"Send in the Marines!"
For many generations, successive U.S. presidents have given those orders, from early in our Nation's history in places like Montezuma's palaces in Mexico to the Barbary pirates' shores of Tripoli, and more recently from the halls of Saddam Hussein to the pirate-infested coast of Somalia.
Of late, the question occurs: Will Barack Obama be the first American president to say, "Send away the Marines" - as in permanently?
That is a not-unreasonable inference to draw from the myriad steps being taken by the Obama Defense Department at the moment, steps that threaten that could the future viability of the Marine Corps. Consider the following examples:
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has repeatedly indicated that he believes the United States must focus its shrinking defense resources on fighting counter-insurgency operations like today's conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. (The latter, of course, continues, even though Mr. Obama has unilaterally declared an "end to combat operations" there - the triumph of a campaign promise over conditions-on-the-ground-based considerations or national interests). As a result, the Pentagon's capacity to project power around the world is being deemphasized, and in come cases seriously eroded. As a key element of the "pointy-end of the spear" for U.S. power-projection, such trends bode ill for the Corps.
Worse yet, Secretary Gates has launched a major review of the Marines' mission. Although he conveyed in a speech in San Francisco last month an appreciation of the Corp and its unique "from the sea" warfighting capability, the Gates review seems intended to challenge the need for amphibious assault capability. Arguing that the proliferation of advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, mines and other sophisticated weapons into the hands even of Third World nations is making endangered species of the vessels that form the backbone of "over-the-beach" warfighting, Mr. Gates and his senior subordinates seem disposed - all other things being equal - to argue for scaling back, if not eliminating, such platforms.
Already, the defense secretary has signaled that he is inclined to cancel the Marines' top ground force modernization program - the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV). Were Mr. Gates actually to do so, he would condemn the Corps to going to war from the sea for the foreseeable future with obsolescent amphibious vehicles, or not at all. As with the decisions he has already made to cancel the other services' top procurement priorities, such programmatic cuts condemn the military to the sort of "hollowing-out" last seen in the Clinton and Carter administrations. History tells us that such penny-foolish, pound-stupid decisions cost us dearly in the longer term, as adversaries perceive our weakness as an invitation to aggression.
Mr. Gates has also suggested that his review will take a dim view of the Marines as a "second land army" - the sort of role it has reluctantly taken on in recent years due to the fact that the Nation's "first" one, the U.S. Army, is too small to perform all that is being asked of it. Well, if the Marines aren't supposed to do amphibious warfare and aren't supposed to do ground warfare, are they really needed any longer?
Then, there is the Obama administration's decision to assault the military's culture by fulfilling another of the President's campaign promises - this one to homosexual activists. Given the elite character and proud traditions of the Corps, it seems a safe bet that Marine retention and recruitment - indispensable ingredients for a viable All-Volunteer Force - will be particularly affected if the current statutory prohibition on avowed homosexuals is repealed, in favor of a new regimen that subordinates privacy considerations, religious beliefs and good order and discipline to the agenda of gay, lesbian, bisexual and even transgender radicals.
These various assaults come at a particularly difficult time for the Corps as it undergoes a change in its top leadership. General James Conway, truly a Marine's Commandant, has been in the thick of these issues throughout his four-year tenure. He has fought tenaciously to ensure that his men and women have the kit they need to do the surpassingly hard things Marines are routinely asked to do - from urban warfighting in Fallujah to rapid humanitarian relief in flood-ravaged Pakistan, and everything in between. He has worked to give them the resources and training that make them the world's most flexible, versatile and adaptable force for good in the world today.
Not least, Gen. Conway has been the most vociferous in expressing the concerns he shares with the other chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force about engaging in social experimentation that risks breaking the only armed forces we have during wartime. He understands the role the military culture plays in ensuring the good order and discipline essential to the effectiveness of those who assure our national security. And he has been determined to preserve that culture in the face of widespread indifference to it among civilian leaders, and ignorance of its importance among too many in the public at large.
Gen. Conway's are big combat boots to fill. It is time for all who appreciate the U.S. Marine Corps to come to the aid of his nominated successor, General James Amos, and the men and women he will lead so as to ensure that the next time a president says "Send in the Marines," there actually are Marines to send in.