules-based boxing match. Punch hard but fairly; no dirty, below-the-belt punches.
During the 1980s, the Marine Corps Gazette and Marine Corps Times provided a place for hard-fought yet professional debates to take place within the Marine Corps and helped discourse to flourish in our classrooms and throughout the force — but always in the spirit of making better Marines and winning battles at lower cost in life.
In closing, I urge all to reflect deeply on our long-standing bedrock principles and to consider carefully the following points:
· We need to move from waging information campaigns against one another after serious decisions about our Corps future have been made to a much more inclusive and transparent process before decisions are made.
· We need to move from generalizations and straw man characterizations of contending views to serious, in-depth discussions about operational capabilities and the dependencies they have, discussions befitting professionals.
· We need to clearly articulate a future end-state and the means by which we will get there to include, rigorously red-teamed transitions that minimize exploitable opportunities by this nation’s enemies each step of the way.
· We need to return to a time when we “cast our nets widely” and think deeply and carefully about our own dynamic, complex adaptive system, and the many other dynamic complex systems with which we operate.
This is our Marine Corps, and we all have roles to play in helping it adapt to an increasingly complex future.
We must never denigrate or marginalize those who want to help shape its future. We must encourage, rather than suppress, different perspectives and life experiences. Open, inclusive stress-testing of hypotheses about our Corps make for both a stronger, more relevant Corps and a more cohesive and unified Corps.
Let’s revitalize “Gung Ho”— working together.
Retried Marine Corps Gen. Charles C. Krulak served as 31st commandant of the Marine Corps. He is father of the Crucible, the three block war, the strategic corporal and the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.
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