What Problem?

By lex, on November 21st, 2010

The US Marine Corps, I was told as a midshipman, is an exceptionally successful real estate acquisition corporation, with a side business in population control. Military humor aside, long time readers of this blog will recognize the host’s admiration for the Corps: Pound for pound and man for man, no finer friend, no worse enemy.

The Corps is many things, but one thing it is not is broken. Why then, does Ms. Tammy Schulz, director of national security and joint warfare at the U.S. Marine Corps War College, consider them a problem to be fixed?

Well, for one thing they have unfashionable views on who ought, or ought not serve in Their Corps, and the conditions under which the Marines should grant them service:

After 17 years, “don’t ask, don’t tell” may finally be on its way out. Even if the Senate resists the latest efforts to end the policy, it appears that most members of the military – from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down – support the law’s repeal.

But there’s one part of the military where resistance is greater than in any other: the United States Marine Corps.

That is clear from early reports about a survey sent to 400,000 active duty and reserve service members on “don’t ask, don’t tell” that will be officially released next month. More than 70 percent of respondents, spanning all branches of the military, said the effect of repealing the prohibition on openly gay troops would be positive, mixed or nonexistent. But about 40 percent of the Marine Corps respondents expressed concern about lifting the ban…

What is it about the Marines? Compared with the other services, why do a disproportionate number of them overtly resist ending “don’t ask, don’t tell”?

Because you don’t fix things that aren’t broken.

I am an openly gay woman, equally comfortable at Quantico and in Dupont Circle. Each of these worlds holds negative stereotypes about the other, and like all stereotypes, they tend to break down on an individual level. Yet for some in both cultures, the notion of a gay Marine seems almost impossible, as though this most masculine and punishing service simply isn’t for gay people.

You don’t need to spend time with Marines, as I have, to realize how important the warrior ethos is to them. Simply turn on the television and see how the Corps markets itself: Do you have what it takes to join the few, the proud? When discussing their high retention numbers with the Marine Corps leadership a few years ago, I was told that the Corps prides itself on not having to pay big bonuses, as the other branches do, to keep people in the force – the honor of being a Marine is all the reward offered or desired. It’s part of why there are no former Marines, only retired Marines. Once you’ve joined the tribe, unless you do something that goes against the Corps’ values of honor, courage and commitment, you never leave.

In the Marines, anything that seems to contradict or challenge that warrior culture is treated like a foreign particle entering a body’s immune system – it is rejected. This visceral reaction will not change if we dismiss those who value these traditions.

I’ve read that last sentence over and over again, and I can’t quite get at what Ms. Schulz is trying to say.

Although I am not closeted, the fact that I am gay does not come up in my job as a professor at the War College. Nor should it. I am not a Marine. I have not been in combat with Marines. The students at the college are the future leaders of the Corps, and I lead respectful debates in class on issues from grand strategy to counterinsurgency operations. I’m sure that my sexuality does not fit with the private views of every Marine. But it doesn’t have to. I was hired by the college as a professional and honored as the 2010 outstanding Marine Corps University civilian professor. In my experience with the Marines, professionalism trumps sexuality.

There are many kinds of professionalism: One allows you to engage in open and polite intellectual discourse with people who have sharply different points of view than your own. Another allows you to close with, fix, engage and kill an enemy force in close combat while minimizing the death and destruction visited upon your own forces. Marines know how to do both, Ms. Schulz only knows how to do the former. But that doesn’t stop her from expressing her preferences about how the Corps ought to be manned, trained and equipped.

I am very sympathetic to the strain that the Marine Corps is under and would never support a policy change that I thought would hurt the Corps in a time of war. I have researched the implications of repealing the law, willing to land wherever the facts led me. The argument that we can’t repeal the policy because it would impair troops on the ground from carrying out their missions is specious; the opposition to the policy on practical or logistical grounds is surmountable.

A researcher should always be cautions when the results of her research conforms to her pre-existing preferences, but Ms. Schulz throws caution to the wind: A modest deference to the opinion of those who will – and have – led Marines in actual combat would have been more becoming. And we must take Ms. Schulz at her word that the counter-argument is “specious”: It’s a wonderful word, specious, but it used here as little more than bare assertion, entirely unsupported by the rest of her essay. One senses that it is specious because Ms. Schulz would like it to be so. And it’s fair to note that the details of surmounting practical obstacles and the trivialities of deployed combat logistics are equally omitted from Ms. Schulz’s essay. She is a strategic thinker after all, and details are best left to other people. But all work is easy when someone else has to do it.

Perhaps she’s even right, and if the law is changed she will no doubt be proven so. But a platoon of Marine riflemen in summer uniforms could very likely surmount Mount Everest in a snowstorm, if they had to, and were well led. The question is whether such an endeavor is the best use of their time and efforts, resources being definitionally limited. Would such an endeavor contribute to the successful execution of the mission?

The values of honor, courage and commitment are inseparable from the Marines. By definition, gay and lesbian Marines break one or more of these core tenets every time they have to hide or lie about who they are. Eventually, gay Marines must out themselves by upholding Corps values, or continue compromising the very values that make them Marines.

Non sequitur: A Marine can be honorable, courageous and committed while in the closet, so long as he’s committed to his brothers and sisters in arms, the Corps and his country. More committed, in other words, than he is to himself, or his need to be affirmed, even celebrated in his otherness.

This is the key point that even highly educated civilians like Ms. Schulz always fail to comprehend, and what Marines always intuitively get: It’s not about the individual, not about his rights to self-expression, not about his needs, except in the loosest and most aggregated sense. It’s about what’s best for the unit, what is most likely to make them successful in combat, what will enable the greatest number of them to endure harsh privations, face perilous obstacles and emerge victorious on the other end. I said it before, on the eve of the second battle of Fallujah, but it’s worth repeating: When it comes to combat, Marines don’t fuck around.

The Marine Corps senior leadership get this, and – unlike the flag and general officers of other services, whose acquaintance with close combat is more distant than is their proximity to fashionable academics and politicians – never fail to express their unvarnished opinions.

That might present a problem for academics and politicians, but it’s not the Corps’ problem.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Marines, Neptunus Lex

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