Nov 24, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 11 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
The American military, writes Thomas Ricks in his extraordinary new book, Making the Corps, "is extremely good today." Indeed, it is "arguably the best it has ever been and probably for the first time in history the best in the world." But as good as it is, it is beset by the changing nature of its security tasks, by substantial cuts in defense spending, and, most important, by the American people's ambivalence toward their own military.
What then, asks Ricks, the Pentagon correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and perhaps the finest military journalist writing today, should be the character of our armed services? Should military service be "just another job" carried out by an organization that mirrors American society, or should the military maintain a distinct ethos that "differs in critical respects from the society it is sworn to protect"?
The Marine Corps has always opted for difference. Indeed, "the Marines are distinct even within the separate world of the U.S. military," notes Ricks. And the distinguishing characteristic of Marines is precisely their culture: " formalistic, insular, elitist, with a deep anchor in their own history and mythology. . . . It is what holds them together."
Ricks observes that if an American soldier is asked to identify himself, he is likely to say that he is "in the Army," while a Marine usually replies, " I'm a Marine." That small difference is significant: "The first is a matter of membership or occupation; the second speaks to identity."
In Making the Corps, Ricks shows how this Marine identity is created, following the members of a recruit platoon through the rigors of their training at Parris Island, South Carolina and then through their first year as full-fledged Marines. With empathy for the recruits, appreciation for what is at stake in their training, and respect for their drill instructors, the author conveys the "unfailing alchemy that converts unoriented youths into proud, selfreliant, stable citizens -- citizens into whose hands the nation's affairs may be safely entrusted" (as it was once described by Victor H. Krulak, a retired Marine general and father of the current corps commandant).
In Ricks's analysis, two things make the Marines what they are: their understanding of the importance of unit cohesion for victory, and the " expeditionary" nature of the Marine Corps.
While feminists dismiss the military experience of cohesion as "male bonding," research has shown that comradeship is critical for those facing death and misery together. The Marines have traditionally recognized that a central goal of recruit training is to instill an attachment to other Marines and to the corps as an institution. It is not insignificant that Ricks chooses for his epigraph the St. Crispin's Day speech of Shakespeare's Henry V before the battle of Agincourt: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."
Out of necessity, all the branches of the armed services have recently developed some capability to move rapidly on short notice, but this approach to national defense has always constituted the essence of the Marine Corps. " 'Expeditionary' is not so much a mission as it is a mindset," observes the former commandant, General Carl Mundy. The modern image of the Marine Corps was made in large-scale amphibious assaults during World War II, but before the war the Marines had specialized in what the Quadrennial Defense Review now calls "small-scale contingencies." They had, in fact, literally " written the book," the Small Wars Manual, first issued in 1940, which summarized the lessons of Marine operations, largely in the Caribbean, between the two world wars.
Ricks notes that this manual is back in use and that it is of great help in the "imperial policing" for which the Marines have often been employed. This expeditionary, small-war approach is far more appropriate to what will most likely characterize the security environment for the foreseeable future than are the two other approaches sometimes touted as the answer to U.S. military needs: the long-range precision strike (advocated primarily by the Air Force), and the overwhelming "boots on the ground" technique (pushed primarily by the Army).
Of course, some have contended that the Marine warrior ethos so well described by Ricks has become anachronistic. Ricks disagrees, but he is disturbed by some of the tendencies he observes in today's corps, and it is when he writes provocatively about the military's relation to civilian society that his book is especially important. In pursuit of their own culture of military excellence, Ricks believes, the Marines have become increasingly alienated from civilians, moving "from thinking of themselves as a better version of American society to a kind of dissenting critique of it." And while the Marines remain distinct from the other services, they also, says Ricks, represent what the military as a whole will look like in the future as defense budgets decline and the other services become smaller and more isolated.
Several years ago, there was a spate of articles -- by Richard Kohn, Edward Luttwak, Russell Weigley, and others -- suggesting that relations between the military and civilians in America were decaying. Their thrust was that the military had become too politically powerful, and the villain was frequently declared to be General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, they claimed, was using his expanded powers under the Goldwater- Nichols Act of 1986 to influence national policy far beyond the bounds of national security.
Making the Corps, however, argues that at the present moment the more worrisome problem is the general attitude of the military toward civilians. Ricks is struck by the fact that after boot camp, most of the newly minted Marines whose odyssey he has recorded are disdainful of the life and friends they left behind. Indeed, those who succeed in the Marines are the ones who cut their ties to their old lives, while those who fail are the ones unwilling or unable to make the transition.
While Ricks admires Marine culture and the way in which recruits imbibe that culture, he is concerned that the resulting alienation of the Marines, and ultimately of the entire military, is dangerous in the long run -- specially when combined with what he believes is an unprecedented politicizing of the officer corps. For Ricks, the potential danger to America is the emergence of a large, estranged, and semiautonomous military. The United States may be "drifting into a situation in which the military is neither well understood nor well used, yet -- unlike in previous eras of military estrangement -- is large, politically active, and employed frequently on a large scale in executing American foreign policy."
This estrangement of the military from civilian society, together with a military disdain for civilians, is particularly dangerous in situations where American troops are used to quell disorder on American soil. "When the military is politically active," Ricks writes, "when it believes it is uniquely aware of certain dangers, when it discusses responding to domestic threats to cherished values, then it edges toward becoming an independent actor in domestic politics."
Ricks himself admits that he might be making too much of this -- that the military might merely be reverting to its pre-World War II status: "socially isolated, politically conservative, and geographically located on bases in the South and West." Although he calls this view complacent, his concern about the dangers of a semiautonomous military discounts the degree to which the military profession in this country is committed without reservation to the principle that the military is absolutely subordinate to civilian authority.
Indeed, despite Ricks's analysis, the real threat to balanced relations between the military and civilians is not increasing military insularity but the dilution of the virtues necessary for victory on the battlefield. The great value of the Marine Corps is that it is the only service that has so far resisted the crowding out of traditional military virtues by practices and values more appropriate to civilian life. Only the Marines still emphasize preparation for combat as the justification for recruit training, and only the Marines maintain singlesex basic training.
In the view, for example, of Sara E. Lister, assistant secretary of the Army and the Army's top personnel official, this is exactly the problem. "The Army is much more connected to society than the Marines," she declared in an astonishing set of remarks made at a seminar in Baltimore on October 26, 1997. "The Marines are extremists. Wherever you have extremists, you've got some risks of total disconnection with society. And that's a little dangerous." (On November 14, after news of her comments received wide reporting and Congress passed a resolution seeking her immediate ouster, Secretary Lister resigned.)
The Los Angeles Times recently published an article entitled "Boot Camp Kicks Its Harsh Image," describing how "the military is stripping away the sharp edges and hard knocks from this fabled test of manhood."
As an example of the "kinder, gentler" approach that now characterizes so much of today's training, the article cited the Navy's Great Lakes center. Here a trainee who needs extra motivation is "offered emotional support, instructed on deep breathing and stress reduction, and given a chance to explore his feelings by pasting cut-out magazine photos on a piece of cardboard." The mind boggles at the thought of such sailors manning a ship on fire (which happens even in peacetime) or actually under attack.
A liberal democracy faces a dilemma when it comes to having a military, for that military cannot govern itself by the liberal principles it ultimately defends. It must be governed by values that many civilians see as brutal, because the military is one of the few jobs where one may have to die or order someone else to die. If we cannot count on preparation for that eventuality, the military will fail -- and if it does, the liberal society it protects may not survive. A soft, feminized military, not a military motivated by a warrior ethos, is the real threat. In Making the Corps, Thomas Ricks intuitively understands this, but has chosen to worry primarily about something else.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College.