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Thread: Marines In Search of A Mission

  1. #1
    Small Wars Journal SWJED's Avatar
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    Sep 2005
    Largo, Florida

    Default Marines In Search of A Mission

    Marines In Search of A Mission - George Will, Washington Post Op-Ed.

    … Marines have an institutional memory of "small wars," from the Philippines to Central America, and this competence serves them well in Iraq, which is, an officer here says, "a thousand microcosms." But the exigencies of the protracted Iraq commitment have forced the Marines to adopt vehicles that are heavier and bigger than can easily travel with an expeditionary force on ships. And there is tension between the "nation-building" dimension of the Marines' Iraq mission and the Corps' distinctive warrior esprit, which is integral to why the nation wants the Corps.

    Officers studying here at the Marine Corps University after tours in Iraq dutifully say they understand that they serve their combat mission -- destroying the enemy -- when they increase the host nation's capacity for governance. Besides, says one officer, when his units are helping with garbage collection, they know that "garbage collection is a matter of life and death because there are IEDs [improvised explosive devices] hidden under that garbage."

    Still, no one becomes a Marine to collect garbage or otherwise nurture civil societies. And as one officer here notes with some asperity, there is "no Goldwater-Nichols Act for the rest of the government." That act required "jointness" -- collaborative operations -- by the services. Civilian agencies that do not play well together have fumbled the ball in Iraq, and the military has been forced to pick it up. This draws the military deeper into the sensitive responsibility for tutoring civilians who assign the forces nonmilitary tasks…

  2. #2
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    May 2007
    Washington, DC area

    Default Marines in Search of a Mission--comments

    Having worked closely with Marines in the field, to include in Iraq over a couple of deployments, I would like to provide some reaction to Mr. Will's article.

    Parts of the article appear correct, other parts not, and I believe that the title is somewhat misleading. In my experience, the Marines in Iraq have known and do know their mission, thanks to some enlightened command (such as Gen. Mattis), and they are executing their mission well.

    That said, there are some larger weaknesses, of which the Marines are well (even painfully) aware:

    -- there has been a steady blurring of overlapping missions or components of missions--this has truly been Gen. Krulak's "3-block war" fought by "strategic corporals"--kinetic action, counterinsurgency/counterterrorism, civil affairs, humanitarian relief, and missions as mundane as clearing the trash and clearing debris from government buildings have all been parts of the day-to-day job, often concurrently.
    -- a large reason for this has been the relative lack of an interagency presence or participation in the larger mission. The new COIN field manual and historical experience show the need to have a strong interagency involvement in situations like Iraq (I realize I am preaching to the "Small Wars Choir"), which has been lacking and which has, as a result, obligated the military to shoulder burdens which others should have carried.

    The Marines have accepted--and compensated to the degree possible--for these weaknesses, and have served with honor.

    Will's anecdote about Gen. Shoup explaining the costs of the taking of Tarawa and the analogy for military action in Cuba is good--but better analogies for understanding the current situation in Iraq might be our experiences in Lebanon in the early 1980's, when there were conflicting political and military missions, placing the Marines (literally) in the middle of a larger conflict between segments of the population that they could neither control or influence, or Somalia, where military capability was undercut by loss of domestic political will and coalition military capabilities that were not synchronized with US military efforts.

    Bottom line--the Marines I have worked with know their mission and are dedicated to accomplishing it, in tough circumstances and against a tough opponent. We owe them our support and tribute.

  3. #3
    Council Member Danny's Avatar
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    Nov 2006
    Charlotte, North Carolina

    Default All sorts of ideas ...

    Thanks for the tip, Dave. Will's commentary is pregnant with all sorts of ideas, some deadly accurate, with at least one idea being a red herring. I might weigh in at my blog in a longer article responding to Will, but just to mention a single issue, the objection that Marines might be losing their edge in expeditionary warfare in the future if they continue to engage in COIN is just plain silly (and I suspect that this isn't Will's idea - he heard it from someone in the establishment as a 'talking point'). It just doesn't take that long to requalify already experienced and well-trained Marines to do squad rushes, or to swim with gear. There is a much bigger issue at stake, and that is what do the Marines want to do, what does the country want them to do, and what does military establishment want them to do?

    Setting Marines apart from everyone else is not just the training; it is the ethos.

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Danny View Post
    I might weigh in at my blog in a longer article responding to Will, but just to mention a single issue, the objection that Marines might be losing their edge in expeditionary warfare in the future if they continue to engage in COIN is just plain silly (and I suspect that this isn't Will's idea - he heard it from someone in the establishment as a 'talking point'). It just doesn't take that long to requalify already experienced and well-trained Marines to do squad rushes, or to swim with gear.
    Actually, it comes from the very top. Reemphasizing amphibious training has been on of Commandant Conway's top priorities, and numerous communities have complained that the emphasis on CoIN and the deployment schedule leaves little time to train in traditional skillsets. Several classes of lieutenants have omitted an amphibious landing from their curriculum to make room for Convoy/IED/MOUT training- that exercise is being brought back for the current class. The worry is not just the loss of HIC skillsets, but of the complex and esoteric art of conducting an amphibious landing.

  5. #5
    Council Member TROUFION's Avatar
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    Dec 2005

    Default old argument with no real good answer

    in 1999 I was at the Ampibious Warfare School, the argument went this way. Which should be our focus HIC or COIN (LIC - a seperate argument was what to call everything other than HIC but that changes the discussion so save that for later). The argument that won at the time was that HIC was complex and difficult and needed to be our focus, it was stated by more than one instructor that you can always ramp down to COIN and other LIC but it is harder to ramp up.

    The argument ran this way, if you train grunts to be police then need them to fight in HIC such as Amphib Assault or European Battlefield-Desert Storm type ops then you will have Grunts who are confused as to the level of violence they need to bring. Further they will struggle with the complexity of combined arms combat that was taught extensively at our Combined Arms Exercises. Further Expeditionary Operations focused on the MEU -short duration raids, & on MEB- traditional amphibious assault operations. The targets where heavy on conventional enemy forces. The final exercises were a MEB amphib assault with a Regimental Landing Team and a MEU raid on a littoral.

    There was a solid but very short introduction to COIN, the take away was that you as an officer need to read up on tis and keep it in your hip pocket incase you needed it but keep focused on the HIC ball.

    I imagine that at the now named Expeditionary Warfare School, the focus is somwhat reversed. The argument probably has flipped.

    The Corps has been throughout its history a Journeyman in many different tasks, kind of the Leatherman of military forces your starter tool, always ready on your hip at a moments notice, your first choice to handle an immediate crisis, good at many things but not specialized in any one thing.

    There is a difficult balance to be had, particularly at the squad and platoon levels. Young Marines (officer and enelisted) serving generally for 4 years do face a difficult transiton between the levels of conflict. It is hard for them to ramp up and down, it is mental gymnastics that they would rather not play when faced with life and death decisions.

    The unfortunate thing for the Marine Corps is that we do not know what the next conflict will entail, we do know what the current fight needs. We have to balance between the two. We need to budget for equipment and assign manpower to face both. It is a difficult balancing act. We the professional militiary personnel and the professional civilian military advisors need to walk this line. We need to be able to switch back and forth between the HIC-and COIN/LIC. Leaders, commanders need to be able to clearly guide the young troops to face the fight at hand, they will follow our lead. If we say kill em all they will, if we say here are the ROE follow it strictly they will.

    Expeditionary Operations are the Marine Corps, the Marine Corps needs to be the principle provider of seaborne initial entry-forcible entry operations in Littoral regions. Future ops need to focus on high speed surface craft that can land Marines on any coastline, and penetrate into the interior with the ability to establish a foothold for follow on forces. This means worldwide deployability, rapid transit, and seabased operations. At the same time the Corps can be prepared to provide forces for sustained combat ashore be it COIN or HIC. Once again leatherneck = leatherman the multi-tool. It requires leaders who are flexible in mindset, leaders who can switch back and forth between mechanized and motorized battalion ops, light infantry ops and coin. It aint easy but the Marines never promised easy.

  6. #6
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    Oct 2005
    Washington, Texas

    Default Training for what

    Will seem to be suggesting that the war was getting in the way of the Marines basic mission of training. I recall when I was in the training command prepping for my tour in Vietnam one of the instructors said, "It is a crappy war, but it is the only one we've got."


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