Retiring the Strategic Corporal, Promoting the Historical Captain

By: - December 16, 2020

The discussion in circles today remains the strategic corporal. The strategic corporal is a term designed to describe the complex environment that soldiers face. But the goal is fundamentally misguided, as Marines historically and today aren’t cut out to be scholars and should focus on good combat skills. We should instead consider the missions they are sent on, and if they are being asked to do too much. We might also consider a historical model where ship captains and their marine detachments were given far more latitude to do their missions. So maybe this is too much hand wringing and palavering from those in charge and not really a new or unique problem.

My first problem with the term comes from personal experience. If my time in service taught me anything, it’s that the average Marine isn’t totally “scholar” material. I’m the only one I know that took PME seriously. I handed my completed test to my leaders and would stand there with a bemused look on my face as they didn’t even look at the answers, sign off on it, and they walked away seemingly befuddled that anybody would take time to read (or could read) without being forced to. That being said, they are pretty good at practical adjustments. From improvising armor on 5 tons trucks to quickly employing anti UAV (drone) technology, small units have typically done better at adapting to new technology than institutions do in implementing them.

Historically, this reminds me of the brainpower drain of World War II. Most of the other services such as the air corps and other specialized and technical roles took away those with generally higher scores. This left the infantry and combat divisions filled with recruits that generally had lower scores.  The trend has only continued with the shift to a volunteer military. Those with college skills generally go to college at the same time the military rejects those with low test (ASVAB) scores. As much as people want to make low score recruits strategic corporals, only so much can be done to those who didn’t excel in regular school, especially when the recruits still must cover basic combat and survival skills as well as train for urban environments.

Perhaps instead America should focus on goals, strategies, and missions that don’t require infantry men to do calculus. A prominent example includes Syria with its myriad factions and outside players interfering or Iraq with its paramilitary militias and death squads joining with terrorists.  Under the leadership of those like General Petraeus, the military learned how to do counter insurgency in Iraq while they were fighting. But the U.S. policy makers and generals could have made better decisions. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could have developed a better post occupation plan. Provisional leader Paul Bremer shouldn’t have disbanded the army, but instead vet the officer core to see who could remain and provide competent, nonpolitical professionalism. (Similar to the German army being rebuilt with those that were least tainted by Nazism.)  American forces should have shifted to a counter insurgency strategy far quicker. All of these decisions, to use a military term, were far above the pay grade of the corporal, and yet according to the popular theory, it’s the corporals who are supposed to make strategic decisions.  It’s a bit like blaming the World War I soldier for dying in no man’s land between the trenches, when it was the political decisions of prime ministers and strategic decisions of generals that placed them there.

We should also consider another historical model, which is that the American military, particularly ship captains and their marine detachments often had to make decisions in complex environments with international implications. From the early days of Preble’s Boys sailing the world to Pershing chasing Sandino’s in Mexico or Dan Daily manning a wall in the foreign legation of Beijing, these soldiers often had wide latitude to make decisions, protect American interests, engage perceived enemies, and even make and enforce treaties. They were often less educated than the average enlisted soldier today, but they operated from their guts, used common sense with a dose of American bravado, and often did well. One could argue that irregular warfare and complex situations were the military’s specialty for much of American history. It is only modern, hand wringing policy makers that want to codify the decision-making process with over technical jargon, which will probably just paralyze small unit leaders with over thinking.

It is important to have highly trained combat personnel. But there are many factors of combat that are outside of their control. The policy makers choosing to engage often prescribe overly restrictive rules of engagement (such as the air campaign against ISIS in Syria) or commit soldiers in places with muddled goals. The generals often pursue a strategy that won’t produce victory, such as the search and destroy missions in Vietnam and the vast sweeps in Iraq that only alienated the population. They overstate the importance of technology even though small units probably adapt better than institutions. But some leaders then expect corporals to make strategic decisions when that is a model we should not emulate. We must instead consider the long tradition of daring, dedicated, and intuitive small unit commanders.