Leadership: February 11, 2001

Archives

: Natural Born Killers; The U.S. Marines have a macho reputation. And they like it that way. One member of the Clinton administration described the marines as "extremists." Privately, many marines took that as an unintended compliment. Potential recruits see the marines the same way, a bunch of tough, lethal, disciplined troops with impressive uniforms. And since most of the potential recruits for any branch of the military are teenagers, the marines have a natural appeal. If you need any convincing, just take note of the kinds of music and movies teenagers like, and the fact that the marines have the least trouble meeting their recruiting goals. Further proof can be found by attending the recruiting presentations regularly held in many high schools. Each of the services gets up and makes their pitch. The army, air force and navy rattle off all the goodies they offer, like travel to foreign countries, money for college, career training. Many of the students nod off. Then the marine sergeant gets up and shows a short video of tough looking teenage marines storming beaches, jumping out of armored vehicles and helicopters and generally behaving like natural born killers. The sergeant then tells the kids that the marines can only promise them challenges. Not everyone can be a marine and he only wants to recruit those who are up to it. The students are fully awake through all this, and the marines generally end up with more recruits than anyone else. The other NCOs mutter about how they would do better if they had a better looking uniform. 

The marines have another advantage. Just about all marines have combat jobs. The navy provides all the support troops. It's as if the army rangers or paratroopers had their own recruiters. Their pitch would be very similar to the marines, and would get similar results. That idea has been tossed around in the other services, but no one has taken the plunge yet. Yet it's an old idea. For thousands of years, individual military units went out looking for recruits. The idea of one recruiting organization for everyone is relatively new. In the past, each regiment or ship had it's own small recruiting staff, and the new guys were generally taken from the same area. This was a big help for unit cohesion, which is today called "team building." Commanders have known for thousands of years that, in the thick of combat, the principle motivation is men fighting for each other, for their friends and "team mates." Military, and civilian organizations, strive to build this unit cohesion. Few military organizations, or companies, pull it off. Except for the marines. 

What the marines have done is part show biz and part common sense. Everyone notices the snappy dress uniforms and military bearing of marines. There's also that cocky attitude. And career marines are expected scowl at the camera when official photos are taken. All that is the show biz. The common sense angle is the marine's emphasis, in their training and indoctrination, on their main job; ground combat. Get ready for that and you get fewer marines killed when you get into a fight. Even though the navy supplies many of the support functions, many marines are not in combat jobs. Yet it's a tradition that "every marine is a rifleman." Non-combat marines spend part of each year going through infantry drills. The older NCOs repeat the stories of how, in the past, marine cooks and clerks were thrown into the line when the situation got desperate. And the marines relish a desperate situation. They have favorite maxims like, "there's no such thing as being surrounded, but there are times when you can attack in any direction."

But soldiering has changed for most of the other troops in the world. It's fashionable to play down grim and costly ground combat in favor of precision weapons and push button warfare. For this reason, the marines are seen as a bunch of roughneck throwbacks. Yet, even today, in any of the two dozen wars being fought around the world, the troops who are the most successful are the ones that operate most like the marines. What the marines are may not be fashionable, but when you have to get close to the enemy, what they do works.