For the U.S. military, budget cuts and bad decisions are here, and of the two, the budget cuts may be easier to survive. Like a summer storm, budget cuts will soon rage across every Service. Years of expansion and funding are inevitably followed by years of reduction in forces and cutbacks. Training funds dry up, ammunition stocks grow thin, and maintenance is deferred. Weapons that were to be bought over the course of 2 or 3 years arrive after 6, 7, or 8 years, or sometimes the new weapons do not arrive at all. In the coming years, the population needle of the Marine Corps, like a gas tank indicator, will dip below 200,000, below 190,000, and settle once again in the 170s. Promotions will slow down. This has all happened before in all of the Services. GEN Dwight D. Eisenhower was a 16-year major. This does not mean he was promoted to major in year 16. It means Eisenhower remained a major for 16 years. There were simply no open spots into which to promote him.
Still, the lean years are good for thinking, studying, and planning. Funds were so short in the interwar years at Quantico that in order to get the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations written, the Commandant had to close the schools at Quantico and put all of the officers to work on emerging amphibious doctrine. It was a drastic, budget-driven step, but when World War II came, we were ready.
If good can spring from lean years, little good comes from bad decisions. Bad decisions, particularly Service-wide bad personnel decisions, can introduce sepsis throughout the Services. During Vietnam when President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to mobilize the Guard and Reserve and Congress refused to extend the term of service for draftee’s, it led to a Service-wide personnel decision so damaging it is hard to believe in hindsight that wise uniformed military leaders supported the bad decision. The bad decision was the individual rotation policy. Instead of sending units into combat that trained together, arrived in hostilities together, and were rotated out together, each servicemember was on his own calendar, living and fighting with transitory strangers, each one silently counting down his private DEROS (date expected return from overseas). The contamination of the individual rotation policy put all of the Services in intensive care, and it took the decade of the 1970s and the reversal of the individual rotation policy to slowly bring the Services back to health.
Now once again the Services face personnel decisions imposed upon them that risk contaminating the core strength of military service. The core strength of military service is in the word “service.” Military service is not a job, vocation, pastime, or hobby. It is a military service. And though our military force today is an all-volunteer force, we do not accept volunteers in the same way civilian organizations do. If a civilian wants to volunteer at his local church, synagogue, youth center, or food bank, the organization will be happy to have him. “Thank you for volunteering,” they will say, “we will find something you can do.” Their standards of service are open, welcoming, easy, and flexible. Military standards of service are not that way. Military standards of service are strict, strenuous, and severe. Military standards are vastly different from civilian standards. To a civilian outlook, military standards of service can even seem cruel.
Allow me to give an example of how our strict standards of service affect real people. There is a Marine in San Antonio, TX, called Ronnie. Ronnie served on active duty during the Korean War. He fought at the Chosin Reservoir as a machinegunner. Ronnie is a genuine Marine hero and a great friend to the Corps even today; he continues to assist with community projects with our 4th Reconnaissance Battalion.
When you meet Ronnie, the first thing you notice is his enthusiasm and upbeat nature. It is an inspiration just to be in the same room with him. When you shake hands with him, his hand feels unusual because Ronnie left his fingers in the snows of Korea. Ronnie walks with some difficulty because he balances his body on two prostheses. Ronnie left his legs in Korea as well.
When Ronnie came back from Korea, a genuine hero and severely wounded, did the Marine Corps say to him, “What is your desire, Ronnie? Want to stay on active duty? What you want takes priority. If you want to go back to your unit, it is only fair that we let you continue as a machinegunner.” No, the Marine Corps did not say that. Instead, the Marine Corps said, “Our standards of service require that you not return to your unit. You cannot serve as a machinegunner again.” Ronnie loved the Corps. The Corps loved Ronnie. But after his injury he could not return to his unit or his MOS. Even though today our Commandant has said that wounded Marines who want to stay on active duty can stay, it does not mean the Marine can necessarily return to his former unit or former MOS. It just means the Marine can find duties somewhere. As welcoming as the Marine Corps wants to be, our standards of service remain strict, strenuous, and severe.
Consider another example. There is an epidemic of obesity in the United States. Go into any civilian workplace and you will find many people who are overweight and several who are severely overweight. But they are still doing their jobs. Their bodies may be fat, but their work is good. Unlike the civilian world, the military does not have an epidemic of obesity. The reason is that military servicemembers are required to maintain height and weight standards and personal appearance standards. If they get too fat, we help our servicemembers lose the weight and get back in fighting shape. But if they do not get into fighting shape, we discharge them. They must meet military standards, and the standards for service are strict, strenuous, and severe.
There are big differences between the civilian workplace and the military. What is reasonable in one is not reasonable in the other. The reverse is also true. We constantly ask our servicemembers to go beyond what would seem reasonable to civilians. Is it reasonable to prevent people from expressing themselves? Is it reasonable to prevent people from expressing their most deeply held convictions? For example, if an American citizen feels that the President of the United States has made a big mistake, should that person be free to express himself? Should that person be able to say out loud, “I think the President is wrong.” Should people be able to go further, to share with others how they feel? Should they be able to go up on the roof of their condominium and shout to the sky, “I think the President is wrong.” The answer in the United States, of course, is that people should feel free to express themselves. They should feel free to speak up, speak out, to let people know what they really think. And if they feel like they should take their views and shout them out to the sky, go right ahead. This is the United States; we are an open society. We are all about expressing yourself, about being who you really are. Do not hold back; let it all out.
Unless, of course, you serve in the military. An officer in the military is not allowed to express negative views about our Commander-in-Chief. If the military servicemember says, “Expressing my political views is very important to me; this is a fundamental part of who I am,” we say to that servicemember, “Too bad.” Even if your politics are a fundamental part of who you are, we do not let you express yourself freely. You must suppress your views. In fact, failure to suppress those views is not only not allowed, it is a crime. You can be punished; you can be jailed simply for expressing contempt. It is not just comments about the President; it includes a whole range of senior officers. The possible crime extends well beyond disparaging words. Articles 88 and 89 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice include an offense called contempt by silence. Yes, you do not even have to say anything. The military justice system can find you guilty of contempt just for the way you stand there or the look on your face.
Here is where civilians often raise the issue of reasonableness. “Wait just a minute,” they say. “Making people suppress their feelings and views is simply not reasonable in the United States because the United States is an open society.” True, the United States is an open society. The United States military, however, is not an open society. While the United States has a culture of openness and self-expression, sometimes even self-indulgence, the military is very different. The military is a society of restriction and restraint. The very nature of military service is to serve. Military service is not about self-expression. It is just the opposite; military service is all about putting aside your own wants and desires and focusing instead on the needs of the Service. Surely no recruiter is so desperate and no recruit so naïve to believe that the best place to express your own selfish personal desires is the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps is not about doing what you want to do, but about doing what needs to be done. No Marine can be both always self-indulgent and always faithful. You have to choose one.
There is no limit on the service and sacrifice that the military asks—that the military demands—of its servicemembers. The service and sacrifice that are routine parts of the military are simply not reasonable in civilian life. What is reasonable in civilian life is not reasonable in the military, and what is reasonable in the military is not reasonable in civilian life.
Let me give you an example. Suppose a group of civilians is walking along outside, perhaps in a park. Say they are coming back from lunch, walking and talking together. Suddenly as they draw near to some bushes, gunfire erupts from the foliage. They are being ambushed. What do they do? They want to live; there is nothing more fundamental than a human’s desire to survive. What is the reasonable thing to do in this situation? What would anyone do? Of course, they would run away. What other course of action could there be? Nothing else is reasonable. As soon as they hear the first shots, they would turn and run, get out of the area as fast as they can. Running away is perfectly reasonable.
Suppose on the other hand, you are a member of a Marine unit on combat patrol. Perhaps you have just had midday chow and are now walking in the sunshine. No danger is expected. Suddenly as you draw near to some bushes, gunfire erupts from the foliage. What do you do? You want to live. Marines have families. Marines dream of the future. Marines want to see their children grow up. They love the comfort of home and family as much as anyone. But when ambushed, a Marine unit will turn and attack into the ambush. Instead of obeying their deepest desire for self-preservation, Marines will instantaneously attack into the ambush. Disregarding their own desires, their own fears, their own futures, they will turn and attack into the ambush. Part of the service of Marines, and indeed all military servicemembers, is to go beyond what is reasonable.
This kind of self-sacrifice takes place throughout the military each and every day. Consider a young captain preparing to deploy to the other side of the globe. She does not know what dangers await. She does not know the challenges she will have to overcome. While it is still dark, before leaving her house, she goes into the bedroom shared by her two small children. She kneels beside their bed and prays. She prays for them and for herself. Like any parent, her deepest personal desire is to stay with her children, watch over them, guide them, and see them grow up happy and successful. Plainly it is not reasonable to ask this young mother to leave her children, board a plane or ship, and travel halfway around the world to risk her life to protect the children of strangers. Yet that is what we ask military servicemembers to do. We ask them to deny their deepest desires; we ask them to deny what matters to them the most in order to risk their lives to help foreign strangers. What the military asks of our servicemembers is not reasonable; it is way beyond reasonable. Day in and day out, our servicemembers go beyond what is reasonable.
No one should feel singled out by the strict, strenuous, and severe standards of service. Eventually the standards of service will cull each one of us out of the military. The military will one day say to every servicemember, “Sorry, you can no longer serve.” What are the reasons? The reasons do not make sense in the civilian world. These are reasons that would not be allowed in the civilian world—reasons like age, fitness, health, disability, or simply putting one’s own personal desires ahead of the needs of the military.
If you simply refuse to sacrifice enough, the military will escort you to the door. If you fail to attack into the ambush, if you fail to leave your children behind and board that plane, if your personal desire for dessert exceeds your fidelity to fitness standards, then you cannot stay in the military. For in the military, unlike in civilian life, personal desires are not paramount.
If you want to stay home with your children, that is perfectly reasonable. You can do that in civilian life, just not in the military. In the military you have to board that plane. If you want to criticize the President, that is fine. You can do that in civilian life, just not in the military. In the military you must suppress your deepest personal beliefs. If you want to be evaluated on your knowledge and experience and not on your age, weight, or how many pullups you can do, that is completely reasonable. You can do that in civilian life, just not in the military. In the military you must meet strict weight, fitness, and personal appearance standards.
In short, if a person’s personal desires take priority, whether those desires are personal, sexual, financial, political, or familial, then take those personal desires into civilian life where self-expression rules. A person who wants his personal desires to take priority does not belong in the military where service takes priority. In the military, personal desires are suppressed by everyone. It is the nature of military service. For each and every military volunteer, putting aside deep personal desires is part of the bargain. If a Marine is standing post and wants to sleep, the Marine Corps says deny your desires and stay awake. If a Marine is moving to contact and the pack is heavy and the road long, the Marine Corps says deny yourself and keep going. If a Marine’s buddy is wounded and needs to be rescued and carried to safety, the Marine Corps says deny the fear and do your duty. Whatever a Marine’s personal desires, there is no doubt the Marine Corps will demand the Marine release those desires and focus on service.
Servicemembers are not in the military in order for them to campaign for their own interests, desires, philosophies, or lifestyles. Instead, servicemembers take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. There is good reason for this. The United States Constitution is the world’s oldest. Our Constitution has been a consistent guarantor of freedom. The U.S. military is a force for freedom. The Marine Corps and the other Services kick open the closed doors of tyranny and keep them open so others may live in an open society. The U.S. military provides our Nation with the ability to oppose oppression and support freedom around the world. The United States has been the final protector of freedom worldwide for these last many decades.
Smaller nations and smaller militaries can experiment with social theories and political causes. They have that luxury because the U.S. military is backing them up. If some other country’s military fails, the other country can appeal to the United States. If the United States military fails, the spark of liberty that has been passed down from generation to generation is in jeopardy. U.S. military servicemembers are the guardians of freedom. We must stay strong. Our strict, strenuous, and severe military service standards are what keep the entire free world strong.
Budget cuts are coming and bad decisions too. After the horrors of the individual rotation policy and other bad decisions in Vietnam, there was a group of junior officers who experienced Vietnam and returned determined to correct the errors of the past and transform the Marine Corps. These officers did correct the bad decisions, and they went on to introduce maneuver warfare and made Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, a philosophy that permeated well beyond the Corps and influenced doctrine in every Service. These leaders beat the budget cuts and the bad decisions. What officers today will dedicate their careers to reversing budget cuts and bad decisions? Budget cuts come and go, but bad decisions stay until someone finds the courage to change them.
Today, once again, civilians who do not understand military service are promoting bad decisions that will force the military to cater more to individual desires, individual demands, and individual lifestyles. These bad decisions will indeed make the military more friendly, comfortable, and familiar, but these changes dismantle brick by brick the military culture of self-denial. If our Corps and the other Services are to continue to protect a society that is very much self-indulgent, the military must never allow itself to become self-indulgent.
As a Nation, if we preserve the entire military’s special culture of restriction and restraint, we in the military will preserve the open society. If civilian leadership will help us maintain our Service standards that are strict, strenuous, and severe, then U.S. military servicemembers each and every day will continue to go beyond the reasonable and achieve the extraordinary.
The United States cannot afford to lose the military culture of self-sacrifice that keeps a solitary Marine sentry, somewhere far from home and desperate for rest, nevertheless on his feet, on his post, and on the alert, denying his desires so everyone else can indulge theirs.