February 24, 2013
Marine Generals Showing Rare Dominance Of Top Jobs
'The Marine Corps is clearly punching above its weight,' says one expert.
By Jim Michaels, USA Today
When U.S. and NATO top brass gathered in Kabul to mark a change in the
top leadership this month, all three American generals lined up on
stage were Marines.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country, but for the second consecutive
time President Obama nominated a Marine to lead the war there. Joining
the outgoing and incoming commanders on stage was Marine Gen. Jim
Mattis, chief of the command that oversees all forces in the Middle
Little noticed outside defense circles, it was a historic moment for
the Marine Corps, a seagoing service whose humble beginnings were to
provide security and landing parties for Navy ships.
"The Marine Corps is clearly punching above its weight," said Peter
Mansoor, a retired Army colonel and military history professor at Ohio
State University. "This is a very unusual and singular moment in
Marine Corps history."
The Marines are aware of just how singular it is.
With 195,000 troops it is the smallest service of the armed forces,
representing only 8% of the overall Defense Department budget. Until
World War II, the Marines didn't have an active duty four-star
Today it has six four-star generals, a record number, serving in
prominent positions around the world. Gen. John Allen, who stepped
down as commander in Afghanistan, was the first Marine to command an
entire theater of war.
The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, said it was not
something that happened by design. "We've just got a string of very
seasoned combat generals," Amos said in a recent speech at the
American Enterprise Institute.
Analysts agree, saying the Marine generals are chosen on an individual
basis as commands have to be filled.
Still, they point to a couple factors that have contributed to the
growing prominence of the Marine Corps: The wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan played to the strength of Marine officers, and the
emphasis on joint commands mean Marines have more opportunities to
take jobs outside their service.
The joint commands "got the leadership the recognition that it has
deserved," said Walt Ford, editor of Leatherneck magazine and a
retired Marine colonel.
The success Marines have had in top positions may also have something
to do with their leadership training, Mansoor said.
"I think there is something about how Marines approach professional
military education that produces officers with a broad view of the
world and who are flexible and can deal with the very different
challenges of the type of wars we're fighting today," he said.
"With a few exceptions, the Army tends to breed good company men,"
The Marine Corps is as much a mindset as it is a set of capabilities.
The service bills itself as an expeditionary force, able to get to hot
spots fast with lots of firepower. But its reputation is built on
something less tangible: fighting spirit, or what Marines call esprit
de corps .
"Marines don't celebrate their technology to the same extent as the
Navy and Air Force," said Aaron O'Connell, a Marine reserve officer
and author of Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps .
That spirit may have made the Marines more insular in the past, but
today it has helped them rise to prominent positions as the United
States battles irregular enemies far from its shores.
"I think the Marines have a cultural advantage over the other services
when it comes to dealing with chaos and uncertainty," O'Connell said.
The rising prominence of Marine leaders has not gone unnoticed by the
other services. "There is a big competition for the U.S. commands,"
The Marine Corps is particularly sensitive to competition from the
other services, who in the past have been behind efforts to eliminate
or shrink the corps. The Marine Corps has survived 20 such attempts
since its founding in 1775, O'Connell said.
The Corps' popularity on Capitol Hill and among the American public
has always saved it, but that history has infused Marines with a
healthy dose of paranoia. "The Marine Corps more than any other
service is forever vigilant to threats to its existence," O'Connell
Even today Marines worry about getting complacent. "Most Marines look
at it as a bubble we won't see again for a long time," Ford said of
the record number of four-star generals.
In fact, upcoming retirements will likely reduce the number of Marine
generals. Allen announced this week that he plans to retire, turning
down a nomination to be the top NATO officer in Europe. Allen's likely
replacement is Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the Associated
Press reported, citing an unnamed senior NATO official.
Mattis will step down as chief of Central Command and will be replaced
by an Army general, the Pentagon has said.
Still, analysts say the Marine Corps can finally let go of its fears.
"The Marine Corps should not worry about its organizational survival,"
Mansoor said. "The American people have embraced it as an