Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger is facing vociferous opposition, allegedly from all living retired Marine four-star generals.
His crime? To operationalize the comments of his predecessor, Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, who in 2017 observed that the Corps no longer was “organized, trained, or equipped” to fight against a conventional peer or near-peer enemy.
Berger’s Force Design 2030 outlines his vision to “adapt, remain relevant, and outmaneuver our adversaries,” whether they be Islamofascist irregulars or members of Communist China’s People’s Liberation Army.
His opponents appear to want the Corps to remain a slimmer, smaller version of the U.S. Army.
To his supporters, Berger is a courageous visionary struggling to retain a central role for the Marine Corps in a future fight anywhere in the world. To his many detractors, he is myopically focused on a single threat, willfully dismantling the foundation upon which the Corps’ ethos and professional success rest.
Organizational change is hard, because it calls into question those shared values — the “principles, goals, and standards [considered] to have intrinsic worth” that members of the organization have accepted and internalized.
As historian and Marine Corps veteran Allen Millett noted in the book “The Culture of Military Organizations,” “[t]he Marine Corps … wants to be a community of ‘family’ members bound by loyalties.”
It follows that members who renounce those values endanger not only themselves but the entire “family unit;” group survival demands that the offender be publicly rejected and ostracized.
The tone of retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper’s attack on Berger’s plan takes exactly this approach. He argues that, should Berger’s reforms take hold, the Corps “will become something unrecognizable to those legions of Marines who went before.”
In his book “Leading Change,” John Kotter recommended eight steps for proposed changes to become enduring transformations. Arguably, Berger failed to include the second step, “create a guiding coalition,” by not bringing in every retired Marine general officer with an interest in the project.
Setting aside for a moment the difficulties of coming to a consensus on such a momentous plan using a committee of dozens, retired Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold observed that, “it was apparent that course had been set and counsel [from beyond a small circle] was not needed or accepted.”
What Newbold and others, notably former Secretary of the Navy and U.S. Senator James Webb, conveniently have downplayed is that, far from having sprung the changes on an unsuspecting Corps or inattentive Congress, Berger and his supporters did yeomen’s work in communicating the need for change and the justifications for specific decisions.
At its root, opposition to Force Design 2030 appears to derive from a perception that Berger’s plan challenges the Corps’ culture and is “antithetical to the Marine Corps’ sense of identity.”
Although to date only two authors have invoked former commandant Gen. Alexander Vandegrift’s 1947 “No Bended Knee” speech to the Senate Armed Services Committee, such allusions permeate the narratives of Berger’s opponents, who bemoan the supposed loss of the Corps’ status and reputation as “a homogeneous, all-encompassing ‘force in readiness’ that can go anywhere and fight anyone on any level short of nuclear war.”
Despite retired Gen. Anthony Zinni’s prediction that Berger’s plan “to convert the whole Marine Corps to one concept of employment” is wrong-headed, an identical decision is what created the very foundation on which the Corps’ current identity rests.
During the 1933–1934 academic year, the students and faculty of the Marine Corps Staff College developed a completely new doctrine, aligned with War Plan Orange, in order to prevent the Corps from becoming simply an adjunct of the Army. In doing so, those long-ago Marines created the very precedent that Berger now follows.
This is exactly what the Department of Defense and federal legislation expect him to do.
Title 10 of the federal legal code stipulates that the Marine Corps “shall be organized, trained, and equipped to provide fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with supporting air components, for service with the fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.”
Note that the code does not specify the make-up or specific capabilities of the combined-arms formations to be included.
Finally, it must be acknowledged that every one of Berger’s retired Marine general officer opponents boasts a career path that bears far more congruence to those of their U.S. Army contemporaries than their Marine antecedents. Since the Korean War, Marines have fought in ways that have made the Corps indistinguishable from the United States Army.
The United States Marine Corps has not conducted an operationally significant amphibious forced-entry operation in combat since Sept. 15, 1950, when the 1st Marine Division (and the US Army’s 7th Infantry Division!) landed at Inchon, Korea.
The United States does not need and cannot afford two armies with identical capabilities.
Berger’s plans aim to return the Corps to its traditional maritime focus and identity, a move that, like the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi in February 1945, “will ensure the survival of the Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”
Berger has taken to heart U.S. Army Gen. Eric Shinseki’s admonition that, “If you don’t like change, you’ll hate irrelevance.”
It’s time for his critics to do so as well.
Tom Hanson is a retired infantry Army colonel with over 28 years of service. He earned a Ph.D. in history from The Ohio State University and is a professor of military history at the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies.
The opinions above are his alone, and do not reflect the position of the School of Advanced Military Studies, Army University or the U.S. Army.
Have an opinion?
This article is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the authors. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please email Marine Corps Times Editor Andrea Scott.
Want more perspectives like this sent straight to you? Subscribe to get our Commentary & Opinion newsletter once a week.