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Building the New Infantry: It’s All About Culture By Corporal Joshua Sulentic, USMC

Updated: Sep 19, 2023


A Marine lance corporal and corporal on patrol in Helmand Province, 2014.


Force Design 2030 (FD 2030) demands better infantry Marines. They must be smarter, more mature, and “SOF-like” to conduct expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) supporting the joint force. Headquarters Marine Corps has directed the service to “Explore ways to challenge existing models and paradigms to yield a more capable and mature infantry and reconnaissance force.” The Marine Corps has made great strides in improving its training, gear, and technology for infantry Marines. The current culture of the infantry, however, has failed to keep pace. Unless this culture changes, Force Design 2030 could suffer and potentially fail.


Many infantry Marines, especially those at the rank of lance corporal and below, lack maturity and pride in their work. This mentality is best captured by the concept of the “Terminal Lance.” Terminal Lance Marines have low esprit and do their best to avoid work as much as possible. They often rebel against their leaders and the Marine Corps, from minor things like not shaving or getting haircuts within regulations to full-blown malingering and refusing to train. The Terminal Lance mentality exists throughout the infantry and forms a cornerstone of infantry culture. It is highly detrimental to units. But we can and should combat it. Team and squad leaders can implement four practices to help develop the maturity, pride, and proficiency of their Marines, especially new infantry Marines. These practices are attentiveness from leaders, mentorship, proper initiation, and intelligent, well-planned training.


I: Attentiveness from Leaders

Marines must see their leaders. Leaders need to be seen at all levels of command, but the closer they are to the bottom of an organization, the more visible they should be. Junior Marines often complain about not seeing their company or battalion commanders during training and field exercises. Leaders appear uncaring and uninterested in their Marines when they fail to show a vested interest in their small units’ day-to-day activities. Squad and team leaders risk the same thing when they fail to invest in their Marines’ training.


Learning suffers when teachers lack passion for teaching. On the Controversy and Clarity podcast, Damien O'Connell once remarked, “If you don’t have someone who is interested in education or passionate about it, that’s going to trickle down to the students…” If leaders do not care about teaching, Marines will not care about learning. Things happen, of course, and small unit leaders cannot always be present for every exercise. But leaders should show an active interest in their Marines by asking about the day’s events later on. Squad and team leaders should always seek to shape their unit’s training. If leaders miss an event, they should know what their Marines were supposed to learn or practice. Leaders can answer questions, provide additional resources, and test Marines on their knowledge, understanding, and skills. Marines who know their leaders care about them and their training will strive to develop themselves during and after working hours. These efforts will result in better-trained, more prepared, more mature infantrymen.


II. Mentorship

Leaders must build strong, healthy relationships with their Marines. Mentorship is the lifeblood of the infantry. New infantry Marines often face two challenges in their units. First, they are treated poorly and not allowed to integrate into the unit fully. Second, they lack structure, are not held to a high standard, and become complacent. I have seen both cases, and neither outcome is good.


New Marines often become timid and lack confidence when forced to walk on eggshells around overbearing squad or team leaders. Their focus becomes avoiding punishment rather than learning and mastering their job. This breeds resentment and distrust of leaders, leading to apathy and the loss of healthy ambition.


Unfortunately, many junior infantry Marines perpetuate what has been done to them. If they become leaders, they may not know how to train their Marines. One of my seniors once told me, “We got so many briefs about how they [leadership] would crush us if your peer group called one of us out for hazing. So, when you all got here, we were walking on glass and didn’t know how to train you, because everything our seniors did to train us would probably now be considered hazing.” This Marine and his peers had been trained so poorly that they did not know how to effectively train and teach their Marines without fear of being charged with hazing. They had learned how to break down Marines, not build them up.


On the other hand, if new Marines lack structure and standards, they can become complacent, bullheaded, and disrespectful to NCOs and other lower-level leadership. I have witnessed lance corporals with less than a year in the fleet openly disrespect and talk back to corporals and sergeants beginning or well into their second enlistment. Many small unit leaders have similar stories of disrespect from new Marines not held to the standard. Marines want to be led.


We can achieve a happy medium, however, where the relationship between junior and senior Marines is relaxed enough for trust to develop but structured enough to maintain standards and respect both ways. Albert Brumfield, a former infantry corporal from 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, and now the administrator for the Instagram page Maneuver Up, offers that small unit leaders must “Realize that what you’re seen doing and saying as a squad or team leader is not taken with a grain of salt. It becomes what your boots see as acceptable and common practice long after you’re gone.” New Marines should see their seniors’ actions as something to emulate. And by emulating their seniors, junior Marines can become the more mature infantrymen that FD 2030 requires. As General Lejeune reminds us


The relation between officers and enlisted men should in no sense be that of superior and inferior nor that of master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar… …it should partake of the nature of the relation between father and son, to the extent that officers, especially commanders, are responsible for the physical, mental, and moral welfare, as well as the discipline and military training of the men under their command.


This applies to NCOs just as much as it does to commissioned officers. Team and squad leaders should not see themselves as masters of their troops but as educators and caretakers to the Marines in their charge.


III. Initiation

Recruit training initiates civilians into the Marine Corps. Infantry Training Battalion initiates Marines into the infantry. Team and squad leaders must properly initiate new infantry Marines into their units. This builds camaraderie and esprit de corps and creates an immediate relationship of respect between the new Marines and their seniors. There is a reason MCDP-1 Warfighting stresses that “Leaders should develop unit cohesion and esprit and the self-confidence of individuals within the unit.”


Pride is a powerful force and can inspire groups to do great things. But pride must be earned. Former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink states in his book Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual that, to build pride in a team, leaders must put people through “situations that require unity, strength, and perseverance to get through.” This is where initiation comes in. By putting Marines through a grinder after arriving at their first unit and letting them push through things together, they develop camaraderie and pride. Initiation must end at an appropriate time however.[1] Otherwise, it becomes nonsensical and counterproductive.


Willink also reminds us not to push people so hard that they break. Initiation should build spirit in individuals and teams, not injure, demean, or de-motivate them. If initiation leads to undesirable outcomes, team and squad leaders should pull back the reins so their Marines do not lose motivation and become disgruntled.


Team and squad leaders should take part in some of the initiation activities. By going through hard times with their Marines, leaders get buy-in and prove they will not make their Marines do anything they would not do. I have often seen Marines complain about some of the more strenuous PT sessions they did upon arrival to the fleet, mainly because their seniors stood by and watched. In contrast, I know many Marines who have gone through worse experiences but talk about them with pride because their leaders were with them, slogging through creeks and rain and helping carry mock casualties, ammo cans, and logs.


Another kind of initiation requires new Marines to do menial yet essential tasks. Field days, working parties, and the like are often assigned to the newest Marines. Some leaders use these opportunities to slack off and make the new guys do it “...because that’s what I did as a boot.” This mentality harms units. It tells junior Marines that their seniors are above menial work.


But assigning menial tasks to new Marines holds merit for a different reason. My father, who has been a firefighter for over twenty years, shared that new “Probies,” or first-year firefighters who have completed the fire academy and are in their probationary term, earn their place at their stations by cleaning trucks and dishes, making coffee, answering the phone, and doing many other minor, though necessary, tasks. Carrying out these duties helps new firefighters earn their place and shows they can be trusted to complete tasks without supervision.


In accordance with FD 2030, Marine infantry squads and teams will execute important missions on their own, often far away from their platoons and companies. As such, we should start developing the trust and responsibilities of Marines as soon as they get to their first unit. By proving to their seniors they can be trusted with basic tasks, new Marines will demonstrate they can also be charged with more critical jobs. By contrast, a platoon leader cannot trust a team of junior Marines to operate an observation post overnight when they cannot clean the common areas in their barracks without NCOs breathing down their necks.


Marines are made at the MCRDs and shaped at the SOIs. The performance and attitudes of new infantry Marines directly reflect the leaders who mold them. It is up to team and squad leaders to develop their junior Marines into motivated, intelligent, and physically capable infantrymen, ready and willing to fight the enemy. I was often told the phrase, “Marines don’t jump on grenades for God and country. They do it for their brothers and sisters next to them.” We must develop this camaraderie and trust in our teams and squads as early as possible.


(Credit: Lance Cpl. William Chockey, USMC)


IV. Training

The fourth and final practice involves intelligent, challenging training. Wild “slayer” PT sessions should become rare if not discarded. These result in long-term physical injuries and lower performance. For example, daily “boots and utes” flak runs injure the back, knees, and feet over time. In addition, lifting tires and logs and running with them proves even more detrimental if overdone. While these exercises can make individuals mentally stronger, they wear down the shoulders, neck, back, core, and extremities faster than other equally strenuous but less physically damaging evolutions. Therefore, the above practices should be minimized and replaced with difficult but intelligent physical fitness plans designed to increase endurance, encourage muscle growth, and improve mobility.[2] Infantrymen with extreme joint pain will become ineffective and even liabilities in the long, self-sustaining operations FD 2030 calls for, where most movements will be on foot under load.


But enhanced physical fitness forms only part of the required infantry transformation. We need to get smarter. We must implement well-developed technical and tactical training. Speed reload drills at the armory and buddy rushing are not the be-all-end-all for “backyard” training. Gather the squad and teams to fight decision games; run combat casualty care drills; practice basic MOUT training; and develop, rehearse, and improve team and squad SOPs. These activities bring great benefits and can be done in a barracks room, company lounge, or quad with little to no budget.


Furthermore, small unit leaders should incorporate desirable difficulties into their training. Dr. Bob Bjork, the cognitive psychologist who coined the term, explains that desirable difficulties involve “varying the conditions of learning, rather than keeping them constant and predictable; interleaving instruction on separate topics, rather than grouping instruction by topic (called blocking); spacing rather than massing, study sessions [or training] on a given topic; and using tests, rather than presentations, as study events.”


One simple way small unit leaders can implement desirable difficulties into training is through spaced knowledge checks. We should reward Marines when they answer correctly and demonstrate competence. This motivates them to learn critical information. Furthermore, we should discuss wrong answers and properly remediate them while the questions remain fresh in the Marines’ minds. Remember the saying many Marine infantrymen know but sometimes forget: You will never train too much for a job that can kill you.


Conclusion

Most new infantry Marines join the fleet ready to learn. They have just earned the title “Marine” and want to build upon the knowledge gained from their drill and combat instructors. But these instructors spend only a few months with the Marines. It is the Marines' future team and squad leaders who have the chance to develop them for years. When the time comes, many junior Marines will become leaders. They will take what their seniors taught them and apply it to developing their own Marines. Squad and team leaders can positively or negatively affect the execution of FD 2030 for years to come. Things do not end when small unit leaders PCS, lateral move, or get their DD-214. They should consider this every time they teach a class, push their people through PT, or do anything where their Marines will take away lessons—good or bad—and apply them as leaders one day.


Author Bio: Corporal Joshua Sulentic is a team leader in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. He is a graduate of the Advanced Infantry Marine Course and currently deployed with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit to the Persian Gulf. This is his first article for The Maneuverist.


Endnotes


[1] Just what is an appropriate time? It depends. Some individuals may take longer to “get with the program” than others, whether due to stubbornness or other factors.


[2] There are many resources one can look to for well-designed PT plans. The MARSOC Assessment and Selection Fitness Preparation Log has multiple movement-based PT cards to build PT plans. SOFLETE is another great resource for combat fitness workouts.


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