The Washington Times
There is an antidote for Washington in Washington – and that is the parade ground of the U.S. Marine Barracks at Eighth and I Streets, SE. I visited last week to attend the passage of command of the Marine Corps from Gen. Charles C. Krulak to Gen. James L. Jones, who became the 32nd commandant July 1.
I first met Gen. Jones at Camp Lejeune, N.C. in 1995, where he was commander of the 2nd Marine Division, Marine Forces Atlantic. Before that, he was chief of staff for our operations in Bosnia and Macedonia. His military career began with combat in Vietnam. Most recently, he has been Defense Secretary William Cohen’s military advisor.
I left Camp Lejeune, where I was part of a group of civilians hosted by each branch of the services for a day, with the firm impression that I had just gotten acquainted with a likely future commandant. Gen. Jones is one of the most impressive military officers I’ve met, beginning with his imposing size and perfect physical condition, extending to his sharp intelligence and impressive analytical skills, finishing off with a ready wit. Our conversations then and on a couple of occasions since have never been on the record, so I won’t characterize his comments except to say that Gen. Jones has been illuminating on subjects ranging from the conflict in former Yugoslavia to civilian military relations.
If Washington is, in general, a place of political infighting and untrammeled ambition, cynicism and back-room deal-making, then ceremonies at the Marine Corps barracks are the opposite. They are genuineness itself: the single slap of the butts of a hundred rifles touching concrete at the same time; the Commandant’s Own drum and bugle corps striking up the familiarly haunting strains of “The Minstrel Boy the War Has Gone”; eyes right as the company passes in formation before the watchful eyes of the outgoing commandant for the last time; the permission the new commandant begs of his audience to turn his back to them in order to speak to his Marines, symbolized by the company that stands at attention behind him; the 18-gun honors to the commandant, the first report of which makes the audience jump.
Is this not purest artifice and curiosity, particularly in this day and age? Well, no, it is not. The outgoing commandant, Gen. Krulak, who was well-known for a certain succinct eloquence, famously said that the purpose of the Marine Corps is “Making Marines and winning battles.” It is, of course, the former that leads to the latter. And drill of the most rudimentary sort, of the kind leading directly to the precisely disciplined motions on display on the parade ground last week, is the start of the making of Marines. Anyone who harbors fashionably world-weary doubts on this point ought to take a look at the book, “Making the Corps,” by Thomas E. Ricks of the Wall Street Journal; it is the story of one platoon at the Marines’ Parris Island boot camp.
Much has been made of the disconnection of military and civilian culture in the United States, especially since the end of the draft a generation ago. The military is more separate now, less a thing with which most Americans feel a direct connection. This is especially true given that the civilian decision makers of Washington who have come of age in the era of the all-volunteer force are unlikely to have served in the military, and their children are perhaps less likely still. (Gen. Jones, who comes from a distinguished military family, drolly took occasion at the ceremony to remind his two 24-year old sons in the audience, who are pursuing careers in business, that the Marine Corps commissions new officers up to the age of 28.)
This sense of distance is surely reinforced by the tendency of the press to concentrate on military scandal, often in the self-righteous spirit of shining a light on benighted barbarism. On top of that, there are those officials, elected and appointed, who seem to have decided that their main engagement with the military will be to press its culture into conformity with civilian norms. Our secretary of the navy, for example, Richard Danzig, recently bemoaned the white maleness of the submarine community – a charming poke in the eye for those who might be proud to have made it through “nuke school,” famously the hardest academically in the navy. Indeed, Mr. Danzig managed to inject the only inappropriate note into last week’s ceremony, noting that Mrs. Krulak has married the Marine Corps as well as her husband, the outgoing commandant: “So far as I know, it is the only menage a trois that the Marine Corps approves of,” he said, evidently quite smitten with his wit. Gen. Krulak seemed dumfounded.
The military is not blameless with the regard to the disconnection. Its officers are famously reluctant to engage with the public through the press. (The Marine Corps, by tradition, has the best PR department). The hope seems to be that the civilians will be satisfied short of the destruction of something essential in military culture.
Because, note well, this culture works. We may well have the finest military in history. And really, who should be more plagued with self-doubt here, the military folks who consistently deliver the goods, or their political leaders, who often seem not to know what to ask of them?
In his remarks, Gen. Jones referred to his audience as Marines, former Marines, and friends of Marines. I’m happy to be a member of the latter corps. Godspeed, general, to you and your Marines.