Marines, we live at what may be looked back upon as a critical junction of history. While we have collectively spent the last decade locked in combat in two theaters, our experiences may not seem quite as historic as those epic battles we have read and heard about since the first day we thought about becoming a Marine. But not all history is made on the battlefield. In fact, what happens on the battlefield is only a product of much deeper historical trends. Often, we go to battle because political and institutional structures have been unable to keep pace with the forces of social, economic, technological, and ideational change. We fight because the system has failed.
While our world system has not failed, it is surely undergoing momentous change. The United States faces significant fiscal challenges, while our European allies face a much deeper crisis of their welfare state. Meanwhile, developing nations are on the rise, some with ambitions to regional and even global power. In short, we can expect this to be a transformative period on many fronts. A Marine Corps facing such a time of change, while facing the budget axe and the drift that can be expected at the end of a period of extended conflict, must be agile. As the Nation’s Force in Readiness, we must be most ready when others are least prepared. In acting as our Nation’s second land army during a decade of conflict ashore, we have picked up great experience and many bad habits. The worst of these is the rigidity, centralization, and unimaginative thought processes of a large bureaucracy. This cannot stand. In this era, organizations that are not agile enough to move with the tide will be swept away. Institutional agility is built on professional dialogue.
Institutional innovation has been a point of Marine pride. From the successful creation of small wars doctrine, to the pioneering amphibious vision of Earl H. “Pete” Ellis, to the bold use of helicopter, short takeoff/vertical landing, and tiltrotor aircraft, the Marine Corps has quite a history of innovation. All along, the institution has relied on the power of informal channels in such creative processes, nurturing them and integrating them into formal structures when appropriate. As Keith Bickel pointed out in “Mars Learning,” informal doctrine, those ideas individuals capture and propagate via journal articles, personal letters, and ad hoc training and operational solutions, help to fill the gap while the institution catches up to new realities. Informal doctrine adapts more quickly than institutional doctrine. It is critically important, however, for the institution to capture and make official the best practices and hard-won lessons of informal doctrine. This is the mission of organizations like the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned (MCCLL). MCCLL, however, is not a forum for debate on doctrine, institutional structure, or institutional vision. This falls to the Gazette and our emails.
In an institution that is larger and more bound by hierarchical bureaucracy than it has been in previous periods of innovation, this is not enough. Our emails are too often informal gripe sessions between peers. The Gazette, perhaps, is less influential than it was in the days when articles prompted lengthy back-and-forth discussions in print from the likes of Pete Ellis and his peers. While the Gazette has sparked some dialogue between the institutional leadership and the middle management, it is too often a one-way forum. Juniors publish gripes and good ideas. Seniors and commands publish indigestible policy statements that few read. Gone too, or so it seems, are the days of the Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society, the legendary band that we all read about in Brute Krulak’s “First to Fight.” Even the name suggests the quaintness of days gone by, but this little group of bureaucratic insurgents are credited with being a major force in protecting the Corps during the postwar budgetary battles that threatened to end our Service.
We do have, however, the formidable powers of the information age at our disposal. This blog is the perfect forum for a renewed Marine professional dialogue. It is no replacement for the hallowed pages of the Gazette. We must keep alive our professional journal, started by none other than General John A. Lejeune. The blog, however, could do for the Gazette and the Corps what the Gazette did for the Service nearly a century ago. Discussions started here can grow into articles, well refined by collegial criticism, that make a timeless impact from the pages of the Gazette. Debate over Gazette articles, too, can be carried from the print pages to this forum. Without dialogue, the Gazette as it was intended is dead. And without dialogue, our Service will never have the agility to maintain its place of pride as the Force in Readiness. The times are changing. We must be ready to change with them. This can only come from agile minds honed by professional dialogue that challenges our beliefs and preconceptions, crystallizing them into much finer and harder stuff, much as fire tempers the steel of our swords.