Be faithful to the Marines

Not long after Gen. Jim Amos was announced as the next commandant of the Marine Corps, a past commandant advised, “Get your ‘on bended knee’ speech ready,” meaning Marines were in for another fight to defend their roles, missions and their budget.

In spite of fame from the Pacific Islands campaigns, unification battles following World War II threatened the Marines’ role and even their existence. Marines fought back, and, in a seminal event, Commandant Alexander Vandegrift of Guadalcanal appealed directly to Congress with a speech that included the following: “The bended knee is not a tradition of our Corps. If the Marine as a fighting man has not made a case for himself after 170 years of service he must go. But I think you will agree with me that he has earned the right to depart with dignity and honor, not by subjugation to the status of uselessness and servility planned for him by the War Department.” 

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Marines, after a hard fight, prevailed, and their structure and missions were enshrined in congressional legislation, preventing the “War Department,” soon to be the Department of Defense (DOD), from turning the Marines into the Navy’s police force as President Truman had desired.

Today, even after war-changing victories in Iraq’s Anbar Province and the turning of the tide in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, the future of the Marines is again in doubt as defense drawdowns loom.

Victories fade and the critical need to address the deficit is generating calls from across the political spectrum for cuts in the Defense budget. Panels and defense pundits have called for reduction or elimination of key Marine programs such as the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), F-35B, V-22 and ships that support the Marine’s amphibious assault mission. Along with the program cuts come proposals to roll back end strength and reduce military benefits.

The EFV has been canceled, the F-35B is on probation and the V-22, in spite of its sterling combat and safety record since going to war in 2007, is continually threatened with termination. The Navy, with troubles of its own and supported by defense experts who believe, like Omar Bradley before Inchon, that another amphibious landing will never occur, is resisting building the 38 amphibious ships the Marines need.

Despite these threats to equipment, potential cuts to personnel programs could do the most harm. People are expensive, and it is easy to reduce numbers to generate savings. People are approximately half the military’s budget when you consider enlistment bonuses, pay, quality of life programs, retirement benefits and healthcare; for the Marines it is 60 percent. And, unlike the V-22 or EFV, there are few lobbying groups for people.

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With cuts unavoidable, there must be a real debate on the future roles of the military with everyone at the table. We are coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan with statements of “we are not going to do this again” abounding. And for the first time we are considering reducing defense spending on the base budget, not because of a decrease in the threats to our nation, but to address the deficit. 

We tend to forget that our enemies have a say. Non-state extremist cells continue to plot massive attacks, peer competitors are rising and our addiction to oil requires military capabilities to ensure the flow continues. The world is not becoming any safer, and we must shape our military correctly to ensure our security.

The Marines will not make their case for continued relevance “on bended knee” but on their value. With only 8.5 percent of the DOD budget, Marines provide 31 percent of ground combat forces, 12 percent of fixed-wing attack aircraft, and 19 percent of attack helicopters, giving, literally, the most bang for the buck.

However, the most compelling reason for continuing a capable Marine Corps remains the American people. They want their Spartans. The warrior ethos of “everyman a rifleman” continues to resonant along with the belief that Marines’s ability to adapt to any mission and get to the gunfight fast provides the nation with its most flexible combat force.

Castellaw retired as a lieutenant general after a 36-year career in the United States Marine Corps. His last assignments on active duty were in the Pentagon, where he oversaw Marine Aviation and the Marine Corps budget creation and execution. He is a member for the Consensus for American Security.