The Next Agenda: Military Reform

By William S. Lind

Last month, we took a look at what military reform means for the Marine Corps in five areas: concepts and doctrine, equipment, personnel, training, and organization. In each area, we gave some examples of problems and some possible solutions.

Throughout that discussion a major question was left untouched. Why have these problems arisen? Deficient doctrine, unrealistic training, personnel policy that generates tremendous turbulence-such problems do not arise from nothing. They have roots and causes. Unless we can discern those roots and causes and move to change them, we have little hope of fixing the superstructure problems that grow from them. Military reform demands we get at the disease, not just the symptoms.

Reformers answer the “why” question on two levels. The first is the institutional level. Four institutions bear major responsibility for the problems we see in the superstructure: the officer corps, the research and development (R&D) and procurement processes, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Congress.

There is relatively little the Marine Corps can do to correct deficiencies in the latter three institutions. Because of the Constitutional separation of powers, only Congress can reform Congress. The Marine Corps has relatively little influence over the way the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) conducts its business, and only slightly more on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Few R&D or procurement programs are solely or even primarily Manne Corps programs.

But even in these areas, the Marine Corps can undertake or press for some reforms. For example, one of the main weaknesses of the current R&D process is the absence of thorough, honest operational testing of new weapons. Such testing cannot be “simulated” with computers; it demands shooting weapons at real targets and shooting at them with actual threat weapons. The absence of such testing (or, in some cases, the rigging of the tests to give the developers the positive results they want) is a major reason why we get ineffective weapons like Dragon and Maverick.

What can the Marine Corps do? It can do its own realistic and honest operational testing of any weapon it is considering procuring. If the weapon does not pass the test, the Corps can refuse to buy it.

Again, while the Marine Corps can undertake some reforms that touch on such larger institutions as the R&D process, its influence over them is limited. But there is another institution it can do a great deal to reform: the Marine officer corps. From the military reform perspective, three officer corps problems are of central importance: careerism, bureaucracy, and military incompetence.

Careerism is a deadly danger to any military organization. If an officer corps comes to think primarily about promotion, the country it serves and the men it leads are both in serious trouble.

If a military organization is to be effective in combat, it needs officers whose first thought is service, not self. They must see their work as a calling, not a job. They must prize such qualities as strength of character because without it they will not be able to make the swift, bold decisions combat demands. They must have moral as well as physical courage: willingness to tell superiors they are wrong, to be honest bearers of bad news, to take and assign responsibility, and to give subordinates room for initiative, accepting the errors and failures this sometimes brings. They must have the courage to be leaders of change when change is required and to put the long-term good of the country and the Marine Corps above the short-term interests of their particular specialty, project, or shop. They must also be men of imagination and creativity, because combat is an art.

Careerism fatally undermines these necessary qualities. It nourishes instead the yes-man, the office politician, the “milicrat,” and the courtier. It rewards those whose main concern is “looking good,” rather than being good. It favors those who are masters of detail rather than men of vision, those who excel in “keeping all the rice bowls filled” rather than leaders of change.

Today, the rot of careerism has spread widely in the Marine Corps. Why has this happened? A major cause goes beyond the Corps itself: it is the up-or-out promotion system. Up-or-out virtually compels officers to worry about their careers because unless they are promoted, they must leave the Service. A company commander or fighter pilot cannot choose to remain a captain through his time in Service, as he can in most foreign militaries. He must get himself promoted or leave. Up-or-out thus institutionalizes careerism.

On its own, the Marine Corps cannot eliminate the up-or-out system. But civilian military reformers are advocating its elimination, and the Marine Corps could join in that advocacy. Doing so would considerably enhance the chances of getting Congress to look seriously at the problem.

However, up-or-out is not the sole reason careerism has spread so widely in the Marine Corps. Up-or-out has been with us for more than 40 years, yet many Marines can remember when the Corps was much less afflicted with careerism than it is today. Careerism has grown and spread in part because many Marines accept and even admire it. They believe it is necessary, legitimate, and “smart.” With such acceptance, careerism is bound to flourish.

Marines can change this. They can change their own attitudes toward careerism in themselves and in others. They can make it unacceptable, through peer pressure, for Marines to put their own careers above their duties, or at least to do so openly. In this sense, the key to reducing careerism is changing the way Marines think about it.

A second major problem in the officer corps is bureaucracy. It is evident everywhere: in grossly overstaffed headquarters, in demands for volumes of reports, in developing battle plans by committee, in the rapid turnover of command billets as officers fight for one of the few real jobs, and in the way decisions are driven to ever-higher levels, leaving the junior commander with little scope for initiative.

What causes this officer bureaucracy? The officer surplus. Above the company grades, there are far more officers than there are real jobs for them-jobs that actually need to be done. For example, the Marine Corps has 356 command positions for lieutenant colonels, but more than 1,600 people in that rank. It has only 3 divisions and 3 wings, but more than 70 generals.

What do the surplus officers do? They generate paper, they demand paper, they make decisions (or fail to) by committee, they create vast numbers of makework jobs; in short, they produce bureaucracy, in large quantities.

The only solution to the problem of officer-generated bureaucracy is to reduce drastically-by at least 50 percent-the number of officers above the company grades. While this policy should be DOD-wide, the Marine Corps can take the initiative. Congress has already directed some very small reductions in the size of the officer corps. It would probably respond favorably to a request from the Marine Corps that it be allowed to go further.

A third officer corps problem is military incompetence. The Marine Corps, with our other Armed Services, has too many officers who are good managers, know process and methods, administrate well, are physically courageous and well-intentioned, and know little or nothing about the art of war. They lack a central ability of the soldier: the ability to think through a military situation, to practice the tactical and operational arts. Such a person, whatever his merits in other respects, is militarily incompetent.

One specific element of military incompetence must be noted because it is both a part and a cause of that incompetence. Many Marine officers are professionally illiterate. They are familiar with neither the classical nor the current literature on war. Many do not even read the Gazette. Few are familiar with the guiding ideas of their profession. For example, modern maneuver warfare is 70 years old; it was fully developed in the German army by 1918. But it is new to many Marines. Why? Because they read little or no military history.

You would not go to a lawyer who never read law, nor to a doctor who did not study medicine. But we expect Americans to entrust their sons to officers who have not studied war.

Many Marines will undoubtedly be offended and angry that the issue of military incompetence is even raised. But officers have a responsibility to look beyond their personal emotions. The issue is too important to pass by, however unpleasant it may be. The price of military incompetence can be high. Or is Beirut already forgotten?

Why has military incompetence become a major problem? A large part of the answer is deficiencies in Marine military education. Two deficiences are of particular importance. First, the Marine Corps’ education system does not impress the importance of reading and ideas on Marine officers. It does not inculcate the habit of self-study, of the constant reading and thinking about the art of war that has characterized most great soldiers. It does not impart to Marines the understanding that you must know the guiding ideas of your field if you are to be a professional. It does not include, in the Marine officer’s self-image, the picture of the thinker.

This is primarily the fault of Officers Candidate School (OCS) and The Basic School (TBS). These are the schools that give a Marine officer his basic self-image, the picture of what it means to be a Marine. From the beginning, that must include the mental and intellectual aspects of officership. Currently, it does not.

The second deficiency is mainly the responsibility of Amphibious Warfare School (AWS) and Command and Staff College (C&SC). Both schools teach methodical battle. As noted in Part I of this article, methodical battle is the opposite of maneuver warfare, and it was the central French error that led to disaster in 1940. Nevertheless, it is what both schools teach. They teach it because most of the instruction is in what to do and what to think, not how to think. It is form, formats, processes, and terminology. The guiding rule is, “Don’t worry about the tactics, just get the format right.” It produces graduates who will prepare perfectly formatted bad orders, who in combat will focus not on the situation and the enemy, but on what they were taught on their own methods and processes. It is the French all over again, and it will again result in defeat.

What reforms are necessary to deal with these deficiencies and graduate militarily competent officers? A few important ones include:

* From the first day of both OCS and TBS, students must be taught that Marines read and think. Upon acceptance to OCS, the student should receive a book he must read before he comes-not Clausewitz, but perhaps The Forgotten Soldier* The goal should not be just to read a certain number of books, but to ingrain the habit of serf-study. The graduate should leave knowing that he will read, talk, listen, and think about the art of war on a regular basis for the rest of his days as a Marine officer.

* Equally from the first day, OCS and TBS should balance techniques and tactics. Currently, virtually the whole emphasis is on techniques. Instead, techniques must be taught with tactics, with the creative, imaginative side of the profession. That means encouraging initiative, risk-taking, and thinking for yourself; critiquing reasoning more than solutions; using mission-type orders with the students; and making some training free play. Unless these schools give lieutenants a taste of the chaos and confusion of combat, of the need and way to make decisions on their own in the fog and friction of war, they have not done their jobs.

* Most of the current curriculums at AWS and C&SC should be made self-study through correspondence courses. Students should have to pass entrance exams to get into the schools, and the exams would cover the self-study material. This would ensure they have the necessary terminology, procedural knowledge, etc

The schools themselves should be modeled on the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, KS.** As at that school, the focus should be war games, study of past campaigns, and current campaign planning, all in small group discussions, not lectures. The goal should be to teach the student how to think militarily, how to be a competent commander or operations officer. At AWS, the focus should be tactics; at C&SC, the operational level.

This cannot be done just by changing the formal curriculums and lesson plans. It requires major changes in faculty. Real faculties have deep expertise in the areas they teach. To obtain that, a faculty member’s first year at Quantico should be spent learning his field, under the tutoring of a small, permanent faculty of world-class people. To attract the highest quality officers as faculty, a faculty tour should be well rewarded. For example, a successful tour on the C&SC faculty should be the normal route to a regimental command.

Sound military education will not guarantee military excellence. It also requires careful selection of commanders and operations officers, personnel stability, plenty of training time, and many other changes. But without high quality education, excellence is unlikely and incompetence will continue to be a major problem.

We can see how each of these institutional problems relate to the superstructure problems discussed in Part I last month. If the R&D process does not include realistic, honest operational tests, we are likely to receive equipment that works poorly in combat. If military education is weak, problems in doctrine and concepts will not be noticed. If careerism is rampant, problems that are noticed will be swept under the rug because admitting them will make someone look bad.

But we are still left with a question of why? Why have these institutional problems developed? Why have we failed to tackle problems like careerism-a problem many Marines have long recognized?

These questions bring us to the third and final level of military reform: institutional culture. Over the past few years, many American companies have become interested in the subject of institutional culture because they have seen it is at the root of why they no longer compete effectively. Books such as In Search of Excellence* are really books about institutional culture.

What is institutional culture? It is the attitudes of the people within the organization toward each other and their jobs; its informal rules of behavior; its corporate style and etiquette (e.g., in some organizations, it is “improper” to tell a superior he is wrong); its morals and values-the ones it actually practices, not just what the leadership may preach; its systems of rewards and punishments, and what someone is rewarded or punished for; its guiding ideas, principles, and goals. It is an organization’s slice of the Nation’s culture, and like that larger culture, it is what guides how people live, think, and behave.

Traditionally, institutional culture has been the Marine Corps’ greatest strength. The Corps has had what is known as a “corporative” culture. In a corporative organization, every member shares the institution’s overall goals and purposes and makes them his personal goals and values. He works, not just in his job, but beyond his job to advance those goals and values every way he can. In the Corps, this has meant every Marine is a Marine 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He is a Marine, not a logistician, or an infantryman, or an aviator. He lives being a Marine.

Why is this important? In any organization, there is always pressure to do what is comfortable internally rather than what is competitive externally. There is pressure to serve a particular branch or program or superior rather than the needs and goals of the larger organization. Often this pressure is felt in terms of threats to promotion. It is dangerous pressure because if enough people yield to it, the organization ceases to be competitive in the outside world. If it is a military Service, it loses its ability to fight and win.

The corporative ethic fights this dangerous pressure. At every level, when something is proposed that will “look good” but that won’t work in the outside world, people object. The organization’s leadership, when it is doing its duty, rewards those people and sustains their objections.

This has been the Marine tradition, and it still is with many Marines, especially junior officers. But it is an endangered tradition. The opposite organizational model, the “bureaucratic” model, has been spreading within the Marine Corps.

In the bureaucratic model, the individual focuses not on the organization’s overall goals and purposes but only on his particular job. The job is defined narrowly and rigidly, and the individual is forbidden to look beyond it. The twin mottos of bureaucracy are, “That’s not your job” and “That’s not my job.” The bureaucracy rewards with promotion those who look good, those who put the comfort of their specialty, unit, or superior above the needs of the organization as a whole, especially its need to produce a competitive product.

The bureaucratic model has become common in America. It is one reason why we no longer compete effectively in many fields. It is easy to see how it undermines combat effectiveness in a military Service. Problems such as poor military education, a personnel system that generates turbulence, equipment and training needs that are not met, and the like cannot be identified much less addressed. Doing so would upset rice bowls, make superiors angry, and make important people “look bad.” So the problems fester and grow, and when war comes, the Service and the Nation pay the price in unnecessary casualties and sometimes in defeat.

Bureaucracy is especially dangerous to a military Service. Combat is dominated by uncertainty and rapid change. How do bureaucrats deal with uncertainty and change? Very poorly. They want everything centralized, clear cut, and under their own rigid control. They hate change because it upsets all the comfortable little arrangements they have made inside the Service. Quite simply, there is an inherent and unbridgeable contradiction between bureaucracy and military effectiveness. A bureaucratic Service cannot be highly effective in combat.

Much of the Marine Corps continues to resist the expansion of the bureaucracy. From the battalion down, the Corps is still largely a corporative institution. Some recent changes, such as the formation of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Warfightmg Center at Quantico, are designed to fight bureaucratization. But at higher levels, the growth of bureaucracy is all too obvious, much of it driven by the officer surplus and careerism. Unless its spread is stopped and reversed, it will eventually swallow the whole Corps. When that happens, the real Marine Corps will be gone. Only a facade will be left, a facade that will quickly shatter in war.

The growth of bureaucracy is, from the military reform standpoint, the Marine Corps’ single most serious problem. However, it is not the only problem in the Corps’ institutional culture. Anti-intellectualism is a cultural problem. So is the increasing number of “Yummies”-Yuppie Marine officers-in the junior ranks. Like his civilian counterpart, the Yummie’s values are “You are what you own and what you look like” and “I’m out to get mine.” Marines can and should identify additional problems in the institutional culture because cultural problems are the deepest, most serious, and most difficult problems. They are also usually the most deadly.

You now have at least an outline of what military reform means for the Marine Corps. Clearly, it offers a major challenge. However, it is not a call for revolution, but rather for restoration. The Old Corps, the Marine Corps of the interwar years, was very much like the future Marine Corps military reformers envision. It was a strongly corporative institution; it had a lively intellectual interest in the art of war, evidenced by its development of amphibious doctrine; it was innovative, experimental, and focused on the goal of winning in combat. Naturally, it was different in many specifics. But would the Marines who developed amphibious doctrine not have been quick to seize on ideas such as maneuver warfare and the operational art?

The spirit of the Old Corps is the spirit of the Marines who today are leading the fight for military reform.


* By Guy Sajer (Harper & Row. Inc.. 1971) Republished by Sphere Books, Ltd , 1977, with reprints through 1987

** See article by Col Michael D. Wyly m MCG, Apr88

* By Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., (Harper & Row, 1982) Reprinted by Wamer Books in 1984 (paperback).