Gen. Berger Knew What He Was Doing with His Transformation of the Marine Corps

Marine rushes across a runway during an airfield seizure exercise at Mount Bundey Training Area, NT, Australia
A U.S. Marine with Company B., 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment (Reinforced), Marine Rotational Force - Darwin rushes across a runway during an airfield seizure exercise at Mount Bundey Training Area, NT, Australia, July 21, 2021. (Colton K. Garrett/U.S. Marine Corps)

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I have tried to stay out of the Force Design 2030 debate because I thought those still serving on active duty could best defend what is best for the Marine Corps. I also have a great deal of respect for the retired officers who have weighed in against what Gen. David Berger was doing. I know they care deeply about our Marine Corps, as do I, but I could not possibly disagree more with their approach.

I was taught and always believed that you do not openly criticize the man in the seat because his job is hard enough already. If he does not do anything that violates the honor of the office of commandant, then you should have faith that he is best placed to know what is required and has the intelligence and energy to see that it happens for the Marine Corps.

I was stung into providing this response when I read Gary Anderson's opinion piece, "How the Strong Commandant System Caught Up with the Marine Corps." In that piece, he casts aspersions on Gen. Berger and backs up his statements with false claims about the way FD 2030 was developed, as well as the Marine Corps' inability to respond to the evacuation mission in Sudan or the humanitarian assistance mission in Turkey. These were bad enough in themselves, but when he ends the article essentially calling Gen. Berger "delusional," I had had enough.

I first met Gen. Berger when he assumed command of Regimental Combat Team 8 in combat in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005. I was his operations officer. I have maintained contact with or worked for him again since that time, and I can assure you that he is one of the best officers I have had the pleasure of serving with. He is an intelligent and humble Marine who has only ever wanted to do the right thing for the Marine Corps and only for the right reasons. He knew what the right thing was because he assumed the office of commandant after serving in several senior operational command roles, all responsible for looking directly at the challenges the Marine Corps would face with a potential fight in the Western Pacific.

He worked closely with the Navy in the war planning and was privy to all the classified information pertaining to that potential fight. He had a close relationship with his predecessor as commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, who stated publicly that the Marine Corps was not manned, trained or equipped for the fight for which the 2018 National Defense Strategy directed the Marine Corps to prepare.

He watched as Congress openly questioned the services as to why they were not making the changes to force structure, weapons and vehicles required by the 2018 NDS and was confronted by similar questions during his testimony as the head of Marine Corps Combat Development Command and in the confirmation hearings for his becoming the commandant. He did consult with retired senior Marine officers and listened to what they had to say but was not obligated in any way to follow their advice.

This seems to be where the problems started. Those providing the advice seemed to expect adherence to that advice and became angry when that did not happen. As commandant, fully understanding the immensity of the challenge we would face in fighting in the Western Pacific, he well understood one of the truisms of being the commandant: If you feel changes are necessary, you have your first year to determine what those changes need to be and put the necessary wheels in motion, then spend the next three years keeping those wheels turning to cement things in place before you leave office.

In other words, he clearly understood that spending a lot of time talking about what changes were required, or wringing his hands worrying about what negative press he might incur by taking action, would leave the Marine Corps well short of being prepared for the next most likely fight. He made his decision and moved out, as all good Marines do.

The critics of FD 2030 claim that he came up with this program by using a small group of advisers and excluding all others. I have heard those same rumors myself, but that is all they are -- rumors. I know quite a few of the people who worked on the development effort, and they were some of the smartest, most dedicated colonels we had in the Marine Corps at the time. Some of them worked for me and were pulled into that effort as a special assignment. Gen. Berger did seek input from other sources, as indicated above, and took their advice on board, but as was his responsibility as commandant, he did what he thought best.

Exercises and war games were and still are being conducted. Gen. Berger understood that FD 2030 as originally envisioned did not have everything right and that this program of exercises and war games would help shape what the force eventually looked like and would be armed with. And, yes, these exercises and war games were all classified, as they have been for many years now -- for the same reasons that NFL teams keep their practices closed to outsiders. Why would you show what you are practicing to potential opponents?

Also, knowing Gen. Berger as I do, there is no way that the exercises were skewed in favor of FD 2030 in any way. He would never allow that. Being the man of integrity that he is (again, coming from close personal knowledge of him since 2005), the last thing he would ever want or allow would be exactly what Col. Anderson claims in his piece. Marines' and sailors' lives depend on getting this right, and Gen. Berger always kept that foremost in his mind.

Once he and his team had a plan mapped out, Gen. Berger testified in front of Congress as required, and lawmakers agreed with what he told and showed them -- again, contrary to some of his critics who have claimed that Congress was somehow asleep at the switch and not exercising its constitutional oversight requirement. He briefed the secretary of defense and Defense Department staff as required, then did it again with the change of administration. They agreed also. He briefed the combatant commanders as required, and they agreed, or at least did not disagree enough to make an issue of it with the secretary of defense. Some made very positive comments about FD 2030 in the press.

Gen. Berger did everything that was required of him as commandant to ensure that those required by the Constitution to approve his plans understood them and did actually support the changes. If there was any shortfall on his part, and I believe he has stated this in some of the interviews he participated in, he did not spend enough time trying to convince those same retired senior officers who are criticizing FD 2030 about the soundness and imperative nature of those plans, given the current state of affairs between us and China.

I am not sure this would have been time well spent, as I doubt he would ever have been able to sway them. They are firmly convinced that they are right and know much better than the person who was serving as commandant.

While I am sure they keep in close touch with what is happening around the world and in the Marine Corps, I just cannot make the leap of faith that they are better placed to make decisions about the future of the Marine Corps than the serving commandant.

As for the claims that the Marine Corps is somehow unready to face current challenges due to FD 2030, this is another inaccuracy. Gen. Berger repeatedly said that FD 2030 was generating a Marine Corps that could execute Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations where and when required but could still perform its other assigned missions as well. I will not go into the specific weapons and equipment arguments that have been raging because former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has already done that far better than I ever could in a piece published by the Texas National Security Review.

With regard to what happened in Sudan and Turkey, we normally have been well placed to respond as we have done so many times in the past -- with the deployed Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU. Unfortunately, due to poor amphibious ship availability tied to low numbers and serious maintenance issues, the East Coast MEU that should have been positioned to respond was at home station in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, training and awaiting ship assignments. This is something Gen. Berger worked throughout his entire time in office to alleviate. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the FD 2030 changes to the Marine Corps.

We still have three rotational MEUs on each coast and one forward-deployed MEU in Okinawa, Japan, and the only thing impacting their ability to respond to crises is the lack of amphibious shipping. You cannot respond in a timely manner to fast-breaking situations from home station, and no amount of wishful thinking will ever change that fact.

Col. Anderson provided distinguished service to the Marine Corps during 29 years of active duty, then continued to serve in various capacities after he retired in 2000. He has written extensively about Marine Corps issues, and I have found myself agreeing with many of his articles. I cannot say the same for this one. He claims that Gen. Berger was the exception to the rule of good commandants and that the Marine Corps is suffering because of that. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Gen. Berger saw what needed to be done and had the moral courage to follow through with what he considered to be in the best interest of the Marine Corps, which is likely the most solemn responsibility of any commandant. I am sure that every commandant who has brought major change to the Corps has faced a battery of critics, some louder than others, and the good ones weathered the storm and carried on with what they thought best.

One of our most beloved commandants, Gen. Al Gray, bulled through the criticism leveled against him; at times, it was vehement. It also lingered for years after he retired. I well remember as a company commander at Camp Lejeune when we were preparing to participate in a Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation in 1995. Our regimental commander got up in front of all the officers in our battalion and said, "We made this exercise very difficult for you because I do not believe in this maneuver warfare crap, and we will prove it with this exercise."

Luckily, our battalion commander did believe in it and, more importantly, ensured the battalion could operate within that philosophy. We crushed the exercise. This is but one example, and I like to think, though I have no proof, that the major changes (much more major than anything in FD 2030) that the Corps underwent in the 1930s as we prepared for the war with Japan were met with a great deal of opposition. One of the biggest was that, due to the disaster at Gallipoli in 1915, amphibious operations were a non-starter. Time proved that the changes were exactly what we needed, just as it did with maneuver warfare.

If a war starts in the Western Pacific, and I, like many others, hope it never will, we will be properly prepared for it, or at least be able to adjust quickly. What I am convinced of, though, is that if Gen. Berger had done what many of his critics recommended, more talk and experimentation before anything changed, we would have a difficult time even getting to the fight in the Western Pacific and, once there, we would have the wrong weapons and equipment for the fight we would be faced with.

Gen. Berger served his entire 42-year career honorably, and always foremost in his mind was what was best for the Marine Corps. The system that chooses commandants certainly got it right in choosing him, and he more than fulfilled the faith and responsibility that were placed in him when he was confirmed and assumed the office of commandant. He saw what needed to be done with clear-sighted vision that comes from looking at and analyzing a wicked problem for years before becoming the commandant; had the intestinal fortitude to work with a team of planners to formulate what he deemed to be the best course of action; and then ensured it was executed in a timely manner. For all that, he should be honored instead of derided.

When I was commanding general of Marine Corps University, one of the other service chiefs came to speak to Marine Corps War College. He said he admired the fact that the Marine Corps had a commandant instead of something else. He went on to say that when the commandant makes a decision, people salute and carry out that decision to the best of their ability. When other service chiefs make a decision, that is the start of the debate at the senior levels of the service. It was one of many occasions that I was very glad I was a Marine.

We do indeed have a strong commandant system and, while not all have lived up to the expectations of the office, Gen. Berger certainly did. The person selected in his case was wise -- and not in the least delusional.

-- Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Bill Mullen served as an infantry officer from 1986 to 2020.

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