Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Fray in Our Institutional Fabric

I must admit, it feels a bit strange to post something so serious and personal to a blog usually littered with photos of food, crafts, and kids in varying states of undress.  If you've enjoyed reading about Christmas cookie decorating (where Michael discovered his love of cookie icing), caterpillar and bear hunting parties (no animals were actually hunted during either party), and any of the other 600+ food posts since 2009, then perhaps you'll read a little further...

The bulk of this article began with thoughts and opinions I formulated since joining the Marine Corps as a Second Lieutenant in 2007.  Before leaving active duty as a Captain in 2014, I wanted to support these opinions with facts and share them with others in an effort to begin a discussion about slipping ethical standards within the Marine Corps.  Over the course of the several months it took me write this article, I interviewed nearly a dozen officers and enlisted Marines from six different commands across the country, searched and read over 20 different doctrinal publications, articles, and news stories, and compiled nearly seven years of personal experience in the operating forces and at two major training organizations for Marine Corps officers.  To me, this article communicates the best and the worst parts of my time in the service and to a certain extent, the reasons why I left.  It will be published in the December 2014 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette.  

Though the decision to leave was voluntary, I continued to struggle with the feeling that it was selfish to leave.  I felt like I was leaving my friends and fellow Marines at a time when the Corps was in the midst of transition and our leaders were just beginning to grasp the issues facing a post-war force.  I felt like I was leaving the burden of implementing this transition to others while I prepared for our travels to the "other Americas".  

I have since found comfort in my decision through two things:  the hope that I've contributed to the Corps' difficult transition in some meaningful way and that the institution is a slightly better place than what it was when I joined.  I hope that the enlisted Marines and Lieutenants I've had the privilege to serve with and mentor will take some small shred of something I said or did and help carry the Corps through the rocky times ahead.  This article is another attempt to leave the Corps a better place than when I found it.  

The Fray In Our Institutional Fabric
Why We Must Address a Cultural Slip in the Ethics of Our Corps
by Michael DeSa

Mr. DeSa is a former Marine.  He deployed with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, as a platoon commander with the 24th MEU and as company executive officer to Afghanistan.  Capt DeSa then served as an instructor at TBS and IOC for 2 years.  He resides in Marshall, TX, where is is preparing for a 7-month trip to 7 different South and Central American countries in search of investment and entrepreneur opportunities, experiences, and adventure.

“The young American responds quickly and readily to the exhibition of qualities of leadership on the part of the officers.”[1] - General John A. Lejeune

In nearly 13 years of continuous combat operations, the Marine Corps has lived up to its legacy as America’s force in readiness.  However, times and technology have changed, and the very publicized and unethical actions of a few have tarnished the international reputation and effectiveness of the whole in ways that we have historically never seen or dealt with.  This is greater than just a few isolated incidents; it represents a thread of pervasive immorality sewn amongst our ranks which has become intertwined in our culture.  Current culture is negatively impacting our ability to sustain the transformation and is detrimental to our Corps’ continuous battle for public perception.  If we are to truly remain relevant as the nation’s “force of choice,” our Corps must address a cultural regression within our ethical fabric that has become all too commonplace, and in some respects accepted as normal.  As leaders, we must identify the cause of this breakdown in moral decision-making, reignite a focus on the time-tested basics of good leadership, and repair our reputation if we are to remain America’s crisis response force.

 What Difference Does it Make?

If the Marine Corps can win in combat, why does it matter how ethical our Marines are?  The reason ethics matters more now than any other time in history is because today our victories are no longer the subject of headlines, our mistakes are.   As Marines we must subscribe to a moral philosophy more demanding than the society we serve.[2]  Regardless of intention or circumstance, every mistake is subject to the opinions and scrutiny of the public.  Congress determines our budget and the President assigns our missions, but public perception defines our legacy.  The murders at Haditha and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib are only a few examples of how immoral acts dominate headlines, distract from the positive aspects of our involvement, and how the lack of collective ethics of our actions negatively affects the perception of our accomplishments.  Some of our biggest institutional setbacks over the last twelve years have not come from the Taliban, but from our misdeeds broadcast in the mainstream media on outlets such as YouTube and Twitter.  Reports of the accusations of abuse of power against the Commandant[3], the enlisted Marines charged with conspiracy to steal close to a million dollars[4], and the YouTube video of Marine snipers urinating on dead enemy combatants illustrate that our Corps is under siege in a battle of public perception.  The public’s ability to watch and critique our every move is unique in the history of warfare.  Acts of immorality are committed by the minority, but do reflect upon the Corps as a whole. If we continue to lose the public perception battle, it will not matter how well we redefine our mission.  Our failures in the media and public perception worldwide affect the US as a whole in addition to the political decisions of when and where the Marine Corps is utilized.  If we truly desire to be the go-to force for our Nation’s military operations, then we must be the ethical representation of the best of America and imbue and sustain in every Marine our values of honor, courage, and commitment.  If we fail to address our shortcomings, we will find our missions shrinking, not from a lack of capability, but from a lack of trust.  We must recognize that there is more to the function of the world than what is exemplified by combat efficiency.

Adult magazines are displayed in specially blocked off areas of a store at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, TX (Photo courtesy of Morality in the Media.)
We live in a Marine Corps where it is culturally acceptable to have a few beers and drive home, as long as you do not have to drive onto base to get there.  Officers have become content with laissez-faire leadership while some still find no fault with the desecration of enemy combatants[5].  Fraternization and sexual assault continue to plague the enlisted and officer communities alike.  In fact, nearly half of the 227 new cases of officer misconduct in 2013 were committed by company grade officers and warrant officers, with the top two offenses including adultery and alcohol abuse.[6]  It is commonplace and even encouraged, to frequent strip clubs.  Profanity is an accepted lexicon and pornography is commonplace.  It is because of this permissive culture of acceptance that unethical behavior is on the rise.  This rise in unethical behavior is highlighted by the fact that Marines who have been forced to leave for commission of a “serious offense” has nearly doubled from 260 to more than 500 over the past seven years[7].  Everyone, from the 18-year old private to the 50-year old general officer, has the same ability to make headlines that damage the Corps.  These unethical acts cast a shadow of guilt by association on the majority of Marines who are doing the right thing.  It might seem unfair to expect any other 193,000 person organization to be without instances of unethical behavior, but those organizations are held to a lesser standard and rightly so.  We have to be better than average because we represent our country at home and abroad.  In fact, we have to be the best, because when we put on the uniform, we represent the American people to the international community.  Being a more ethical fighting force will not make us less effective killers, if fact, it will make us more lethal.   As an organization bred to kill, we are taught from day one to shoot, stab, maim, detonate, and dismember our enemies, a lesson we must never forget.  However, the second our enemy surrenders, we are not to harm a hair on his head.  It takes the most virtuous of warriors to know when and how to apply violence.  For the first time in history, the outcome of the battle is not in question – we will win our Nation’s battles.  The question is whether or not we can win in such a way that America will call upon our Corps to fight the next battle. 

Previous Efforts and Current Initiatives

What have we done to address this issue and is it enough?  The Marine Corps’ Vision and Strategy 2025, the implementation plan for the 34th Commandant’s Planning Guidance, attempts to confirm who we are, what we believe, and what we do.  The document does an excellent job laying out the future of the Marine Corps’ identity, values, and competencies, but falls short of addressing the importance of morality in today's postwar era.  When General James T. Conway wrote that we “must tailor our training to develop cohesive units, critical reasoning, and ethical decision-making in scenarios spanning the full range of military operations,” it is the solitary mention of the impending ethical challenges we face where no specifics are provided or tasks issued. [8]  Expeditionary Force 21 (EF 21) mentions this issue ethics issue in even less detail and with more ambiguity by stating EF 21 will provide programs that: [9] 

...develop totally fit Marines and families who are resilient in all areas of life and engage in healthy behaviors that enable them to successfully meet their duties while deployed and in garrison.[10] 

Priority number three under the 35th Commandant’s 2010 Planning Guidance, sought to institutionalize “values-based training” (VBT) with the objective of “reducing incidents of illegal/immoral/indecent acts among Marines.”[11]  This initiative produced a series of value-based training programs at all formal schools, to include recruit training, enlisted Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) and combat training schools, Officer Candidate School (OCS), The Basic School (TBS), and officer MOS schools.  The initiative also called for VBT integration within a wide range of training evolutions to include Enhanced Mojave Viper (EMV)/Integrated Training Exercise (ITX).  During these initial training pipelines, VBT forces an ethical transformation from a previous set of morals to the Marine Corps’ core values.  Recruit training accomplishes this through more than 44 hours of classroom lecture and guided discussions.  These lectures and discussions follow strict predetermined outlines, span a wide range of topics from ethical decision-making to moral strength, and are evaluated in a written exam and through practical application during the Crucible; the culminating, team building event of recruit training.  However, these discussions occur in an extremely controlled environment and are meant more to reinforce the message than to encourage debate or critical thought.  OCS provides nearly 19 hours of lecture and guided discussions, but no practical application/vignette training or mandated values-based leadership classes.  Neither recruit training or OCS place Marines in positions to have to make ethical decisions without the ability to reach out to their leadership.  While classroom training and discussion groups serve a purpose, effectiveness is often short-lived, insufficient as a stand-alone method to sustain an ethical transformation, and often fades after new Marines enter the Operating Forces.    It is at this precious moment of transition, from the sterility of initial training to the reality of the operating forces, that some Marines are confronted with a culture that is not what they expected.  Instead, we must present them with leaders who epitomize the ethical warrior and provide guidance through that transition and into a very public Marine Corps.

Despite VBT’s marginal success at transforming a Marine, its ability to sustain this transformation remains to be seen.  Follow-on enlisted MOS schools all utilize guided discussions and/or decision force cases to reinforce values-based subjects, but these lack a higher forcing-function or standardized set of focus points to ensure that a unified message is communicated across the Marine Corps’ schools.  Case studies on ethical decisions differ between units, for practical reasons, but lack a clearly defined set of repeatable focus points.  For new officers, TBS spends nearly 20 hours on classroom lecture, guided discussion, case study, and practical applications reinforcing the importance of ethical decision-making.  However, the depth, specifics, and manner in which this information is presented is left largely up to the discretion of the instructor.  Values-based instruction is not presented to officers who participate in the Resident Expeditionary Warfare School or the Distance Education Program.  VBT at EMV was ancillary at best, limited to detainee handling procedures and is currently non-existent at ITX due to resource constraints.  The Small Wars package[12] at the Infantry Officer Course had the ability to observe a future infantry officer’s moral decision-making in a chaotic environment, however, this program no longer exists due to financial and resource shortfalls.  The Marine Corps Leadership Development (MCLD) initiative, an effort focused on developing ethical leaders at all levels, should be praised for its comprehensive approach; however, its efficacy remains to be seen.  Despite the time and effort spent on VBT, the Corps has failed to take a step back and critically assess the effectiveness of this program at sustaining an ethically sound force.  If these programs were truly successful at implementing values-based training across the force and reducing immoral acts, why is the Corps’ senior leadership now calling for a refocus on our values and seeing an increase in unethical behavior?[13] 

The most recent effort to address ethics in the Corps was in September 2013 when Gen Amos addressed the Corps’ senior leadership at the General Officer Symposium, introducing what he called the “Re-awakening.”  In it, he accurately identifies that the Corps’ “institutional fabric is fraying” and that “Marines are not living up to our ethos and core values.”[14]  These statements speak directly to the issue of slipping ethical standards within our Corps.  This campaign does not seek to create new concepts, Marine Corps Orders (MCO), or annual training requirements, but is a point that we are learning from the less successful aspects of VBT.  However, over half of the proposed changes target the barracks and duty-standers and include the addition of video cameras in every barracks.  These solutions will not lead to a more ethical force and only target the symptoms of unethical behavior.  The campaign focuses exclusively on the NCO as the critical enabler in these efforts.  In fact, the burden of reform is placed squarely on the shoulders of the NCO, calling them “the main effort.”[15]  The NCO’s responsibilities are further solidified in a letter released to the Corps’ General Officers, calling to “expand the authority of our NCOs” and stating that “we will publically increase the stature of our NCOs commensurate with our high regard for them.”[16]  The NCO demographic (89.6% of the enlisted force are sergeants and below) is being targeted because of their placement in the chain of command, not necessarily their ability to effect ethical change across the Marine Corps.  Values Based Training was a step in the right direction, but with the ability of everyone from a private to the Commandant to publically hurt the Marine Corps, why are we only targeting the NCO in the solution?  Undoubtedly, the capability and scope of influence of the NCO is unparalleled than any other time in history, but the role of the company grade officer is hardly addressed.  Of the 24 immediate and near term changes mandated in the Re-awakening, only four directly address the company grade officer and those that do address only barracks duty and daily routine.[17]  There is no call to action for the company grade officer as part of this campaign, illuminating a disparity in responsibility between the company grade officer and the NCO.  Why is the company grade leadership - the NCO and officer - not called to be the main effort in the Corps’ attempt to refocus on our ethos and values?  The company grade officer must not only share in the burden of transforming our culture, but embrace duty to lead by example as a matter of probate.

A Way Ahead

The Marine officer has a steadfast obligation to the moral health of our institution.  Title 10 of the United States Code calls for the officer to: 

...guard against and suppress all dissolute and immoral practices” and “to promote and safeguard the moral welfare of all officers and enlisted persons under their command.”[18]  

It is our contractual obligation and moral responsibility to lead by example.  In fact, Gen John A. Lejeune calls the officer to be the “contagion of example.”[19]  The officer’s example should infect others with the sound ethical behavior critical to transform the culture of the Corps.  He continues by stating that “[commanding officers] are responsible for the physical, mental, and moral welfare of the young men under their command.”[20]  However, it is not enough to simply know that the officer must be the example, he must live it.  Every decision, deed, and gesture of the officer is scrutinized on a different level than that of the NCO because they are ultimately accountable for the actions of their Marines and units. This is strikingly obvious through the recent relief of the Commanding Officer of OCS following the deaths of three Marines in a murder-suicide and two two-star General Officers for failing to take adequate force protection measures at Camp Bastion.  Despite the numerous variables and conditions outside the control of these men, they were held accountable for the actions and behavior of their units.  If the officer is accountable for the ethical actions of his unit, called to serve as the infectious example, and legally bound to be the guardian against immoral practices, why is our most recent effort to curb unethical behavior seemingly focusing on only the NCO?  Why is the company grade officer not demanding ownership of his responsibilities?    

A fully standardized approach is certainly not the answer here, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that lecture and discussion, VBT, and the NCO are the only other options.  Company grade officers must unite with the NCO to serve as one ethical thread sewn throughout the unit and seize ownership of our responsibilities as officers to portray an unwavering force of will in a larger permissive society that accepts unethical behavior as common practice.  The officer is called to serve as the unshakable example whose actions are emulated by their subordinates, to include the NCOs, who serve as the apostles of the officer’s message.  Through time, relentless accountability, and habitually sound behavior, a shift in our cultural norms will occur to reflect a more ethically-sound force that is trusted and employed as America’s crisis response force.  This is the decisive point where the leaders of our Corps must be the catalyst for a much needed cultural reformation.  If we are going to remain the Nation’s 9-1-1 force in the eyes of the public media and the America people, then leadership at all levels must understand that this problem of unethical behavior is more than just a fray in the fabric.  When talking about the moral forces in war, Clausewitz writes that “they are the spirit which permeates the whole element of war, which fasten themselves soonest and with the greatest affinity of the will.”  A Marine Corps absent a moral force will be void of America’s trust in our ability to fight with honor and ultimately devalue and destroy the institution we have fought so hard to keep. 


[1] Gen John A Lejeune, Reminiscences of a Marine, Marine Corps Association Quantico, VA 2003; originally published by Dorrance & Company, Inc., Pittsburg, PA, 1930.
[2] Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 6-11, Leading Marines, Washington, DC, 27 November 2002, p. 32
[3] The Commandant of the Marine Corps is facing accusations that range from abuse of power, to illegally classifying evidence to cover up mistakes, to squashing Marines with the temerity to protest.  The office of the commandant, remains under investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general as of February 2014.
[4] In November 2014, the IRS charged seven Marine reservists with conspiracy to defraud the Defense Department of more than $874,000.  The reservists, all from 3rd Air-Naval Gunfire Liaison Company out of Terminal Island, California, were accused of receiving payments for fraudulent travel and hotel expenses.  Another 21 Marine reservists were charged with filing false tax returns as part of the IRS bust.
[5] Gray, Capt Justin P., "Supporting Effort One: What Company Grade Officers Must Do to Support the Reawakening," unpublished 2013 Hogaboom Leadership Writing Contest entry to the Marine Corps Gazette, 2013, p. 2. 
[6] Officer Disciplinary Notebook via Deputy Military Assistant, Office of the Commandant, Headquarters Marine Corps
[7] Baldor, Lolita, "Misconduct Forces More Soldiers Out," Associated Press exclusive published on, 17 February 2014.
[8] Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025, Washington, DC, 3 July 2008, p. 21.
[9] In March 2014, Expeditionary Force 21 replaced the Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025 as the Marine Corps’ capstone concept document.
[10] Headquarters Marine Corps, Expeditionary Force 21, Washington DC, 4 March 2014, pg. 46
[11] Amos, Gen James, F., 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps Commandant’s Planning Guidance 2010, Washington, DC, 2010, p. 13.
[12] The Small Wars package was a fully immersive and high fidelity continuous counterinsurgency as part of IOC’s culminating exercise aboard Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms.  The exercise utilized contracted role players, simulated battle field effects, and a realistic urban environment in an attempt to fully immerse the student into an unfamiliar environment and evaluate his response.
[13] Slide 2 from Gen James F. Amos’ 13 September 2013 General Officers' Symposium where he introduced the “Reawakening” campaign.  He states that we have a behavioral problem within the Corps.  He also claims evidence of this behavior problem in non-compliance and enforcement standards, incidences of sexual assault, hazing, driving under the influence, fraternization, failure to maintain personal appearance standards, etc.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., slide 6.
[16] Gen Amos’ Letter of Intent to his general  officers, 9 October 2013, p. 2.
[17] Ibid., slides 10, 12, and 13.
[18] United States Code, Title 10, Armed Forces, Section C, Chapter 345, Section 3583, p. 110.
[19] Estes, LtCol Kenneth, W., USMC(Ret), The Marine Officer’s Guide, 6th Edition, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1996, p. 308.
[20] Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Manual w/ ch 1-3, Washington, DC, 1980, p. 1-22.

*Reprinted with permission of the Marine Corps Gazette

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