Robert Work is the Rick Grimes of U.S. Marine Corps force design, forever blazing away at faulty ideas. Victories in such an endeavor are uncertain and impermanent. Some bad ideas are like the walking corpses that hounded Rick and his ragtag band of survivors after the zombie apocalypse. No matter how many times you gun them down, ten, a hundred, or a thousand more just like them come shambling toward you. Eventually you run out of ammo, and they overrun you.
Like the walking dead, bad ideas can carry the day. They win when their purveyors repeat them so incessantly that weary defenders throw up their hands in despair, or when witnesses to the debate conclude there must be something to the ghoulish ideas because they are so often expressed.
Call it an inhuman-wave assault, one meant to drown out sound ideas rather than defeat them.
Over at War on the Rocks last week, Work, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who also served as undersecretary of the navy and deputy defense secretary, replied again to undead assertions from a group of retired generals and senior officials. Last year around this time, the retirees in question took to inveighing against Force Design 2030, Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger’s scheme to retool the Marine Corps to wage island warfare as an adjunct to navy fleet operations. The uproar quieted for a time after Work and some of his trusty sidekicks pushed back, but it surged anew this spring.
The title of Work’s recent WOTR piece, which is an excerpt, proclaims that, “The opponents of Marine reform have lost, but won’t move on.” (The full article is available under a more anodyne title at Texas National Security Review. Read the whole thing.)
A Change in Course for the Marine Corps
Force Design 2030 marks the U.S. Marines’ turn back to the sea after two decades of ground combat against insurgents and terrorists. The change has not set well with some 20 retirees, a who’s-who of Marine luminaries who cast themselves as intellectual descendants of past Marine Corps defenders. “Berger’s opponents,” Work writes, “refer to themselves as ‘Chowder II,’ a reference to the original ‘Chowder Society’ formed in 1946 to fight efforts to limit the post-war role of the U.S. Marine Corps — if not eliminate it entirely.”
The line of descent from the Chowder Society is crooked at best. Observes Work, “The original Chowder Society was fighting against external attacks on the Marine Corps that were being made by the U.S. Army, Defense Department leadership, and the Truman administration” (his emphasis).
As Work noted in his first broadside in this debate, which appeared in these pixels a year ago this week, an internal rebellion against Marine Corps policy is unprecedented in the institution’s annals. Work likened Force Design 2030 critics to grandparents asserting custody of their grandchild, usurping the authority of parents and legal guardians in the process. In effect, Chowder II claimed that Gen. Berger had done an end-run around Congress to commence an ill-considered effort to modify the Marine Corps’ force structure. They demanded the effort come to a halt while Congress held hearings.
This was a transparent effort to mire Force Design 2030 in the legislative process. Never mind that Congress has gone along with the redesign initiative since its inception. Berger is not some service chief gone rogue.
Like past entries, Robert Work’s new TNSR essay is a blow-by-blow refutation of the criticisms lofted Berger’s way from Chowderites. Apropos of nothing, I have to congratulate Work on the gentlemanly tone he takes. It stands in contrast to the caustic tone of the Force Design 2030 critiques. He dubs the Chowder II crew “Chowderites.” A less collegial nickname occurred to this loyal son of New England.
Policy and Personnel
The critiques from Chowder II are vague. They are emotional in tone and often plain wrong on the facts. Work’s reply, on the other hand, is empirical and damning. Rather than reprise Work’s article, which speaks for itself, I would venture to guess why we are hearing a crescendo of complaints now. My guess is this: It is because Gen. Berger’s four-year tenure as commandant is almost up, and rumor has it the commandant is among the leading candidates for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — America’s top uniformed military post.
Casting aspersions on Force Design 2030, Berger’s signature force-planning initiative, could be useful from the Chowderites’ standpoint. For one thing, raising a ruckus could discourage the White House from nominating a like-minded successor. It could even discourage a like-minded commandant from forging ahead with the effort. Either would suit Chowderites just fine. For another, new controversy could damage Berger’s candidacy for Joint Chiefs chairman. Caricaturing him as a renegade could undercut his support in the U.S. Senate, which must confirm his appointment if he is nominated by the White House. Denying Berger the chairman’s seat, where he would remain in position to shape the Marine Corps’ future, likely ranks atop Chowderites’ to-do list.
People are policy. Force Design 2030 could go forward if another true believer succeeds Berger, if Berger wins appointment to the chairmanship, or both. That is the doomsday scenario for Chowder II. The effort could perish if he’s forced into retirement and if criticism cows the next commandant into backing down. That’s the best-case outcome for Force Design 2030’s critics. Chowderites have released the zombie horde again in hopes of reshaping the personnel battlespace at a critical time, or so I surmise.
Lock and load, friends of Berger.
Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.