Interview with:

Col Seth Folsom, USMC

  • You’ve served in a peacetime Marine Corps in the mid-to-late 90s, as a company commander in OIF I, a MTT leader in Al-Anbar, a battalion commander in Sangin, and CO of Task Force Lion. How has the Marine Corps changed over the years? Have we, from what you’ve seen, “done” maneuver warfare?

 

We are more deliberate about how we train and operate now than we were in the mid-to-late 90s.  My recollection is that our pre-deployment training back then, even for Marine Expeditionary Units, really paled in comparison to how we do it now. We now place much more pressure on junior officers and non-commissioned officers than we did when I first hit the fleet twenty-four years ago, and that is a good thing.  I’m not certain I would have made it as a lieutenant had we insisted on the same standards back then.  That said, I’m not entirely sure we have “done” maneuver warfare.  I am convinced that a maneuver warfare mindset enabled us to tackle the post-9/11 operation into Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq invasion, but as those two conflicts devolved into insurgencies we lost some of our mental and physical agility along the way.  It seems like we are reinvigorating that mindset now by exercising new concepts like Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO), and the Marine Corps Operating Concept (MOC); I am eager to see how they evolve in the coming years.

  • You’ve had a multitude of deployment experiences. Were there any where you found yourself consciously applying maneuver warfare ideas that you had previously learned?

 

Task Force Lion’s role during 2017’s Op Desert Lion was the pinnacle of my experience applying tenets of maneuver warfare during combat operations.  As an advise, assist, and enable task force supporting the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Al Anbar Province, we were a small, purpose-built unit whose mission was to partner with and support the ISF in its fight against the Islamic State; we were not there to do the fighting for them.  A significant part of supporting the ISF in Desert Lion required us to establish and sustain outposts across Al Anbar to provide enabling capabilities such as fire support, logistics, forward surgical capability, and access to an array of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance feeds.  The only way our small team was able to accomplish the mission in such a short period was by combining speed, flexibility, and agility with mission-type orders.  And, while I commanded the operation, I really did not control it.  That role fell to my battle staff – the majority of whom remained at Al Asad with the main command post – and subordinate commanders. Because I was forward on the battlefield with my Iraqi partner throughout the operation, I relied on my staff and subordinate commanders to operate almost solely from my commander’s intent, and the results were superb.  The entire operation was proof that commanders executing trust-tactics and mission command with competent, aggressive subordinate leaders is the truest recipe for success on the modern battlefield.

  • Do you find that the way we instruct Marines, whether at resident PME schools or through unit-level training exercises (like ITX, EMV, etc.), prepares them sufficiently for what they later experience on the battlefield? What do these training curricula get right? Where do they miss the mark?

Unit-level training exercises are useful for compelling units and individual Marines to perform in the chaotic, high-tempo, high-pressure situations which are characteristic of combat.  There is general acceptance that no training exercise can fully replicate the internally and externally-generated friction of the battlefield, but what we have now comes close enough.  Some training, such as cold weather training at Bridgeport, California’s Mountain Warfare Training Center, has the added benefit of physically and mentally hardening Marines, which is invaluable.  In 2011 my battalion rotated through Bridgeport before deploying to Sangin, Afghanistan.  Throughout our difficult deployment the Marines routinely referred to their time suffering in Bridgeport’s cold, which many considered more difficult than operating in Sangin.  To me, that – along with the focus on small unit leadership and team building – is a testament to the quality of training at that particular venue.

  • Could you talk to the effectiveness of the retention, promotion, and recruiting systems and how you’ve seen them evolve over your career? What have you seen work well? What’s been counterproductive? And could you provide your thoughts on attracting and retaining dedicated, talented individuals?

The way the Marine Corps has swelled and shrunk during the last seventeen years has been troubling.  There have been periods where the Service has offered many thousands of dollars in retention bonuses to Marines in critical specialties, and I’m not sure that sends the right message – especially when we routinely utter the phrase “We don’t do it for the money.”  To me, one of the greatest recruiting posters said nothing more than, “We don’t promise you a rose garden.”  That said, in our recruitment and retention programs we must realize that, yes, we are looking for the best of the best to become Marines, but we as leaders have a responsibility to create professional working environments which challenge and develop young men and women rather than beat them down.  It is disheartening when I hear Marines say they did not re-enlist because they felt their commands didn’t care about them.  Marines will sacrifice and suffer a lot – low pay, high optempo, hazardous duty – if they know their leaders are sincere about their welfare and have their backs.  We have a responsibility to return Marines to the civilian world better than we got them; that should also include returning them with a sense that their leaders took care of them.

  • Where should we start introducing concepts like maneuver warfare to Marines? Recruit training and OCS? Or later on at the SOIs and TBS?

School of Infantry (SOI) and The Basic School (TBS) are indeed the correct venues to introduce concepts like maneuver warfare to Marines, but there must first be a firm foundation of the basics before we blow Marines’ minds.  Recruit training’s goal is to produce basically-trained Marines; Officer Candidates School (OCS) is really little more than a grueling ten-week job interview. Neither venue has the time or bandwidth to commit to teaching recruits and candidates much beyond the basics of being a Marine.

SOI and TBS, on the other hand, are the first stepping stones for Marine education, and the learning environments at both venues should be conducive to introducing maneuver warfare.  But as I said, Marines need to master the basics first.  One of the greatest pieces of advice my fellow students and I received during the Infantry Officers Course was from our course director.  After we had royally screwed up a field problem and one of the students offered a weak explanation which centered on the idea that we had been trying to “think outside the box,” the director snapped at us, “It’s a pretty f-ing big box; you need to know it inside completely before you try to think outside of it.” The same applies to learning about maneuver warfare.  We can’t expect Marines to internalize those ideas if they can’t yet figure out what a frontal or flanking attack looks like.

All that said, units have just as much responsibility to incorporate the tenets of maneuver warfare into their own training and education program.  It naturally shouldn’t be confined to the schoolhouse, especially since not all Marines are afforded the opportunity to attend resident PME.

  • Did you run PME programs in your units? If so, what did these look like?

 

Implementing PME programs in my units has indeed been a challenge, especially in the years since the war began in 2001.  More often than not, the pace of pre-deployment training trumped any bright ideas I may have had about establishing PME programs that were really worth anything to begin with.  And, quite frankly, for most of my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan we were simply too busy to put anything truly meaningful in place.  The PME program I am most proud of was the one I instituted with my first platoon aboard ship in 1997.  Over the course of a six-month WESTPAC deployment I had each Marine read five books I had selected: Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein; Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare; Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner; and Goodbye, Darkness, by William Manchester.  We then discussed each book, and I required the Marines to write a paper about each as well.  We even read aloud several significant scenes from Julius Caesar, with the Marines voicing the different roles. The responses among the Marines were generally positive, and I was pleased to be able to expose them to both military writing and classic fiction.

  • You studied Hindi and spent about a year in New Delhi, India. Could you speak to the importance of language and culture, especially for younger Marines and their leaders?

 

You can’t understate the importance of language and culture, especially in the current operating environment.  Since 9/11, the Joint Force has produced a pretty robust collection of service members who have amassed an overwhelming amount of cultural experience, as well as a variety of road maps to learning about other cultures. How we act and apply ourselves when we enter another culture is not rocket science; almost anyone can do it.  In my own assignments as a foreign security forces advisor I placed a significant degree of emphasis among my Marines on the importance of learning the most important aspects of the host nation’s culture.  And yet not everyone is cut out to interact with members of another culture, much less serve as an advisor.  As I once heard a senior Marine so eloquently say, “It doesn’t matter how much cultural training you have before a deployment.  If you are an asshole in the United States, you will be an asshole anywhere else.”

When it comes to culture and language training, there is one important caveat: We cannot expect our men and women to be linguistic experts for every foreign environment we enter.  In 2009, when I began running the International Affairs Officer Program (which includes the Foreign Area Officer [FAO] program), senior leaders were asking, “Why aren’t we making Pashto-speaking FAOs?”  Eight years into the war, and with the Marine Corps taking control of Regional Command-Southwest, it was a probably a legitimate question. But was Pashto the most appropriate language we should have been teaching FAOs at the time?  There was probably a greater need for Dari, which is the language most of the Afghan military forces spoke.  The same question had been asked about creating Arabic-speaking FAOs early in the Iraq War.  And yet we were teaching a lot of Modern Standard Arabic and not a lot of Iraqi Arabic. That said, I support the idea espoused years ago that, for general-purpose forces, we should focus language training on the most common languages throughout the world – among them Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, and French – and leave the niche languages to the professionals who require them for their jobs.

For younger Marines and their leaders, exposure to language and culture as part of the pre-deployment training program is important, but we must also set our expectations accordingly.  You have to have an aptitude for foreign languages, and in most cases it takes years of intensive, immersive study to become proficient in a language.  I studied Hindi for forty-seven weeks before I moved to India; by the time I left New Delhi I was pretty fluent in the language.  And yet, once I returned the operating forces in 2006, the optempo of my new job precluded me from sustaining my language skills.  In the end, I lost most of what I had worked so hard to learn, but I never forgot the cultural learning.

If forced to choose, I would focus more on understanding the culture of the environment I was entering, as you are more likely to lose the game if you display your ignorance in that regard.

  • Which individuals, in and out of uniform, have influenced you most as a writer, thinker and leader?

The two people who have influenced me most as a writer are Stephen King and William Manchester.  Stephen King’s body of work is unmatched, and his ability to capture the human condition leaves me almost speechless each time I read or re-read one of his books.  Although William Manchester’s book Goodbye, Darkness remains among my all-time favorite works, my admiration him has waned since a 2017 piece in The American Spectator accused the late historian of heavily embellishing his memoir about his time as an enlisted Marine on Okinawa during the Second World War. I don’t know if the accusations are true, but they were enough to rattle my confidence.  I’m still hoping someone comes out of the woodwork and debunks that piece as fake news.

The two uniformed individuals who have influenced me the most as a leader and thinker are Andrew Fetterolf and General Joseph Dunford.  Fetterolf was my TBS staff platoon commander in 1994, and every single man and woman in our platoon of student second lieutenants worshipped him.  He was a charismatic, even-tempered poster Marine who keenly balanced a great sense of humor with his heart-felt obligation to develop us as young leaders.  He was one of the physically hardest men I have ever known, and yet he never fell into the trap of chest-thumping that so many other TBS instructors have over the years. As a new second lieutenant entering the fleet in 1995, I did my best to model myself after Fetterolf.  It was aspirational, of course, but the example he set for me and others in TBS was a model I could return to over and over again throughout my time as a junior officer.

It would be interesting to know exactly how many people General Dunford has positively influenced over the years.  I am certainly one of them.  Dunford was my regimental commander during the 2003 Iraq invasion, and even though he barely knew me at the time he was among the first several years later to encourage me to move forward with The Highway War.  He operates at a level far beyond most of us, and yet he never holds it against anyone. In 2017, he visited Al Asad for a Christmas USO show, and even though he hadn’t seen me in years he greeted me as warmly as if I were his long-lost son.  The kind of passionate, caring leadership he exudes has created legions of followers, and we will all miss him when he retires this year…but the legacy he will leave behind will benefit generations of Marines to come.

  • If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself to focus on more (or less) as a junior officer? As a battalion commander?

 

I was pretty immature as a lieutenant and a young captain.  I was prone to emotional outbursts when I was angry or stressed-out, and I often didn’t set a very good example for my young Marines.  Although I am wary about saying what I would do over again – my previous actions and experiences led to who I am today – if I could go back in time, I would concentrate more on keeping an even keel and not letting my emotions betray me as they often did.

If I went back to my time as a battalion commander, I would focus more on telling the story of my Marines while they were deployed to Sangin rather than years later after I had left the unit.  An unfortunate event that began with the firing of one of my junior officers and ended with me getting vilified in the press and on the internet compelled me to put up a wall between my battalion and the media for the rest of the time I was in command.  After several news outlets sided with the lieutenant in question and described me as Public Enemy Number One, I no longer embraced the media’s regular requests for embeds and interviews.  Instead, I all but prohibited them from visiting the unit while we were deployed, believing the Marines needed to focus on the fight in front of them and not the distraction of embedded reporters.  In the end, the people who suffered the most were my Marines because, for two deployments in a row to Sangin – one of the most dangerous places on earth where they lost many of their comrades – there was no one to tell the world what they were doing while they were doing it.  There were many news stories written about the other battalions who had fought in Sangin, but virtually none were written about 3/7 – and I was responsible for that.

  • Could you discuss your time as an instructor at OCS? How did this shape you as a leader, teacher, and warfighter?

Ironically enough, I was originally slated to be an instructor at TBS, but someone changed my orders at the last moment.  I was crushed, as I had wanted to return to TBS almost from the moment I graduated in 1995.  But I embraced my assignment to OCS, and I treasure my time there as a staff officer, platoon commander, and company executive officer.  One of the most important aspects of my job was that I had to learn how to be stern and a ruthless enforcer of the standards, lest anyone who didn’t meet the mark slip through the screening and evaluation process. At the same time, my sergeant instructors and I had to present ourselves as models of professionalism to encourage the candidates and properly motivate them.  One of the many kisses of death for OCS instructors was if a candidate singled you out during the post-course surveys as someone he did not want to emulate. There were many acceptable reasons for a candidate to drop on request (DOR) from OCS.  But if word got out that a candidate wanted to DOR because he thought you were a terrible leader, you didn’t last long in the training companies. Those ideas I learned at OCS – being stern, enforcing standards, but also being a professional and knowing when and how to motivate Marines to be the best they can – have stuck with me throughout my career.

  • What have been your richest experiences as a student-officer?

During Marine Corps War College (MCWAR), I had the opportunity to write an independent research project…maybe not quite a Master’s thesis, but I busted my ass on it because it was a topic which genuinely perplexed me: Why can’t we win against insurgencies?  MCWAR was an environment which gave me the tools, professional assistance, and perhaps most important, the time necessary to dive deeply into the topic.  In the end, it was a bit of a depressing adventure as I came to grips with the reality of what I had done the previous year in Afghanistan and the historical challenges our military and government have faced when battling insurgencies.  My conclusions were similarly unfulfilling, but the exercise of the research project itself and the experience I gained were invaluable.

  • What about as an instructor/facilitator/advisor?

 

One of the most rewarding aspects of my career has been the professional relationships I have developed with many of the young men and women who have worked for me.  In many cases, the mentorship comes after we no longer work together; other times it has resulted from Marines who worked for me displaying a genuine desire to develop their abilities and ensure their career paths are on the right track. It is personally gratifying to help Marines make themselves better, and it is a great feeling to see many of the young officers and NCOs I have worked with ascend to higher and higher positions of responsibility in both the service and the civilian world.

  • How do you get Marines, especially young Marines, excited to learn? What specific techniques or approaches have you used with success?

 

The chances of getting Marines excited to learn increase dramatically if you get them involved in the process and let them know what’s in it for them.  Unlike most of my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, during the second half of my deployment with Task Force Lion we had the time to implement a PME program, and the results pleased me.  I specifically did not want a dry program which force-fed topics upon the team. You can only discuss the Bloody Angle and the Battle of Cannae for so long before people’s eyes start to glaze over and they start making mental grocery shopping lists.  So, with that in mind, we asked the team members what they wanted to hear and discuss.  They in turn asked for PME sessions on topics like the promotion board process, reading and writing fitness reports, and the orders assignment process.  We then leveraged the experience of the officers and SNCOs on the team to play to their strengths.  For example, our operations officer, who had been both a monitor and MAGTF planner in previous assignments, led separate PME discussions about the assignments process and future scenarios on the Korean peninsula.

  • What role should technology play in training and education? Are there any new or emerging technologies that you find especially exciting? Are there any that concern you?

 

We must continue to leverage technology to bolster our training and education programs, but I am suspicious of those who say training simulations are an acceptable replacement for actual field training. Nothing can replace the real thing. The group that does this right is the aviation community.  They require a certain amount of simulation training on the front end before an aviator is allowed behind the stick, and they require additional sustainment hours in simulators…but ultimately it is actual flight hours in a real, flying aircraft that keep them proficient.  Convoy training in a simulator is fine to practice and rehearse standing operating procedures and immediate actions, but it is no replacement for a real-world, un-illuminated night convoy across the training area.  Real training, where real lives and materiel are on the line, sharpens the mind and prepares Marines much more than any simulation short of Star Trek’s Holodeck or X-Men’s Danger Room.

I am also suspicious of online training.  I don’t know one person who has ever walked away from a session of completing annual training requirements through MarineNet or Army Knowledge Online who said, “Man, I sure learned a lot from that!” Nor have I ever met anyone who said, “Please shut the door; I need to concentrate on my riveting online course.” Simply put, the shaky technology, dryness of the courses, and lack of classroom accountability has enabled everyone to essentially audit the annual online training requirements.  And, quite frankly, I also don’t need a virtual NCO talking down to me about tobacco use – especially since I no long use tobacco! We have gotten better recently by returning to human instruction for many annual training and education requirements, but we still have a long way to go with online tutorials.

  • What are your thoughts on using wargames (including commercial board and digital games) as teaching tools?

 

When it comes to technology in wargames, sometimes simpler is better.  After all, there’s a reason Risk continues as an enduring favorite.  One of the most effective wargames I can remember was one my colleagues and I played at MCWAR while we were studying the First World War.  We split into groups to play the major countries, and we could only communicate with each other through “national” email accounts the instructor, Dr. Jim Lacey, had set up for us (to replicate communicating only through telegraph).  Our goal was to prevent the war from starting; it only took about an hour before all communications and diplomacy had broken down and the trains were moving the countries toward war.  There was nothing high-speed about the exercise, yet it had a profound impact on everyone who played it.  All that was required was some pre-reading for context, an exercise moderator, and a set of easy-to-understand parameters to keep the exercise on the rails.

  • Could you talk about the connection between maneuver warfare and teaching?

 

I think we’re finally beginning to understand and accept that teaching – and learning – is not just about the instructor standing up in front of the class and droning on and on.  If you consider that method like attrition warfare – the idea that sometimes it may be the only option available but is not the preferred technique – then you realize there are other ways to teach that are perhaps not quite as hide-bound as the traditional large class lecture method.  For entry-level training, such as recruit training and OCS, it is unrealistic to expect teaching to occur at the small group and conference-level – the services’ throughput requirements simply wouldn’t support it.  But as service members advance through their careers and resident PME becomes more focused, my sense is that they retain and learn more through tighter small group sessions which compel the students to interact with each other and the instructor.

  • What about the connection between professional reading, writing, and teaching on the one hand and leading Marines on the other?

 

I once heard a Marine colonel describe the Corps as an “anti-intellectual organization.”  I wouldn’t go that far, and yet I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone describe any particular Marine leader by saying, “Man, he is both a scholar and a meat-eater!”  My sense is that, as an organization, we still seem to think that leaders must fall into one bin or the other – meat-eater or scholar – and never the two shall meet. But the fact is that the hard realities of the modern battlefield demand both traits from our leaders, so we must continue to challenge the conventional wisdom about leading Marines, both in garrison and on the battlefield.

  • You’ve written 3 books on your various deployments. What inspired you to devote the time and effort necessary to write? How do you balance your writing with other professional obligations? What advice would you give to Marines who feel like they have something to say but point to lack of time or previous writing experience?

 

I used to tell people that I chose to write books to tell the story of my Marines.  And that is true, because my men and women deployed into remarkable circumstances, and their stories deserved to be told.  But over time I realized I have also written these books to reconcile my own deeply conflicted thoughts about leadership in general, the wars we have become mired in, and my own choice to devote my adult life to the military profession.  It was those two reasons – for my Marines and for myself – which inspired me to devote the time and effort necessary to write. And it has been a fulfilling, albeit difficult, process for both me and my family.  Every moment I have devoted to writing these books has been time taken away from my family, as the process of retelling those stories often takes me down dark corridors of my past.  Simply put, it has been unfair to my wife and daughters, because I rarely emerge from a writing session with a smile on my face.  I suspect my writing has also taken a toll on my professional reputation, as I often sense my colleagues and superiors wondering whether I am a Marine or just another damned writer looking for dirt.  But, despite the periodic friction, writing has been a rewarding experience for me, and I always encourage Marines to tell their own stories.  Lack of time is no excuse; we make the time for the things we really want to do.  Some people play golf in their spare time; some people fish.  I write.  And lack of previous writing experience is similarly no excuse.  Both The Highway War and Where Youth and Laughter Go each went through about six complete drafts before they even made it to the publisher for the “professional” editing job, and yet that drawn-out, painful process made me a better writer in the end.

  • What’s the greatest challenge facing our training and education system?

 

The official line among manpower monitors is that there is no set career path for officers.  But if you want to stay competitive, get promoted, and get selected for command you will adhere to the tried and true formula of Fleet – B-billet – PME, wash, rinse, and repeat. I think our system tends to punish people who veer from that hard-boiled career trajectory.  In the past, Marine officers who volunteered for the FAO, RAO, or special education programs were almost certainly committing career suicide because of the amount of time the required education took them out of the career pipeline. My CO told me as much in 2002 when I was selected for the FAO program.  We have gotten better with those three programs, but our system still does not really allow for significant numbers of Marines to pursue heavy-hitting, time-consuming education opportunities such as PhDs.

  • What about the greatest opportunity?

I have been amazed at the learning and professional discourse that occurs via social media.  Online military and national security forums like The Strategy Bridge and War on the Rocks, both of which I follow closely on Twitter, have created communities of learning where no topic is off the table and rank is not part of the discussion.  Collegial banter is encouraged, but everyone is held to task for what they say and compelled to defend their arguments with empirical data.  Social media platforms are what our younger service members use to communicate, and our training and education system would be wise to leverage them.  And, just as it should be in the classroom and the workplace, there has to be a professional understanding that disagreement does not equal disloyalty, and that it is okay to disagree but it is not okay to be disagreeable.

  • We often hear places like Marine Corps University describe themselves as “world class.” What does this mean to you, and does the Marine Corps meet the mark?

 

It has been remarkable to watch Marine Corps University expand over the years, and I was truly fortunate to attend MCWAR following my battalion command tour.  And, while it is understandable that the large numbers of students for resident courses like Expeditionary Warfare School and Command and Staff College require a certain amount of rote memorization and traditional lecture instruction, the smaller courses such as the School of Advanced Warfighting (SAW) and MCWAR really are world-class.  I have worked closely with a number of SAW planners over the last three years – including members of the I MEF staff and my staff on Task Force Lion – and their depth and breadth of knowledge is truly impressive.  I am convinced you only get that kind of education in an environment like MCU, where the student-to-instructor ratio is low, the quality of faculty members and students is high, and the learning facilities are properly resourced.

  • What was your experience like as a student at MCWAR? Do you wish that, as Col Mike Wyly proposed in his “Why Lts Should Strategy” Gazette article, you had been exposed to strategy at the start of your career?

 

My year at MCWAR was one of the best – both personally and professionally – of my life.  I made many close friends among the thirty students in my class, and I learned more than I ever thought I would.  And, although I spent much of my time reading, studying, and writing papers, it was an opportunity for me to reconnect with my family after a very difficult deployment to Afghanistan.  MCWAR’s small size makes it a unique experience among the other service war colleges.  We had two study groups of fifteen students each, and the majority of our classwork was in these groups.  With classes that intimate, there was no way to hide; if you didn’t do your reading, everyone knew it.  And the collegial atmosphere among the students and the faculty was superb; the instructors really forced us to think and, equally important, to articulate our thoughts properly.  They understood the precarious environments most of us would head to – places like the Joint Staff or the staffs of geographic combatant commands – and by graduation we were as prepared as anyone to serve at those levels.

I’m not sure exposing me to strategy much earlier in my career would have yielded the same benefits as it did in later years. I learned in MCWAR about the tendency for junior leaders to focus down and into their organizations, and the requirement for senior leaders to focus up and outward to their higher headquarters, the service, the Joint force, and the nation.  And it was true; as a lieutenant and captain I was laser-focused on my Marines. There wasn’t much outside the bubbles of my platoon and company that concerned me.  It wasn’t until I returned to Iraq to command Task Force Lion that I realized it actually is possible as a leader to simultaneously focus downward on your people and focus up and outward to accomplish the mission.

  • What books, podcasts, movies or other resources might you recommend to Marines who want to develop themselves as decision makers, leaders, and thinkers?

 

Three books I read around the time I was in MCWAR that really hit home for me about the decision making process at the national and strategic level: Decision Points, by George W. Bush, Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward, and Duty, by Robert M. Gates.  My time serving on the Joint Staff really brought these books home for me, as I got the opportunity to experience that decision making process first-hand.  It forever changed how I look at things.

Two movies about the same decision making process at the national and strategic level that have fascinated me are the 2002 movie Path to War and the 2004 documentary Fog of War.  Both give varying perspectives about the American descent into the Vietnam War, and the result is still the same: at the end of each film, you are both amazed at the levels at which our senior leaders operated, and are left sick to your stomach by some of the decisions they ultimately made.

I also love the weekly podcast Midrats, hosted by Navy bloggers Sal from “CDR Salamander” and EagleOne from “EagleSpeak.”  Each week they discuss leading issues and developments for the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and related national security issues. They are a couple of common sense, laid-back guys from my generation with the service credentials to back them up, and each week I come away from their podcast with something new to think about.

  • Here’s a hypothetical: You’ve just succeeded General Neller as Commandant. Where would you focus your efforts?

 

Lighter gear and body armor (my aching back and bum shoulders asked me to say that).

Seriously, though, with the fiscal realities we face as a service, I would take a close look at what the Marine Corps’ end-strength should be.  I would also ask “What do we really want to be as a service?”  My sense is that we cannot afford to be as large as we are right now, given the different capabilities we are pursuing, the mounting costs of generating and maintaining readiness, and the various threats which continue to bloom across the world.  We seem to have one foot in low-intensity conflict in places like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and the other foot in future, high-end conflict against peer competitors; I’m not sure we as a Marine Corps can do both.  And yet, as General Neller aptly noted in his most recent Message to the Force, “Our constant preparedness, expeditionary mindset, and aggressive warfighting philosophy remain a driving force that distinguishes the Marine Corps.”  It would be difficult for the Marine Corps to say we can’t do everything when we clearly have been – and doing it well at the same time.

  • Are there any final thoughts or advice that you’d like to pass on to the Warfighting Society?

Any attempt by me to be profound would likely be a complete failure, so I will simply say “thank you” for the opportunity to share my thoughts with The Warfighting Society.  I am impressed by your work and your commitment to profession military education.  Semper Fidelis!