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Invitation to Chat with the General

In recent weeks, there’s been a lot of talk about talk. Specifically, about the right (?) of military officers to comment publicly on their Commander-in-Chief. Whether yet another 60’s vice–protest as emotional venting and self-expression–has hit the military, may be debated. Thankfully, however, there are other dialogues going on.
Herewith a personal tale, and a short meditation on military statesmanship.

I belong to an excellent, unofficial Internet military news service and chat room (Thanks, Webmaster Tony). Mostly Marines, but we don’t discriminate. Some weeks ago, I posted a few ideas on what civilian society might learn from the military, ethically. Nothing profound or even very well-organized, just your usual invitation to yak.

Two days later, a message appeared with the subject line: “CMC Responds to . . .” Apparently, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General C. C. Krulak, had decided to enter the conversation.

After verifying that the message came from General Krulak’s office, I quickly posted a reply. Several days later, I received another email. General Krulak wanted a mailing address to send me a letter.

First response: Uh-oh. I’ve got him mad and he’s ordering me back to active duty. Marine Barracks Antarctica, if I’m lucky.

Second response: I am having a serious philosophical exchange with a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Who woulda thunk it?

I briefly considered using our exchange as a column, but one of the Commandant’s aides told me that General Krulak considered all private correspondence private.

How quaint, in this age of Tape Your Friends and Leaks While U Wait.

How quaint and (dare we use the term?) how gentlemanly.

Indeed, Chuck Krulak comes from a breed not just quaint but nearly extinct, once characterized by a unique blend of gentlemanly conduct and honor, preppie bonhomie, and muscular Christianity. Son of a famous Marine general, he attended Phillips Exeter and the Naval Academy. Vietnam (two tours). Desert Storm. The right stuff in between and since.

Now, General Krulak has begun the fourth and final year of his tour as Commandant, and assessment of his tenure reveals something utterly remarkable in this age of nothing matters and anything goes.

Since Vietnam, the Marines have, more often than not, gotten Commandants right for their times. These have come in three types: old-fashioned disciplinarians and standard setters (Lou Wilson); innovators (Al Gray); and caretakers (Carl Mundy). Chuck Krulak has managed to combine all three.

Old-fashioned discipline and standards.

While other services lowered their recruiting standards, aiming low and failing even at that, General Krulak raised the requirements and exceeded the goals. He lengthened and toughened boot camp, adding the now famous “Crucible.” No Marine graduates without completing this physical and mental ordeal. He moved to restore discipline in barracks too often given over to disorder, absentee leadership, and alcohol.

Innovation.

He articulated the concept of the “Three Block War,” in which Marines must be ready to serve as humanitarians, peace keepers/enforcers, and warriors. He oriented the Corps toward 21st century combat in Third World urban megasprawls, while simultaneously honing old and developing new amphibious capabilities and skills.

Caretaking.

He maneuvered deftly amid the rocks and shoals of Clinton’s military policies. Sometimes the results were delightful, as when the New York Times showed up at Parris Island to cover female recruits tossing grenades, then portrayed it as yet another successful assault on the last bastion of military machismo. (All recruits get to throw one grenade; the women had been doing it for ages.)

Other responses drew mixed reviews. His heated denunciation of “hazing,” provoked by that televised video of Marines “blood-pinning” wings on new jump-school graduates, occasioned memories of Midshipman Krulak and some of his techniques for handling underclassmen. A recent controversy over whether the Marines employ recruitment quotas remains tendentious.

But he also knew when to dig in. Marine boot camp remains segregated by gender. He opposed unequivocally the Pentagon’s attempts to “get real” about adultery. And he has insisted that Marines maintain the highest personal and professional ethical standards. I’m not the only recipient of an unexpected epistle. His ALMARs (messages meant for all Marines) might profitably be distributed throughout the civilian educational system.

This does not mean, of course, that the Corps has escaped the corrosive effects of the last few years. But it does mean that, in an era when senior officers are too often presumed to be (and too often are) careerist politicians, principled and effective leadership is still possible.

Will Chuck Krulak leave the Marine Corps better than he found it? Of course not. Things were always better in the Old Corps; any lance corporal with ten days in grade can tell you that. Are the Marines still capable of performing their major missions of amphibious operations, forward deployments, and providing PRMs (Positive Role Models) to the other services? Absolutely.

In the end, General Krulak will probably prove to be a transitional Commandant who did one helluva job under difficult circumstances.

Transitional, but also reaffirming. And of more than the traditional military virtues. When Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945, he was preparing a speech urging his countrymen to persevere “with strong and active faith.”

Some Americans still are.

Is anybody noticing?