Corruption in the Corps?

In an earlier column, "Two Marine Corps," I alluded to the increasing corruption I see at Quantico and in Headquarters Marine Corps. A number of Marines have asked me what I meant by that. Are Marines taking envelopes of money under the table? Are defense contractors flying them to Vegas for free weekends of poker, booze and floozies?

Well, floozies are usually a big draw with Marines, but that is not the kind of corruption I am talking about. Even most Congressmen know better than to take money under the table; it is much safer to wait until they retire, then get paid off by the interests they served, often with well-remunerated positions on boards of directors.

The corruption I had in mind is more subtle, and perhaps also more dangerous. It is corruption of institutional purpose.

When I first came to Washington in 1973 to join the staff of Senator Robert Taft, Jr. of Ohio, I assumed naïvely that our armed forces defined themselves in terms of winning battles, campaigns and wars. Senator Taft thought that is what they should be about, which is why working for him was both a pleasure and an honor. But I quickly discovered that for three of the four, victory was defined less in military than in bureaucratic and political terms. The Army, the Navy and the Air Force had already lost sight of their institutional purposes. What they were about, at senior levels, was selling programs and getting money from Congress. Whether the program had any relevance to war was not important, so long as it sold.

My wake-up call came when the Navy approached the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which Senator Taft served, with a request for $1.4 billion (in 1974 dollars) for a nuclear-powered "Strike Cruiser." Senator Taft and I had the same response: How do you fight the Soviet Navy, which was largely a submarine navy, with nuclear-powered cruisers? The Navy had no answer, and Taft led the fight to kill the program. The ship was never built, and the Navy has hated me ever since.

At that time, and for many years more, up until the mid-1990s, there was one service that stood out as an exception to the corruption of institutional purpose: the Marine Corps. At all levels, including the most senior, the Marine Corps was still about war, not money. When I began writing on maneuver warfare in 1976, Marines of every rank were interested. They weren’t quite sure what I was talking about – there was then very little literature in English on the evolution of German military doctrine – but if it pertained to war, they felt they should learn. That joint effort of civilians, Marines, and Air Force Colonel John Boyd culminated in the adoption of maneuver warfare as the Marine Corps’ official doctrine when Al Gray became Commandant.

Sadly, the Marine Corps is no longer an exception. As has long been true with the other services, now, if you talk about war at Quantico or HQMC – especially Fourth Generation war, the kind of war Marines are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan – you are neither right nor wrong, you are simply irrelevant. Fourth Generation war does little to justify programs and increase budgets, so it is not of interest. The "real world" is the world of budget politics, not war.

As I said, this type of corruption, corruption of institutional purpose, is subtle. Few Marines, or soldiers, sailors, or airmen for that matter, ever make an explicit, conscious choice to become corrupt in this way. They merely accept the rules of the game as given and play by them, and that is all it takes. As members of hierarchical, bureaucratic organizations, they have been encouraged since their first day at OCS to play by the rules. Thinking about whether those rules were valid was "above their pay grade" – and still is, even when they become generals.

Ironically, corruption of institutional purpose was one of the reasons the Soviet Union fell. It is inherent in socialism, because it is a natural tendency of government bureaucracies. Absent an annual balance sheet that shows either black or red ink, there is little mechanism to keep an institution’s focus on the outside world where its intended purpose lies.

A friend of mine who holds a senior position in the Pentagon gives a briefing around the building in which one slide says, "The Pentagon now controls the world’s largest planned economy." No one blinks. It is fair to say that the American armed forces are now little more than the Soviet refrigerator industry in odd-looking green or blue suits? With individual exceptions, at senior levels and in major headquarters, I think it is. There, the only difference I now see between the Marine Corps and the rest is that the Marines’ dysfunctional refrigerators are somewhat smaller.

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Author: William S. Lind

William Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former congressional aide and the author of many books and articles on military strategy and war.