By Lt. Col. Victor Bunch, USMC
Best Defense guest respondent
I'd like to address the series
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.