Americans can be pretty stubborn, and as a result even the best plans too often fail, because leaders — be they in government, business, the nonprofit sector or even in our social circles or families — can’t get enough buy-in from followers. Even the idea of being a “follower” is repugnant to many Americans.
The one exception is the military. In the military, people respect the chain of command. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines — especially Marines — have it drilled into their brains from the moment they enter basic training that when the chain of command breaks down, people can die.
So if the commandant of the Marine Corps decides that his subordinates are going to do something, you can bet they’ll do it. That includes complying with the congressional mandate to start training male and female recruits together at its Parris Island and San Diego training depots.
The fact that Commandant Gen. David Berger is even raising the possibility that the Marine Corps might not be able to comply with that mandate at the existing bases and instead might have to shutter them and build a whole new base suggests either that there’s a serious breakdown in the military command structure or else that he’s not trying hard enough.
Military.com, which broke the story last week about the idea of building a new depot, notes that the Marine Corps “continues to fight to keep its platoons segregated by gender, though it has trained several more coed companies.” It quotes Kate Germano, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who led Parris Island’s female 4th Recruit Training Battalion, as worrying that shuttering Parris Island and San Diego would further hobble the integration effort by pushing back the timeline and by causing male Marines to blame women for the loss of tradition.
Whatever you think about the idea of coed recruit training — or women in combat, or even female Marines — the chain of command doesn’t stop at the commandant. It keeps going right on up through to the president and, indirectly, the Congress, which writes the laws that presidents are supposed to execute. And whatever the reason the commandant might not be able to get his subordinates to do their jobs, the answer is not for Congress to reward him with a new base.
National defense is the top job of the federal government, so we need to spend what is necessary to maintain a strong national defense. But that doesn’t mean we need to squander money on unnecessary new military bases. Our government has an obligation to spend our military dollars as wisely as any other dollars.
We recognize both training bases have long-term challenges: Parris Island is increasingly susceptible to sea-level rise; San Diego’s base is so constrained by the surrounding city and airport that its recruits must visit a different base to fire rifles. Those are legitimate concerns that the Marine Corps eventually will need to address; its difficulty meeting a mandate for coed training is not.
Closing the Parris Island depot would have a devastating effect on the Beaufort area’s economy, at least in the near term. It generates more than $700 million a year in economic activity and is associated with more than 6,000 jobs.
But S.C. elected officials, understandably galled at the idea that the Marines could shutter Parris Island, need to understand that the issue here is larger than preserving a military base in South Carolina, which can go toe-to-toe with California or any other state when it comes to offering a military-friendly climate. The issue is about the military’s willingness to do the job the Congress gave it to do, without any foot-dragging or empire-building.