The Marine Corps is reinventing itself to reflect America, says top general

Originally published on November 12, 2021 8:03 am

The Marine Corps, the smallest U.S. military force, has plans for a big overhaul designed to address its lack of diversity and problem with retaining troops.

The goal that's driving what amounts to a cultural shift within the service, is for the Marines "to reflect America, to reflect the society we come from," Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition.

It's not a matter of being politically correct or "woke," he said.

The core of America's strength lies in its diversity, Berger said, adding that the same is true for the military.

"Our advantage militarily is on top of our shoulders," he said. "It's not actually our equipment. We are better than anybody else, primarily because we don't all think exactly alike. We didn't come from the same backgrounds."

His new plan, titled Talent Management 2030, outlines measures the Corps will implement to boost recruitment and improve career flexibility. About 75% of troops leave the Marine Corps at the end of their four-year term, the highest turnover rate among the military services.

To compete in an age of cyber warfare and space-based weaponry, the Marines wants to shake its "manpower" model that historically prized youth, physical fitness and discipline over education, training and technical skills. According to the new plan, the aim is to grow a corps that is "more intelligent, physically fit, cognitively mature, and experienced."

"The capabilities that we think we're going to need are a force that's able to operate much more distributed, much more spread out than perhaps we're accustomed to in the past, using a different set of technologies than we had five or 10 or 15 years ago," he said. "I think the people that we bring in will be able to handle the technologies and also the decision-making. It's really more about the decision-making than it is about technology."

But the focus on physical fitness remains important as ever, Berger said, with boot camp demanding "the same challenge for officers and for Officer Candidate School."

It will take time, he said, before the Marine Corps, senior leadership included, starts to look like America, due in part to the fact that the Marines didn't open combat roles to women until 2016, the last military branch to do so. As of 2019, less than 10% of active duty Marines were female. The other services are in the 20 to 25% range.

"We are a purely combat force," he says, a distinction that separates the service from others. "We were built under a different set of circumstances — but that is changing."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

U.S. Marine Corps just celebrated its 246th birthday. It's a service with a strong legacy and a strong culture, but the commandant of the Marine Corps, General David H. Berger, says they could do better. The Marines have a 75% turnover rate, partly because of their recruiting priorities.

DAVID H BERGER: We were the crack troops that had to respond first, and we thought that a younger force was physically stronger, mentally more resilient. And science has proven that not to be true. It actually - cognitively, we don't reach our peak until our mid-20s. And physically, if you look at our fitness scores for Marines, they don't peak until they're 24, 25, 26 years old. So the notion that when they were 17, 18, 19 that they were tougher than anybody else and could bounce back better than anyone else - not true.

MARTIN: So General Berger has proposed a wide-ranging plan to bring in recruits with different kinds of critical thinking and tech skills, train them to be more self-sufficient and give Marines new benefits, like up to a year of parental leave. He says times have changed.

BERGER: We shape the military based on capabilities that we think we're going to need today and into the future. And the capabilities that we think we're going to need - our force is able to operate much more distributed, much more spread out than perhaps we're accustomed to in the past, using a different set of technologies than we had five or 10 or 15 years ago. And I think another aspect of it that's relevant is the competition for people to recruit, on the one hand, but also to retain people as they grow throughout their career.

MARTIN: How do you make the Marine Corps appealing to a more diverse set of candidates?

BERGER: I think it's probably worthwhile just mentioning the things that will not change. At the center of being a Marine - and the difference for our service is that you can't join the Marine Corps; you have to actually become a Marine.

MARTIN: They're still going to boot camp.

BERGER: Still going to boot camp - it will still be hard. Boot camp will remain the same challenge for officers and for Officer Candidate School and for enlisted boot camp. It'll be tough. But I think the people that we bring in will be able to handle the technologies and also the decision-making. It's really more about the decision-making than it is about a technology.

MARTIN: As of 2019, only about 10% of the force was female. The other services are in the 20 to 25% range. Do you see that as a problem?

BERGER: Here's how I would frame it. Up until a few years ago, some portions of the Marine Corps were not open to females. We are a purely combat force. That is one of the differences between us and the other services. We are built for one thing. So I think our percentages to the outsider will look very, very low. But we were built under a different set of circumstances. That is changing.

MARTIN: You know, I covered the Pentagon years ago. And I remember in 2011, in the middle of the debate over whether women could be in combat, there was a lot of resistance, especially from the Marine Corps.

BERGER: Right.

MARTIN: And there were concerns about really specific things. Right? What do you do if a Marine gets pregnant, for one? Or I heard this from senior leadership in the Marine Corps - the potential of eroding, quote, "unit cohesion" if women were allowed on the front lines. Did you hear concerns like that?

BERGER: Oh, absolutely. They're - in 2010, 2011 - we should listen each time to those combat veterans who have concerns. They're looking out for the best of the service, best of the military. But I think their service was in a different time. And we have found ways and all across the military to accommodate what they were concerned about. And it has not affected cohesiveness in a combat unit.

MARTIN: So if you want to recruit more women, you're validating what those concerns were. But at the same time, don't you need to break that narrative that women aren't up to the job?

BERGER: We do. And it's happening right now. But it will take some time before, at the senior levels, you see the numbers of women in senior leadership positions that look - those are the ones, you know, when you and I grow up in an organization, we want to see people above us that kind of look like us and act like us. And we go, we could do that. So the lack, you know, of enough of them to be role models at the very senior levels will take time. But it is coming.

MARTIN: I'm looking right now at the website where the leadership of the Marine Corps appears and your bio and photo...

BERGER: Right.

MARTIN: ...And your leadership team. And they're all white men of a certain age - older. How do you want that perception both externally and internally of what a Marine is to change?

BERGER: The goal - I think as Secretary Austin points out, the goal is to reflect America, to reflect the society we come from. And we do on the front end. That's how it looks when we come into Officer Candidate School and we come into boot camp. But over the course of 30, 35 years, it ends up not looking like what it came in to be. So we have to change that because if at the senior levels there's a lack of that kind of diversity, it's not being politically correct; it's not being woke. Actually, the strength of America is that we don't all look the same, we're not all from the same place, we don't think the same. My experience in 40 years of being a Marine is our advantage militarily is on top of our shoulders. It's not our - actually our equipment. We are better than anybody else primarily because we don't all think exactly alike. We didn't come from the same backgrounds.

MARTIN: It's hard enough to enact policy changes, even harder...

BERGER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...To push for cultural change, which sounds like some of what you're trying to do. Are you meeting resistance?

BERGER: I would say meeting questions. There is genuine concern. I mean genuine, like, sincere concern among some senior leaders and retired Marines that - be careful about messing with the soul, the center inside us, what it is to be a Marine. So their caution to me, I think, is wise. That's wisdom. They're making sure that we don't go adrift. And we're not. The centerpiece, what holds us to being a Marine, will not change.

MARTIN: General David H. Berger, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. We so appreciate your time, General. Thanks.

BERGER: Hey, Rachel, thank you so much for having me on the show. Happy birthday to all Marines.

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