Plain Speaking, Politics, USMC, War

USMC Commandant Berger: Is This a Crack in the Dam, Or is it Just More Fluff?

I’m pleased that this post, which I wrote yesterday (9/1/2021) has been promoted to the main (public) feed on Ricochet (you can view it here, and if you find the conversation interesting or stimulating, you can sign up for a free-month trial (after which–if you find it not worth your while–you can easily cancel here). Becoming a Ricochet member also gives you access to the (behind the paywall) member feed, which is where some of the most challenging and explosive conversation takes place.)

In any event, and because it’s mine, here’s the post.  I’d be delighted if anyone reading this would weigh in:

I just spent an hour watching the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps in a presentation sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in which General David H. Berger chats with Seth Jones of the SCIS and discusses “the current state of the Marine Corps, future demands, and the implications on force posture and force design.”  Along the way, they find time to talk a little about the recent events in Afghanistan, which is what prompted this post.

The main event starts about 5 minutes in with a discussion of force design as part of a ten-year plan with China as the biggest challenge and the Indo-Pacific as the primary theater and the difficulties of moving along within current budget constraints and risk management, while juggling capability requirements and capacity needs.

Following is an interesting discussion of unmanned systems, on all surfaces, AI systems, human teams, wargaming,  the overarching architecture that ties all this together, and the special challenges of implementing them in the Indo-Pacific theater.

At about 21:15, the discussion moves on to Afghanistan.  Berger is asked about an “inspiring” letter he recently wrote to Marines about whether or not their service in Afghanistan was “worth it,” with the intention of reassuring them that it was.  Jones asks him again, “was it worth it?”  Berger’s response, which is what triggered the question in the post title–“Is this a crack in the dam, or is it just more fluff?”–is as follows (emphasis mine):

“While it’s relatively fresh in our minds, we need the honest, open critique, or a commission … that cracks open what were the options that were available, who made what decisions at what time, not so we can penalize or hang somebody from a yardarm, but actually so we can learn.

On the Marine Corps side yesterday and today, we’re going back through the Holloway Commission(1), the Long Commission(2)  to try to figure out a framework or how can we study, to your point, what went right, what went wrong, what can we learn going forward.”

The events of the past 10 days have not at all altered my view of ‘was it worth it.’  Here’s how I know.  To a person, if you were to go to Walter Reed right now and visit a Marine or a sailor or a soldier who was wounded, and you ask them that question, they would respond with “I know it is because I can tell you how many people we processed through our evacuation control center and put on a plane.”  This is their yardstick.  They’re not political….and to them, that’s worth it.  There’s a baby who’s going to grow up in the United States, never going to meet that soldier who pulled him over the canal, but they’re going to live a free life here…so is it worth it?  Yes.

Were there decisions that were made that we ought to go back and scrub? Absolutely, yeah. Should we both go back and look at the options themselves? Yeah, absolutely. How did this surprise us that, in the span of 11 days, it’s so fundamentally changed? Those are things critically as a government, as a military, we absolutely ought to unpack.

It does not, for me, change anything in that letter.  And my confirmation is the service members who were there.  Who would do it again, because they feel like they saved lives…so to them it was worth it.”

The conversation continues with a discussion of the possible political structure of the new Afghan government, and other flashpoints around the world, and the General is asked how he will balance the various threats around the world. He acknowledges that we almost always get wrong the assessment of where the next big threat is coming from (does not consider “actual war” with China anywhere near the top), so again, a balancing challenge.  He says that there is no military solution to deter either China or terrorism, that both will require a “whole government” approach–because that is what China etc. already does.  We need a “coherent, stitched together effort” with the “elements of national power all brought together.”

The discussion moves to learning to match up deterrents to contemporary threats–what we think is a ready force may not work against another type of lethal force that we just aren’t ready for at all.  Examples–China, Syria, Ukraine, and more.  We have to stop thinking in “Cold War” terms, need different forms of deterrence.  Thinking about–is there such a thing as “deterrence by detection?”  Convincing an adversary that there’s nothing they can do that we can’t see or shine a light on?  Not sure, but pretty clear that what we are doing now in the way of deterrence actually isn’t.

Next up: USMC/Naval integration.  The best evidence of this is the evolving force design that marries up USMC capability with Navy capability into a maritime capability that a joint force commander needs.  A discussion of joint exercises and logistics and the unique challenges maintaining contemporary supply lines and successful logistics operations in an interconnected and distributed world.  Need for defense-in-depth to counter and contest efforts to disrupt.  “Logistics” is the key.  We can have the best fighting force, but if our logistics are disrupted, we can be brought to our knees.  Perhaps a return to “foraging.”

Return to the subject of wargaming and Quantico’s new Warfighting Lab. Designed to give the ability to test-drive concepts and practice operational plans at the highest level.  The software capabilities are what makes it invaluable, and when tied to other wargaming centers allows us to wargame joint capabilities in a larger framework.

The last couple of questions: 1) thoughts on screening and evaluating recruits in order to decrease the number who wash out.  Looking at cognitive, physical, resilience attributes.  More than just the traditional ASVAB and strength tests. Have to make some fundamental changes–opening up the marketplace of USMC jobs, rather than strictly rotating through narrowly-based assignments.  Possibly review rank at which those who come into the military with considerable experience in a field are brought in–must they all start as a Private?  Or what if I’m a Marine who wants to go do something else for a couple of years and then come back at rank?  Could there be a provision for that?  Berger does not believe that the existing manpower structure of the Corps will suit it going forward.

The discussion concludes with Berger once again commending the serving Marines for their service, especially those who were deployed to Kabul.

I found the discussion interesting, the General refreshingly humble, and it was an enormous pleasure–for once–to see a highly-placed representative of the military who spoke for an hour about military matters and who didn’t once mention inclusion, diversity, white rage, transgender rights or any of the various other irrelevancies and distractions that usually accompany their remarks, but who seemed–at least in this interview–to be honest, forthright, and competent.

Is it possible that the United States Marine Corps is going to, even gingerly, open up this can of worms?

(1)The Holloway Commission investigated the failed attempt to rescue 52 staff members held captive at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, in April 1980 (links from

(2) The Long Commission scrutinized the failures that led to the 1983 suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. (links from

1 thought on “USMC Commandant Berger: Is This a Crack in the Dam, Or is it Just More Fluff?”

  1. From some of the discussion on Ricochet, related to my interest in the subject of military history in general and the USMC in particular, I offer this:

    I suppose I blame my father. And Mr. Right. My brother didn’t come along until I was 14, and I was the oldest, growing up in a rather insular society (Nigeria in the 1950s), where the few European children that there were, were in a pretty close-knit group. No-one treated us like children–in the sense of babying us–and it was a very politically-charged environment in which most of the Europeans males (I didn’t know many Americans in that part of my life) were either still active, or ex-military men like Dad, and I absorbed the culture and picked up a range of rather odd (for a young girl) interests. Dad’s suggested reading material for his daughter, like C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, or the complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle probably didn’t help, and certainly cemented a lifelong interest in history and mysteries. As I grew older, and ventured into the realm of (rather tasteful) bodice-rippers, I always preferred those with a sound historical basis such as Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army, a romance about the Battle of Waterloo which was, for decades, on the required reading list for the Officers’ Training Course at Sandhurst (may still be for all I know), because of its incredibly accurate recounting of events, and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series.

    While he was never on active duty himself, Mr. Right considered his years in the USMC formative, and kept up an interest in the Corps. Although I’m not sure of his own connection with it, but it must have had something to do with his experiences in WWII, Dad was always very pro United States Marines–and he and Mr. Right developed a close friendship once they finally met (long story). So I’ve had a soft spot for the USMC and the many Marines I’ve known, all the way back to olden times (wrote a bit about that, a few years ago, here).

    If anyone were to even begin to sort out the awful, disgraceful, sorry spectacle of the last several weeks, it would warm the cockles of my heart were it to be the United States Marines. Wishful thinking, maybe. But sometimes, that’s what keeps me going.

    PS: I wouldn’t be caught dead spending hours of my life I’ll never get back listening to Thoroughly Modern Milley. Or Lloyd Austin. Or….

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