Updated: Mar 24
Editor-in-Chief's Note: The letter below and those that follow it were forwarded to the Warfighting Society. Written in response to Major General Julian Alford's thought-provoking article on the future of US Marine Corps infantry in the June 2021 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, they feature a dialogue between two Marine officers: Courtney Massengale, an Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) veteran, mid-career field grade officer who neither publishes nor lurks on Twitter, and Sam Damon, an OIF/OEF veteran, mid-career field grade officer who publishes and tweets frequently.
You can read the first two letters in this series at the links below.
It’s incredible how quickly events have moved since the summer of 2021. The commandant sent out a letter about Afghanistan and went back to the future without missing a beat. War has ominously returned to Europe. Ukraine fights for its life as I write this. Tensions run high globally. Can you believe large-scale maneuvering over land and conventional combined arms tactics are relevant again—at least in the Land of the Sunflowers? It’s wild. Makes me wonder why our Black Sea Rotational Force and Norway deployments fell out of favor. Wonder what ol’ Bob Neller has to say about that?
The last time we spoke, you responded to my critiques of the Corps’ plans for its future infantry force, arguing that our service’s survival depends on “buying down risk” with a SOF-like force. Since then, the Marine Corps finds itself in the news once more, this time with Talent Management 2030. I have a lot to say on the topic, so please forgive the longer-than-usual length of this letter.
In keeping with Force Design 2030, our leaders frame Talent Management’s reforms in existential terms. General Berger speaks as a modern-day Noah warning of the impending Chinese flood, one frothing with drones, missiles, and jets. Cyber’s a big concern, too, of course. I keep hearing proponents of Talent Management compared to Pete Ellis. Those with questions, on the other hand, get called “resistors” and labeled relics of the Industrial Age. I admit there’s a lot to like about the proposed reforms. Sign me up for homesteading. Bring on the 360 evals. And, yes, let’s retain more highly-skilled Marines.
But the trouble with Talent Management is that, in changing so much, we must first accept that we are broken. Rather than slay sacred cows, we’re to believe they weren’t sacred to begin with. I guess the last twenty years of birthday ball messages were what—a farce? That special time of year we collectively shed our reasoning and played one big game of make believe? It’s a hard pill to swallow.
If General Berger’s right and we do need to mainline every fashionable Silicon Valley and business school theory, I’m left wondering how we survived this long. What’s more likely is that Talent Management is an overpromise. Institutional natural selection will reveal workable reforms and most of the flashy initiatives will end up buried in the same crypt as Expeditionary Force 2021. My point is: I’d sell the news on Talent Management. It’s loud and generates positive press coverage—and you know the Corps loves a friendly spotlight—but the big show remains Force Design.
Marines at the Kabul Airport, August 2021
I still wonder, though: What if we’re wrong? What if becoming a threat-based force costs too much? What if diminishing the MAGTF and mothballing traditional combined arms formations causes lasting damage? What if optimizing the Corps for deterrence against China doesn’t buy down risk but inflates it? What if the version of future war everyone keeps talking about—from the John Antals of the world to those hyper-educated folks at think tanks like CNAS—ends up like Y2K, and the commandant signed us all up to work at Initech? What if we go back to the Middle East or Africa or Europe? I bet we’ll miss tanks and cannon artillery then. I admire the courage, but are we doubling down on 11? (You never double down on 11, you know.) Where’s the hedge? No, the word is we need to change faster. LtGen Karsten Heckle, Deputy Commandant at MCCDC, declared we need to “double down our efforts and figure out a way to move faster.” Buckle up for ludicrous speed!
Back to the SOF-like infantry. Remind me, Sam: Whom did we send into the most chaotic and kinetic environment in the last twelve months? Not MARSOC. Two damn BLTs and some normie Army grunts. Amazing. I can’t think of a better repudiation of Talent Management’s undercurrent of “young Marines can’t be trusted” than the prudence, judgment, and courage displayed at the Abbey Gate last summer. We asked our “unskilled and immature” Marines to decide life or death for tens of thousands of Afghans. Their heroism serves as a matter of record and testament to whom and what the Marine Corps aspires to be every day.
Will this have any impact on our plans for the future infantry envisioned by Force Design 2030? Of course not. Battlefield experience isn’t the same as The Science™️ of brain development, and besides, we had a lot of senior leaders on deck to control every LCpl with a rifle. Except we didn’t. You know underage Marines showed restraint and faithfully embodied the concept of the strategic corporal. That doesn’t seem to matter since Kabul isn’t a Pacific island, and the Marines weren't foraging for food or guarding a PGM system. Right.
You claim that General Berger and the Marine Corps need mature, SOF-like infantry for one reason: to keep missions out of SOCOM’s hands. It’s cold and cynical, but it fits with our paranoid survival instinct. Except we have a SOCOM component last I checked. MARSOC may be the red-headed step children of the SOF world, but they’re ours. Was MARSOC the Trojan Horse the old timers predicted it would be?
Remember those old arguments from the mid-2000s? “The Marine Corps's already elite, so why create an elite within an elite?” Donald Rumsfeld and a vocal minority forced the issue, first creating Detachment 1 and then MARSOC. I guess the normie grunts just fought for table scraps in Fallujah and Ramadi and someone was upset the Marine Corps wasn’t doing raids in high tops and baseball hats.
You know what? I pitied Recon for years. But battalion and Force Reconnaissance deserve the straight leg grunt's respect. I miss the LCpls with gunny sleeves, Lloyd Christmas-low reg haircuts, mythical stories about shallow-water blackouts, and unexplained muscle growth after combat deployments. Their heroism was a matter of record during the GWOT and their legacy bigger than Heartbreak Ridge…until MARSOC.
Our special brethren rebooted the Raiders's historiography and colonized Sneads Ferry, NC. Overnight, Recon lost cultural relevance and became Woody to MARSOC’s Buzz Lightyear. Only the Marine Corps could turn “Swift, Silent, Deadly” into a B-movie slogan. As famed romance novelist S.C. Stephens wrote, “Sometimes family [is] the cruelest form of love there [is], for no one [can] hurt you more than the people [who] created you.”
Recon was the picket line. Recon was once our “elite” but no more. The infantry can’t be elite if it’s two steps removed from the new elite. Now, the SOF pathogen sweeps across the Marine Corps without MOS bias, absorbing young talent with an unquenchable thirst. When I hear a 2ndLt or sergeant talk about plans to attend Assessment and Selection, I’m reminded of Edward Longshanks’ Prima Nocte. Except there isn’t a William Wallace to prevent the loss of innocence. Where are we going to get the talent for the grunts and Recon when MARSOC strip mines the population? Lateral entry? Gimme a break.
Even at my most cynical, I can’t make an argument against Recon, special forces, or specialized units made for specific missions. We need them. By definition, special forces do what conventional forces cannot. Imagining a world without MARSOC is equally pointless. I might as well try and ban sabermetrics from baseball or lobby for a do-over of the last season of Game of Thrones. Nope, time to move on and learn for the next time.
We’re witnessing the high water mark of the all-volunteer force. The tail’s wagging the dog and now everyone needs to be special. What fascinates me is how we’re framing “SOF-like.” What was once apples and oranges to senior leaders is now a continuum between deficient and idealized forms. It used to be that we could count on straight-leg generals to temper SOF. Here’s Viscount William Slim, revered British general and winner of WWII’s Burma Campaign, describing the Chindits, an early permutation of special operations force.
"... the Chindits, gave a splendid example of courage and hardihood. Yet I came firmly to the conclusion that such formations, trained, equipped and mentally adjusted for one kind of operation only, were wasteful. They did not give, militarily, a worth-while return for the resources in men, materiel and time that they absorbed....[Special forces] were usually formed by attracting the best men...The result of these methods was undoubtedly to lower the quality of the rest of the Army…" Defeat Into Victory, pp. 546-549.
SOF has a purpose; don’t get me wrong. The trouble I see is that now it seems as if a meritocratic success sequence has been overlaid onto all combat troops. We don’t really trust the Appalachian kid with a GED or the young man from the boogie down Bronx unless they pass BRC, SERE, Jump, Dive, A&S, and free fall. Maybe we won’t trust them unless they belong to a unit with personal trainers and individualized smoothie regimens. We’ll definitely trust them more when they call their commanding officers by first names and “forget” to get haircuts. This form of credentialism erodes culture. It’s what threatens the infantry most.
I actually think some of our leaders get this. There are two camps: the Marines without time in special or elite units and those who’ve dipped their toes with the specials. I think (hope) there’s a debate happening between our general officers and infantry stakeholders. If there is, I certainly can’t tell. The trouble is, the normies are playing on the specials’ home field, and the allure of SOF has ensnared American culture and political power.
The dignity of our profession now stands hostage to vapid credentials and luxury signals, irrespective of intended purpose. It’s not enough to be an infantry Marine who stands post or digs his fighting position and specializes in being miserable. It’s no longer enough to do something—you must be someone with gold wings, scuba bubbles, or some other chest pendant. Now, the infantry must signal elite status not just for intrinsic value, but to move our credentialing closer to a SOF force. That’s the buy-down risk argument. Becoming more SOF-like isn’t as important as signaling we are more SOF-like.
SOF-like is a mindworm, an idea or concept that, once in your head, refuses to leave. The maturity/SOF-like argument finds its roots in something beyond risk mitigation and institutional relevance. Richard Dawkins, the famous British evolutionary biologist, is credited with the concept of memetics. In his book The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins suggests that the “meme” is a “unit of culture” that transfers information or ideas throughout a populace. The beauty of the meme and memetics is that the transferred idea or cultural artifact doesn’t need to be factual—its power lies in mass belief. Memetics, according to Wikipedia, is pseudoscience. I prefer not to limit myself to militant rationalism, so I accept that memetics are true enough for my argument. I’m the superstitious fan who believes my actions affect the performance of my teams. I’m not quite at Robert De Niro’s level, but I believe in the rally cap. I believe in memetics because I’ve succumbed to mindworms. So have you. So have many of our peers. Just read the gushing, uncritical review of Bob Scales’ book Scales on War in the Marine Corps Gazette or the string of articles on War on the Rocks about the Close Combat Lethality Task Force. Both are direct products of the mindworm.
When you subscribe to politics being downstream of culture, you see that our political calculations about who the future infantry needs to be are impacted by what our culture values—and that extends into military culture. Just count how many 5.11 pants you see within a 100 mile radius of a military base. They can’t all be special, can they?
The Overton Window shifted and impacted Force Design 2030. We’re told again and again that future war will be harder and more dependent on technology. We’re told again and again that maturity is in greater demand because every actor on future battlefields will possess the capacity for strategic effect—good or bad. The gospel of the super-grunt—equipped with the best tools, technology, and training—requires older, fitter, and smarter Marines.
This raises two questions: Can we make this super-grunt mature force and should we? Of course, we can make a mature force. Just slash the infantry end strength, reduce infantry battalions, and raise minimum standards for entry. Then we’ll give everyone cool, expensive gear and send them through an extensive school pipeline. We’ll keep units together longer, stabilize the manning processes, and build tight, cohesive teams. This is the dream. But should we do it? I don’t know.
What are the long term effects of pulling off Force Design? Well, the dark scenario, which you’ll remember I laid out in my first letter to you, is that our super expensive and elite infantry gets wiped out by Chinese missiles, forcing the Marine Corps to dust off the old 2007 Surge plans and resurrect the Mojave Viper PTP system with a pseudo draft/conscript force. I’m told that a draft won’t happen, but only the naive refuse to consider a future where our small professional force is insufficient.
Other outcomes include various permutations of budget fights, inter-service rivalries, and the sober recognition that, despite our best attempts to compete with SOCOM, the SOF-like Marine Corps amounts to little more than a Walmart-brand knockoff.
My doomsday scenario sees the loss of meaning and the destruction of the Corps’ culture. Let’s say we get this mature, SOF-like infantry. It’s all working. Marine infantry proves a viable option for EABO and we’ve found the balance within our limited supply of recruits to fill Recon, MARSOC, and the infantry. But as we get older and “special-er,” we make concessions. To keep up with the Joneses, we abandon tradition and neuter our culture from within. Yes, short-term we’ll create the Force Design infantry and compete with SOF to guard islands. Long term, we’ll succumb to the inverse relationship between hyper-individualism and a disciplined martial service.
There’s a race to secure the most talented for the most specialized jobs, but the available pool of talent is limited and dwindling. This is a supply and demand problem: Not everyone can be special enough for all the special jobs, so we need to shrink the force and cull the underqualified. Plus, our youth is fatter and highly medicated now, so reducing the size of the force that must be fit (i.e., combat troops) while increasing minimum standards of fitness and intelligence, well…we’re creating a class of warriors as far from the citizen soldier as imaginable. Oh wait, someone did imagine it. We are making our own Forever War force. What comes next? I shudder to think.