Small Wars Journal

Professionals Debate

Mon, 01/14/2013 - 11:56am

Editor's Note: LtGen Neller posted this short message at the Marine Corps Gazette blog. A slightly modified version is posted here as his message may be of interest to the broader community.

Thanks to all who checked out my blog entry entitled, “New Year’s Resolutions for Marines.”  I especially want to thank Marine Sergeant Stan Mitchell of Alpha 1/8 circa 1999, who provided some great feedback and insight on training Marines with some specific recommendations on things to do and just as importantly things not to do while in the field.  I do have to say I was more than a little disappointed that Sgt Mitchell was the only one to come back on the blog.  Not that I thought what I wrote was good or even worthy of response . . . though I did think the piece did have some clever and “pithy” commentary on ‘Marineisms,’ and some of our shortfalls, as both individuals and an institution.  Now I am aware, from my large and capable editorial staff,  that there some “cyber sidebars” on Twitter and other forums used by our more technologically endowed Marines who had some strong views on what I had presented, particularly in the area of training.  Upon hearing this I offered up to an intermediary to provide my personal email for those who wanted to discuss off line their thoughts.  One Officer, an Army Officer, did contact me and we had a good exchange of thoughts on training tasks, higher taskings and finding “white space.”  But sadly, no Marines.

So what does this all mean, other than what I “blogged” was of marginal value and not worthy of a response?   Should I have made one of the resolutions, “To do all I can as a leader to foster a spirit of discussion and learning among all Marines, regardless of rank, did better our Corps?”  Look, I know that many/most are not going to take me on if they disagree out of deference to rank/seniority.  I find that troubling since if I am willing to put myself out on to the “blogosphere” then I knowingly accept the “wrath of the crowd.”  If I didn’t want push back, I wouldn’t have engaged.  My goal is, I believe, the same as all who write: to challenge, discuss, and work to solve the issues of the day. To make this Corps better and to hold all accountable to their responsibilities as leaders of Marines.  If we as an institution ever lose that willingness to take on a “bad idea” or to “stand up to or push back on an incompetent or illegal act” then we will not be the organization I know we are capable of being. Like all other qualities in Marines, we cannot expect this willingness to pop up out of thin air the moment it is needed. It needs to be fostered and encouraged by leaders and honed in discourse. So, Marines, do not be afraid to engage intelligently and tactfully. And leaders, never discourage your Marines from speaking their minds in a professional forum.

Again Marines, thanks for being whom and what you are.  Keep the faith.



Tue, 01/15/2013 - 10:56pm

I know this is little off topic but have you heard of DARPA’s Fast Adaptable Next-Generation Ground Vehicle (Fang) challenge? This is an attempt by DARPA to build an Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV), maybe as a replacement for the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) although that is not a stated goal of the challenge. After reading all the rules of the challenge it seems to me that it is not innovation DARPA is after but a contractor who will work hard for much less money than the established commercial contractors, such as Raytheon or Boeing. The actual AAV will be built in Washington, D.C. and Pittsburg PA. If this were really about innovative manufacturing and design wouldn't this be built on Guam, Hawaii, Okinawa or some other place in the Pacific where it could immediately be put the test in real world conditions? Maybe I am wrong but it does not seem to me that this effort will produce a quantum leap in AAV technology. My fear is that it will produce thousands of malfunctioning vehicles that will be thrown at the Marine Corps during some crisis that requires a large amount of AAVs.

The real problem with the FANG effort is that it will not have a great amount of participation from individual Marines, if it has any participation from Marines at all. The reason for this is because Marines do not know how to use modeling and simulation technology to refine and test their ideas. This could be easily rectified using the simulation centers located on most major Marine bases. Classes could be taught after hours to Marines on how to use Computer Aided Design (CAD) software to build models. The Marines can be shown how to use simulation environments to test their models. The effort required in learning to use modeling and simulation software is no more complicated than learning to use a gaming counsel. The benefit to the Marine Corps is that the really great ideas that Marines have concerning their equipment and training can be instantiated in a usable and understandable format. Additionally, the Marine Corps will have a cadre of individuals trained in modeling and simulation techniques to ensure the results of a contest like the FANG challenge do not end up being pushed into service with catastrophic results.

A short video about the FANG effort can be seen at;


Thank you, Sir, for engaging in these forums. I appreciate it.

I tried to engage, too. I wrote four essays identifying serious problems with the way we create toolsets to prepare for war. I called for reform. I offered specific suggestions on how to fix things, suggestions that were in part learned from working on the ground floor of several of the most important innovations in the war, and learned in part from my consulting work at many different world-class corporations in several different industries. After about two dozen peer reviews (including some of Col John Boyd's closest associates), I submitted my essays through HQMC/CNO for official approval.

Not one active duty officer responded in any way--at least none that I could discern. Of course, I predicted this would happen. The pattern for attacking the careers of those who call for reform has been well-established, so I followed all the rules. That left the Establishment only with "Ignore" as an option, because if anyone actually took my suggestions seriously, the Pentagon Establishment would have to think about meaningful reform. A GS-15s might lose his job.

And so it is an open question in my mind whether active duty Marine officers really want to challenge, discuss, and work to solve the issues of the day, particularly those issues that Mr. Gates repeatedly exhorted us to discuss and solve. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the Pentagon Establishment cannot be too careful not to notice calls for reform.

Very Respectfully,

Plymouth, MN


Tue, 01/15/2013 - 9:19pm

In reply to by SWJED

Your experience might be misleading. There's quite a bit of frank and objective discussion by soldiers and other branches. Gentile comes to mind immediately but there are a slew of articles being written about COIN, command climate, suicide, retention, the path forward etc.

Marines are sure to be in the mix but it's hubris to think the Corps is more frank. On the contrary, if one looks at issues like women in the Infantry, addressing alcohol use or punishing misbehavior (think of the urinating incident) the Corps has disturbingly been on point when it comes to reinforcing the PC solution.

Well, I am a retired Marine reservist with a lot of active duty years, both in peace and in war as well as seemingly never ending deployments. My experience is that for the most part, Marines are well ahead of their sister service members in regards to speaking frankly and objectively about sensitive issues. That said, this talk is often conducted in forums that have the caveat "not for attribution". We need to do better here, most of the outspoken give a damn about our Corps and these are the type of people we need to keep in our fold.


Tue, 01/15/2013 - 6:46am


I am not a Marine and to be fair my knowledge of the USMC is very limited. Caveats aside now.

We often read on SWJ of the need for 'critical thinking' which is reflected in your message here, this needs people to listen and respond fairly. You say 'do not be afraid to engage intelligently and tactfully'. What evidence is there for this being true? I fear the lack of responses to your 'Resolutions' indicates your audience are submissive listeners and have simply avoided "wrath" from nearby.

All institutions should want to 'Make 'X'(this Corps) better', alas that is more often corporate and bureaucratic rhetoric. In the USMC what has been made better from the ideas, critical thinking and the like BEFORE senior officers got involved, maybe claiming a little or more of the credit?

How often has the USMC disciplined, formally, those who have discouraged 'Marines from speaking their minds'? That is your task to ENABLE the professional discussion of making things better. Task is the wrong adjective, it should be another New Year's resolution - even if slightly late for the New Year.

Jack Gander

Mon, 01/14/2013 - 6:22pm


Your blog post made the rounds but I don’t think it contained many sporty issues to stimulate debate. I received your post on an email chain and forwarded it to a field grade in my office. Our collective take-away was it was great to see a General Officer engaging the force, it was interesting to read what phrases irk General Officers and Sgt. Mitchell has a great sense of humor! How can one argue with the resolution to PT differently?

Regarding using the phrase “to be honest”, how do you reconcile the issue of Marines, particularly Marine Officers, only telling the truth, with the Marine Corps as an institution being less than honest or distorting facts for the “good of the corps”? For example, a cut to program X or reduction of the defense budget by y% results in national security going to hell or the Marine portion of the budget is only X% when in reality it is X% + Y% (blue in support of green $). It seems as though the Marine Corps engages in the same institutional "less-than-honesty", as do the other services, simply to defend their share of the fiscal pie. I think the Marine Corps’ institutional paranoia only makes the issue worse.

Also, about two years ago a Col gave some of the navy staff a quick PME on how the HQMC staff works. He explained the time for honest debate within the MC on a major decision is before the issue gets to the CMC. Once the CMC makes a decision, the staff’s job is to defend his position at all costs – regardless of the facts or evidence presented to them. This puts individuals in tough positions – to defend positions that are questionable at best. The system, at times, prohibits honest discourse and on occasion “to be honest” makes complete sense.