Just before the big blizzard hit I spent a couple of days at Parris Island, the Marine Corps east coast basic training base with a group of fellow educators. The Marines took us down there to give teachers, counselors, and administrators a sense of what they are about, in hopes we’ll direct qualified students their way. The Marine Corps has been making Marines for a long time, and they are quite good at it. A bigger challenge seems to be just finding enough qualified recruits to keep things going, this despite the fact that the country has never been bigger and while the Marines and the rest of the military are shrinking. In a way, this mirrors the country’s own difficulty in choosing a president among a throng of contenders, of whom none in the top tiers have any military experience.
Of course, if we had a draft this likely would not be an issue. But we’ve not had a draft for nearly a half-century, really don’t require one for military reasons, and ought not have one unless such a need is very clear. Nor do the Marines want one. The Corps has mostly been a voluntary service during its lifetime, which is part of the reason it is justifiably regarded as an elite force, and likes its recruits to arrive willingly.
By the same token, I am not of the opinion that military service ought to be a prerequisite for the presidency. Certainly, there is no legal qualification in that regard, and service in uniform hardly guarantees that a president will be any good, even on matters of national security and military policy, e.g., James Earl Carter. On the other hand, our last two presidents without any military experience (Clinton and Obama) can hardly be considered in the top ranks of presidential history.
Marine Corps basic training remains an extremely tough and challenging experience for a young man or woman. I was in the Army, but the Marines are something else again, which is no secret within the military or without. A Marine who finishes his enlistment and wants to reenlist in another service (Army, Air Force, or Navy) does not have to go through basic training again. A soldier, airman, or sailor who wants to become a Marine does, just like any recruit out of high school. But despite the challenges of Marine Corps basic, the vast majority of recruits survive it and graduate to become Marines after 13 difficult weeks. That the Corps requires this of all Marines, whether they choose to become an infantryman or a cook, is as much about testing and building character as it is ensuring that in an emergency, any Marine can effectively pick up and use a rifle.
In contrast, when choosing presidents, character seems to matter less and less. Barack Obama, a man of distinctly unremarkable character, having lived a life largely devoid of what usually counts as significant sacrifice or accomplishment, handily defeated opponents who easily eclipsed him in that regard (including a Vietnam war hero.) The same could be said of President Clinton, a man who “loathed the military” and prevailed over a pair of World War II combat veterans.
In an environment in which national service is an afterthought (if even that) to most young people, the real challenge for the Marines is finding qualified candidates for basic training. In addition to the problem of penetrating a distracted and self-absorbed youth culture with the Marine ideological triad of duty, honor, and commitment, is the problem that even among the youth interested, 71% are not physically or mentally qualified to become Marine recruits. To get to Parris Island a recruit has to score sufficiently high on the ASVAB (military aptitude test), pass a basic physical, meet relatively modest physical fitness guidelines, be a high school graduate, be free of legal or substance abuse problems, and not possess disqualifying tattoos. The Marines can and do grant waivers to potential recruits who fail to meet all of these prerequisites but the challenge remains. Newly-minted staff sergeants are routinely assigned billets outside their chosen Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) and the most difficult and dreaded is recruiting — though also the most career enhancing for those successful at this difficult task.
Of course, this is just one of many issues facing the military today, and America’s national security in general, but the front running candidates from either party hardly pay very serious attention. On the Democrat side the issue is almost completely ignored in any meaningful way, by an uninterested socialist on the one hand, and a former incompetent secretary of State who can’t escape the shadow of her own malfeasances. The Republicans are better, generally vowing to strengthen the armed forces in order to smash ISIS, though without clarifying exactly how that will happen, or the fiscal and military problems associated with any such campaign. Cruz, Rubio, and Bush sound the most knowledgeable, but none fills me with great confidence.
For example, we also got to visit the Beaufort South Carolina Marine Air Station, where several fighter squadrons are based. We spoke with a few pilots who had just returned from flying missions against ISIS from the Persian Gulf with a dwindling number of F-18C fighter aircraft that had obviously seen better days. Those aged and hard-worked jets are nowhere near replacement, as the Corps slowly incorporates the problem plagued F-35. The Marine aircraft are not even the latest F-18 model, that being the F-18E which the Pentagon might have procured in greater numbers in lieu of the super-expensive F-35 (which any F-18 and many foreign fighters can outmaneuver.) Where do the candidates from either party stand on that issue? How do we carpet bomb ISIS back to the Stone Age when the planes and pilots are increasingly under pressure, and there is little realistic relief in sight, given potentially disastrous procurement decisions, and increasing recruiting pressures?
Such discussion is almost nowhere to be found in the debates, probably in part because the candidates themselves are ill-equipped to deal with the subject, while the rest of the country, mostly without direct military experience, or even contact with active duty service people, sees these matters in abstraction, without considering the very real human, material, and financial burdens that taking on foreign enemies entails. Would a few candidates with military experience make a difference? It is hard to say, but the disconnect between the military and our political classes and the general populace has perhaps never been greater.
That’s why the Marines took us down to Parris Island in the first place, giving special priority to educators without military experience. I and a few other veterans got waivers to go only because few enough non-veteran teachers signed up (or bowed out) so that the Marines felt that “wasting” a trip on us former servicemen would be on balance worthwhile. That in itself is a kind of commentary on the social/military/political issues the country faces today. Unfortunately, so far those issues have hardly earned the attention of the presidential candidates from either party, or the voters that will ultimately elect one of them commander-in-chief.