The Re(al)awakening

By Capt Daniel A O’Hara

Our Commandant and his generals are right: We have a behavioral problem within the Corps.1 The Marine Corps badly needs an awakening—perhaps just not the one our generals envision. The Corps needs to enforce its standards, but appears to be neglecting its most advantageous and most decisive one: its warfighting philosophy.

Our Corps must fully and consistently institutionalize our warfighting philosophy as our 29th Commandant, Gen Alfred M. Gray, envisioned it to be when he handwrote the following into the first copy of FMFM 1 (the predecessor to MCDP 1):

The thoughts contained here represent not just guidance for actions in combat, but a way of thinking in general. This manual thus describes a philosophy for action, which in war and in peace, in the field and in the rear, dictates our approach to duty.2 (emphasis added)

This statement was then added into the final printed version. The sooner the Corps actually abides by the above statement, the more prepared it will be to face the post–Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (post-OEF) threats to our Nation and the more swiftly and decisively it will overcome the disciplinary problems its senior leaders currently wish to address (if there truly are any systemic disciplinary problems at all). This is because decentralization is best for decision-to-action in any form of conflict, including the so-called “battle for the barracks.” The “reawakening” threatens to sacrifice the tenets of our philosophical warfighting standard for the sake of the old “culture of order,” which is to the detriment of both its disciplinary and warfighting effectiveness goals.

According to the Commandant’s briefing at the General Officer Symposium, the Corps’ behavioral problem is much narrower in scope than what I have mentioned above. He cites lack of personal and unit discipline as the primary culprit, stating the following:

We see evidence of [the behavioral problem] in non-compliance and enforcement of established institutional standards, incidences of sexual assault, hazing, [driving under the influence], fraternization, failure to maintain personal appearance standards, and other areas that indicate an overall lack of leadership and discipline. . . . Where we are faltering, where we need immediate attention, is in preparing our force for the post-OEF decades that are upon us.3

The Clausewitz quote at the beginning of this article helps demonstrate how I believe the Marine Corps has failed to appropriately frame its true current problem, which all but guarantees defeat. A flawed strategy in any kind of conflict will most likely lead to failure, no matter how many operational or tactical victories are achieved along the way. The current strategy championed to reawaken the force and prepare for the post-OEF environment appears to be to attack the symptoms of a potential disciplinary dilemma while ignoring the underlying (and more important) philosophical—and dare I say, spiritual—dilemma of our seemingly ever-stronger distancing from the tenets of maneuver warfare. Yes, strong discipline and ethical conduct are absolutely vital for the force, but they should come as a byproduct of the culture created by true adherence to our warfighting philosophy (a theory based on trust in our professionals to achieve results by high-initiative, decentralized thinking guided by intent, not at the expense of it.

A recent Marine Corps Times exclusive on the reawakening quotes a number of generals and their thoughts on the Corps’ way ahead after 12 years of war.4 The consensus among them seems to be that the force has a serious disciplinary problem and that the way to fix it is to reinstate or reinforce “daily routine” practices that were more commonplace before the long war, thus preparing the force for post-OEF (read: peacetime) challenges. How this first determination (that the Corps has a serious behavioral problem at all) is reached is not readily apparent, but seems to be accepted as fact. I will not go to great lengths to challenge the validity of that claim here, as that would take an entire article itself, but will simply echo the Latin proverb, “Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur,” which means, “What is asserted without evidence may be dismissed without it.”5 To quickly summarize, it is not immediately clear whether the Marine Corps is any less disciplined now than it was 12, 23, or 37 years ago in terms of alcohol-related traffic infractions, sexual assault, hazing incidences, uniform standard adherence, or barracks cleanliness. So perhaps the identified behavioral problems in the force are starkly overestimated. Getting back to the point, even if we take for granted that the disciplinary problems are in fact worse than before the recent 12-year conflict and need immediate addressing, are the proposed solutions such as the Service uniform for duty-standers, a revamped basic daily routine, or more officers and SNCOs in the barracks between 2000 and 0400 going to actually do anything to solve those problems? Additionally, do these solutions prepare the force for what lies beyond Afghanistan?

Our commanders do not owe us explanations for their decisions. Commanders can tell the force what they want done and that is enough, then it is our duty to obey; however, in this case, our commanders have offered explanations that do not seem to resonate with the tenets of maneuver warfare. According to the previously mentioned article, the underlying theme with respect to the proposed solutions can be summarized as follows: This is what we used to do, with this nostalgia equated to “what we do and who we are” as Marines, and with imposed centralized regulations disguised as empowerment. I do not believe this approach will actually achieve the stated goals of improving discipline. Rather, the approach misses the deeper issue and guides the entire organization in the wrong direction by inherently disobeying the Marine Corps’ standard of maneuver warfare as defined in FMFM 1.

The practice of maneuver warfare depends on a culture instilled throughout the entire Service, a culture that demands initiative instead of the old blind obedience that typified antiquated attacks online and static set-piece defense. Since adopting maneuver warfare in 1989, the Marine Corps has worked to build in itself our new culture for modern battle. We created a culture that is sustained by self-discipline and can therefore function with decentralized leadership in place of the “parade field,” top-down command and control that typified 19th-century and early 20th-century war. On the modern battlefield, a culture adapted to widely dispersed operations is essential for victory. High-initiative, decentralized decisionmaking is now crucial. It is counterproductive to have one culture for battle and another for garrison. In fact, it is difficult to see how two such diverse cultures could coexist in a single organization.

Marines, after all, look sharp because they want to. They are proud of the Corps and to claim the title “Marine,” and if they are not, then that is the true leadership failure. Leaders in whom Marines truly believe do more to instill pride and discipline than a thousand inspections or spot corrections ever could. We walk upright with heads held high because we still remember the pride we felt when we marched by the reviewing stand upon graduation from boot camp or Officer Candidates School. It’s ingrained. That same high-initiative mentality must pertain in the face of any untoward conduct such as sexual assault, hazing, alcohol-related traffic infractions, or fraternization. The currently proposed solutions appear to be more about form, appearance, and familiarity than about creative assessment, end result, and trust.

Gen Charles C. Krulak, the 31th Commandant, said, “Our Corps does two things for America: We make Marines and we win our Nation’s battles.”6 This nicely sums up who we are and what we do, and will allow us to reach the intersection of preparing for post-OEF threats and solving disciplinary issues. Let us deal with the latter part of Gen Krulak’s statement first. Fighting and winning in war is what we do, and it should follow then that our primary focus is to get better at that calling. Now, maneuver warfare is the Marine Corps’ standard for achieving that objective—it is not the scattered thoughts of a few outliers. Maneuver warfare is the stated command culture of the organization. The demand for outstanding personal appearance and clean living spaces must support our philosophy of warfighting, not fly in the face of it.

The greatest concern of the Marine Corps’ founders’ maneuver warfare philosophy was that the Corps might revert back to being internally focused on a culture of order, rather than maintaining its focus outwardly on the enemy and on results.7 The current Marine Corps drawdown from Afghanistan may not be the period of rest and refit that many believe it is. The peacetime warrior’s principal task is to prepare effectively for the next war. The Nation could be involved in another significant conflict tomorrow and there is little if any evidence that a lack of televisions in duty huts and a fire watch on every floor of the barracks does anything to make the Marine Corps a smarter, deadlier, or more disciplined fighting force. In fact, these measures may simply weaken the Corps, as they send the psychological message that we do not trust our Marines as the professionals we claim they are because we refuse to adhere to our command philosophy in garrison. We do not live it. Jörg Muth, author of Command Culture (a book on the Commandant’s Professional Reading List), talks about “Auftragstaktik,” the command concept loosely defined by mission-type orders that was used to fantastic success during World War II by the German officer corps (arguably the finest in modern warfare history). Muth says, “Mission command [Auftragstaktik] cannot be ordered, it has to be taught and lived on all levels.”8 This sort of thing sounds much more like what we ought to be focusing on to prepare our force for the post-OEF world in terms of what we do as Marines.

Let us now turn to the discussion of who we are. Col Michael D. Wyly, USMC(Ret), sums up professionalism and its ties to “who we are and what we do” nicely when he says the following:

Lawyers would not need to go to law school and pass the bar exam if they could act in courtrooms on command of some superior lawyer who controlled them. The lawyer need turn to no one in the chaos of a fast moving court case, as he serves the cause of justice. As professionals, current in law, they can act on their own in unpredictable circumstances. So it is with the professional soldier. The profession of arms, more than any of the others, must deal with the unknown. Insurgency in Vietnam, terrorism in Beirut, and forms of warfare never before known, are still our responsibility.9

Col Wyly then adds the following:

Professionalism is not, in my view, the exclusive province of commissioned officers. It may have been at one time; however, this is no longer. Education, after all, is not something meted out exclusively at universities, culminating in academic degrees. Education comes through study and in our case it is the study of war such as hardly any university I know of offers. Our noncommissioned officers need it as badly as do our commissioned officers for the unique demands of modern war.10

Calls for empowerment coupled with stiff top-down regulations are empty rhetoric. Marines are generally clever and can see through that. If we truly count ourselves as professionals, does it not follow that we should provide our NCO corps the freedom and trust expected of the position? Should we not focus on their education and allow them to solve the disciplinary problem, maybe each unit in its own way, with an eye toward end state? And let it not be done with a “zero-defect” mentality. From FMFM 1:

Abolishing “zero defects” means that we do not stifle boldness or initiative through the threat of punishment. It does not mean that commanders do not counsel subordinates on mistakes; constructive criticism is an important element in learning. Nor does is give subordinates free license to act stupidly or recklessly.11

There will be mistakes, but the trust built and judgment instilled will pay many times over in reducing our problems long term, both on the top deck of the barracks and on the battlefields of our next conflict.

The Commandant said, “I’m turning to my leaders at all levels to refocus Marines on what we do and who we are.”12 This statement should mean that leaders are obsessively focused on making the force smarter, deadlier, and more prepared to deal with the full range of threats, from near-peer states to the nonstate actors we have been battling for over a decade. This means focusing outwardly on the enemy, whoever he may be, and pursuing the education and progressive command culture that will allow us to out-cycle those enemies. Leaders should be fostering the development of their professionals and treating them as such, having enough confidence in them to allow them to do in garrison what they will be asked to do on the future battlefield: solve problems independently and win, guided by intent (see the sidebar on p. 49). The framework for becoming the most effective force-in-readiness the Corps can be for our Nation is already there. We just have to live it—and never stop learning or improving upon it.


1. Amos, Gen James F., opening remarks to the General Officer Symposium, The Basic School, Marine Corps Base Quantico, 23 September 2013.

2. Headquarters Marine Corps, Fleet Marine Force Manual 1, Warfighting, Washington, DC, 6 March 1989.

3. Amos.

4. Lamothe, Dan, “In candid conversation, generals say it’s time to fix Marine Corps,” Marine Corps Times, Springfield, VA, 1 October 2013.

5. Stone, Jon R., The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations, New York, 2005 p. 101.

6. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reference Publication 6–11D, Sustaining the Transformation, Washington, DC, 28 June 1999.

7. Boyd, Col John R., SAF(Ret), et al., private conversation between Col John R. Boyd, Gen Alfred M. Gray, and Col Michael D. Wyly in Gen Gray’s office at Headquarters Marine Corps in 1989. Personal papers.

8. Muth, Jörg., “An Elusive Command Philosophy and a Different Command Culture,” The Best Defense, 9 September 2011.

9. Wyly, Col Michael D., Professionalism Defined for the U.S. Marines, Collection of Michael D. Wyly, Pittsfield, ME.

10. Ibid.

11. FMFM 1.

12. Amos