The Best Defense

13 keys to keeping your faith in the Marine Corps, beginning with learning how to reconcile the ideal with the real

By Lt. Col. Victor Bunch, USMC
Best Defense guest respondent

I'd like to address the series of posts by junior Marine Officers with a rejoinder that may put their concerns into some perspective.  My own experience is probably not uncommon and may be instructive. With an eye on the practical benefits of career military service, I nonetheless joined the Marine Corps for mostly idealistic reasons that are well-known to any Marine: I wanted to join a storied brotherhood that exemplified the best in warrior virtues.

True to the recruiting poster's promise ... the Corps wasn't a "rose garden". I had pre-conceived notions about what the USMC would be like, and my initial experiences didn't align precisely with those expectations. As I grew older in the Corps, I saw its faults. The bureaucracy was maddening and the Marines were not ten-foot tall Spartans. I encountered some questionable leadership and policies/practices that didn't quite make sense.

Fortunately, my initial commanding officers were refreshingly honest and open-minded in their career counseling. The mentorship and advice I received as a young officer provided me with the knowledge that allowed me to evaluate and reconcile my experiences in the context of the "real" world vs. my "ideal". More important than the immediate impact of that counsel was its persistent value. I still continue recycle and rebroadcast much of that advice to my junior officers. Furthermore, as I gained more experience, I began to more clearly see and internalize collective conventional institutional wisdom circulating through our best officers--time-tested wisdom informed by talented people and inculcated in the Corp's values. Finding that wisdom allowed me to rediscover the true spirit that animates the Corps and realize anew why it and its Marines remain special in an unvarnished world.

The following is a distilled list of some basic advice garnered from my experiences and my mentors intended for junior officers struggling with the contradictions in their Marine Corps experience.

1. First -- and most importantly -- understand that you only "know what you know" about the Marine Corps from a limited exposure. Avoid making sweeping judgments without attaining a broader and deeper view. The hard truth is that your entry-level expectations were probably somewhat unrealistic (unless you had previous enlisted experience). Your initial skepticism is natural and healthy. We all experienced it. It is not unlike the evolving estimation of our parents as we grow. As youngsters, we tend lionize them, then as teens we begin to see (and seek out) their faults, and as adults be begin to understand them and their life choices better. In the end, they are still special -- even though they're not perfect. Take some time to better understand the Corps better before you judge it unworthy.

2. Get that broader view from other senior officers. Cast your net widely. Seek mentorship and advice within and from outside your chain of command. A diversity of experience and advice will accelerate your assimilation, better inform your first big decision (whether to stay or separate) and help determine the most appropriate vector for your career choices.

3. Tread carefully if you challenge "old" ideas and practices. Sometimes, there are sound institutional reasons for them that aren't readily apparent. On the other hand, sometimes there aren't and they should be challenged! Think, read, create, innovate and speak truth to power ... but don't be rash or over-emotional. When in doubt, seek advice/opinion from a safe mentor outside your chain of command and/or write for publication! You will find that the Corps' leadership values tactful, considerate and loyal dissent.

4. Don't be deterred if you observe bad leadership. (See #1 and #2) If you still hold military service as a virtue, believe in Marine Corps values and truly care about serving your enlisted men and women, then you owe it to yourself and them to persist. After all, if all the "good people" separate from your service, who will lead our next generation? You can only make a difference from within. If you love it, make it better. It's still your Marine Corps.

5. A career in the Corps is not for everyone. It will demand much of you and your family in both peace and war. If your heart isn't in it, then you should probably leave. Regularly evaluate your options. Some of you may have readymade careers waiting on the outside, but many of you will have equally unrealistic expectations about life is in the "Civ Div", too. The grass isn't always greener. Many of my company-grade peers that left the Corps in the roaring 90s were unpleasantly surprised at what they encountered in the civilian workplace. A good number of them attempted to come back. The real value of a Marine Corps career is the opportunity to work with people who share similar values and develop life-long friendships bonded by shared experience and sacrifice. There's a sense of community within the Corps that's hard to replicate.

In order to balance the ledger, I'll offer the following tidbits for current and future Senior Officers:

1. Understand that your junior officers' reality is their perception of their immediate surroundings. Put yourself in their shoes. If all you knew of your service is what you've seen in the last few years, what would consider the "norm"?

2. Toxic leadership in your organization will have an inordinate impact on junior officers. Though you may be able to compartmentalize the inimical behavior of other (peer or superior) leaders as an anomaly, the junior officer may believe it is condoned.

3. Provide the junior officer the benefit of your personal and professional experience. Explain your motives for joining -- but more importantly -- explain why you've stayed. If you care about the health and future of your service, you should continually make effort to recruit to retain the best officers. Furthermore, encourage your officers to seek mentorship/advice from other senior officers who may have different experiences or insight into a different career path or occupational specialty.

4. Don't be afraid to be candid about the drawbacks to service. All our services have their quirks and weaknesses. Arm your subordinates with the knowledge that allows them to recognize and understand the dysfunctions and how to either circumvent or navigate them.

5. Fight the urge to be defensive when junior officers question the value of their service or career options. As you employ tips #3 and #4, encourage them to frequently evaluate all their options. After all, a career in the armed forces isn't suitable for everyone. But we shouldn't want our best and brightest to unnecessarily burn bridges, either. The grass isn't always greener ... but you assist them in clearly evaluating both sides before letting them jump.

6. Encourage initiative and bound it loosely within the limits of safety and decorum. Let your junior officers innovate. This is only effective if you've given good guidance and provide constructive feedback!

7. Be open to new ideas. When a standard practice or procedure is questioned, don't reply with automated (negative) response. Listen. Even if the suggestion or complaint is unsound or unfounded. Conversely, if you cannot defend the efficacy of the aforementioned practice/procedure, perhaps you should listen more closely

8. Employ Socratic PME -- whether it's a battle study, a tactical problem or discussion about a leadership issue. Give your junior officers voice to express new ideas and opinions with your direction and guidance. Teach them, and don't be afraid to learn from them. You might just inspire the next Pete Ellis, Alfred Thayer Mahan, John Boyd or John Nagl!

LtCol Victor J. Bunch is the current CMC Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The views presented here are his own and do not represent those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

The Best Defense

We’re getting out of the Marines because we wanted to be part of an elite force

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."