Commentary Magazine


Topic: Marines

Accountability in the Marines

For a long time there has been too little accountability for general officers in the armed forces. They are seldom relieved for failure to do a good job even though a similar failure to perform can result in severe penalties for those lower down the chain of command. Those with stars on their shoulders can usually expect a gilded march to retirement unless they commit gross malfeasance, especially if sexual misconduct charges are involved.

That’s why it is refreshing to see the Marine commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, fire two generals for negligence in a 2012 Taliban attack on a marine airfield in Afghanistan which resulted in the destruction of six Harrier jump jets and the deaths of two Marines. As the Washington Post reports:

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For a long time there has been too little accountability for general officers in the armed forces. They are seldom relieved for failure to do a good job even though a similar failure to perform can result in severe penalties for those lower down the chain of command. Those with stars on their shoulders can usually expect a gilded march to retirement unless they commit gross malfeasance, especially if sexual misconduct charges are involved.

That’s why it is refreshing to see the Marine commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, fire two generals for negligence in a 2012 Taliban attack on a marine airfield in Afghanistan which resulted in the destruction of six Harrier jump jets and the deaths of two Marines. As the Washington Post reports:

The two, Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, the top Marine commander in southern Afghanistan at the time, and Maj. Gen. Gregg A. Sturdevant, the senior Marine aviation officer in the area, “failed to exercise the level of judgment expected of commanders of their rank,” Amos said.

“It was unrealistic to think that a determined enemy would not be able to penetrate the perimeter fence,” Amos said.

In their defense, Gurganus and Sturdevant could argue that the attack occurred at a time of a general drawdown in Afghanistan and that their requests for additional marines to safeguard the airbase were denied because commanders were bound by President Obama’s ill-advised “cap” on overall troop numbers. That was true, but Amos judged that it was no excuse for failing to secure such an important base.

It was no easy call for the commandant to make, given that he has known both men for decades. But it was the right call, and it should send a signal of accountability that ordinary soldiers and marines–who often grouse about lack of accountability for higher-ups–will welcome.

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Lift the Combat Ban, Keep the Standards

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s decision, on his way out the door, to lift the ban on women serving in combat units has engendered much consternation among traditionalists both in and out of uniform. On a recent visit to Quantico, the base near Washington where Marine Corps University is located, I got an earful from combat veterans who fretted that standards would be lowered to allow women to serve in combat units. The concern is especially acute when it comes to infantry units, because infantrymen have a particularly arduous and important specialty, one that has long accounted for the majority of casualties suffered in America’s wars. I supported Panetta’s decision to lift the ban but I have to acknowledge that the concerns are valid. How they are addressed will determine whether lifting the ban is a success or not.

A New York Times reporter who was allowed to observe the Infantry Officer School at Quantico found out why two recent female candidates washed out—and why future female candidates are likely to face steep barriers. Literally. As James Dao notes: “It all begins with the Combat Endurance Test, a slog through rolling forests that requires physical strength, endurance, military knowledge and willpower. Students must swim, assemble weapons from jumbled parts, navigate from point to point and carry weight over distances.

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s decision, on his way out the door, to lift the ban on women serving in combat units has engendered much consternation among traditionalists both in and out of uniform. On a recent visit to Quantico, the base near Washington where Marine Corps University is located, I got an earful from combat veterans who fretted that standards would be lowered to allow women to serve in combat units. The concern is especially acute when it comes to infantry units, because infantrymen have a particularly arduous and important specialty, one that has long accounted for the majority of casualties suffered in America’s wars. I supported Panetta’s decision to lift the ban but I have to acknowledge that the concerns are valid. How they are addressed will determine whether lifting the ban is a success or not.

A New York Times reporter who was allowed to observe the Infantry Officer School at Quantico found out why two recent female candidates washed out—and why future female candidates are likely to face steep barriers. Literally. As James Dao notes: “It all begins with the Combat Endurance Test, a slog through rolling forests that requires physical strength, endurance, military knowledge and willpower. Students must swim, assemble weapons from jumbled parts, navigate from point to point and carry weight over distances.

The endurance test is no anachronistic remnant of a sexist culture—it is the closest approximation possible in training conditions of the kind of stress and challenges that infantry marines will encounter in battle. Those who cannot pass the test in training should not be allowed to lead marines in battle: lowering the standards endangers lives on the battlefield.

Lifting the ban on women in combat makes sense only if it does not result in a distortion of the hard standards that combat soldiers must pass. If women can make the grade, by all means let them in—but the standard must be the same for men and women because the battlefield does not discriminate based on gender. The odds are that, if standards are maintained, few if any women will be able to qualify for the infantry—but they will still be able to serve on the battlefield, as they do today, in a variety of billets from military police to intelligence to pilots.

The fact that Chuck Hagel has served in battle as an enlisted man gives him perspective unique for a secretary of defense in making the crucial decision about whether to redefine the standards or not. If he maintains current standards, he can still offer opportunities to women without endangering the combat performance of the armed forces. But if he knuckles under to pressure to change the standards, he will be doing serious damage to the forces that he once served in and now leads.  

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When the Crisis Comes, Will the Navy Be Ready?

I have just returned from three weeks both at Norfolk and crossing the Atlantic while teaching aboard a couple U.S. naval vessels. Concern over sequestration, not surprisingly, is looming large among the sailors and marines I met on-board.

Most of the sailors had friends and colleagues on the deferred USS Harry S. Truman deployment, cancelled with only about a day’s notice back in February. Anger at the Navy was palpable, as almost everyone believed that the Pentagon had been using the Truman’s crew to play a political game. There were numerous stories not only about how sailors had let the leases expire on apartments and sold cars and sent children to live with relatives, but also about how many had literally given away the family dog ahead of the expected nine-month deployment. The cost of sequestration isn’t simply human, however.

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I have just returned from three weeks both at Norfolk and crossing the Atlantic while teaching aboard a couple U.S. naval vessels. Concern over sequestration, not surprisingly, is looming large among the sailors and marines I met on-board.

Most of the sailors had friends and colleagues on the deferred USS Harry S. Truman deployment, cancelled with only about a day’s notice back in February. Anger at the Navy was palpable, as almost everyone believed that the Pentagon had been using the Truman’s crew to play a political game. There were numerous stories not only about how sailors had let the leases expire on apartments and sold cars and sent children to live with relatives, but also about how many had literally given away the family dog ahead of the expected nine-month deployment. The cost of sequestration isn’t simply human, however.

The vessel I was on had been delayed repeatedly by repairs and was not in top condition. U.S. Marines putting themselves in harm’s way deserve better than open sewage pipes in their restrooms, or dysfunctional drink machines in the mess. Nor should they have to worry about water rationing because of water plant shutdowns, closing the gym, showers, and draining water from the sinks. The impact sequestration will have on the Navy, some senior officers warned in the mess, will be felt most not this year but in the very near future. Deferred maintenance—some ships funded at only 15 percent, if not less—mean effectively that those ships will be lost: the cost of fixing chronic problems will only increase. Worse, however, is the risk that those ships whose operations are funded will be run into the ground without the budget for maintenance to prevent catastrophic failures.

Congressmen posturing as supportive of the Navy are only making matters worse by constraining them. When the Navy seeks to scrap or sell some ships, congressmen afraid of declining ship numbers mandate that the Navy must keep them instead, but do not provide the money for their basic upkeep or function, making the overall strains worse.

North Korea is already testing the United States, and Iran’s leadership is also overconfident. The danger is not that the United States will become embroiled in a proactive war, but rather that our adversaries’ miscalculations could involve us in a reactive one. Let us hope that the commander-in-chief and Congress do not assume that the Navy will be ready or that the United States will always be able to project its power. Aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships are maintenance heavy and take constant investment. At the best of times, perhaps half of them were ready at any time. In five years, I doubt one-quarter of them will be.

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