When Marines Reach Their ‘Sell By’ Date

When retired Marines complain about the Corps' direction, the current leadership is not shy about reminding us that they now have the reins and responsibility for the future.

All old soldiers, sailors, and marines eventually reach a “sell by” date, and I think I recently reached mine. A quarter of a century after retirement, the culture of active duty has changed beyond my recognition.

This realization struck me as I read the statements of some senior Marine Corps generals at the Modern Day Marine Exposition and their subsequent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

Lieutenant General Karsten Heckl, the Deputy Commandant for Development and Integration, recently touted the deployment of a new Marine Corps radar system as part of the new Force Design doctrine. He emphasized that Marines are shifting focus from traditional combat roles to specializing in “sensing and passing data.”

That is certainly a modern notion, but it leads me to wonder what kind of recruits the modern Marine Corps will be looking for.

Recruiting Marines

When I graduated high school nearly 60 years ago, I thought I wanted to be a pilot. However, as I pursued my dream, I realized that I lacked the persistent attention to detail needed on long cross-country flights and that, as a passenger, I would probably not want the likes of me piloting the airplane.

I had joined the Marines as an officer candidate with the original intention of being a Marine aviator. While at the Officer Candidates School, I ran into some exceptional Marine Corps ground combat officers who introduced me to a whole new world.

I realized that you could actually blow stuff up and set fire to things without getting thrown into jail. I was hooked; I had found my niche.

Most of my fellow ground combat officers had been high school jocks, farm boys who grew up hunting and fishing, or had relatives in the Corps. They appreciated the culture and ethos.

A majority of the best enlisted Marines we led came from similar backgrounds. I am not sure that many of them would respond to recruiting slogans such as “we’re looking for a few good sensors” or “if everyone could sense and pass on data, we wouldn’t be the Marines.”

However, our modern generals are closer in age to today’s demographic and may understand the recruiting pool better than I do. I wish Lieutenant General Heckl good luck in this endeavor.

US Marine Corps Lance Cpl. fires an M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle during a live-fire deck shoot
US Marine Corps Lance Cpl. fires an M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle during a live-fire deck shoot aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) in the Pacific Ocean April 6, 2024. Photo: Cpl. Joseph Helms/US Marine Corps

Barracks Crisis

Another revelation came from Major General James Adams of Requirements and Programs. The general was addressing the recent crisis in Marine Corps barracks housing and trying to explain how the debacle occurred. He believes that, under the former commandant, the Marine Corps had over-invested in equipment for Force Design and under-invested in quality of life.

Deputy Commandant for Installations and Logistics, Major General David Maxwell, would have none of it. He manned up and took full responsibility for not having communicated the seriousness of the barracks situation to the commandant.

He promised to rectify it by hiring civilian dorm managers to square things away. Presumably, there will be a computer system to report problems in Installations and Logistics so he and his successors can keep the commandant informed.

Management and Leadership Philosophy

This marks a sea change in the Corps’ management and leadership philosophy. Back in the day, every Marine Corps leader, from squad leader to division commander, was responsible for the maintenance of their barracks as well as the rest of the care and feeding of their Marines.

Colonels and general officers frequently toured the spaces and asked questions like, “how’s your chow?” and “are the heads (latrines) working?” The Marines I remember were not shy about letting them know when things were fouled up.

However, all was not beer and skittles. In the post-Vietnam budget cutbacks, we were often forced to buy ammunition rather than toilet paper and paint, but at least everyone in the chain of command knew what the problems were.

Shortly after his inauguration, President Ronald Reagan asked sitting commandant General Robert Barrow how the Marine Corps was doing. The general told him in no uncertain terms, and things changed immediately.

When retired Marines complain about the current direction of the Corps, the leadership is not shy about reminding us that they now have the reins and responsibility for the future.

They are also not shy about reminding active duty Marines that the leadership knows best. Consequently, there is no one left to tell them how things really are in “no uncertain terms.”

Headshot Gary AndersonGary Anderson served as the Chief of Plans (G-5) of the Marine Corps Expeditionary Force responsible for the Indo-Pacific area.

He lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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