Rite of Passage
2017 Gen Robert E. Hogaboom Leadership Writing Contest: Honorable Mention
The Marine Corps has always been and will continue to be a family whose hallmark is the people who comprise it. Our warrior culture is rooted in rich history and vibrant tradition, but the current environment has changed and not all for the better. Today, the prevalent national culture is one of surplus and consumption shrouded in unprecedented comparative wealth. This has created a sense of entitlement where the glorification of self holds in submission the betterment of society as a whole. This is an enduring challenge our leadership faces because our Marine Corps is a reflection of the norms this society holds as preeminent. In addition, our Corps espouses fundamental tenets and core values that are in direct conflict with the views of this modern national society. If we do not maintain awareness of this trend and grow the historical roots of our tradition deeper with each subsequent generation of Marines, we will face irreconcilable severance because of historical starvation. The fruit of the tree will be devoid of the nutrition the roots provide and, worse yet, will not recognize itself as a product of the tree. The threat is a slow deterioration from within, which compromises the strength of the whole and can make us unfit to serve as the guardians of our Nation.
Men and women today are being imbued with thoughts that the culture deems relevant to itself, and it begins at the most fundamental of levels. Less than a century ago, several educators put forth the culture that exists in the classroom today. That culture changed the primary purpose of an education from character development to occupational specificity. Details of an occupation should be the byproduct of a culture that thrives on natural curiosity with a moral foundation so that the end state is a people who produce useful work for the good of others rather than useless work for the good of oneself. In a free society, a republic, work is the natural extension of an education based on service to others. Senator Ben Sasse, quoting Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote it this way,
The ‘deep truth’ is that ‘work … is the fundamental source of our dignity.’ It is not in our consumption, but in the ‘practice of offering up our talents for the service of others’ that we find ‘value with our lives and [that we] lift up our own souls.’1
If this is what characterized our work as a Nation, then work would not be avoided for the desire to exist in perpetual adolescence. In addition, transcendent fulfillment would replace the ever-growing rise of depression and confusion that exists in us today. Our Marine Corps must be a place where our culture rejects a passive attitude to the world around it. However, we must recognize that this is not the message being given to our current and future generations of Marines, and, therefore, we must be prepared to combat our current culture. People are being raised today with the notion that there is no soul, no transcendent value in anything, and therefore, no need to concern yourself with anything that does not please you. A message of self-sacrifice and, therefore, service to others is foundationally foreign. The message to our Marines and leadership is that there is value in every kind of work when the motive behind the work is what truly matters, the character behind the action rather than the action itself. You cannot have the millennial sense of entitlement if you understand this concept. Let us join the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle and say,
Whatsoever of morality and intelligence; what of patience, perseverance, faithfulness, of method, insight, ingenuity, energy; in a word, whatsoever of Strength the man had in him will lie written in the Work he does … Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it, in God’s name!2
One man’s work is no greater than another’s, but work can help create the greatness of the man, or in our case, the Marine!
As Marines, we have taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America. Today, the written foundation of our national existence is being placed on the shelf for works or media that bring more immediate, short-lived gratification or pacification. When this foundational work is then revisited, it is devoid of the context with which it was written and, therefore, becomes subject to the whims of the current culture. Available meta-data and the easily accessible informational expanse have created a far reach of subject matter. However, this has come at the expense of depth, which is what knowledge truly consists of. We are becoming educated in every conceivable subject, but with a lack of character and with little depth, we are never attaining true knowledge. When this happens, our very republic is in question, and the American experiment could crumble because our republic was built on the assumption that we would have an open and exhaustive intellectual environment. As Marines, we have accepted the mantle of self-sacrifice in order to defend the world’s most successful way of life. President Ronald Reagan expounded on this when he said that freedom is not simply “ours by inheritance” but “it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”3 Nations have come and gone with a permanent place in history, but in America, an idea of self-control and self-government led to the Nation itself. This is what we as Marines are defending!
In a republic, there is a perpetual danger that citizens will neglect our responsibilities and take our liberties for granted—or that the up-and-coming generation of Americans won’t even understand why these freedoms exist or the purposes they serve. There is a danger that we will forget our history, our shared story.4
So, what is to be done? How does this pertain to leadership? It begins with an understanding of our environment. People from all corners of this great Nation make a conscious decision to sacrifice self for the betterment of society and for the defense of a people who may not ever recognize or acknowledge their sacrifice. This is the essence of the Marine Corps, but it must be practiced in order to be preserved. The things that our modern society has lost are the very things that we as leaders must ensure continue. Without a cognizant effort to do so, we could lose our foundation; the core of our Corps could become hollow. “If a free people is going to be reproduced, it will require watering and revivifying and owning anew older traditions, and awakening the curiosity in the soul of each citizen.”5 For us as Marines, this begins with an already established rite of passage signified by wearing the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. This single culminating symbol links us to generations of Marines who have gone before us and is proudly held as the emblem for the warrior ethos of the future. However, it cannot stop here! There must be a constant reminder of the rights willingly relinquished for a glory that “few” will know. Leaders must ensure that history, “our shared story,” is woven into all that we do. This will make us aware of the tradition we carry and make the most mundane of tasks useful rather than useless.6
Mentorship must take on the form of discipleship where much more than technical expertise is poured into the lives of Marines. A vocational approach to our service must outweigh the purely occupational pursuit, no matter how long you wear the cloth of our Nation. Personal interaction must outweigh any other medium for communication so that leadership is with Marines and not among Marines. Young men and women who are becoming Marines have been raised with a default to question authority when a misunderstanding exists rather than accept the outcome. We must maintain an open environment where participation is valued and Marines are taught to pursue truth in action and word from a dialectic sense and not a sense of argumentative entitlement. This can only exist where we as leaders are actively practicing the same self-sacrifice. Cultural leadership for these young Marines has oftentimes failed because the national culture that created it has removed the soul for the self. Therefore, we must continue to build the foundation of selfless leadership that the Corps is known for. The genuine article, the real leader, is the only remedy for previously experienced false leadership and authority. This type of active leadership leaves fingerprints that are unmistakably Marine. As leaders, we must ensure that we stay the course in this cultural tumult and never accept the short-term gain of information and expediency at the long-term expense of tradition and history.
1. Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2017).