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Slide into mediocrity rocks Marines to corps

(Ricks posts an anonymous commentary from a Marine):

Why are we getting out? It’s about the low standards.

We joined because we wanted to be part of an elite organization dedicated to doing amazing things in defense of our nation. We wanted to make a contribution to something great, to be able to look back at a decisive chapter in American history and say “yeah, I was part of that.” We joined the Corps because if we were going in to the fight, we wanted to serve with the best. …

It causes a deep, bitter pain to acknowledge that I don’t think this is the organization in which I currently serve. The reason we’re getting out is because the Marine Corps imposes a high degree of stress, yet accepts Mission Failure so long as all the boxes on the list are checked.

I’m talking about the Field Grade Intelligence Officer in Afghanistan who didn’t know who Mullah Omar was. I’m talking about a senior Staff NCO in the intelligence community who could not produce a legible paragraph. I’m talking about a Battalion Commander who took pride in the fact that he had done zero research on Afghanistan, because it allowed him to approach his deployment with “an open mind.” I’m talking about contractors, some of whom were literally paid 10-fold the salary of my junior Marines, who were incapable of performing basic tasks and functionally illiterate.

The problem is not so much that these individuals pop up every now and then, as every organization has its bad eggs, but rather that we see them passed on through the system, promoted and rewarded. If we are truly the elite organization we claim to be, how do we justify the fact that we allow these individuals to retain positions of immense influence, much less promote through the ranks? How do we justify this endemic tolerance for mediocrity or outright incompetence? …

The biggest issue is that few are willing to acknowledge Mission Failure because doing so is considered “unprofessional,” especially for a lieutenant. As an Army Special Forces veteran I worked with was fond of saying, “you get what you incentivize.” As it currently stands, there is an overwhelming incentive for officers at all levels to simply keep their units looking sharp, turn in rosy, optimistic assessments, keep off the XO’s radar and, above all else, keep from rocking the boat. No matter what becomes of your battlespace, eventually the deployment will end and you can go home. Why risk casualties, a tongue lashing or missed PT time when the reward might not come for years down the road? Why point out that the emperor has no clothes when everyone involved is going to get their Navy Comms and Bronze Stars if we just let him keep on walking down the road.

We should be better than this. … (C)an’t we unanimously agree that sub-par commanders should be weeded out, especially in an organization that calls itself “the finest fighting force on the face of the earth?” The practice of actively relieving (and eventually separating) leaders for under-performance is no panacea, but shouldn’t it at least be a starting point?

I don’t want to be misunderstood. The most extraordinary and talented people I’ve ever met are still serving in the Corps. I live in a wonderful area, I’m well-paid and generally like the people I work with. Given the chance, I would happily deploy again. But looking down the road at what the billet of a Field Grade officer entails, I have to wonder whether the sacrifices will be worth it. Maybe they will. I’ve seen some Field Grade officers who love their jobs and feel like they’re serving a purpose. But I’m not sure I’m willing to take the gamble.

I was told at The Basic School that the most important role as a leader is to say, when everyone is tired and ready to declare victory and just go home, “guys, this isn’t good enough, we have to do better.” I simply don’t see enough leaders willing to say, regarding the things that really matter, “guys, the last eleven years weren’t good enough, the nation needs us to do better.”

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He is the national security reporter for Foreign Policy.

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