MANAMA, Bahrain -- Gen. Robert Neller faced the second roomful of folding chairs in as many days as he offered a terse Christmas greeting to the 50 or so Marines assembled in the room. In the space of a week, he would give roughly a dozen town hall speeches in nine different countries, sometimes addressing three different units in as many locations in a single day.
The Marines, forward-deployed to locations ranging from Iraq and Afghanistan to Norway, were lucky enough to hear from the head of their service as they spent the holidays away from family. But they were also a test audience.
At every single location, Neller pressed the troops on three precisely worded points: Lead like you want to be led. Hone your warfighting skills. Live the title you've earned.
He told Marines there was a formal message coming that would expand on these points, with video accompaniments for those not inclined to dive into the four-page document.
That message, titled 'Execute,' was published this week. It exhorts Marines to embrace change, to be ready for war at all times, and to fine-tune their own performance by taking the initiative to self-improve and to correct shortcomings in their units.
Delivered directly to Marines over Christmas, the message contained hints of correction. On various occasions, Neller referred to the Marines United social media nude photo-sharing scandal, saying it had caused such national outrage because America expects more of its Marines than it does other services.
In Manama, he referred to last year's message, in which he challenged Marines to "drink less, read more and PT smarter."
"We're doing good on the 'read more and PT smarter,'" Neller said. "I'm not so sure about the first one."
But during an interview on the trip, Neller told Military.com the content of this year's message wasn't prompted by a particular trend in misconduct.
"It doesn't have to be prompted by failure. That's the thing that you guys don't get; you look for a reason," Neller said. "There's only one reason: to get better. We don't have to fail to change."
Rather, it might be instructive to view the message as a pragmatic effort to maximize the value of Marines within the service.
Marine officials have said they want as many as 12,000 additional Marines, largely to boost specialized fields. But with no plus-up of that size in the immediate offing, Neller has spoken of developing a more mature -- and even physically older -- force
"In order to be ready for the next fight, we must prepare our bodies, our minds, and our families," Neller wrote in his message. "Embrace our profession of arms. Assess your fitness, your self-improvement, and your social behaviors. Attitudes, conduct, and behavior that do not exemplify our core values and contribute to combat readiness and lethality need to be discarded."
Neller challenged the notion that Marines didn't have time for continued learning or self-improvement, telling his audiences that he believed many "could be done by noon" with their assigned work if they stayed focused and avoided distractions.
In the document, he discussed what it took to hone a "warfighter mindset," challenging Marines to begin conceptualizing the battlefields of the future. In a message that seems particularly apt as the Pentagon stews over a fitness app that inadvertently revealed U.S. troop concentrations around the world, Neller warned that the next fight would be "a battle of signatures" in which Marines actions, and especially communications, would be closely observed.
"We will train to fight and win in the high end of conflict by incorporating more force-on-force training," Neller wrote. "Just as iron sharpens iron, we will test our new concepts and improve our continuing actions by lining up against ourselves."
As to leadership, Neller encouraged Marines to think about what they wanted out of a leader. He also challenged Marines to allow aspiring leaders under their authority to test their skills, even if it meant making mistakes and failing.
After 2016 and 2017, which were marked by a rash of hazing allegations against drill instructors, some of which resulted in criminal trials, and a recent crackdown on instances of peer hazing on the West Coast, the message described a gentler, more deliberate form of leadership.
"All you lance corporals from hell out there ... that's got to stop," Neller told Marines deployed as part of the Corps' new rotational force, near Trondheim, Norway. "You should be be coaching, teaching, mentoring."
While Neller caught some flak for telling Marines in Norway that a "big-ass fight" was on the horizon, echoes of that message were present at every stop he made on the trip. A 43-year infantry officer who led Marines in Iraq as commander of 1 Marine Expeditionary Force (forward) from 2005 to 2007, he warned that whatever the next battle, it would be difficult and costly.
"Combat's the ultimate test. It tests every part of your body, your mind, your strength," Neller told Marines during the Norway visit. "That's why it's important to read, to hear other peoples' experiences in combat, to convey to you how difficult that is. Mentally, physically, spiritually, prepare yourself. I've seen you pay the price."