By Andy Weddington
Friday, 22 July 2011
"When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom." Author Unknown
Last spring and summer this forum offered a handful of Commentaries--four in April, one in July (Archive link left)--about the sign at entry to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. The bothersome matter, an inexplicable change that a decade or so ago abruptly ended depot history and tradition and breached our Corps' ethos, stirred Marines to engage--some in person, some in writing--the depot's commanding general. Nothing changed. There's a new commanding general now. More on that change shortly.
Recent awareness of an akin sign issue spreading across our Corps, the Parris Island sign relevant, sparked today's Commentary.
Following is an article penned not quite three weeks ago. A post script, not part of the article, offers thoughts by a retired Marine general and a few clarifying points by the authors.
'Sign Me Up'?
04 July 2011
The sign--on a spit of manicured median near the gate's guard shack--steadfastly stood duty for six decades. Raised gold letters, U. S. MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT, PARRIS ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA, against a scarlet background said all necessary. A pair of our famous emblems--crafted by a local metal smith and positioned as if pinned on a uniform collar--flanked a centered white marble historic marker. Perfection--a work of art that oozed Marine Corps. The sign lived.
Since World War II that sign greeted all, but none more important than busloads of recruits that arrived in the middle of the night. And whether glimpse of that sign was intentional or serendipitous is moot. Notice was served--Drill Instructors awaited and life was about to change; forever.
More than a decade ago, force protection requirements and road improvements, with new traffic patterns, necessitated the sign be moved. It was--to a not-as-conspicuous plot starboard of entering traffic. Then shortly thereafter, as if graffiti taggers struck, "EASTERN RECRUITING REGION"1 and names of the commanding general and sergeant major appeared on the sign. To feature the new words, our eagle, globe, and anchors were removed from the focal point--relegated, as if afterthought, to a subordinate role on flanking half-walls. With that, the sign died.
What a shame; sixty years of Marine Corps, of Depot, history and tradition ended; that the foreboding aura of something pure Marine Corps was destroyed; and a work of art was ruined. But there was, and still is, something more subtle and far deeper, more disconcerting, at stake. That is, our Corps' emblems gave way to names of Marines, and that names of Marines took on importance over our Marine Corps. With that change, perhaps unwitting, hundreds of years of our Corps' principles were violated.
The sign at Parris Island is arguably the most egregious example. Across our Corps, bases and stations have taken to erecting giant who's who marquees, in the vicinity of main gates, that spotlight units with the names of leadership. Why?
Marine Corps entry-level training purposively subjugates nature's instincts of self-concern--"I" and "me"--for time and battle-tested concepts of "us" and "we" and "unit." Our training so effective it compels Marines, even under the most dangerous and stressful of circumstances to, consciously and without hesitation, sacrifice self for fellow Marines.
The philosophical, psychological, and institutional arguments against the practice of signs emblazoned with names are obvious--any Marine can figure it out. But there's no call for problem solving. Our fellow Marines, generations of them, have unselfishly passed along their wisdom in FMFM 1-0: Leading Marines.
From page 8: "There is yet another element of being different that defines Marines, and that is selflessness: a spirit that places the self-interest of the individual second to that of the institution we know as the Corps. That selflessness is stronger nowhere in American society than among Marines."
From page 22: "Our selfless dedication to and elevation of the institution over self is uncommon elsewhere."
From page 25: "The Marine Corps' vision of leadership is less concerned with rank, self-identity, recognition, or privilege than the essence of our Corps: the individual Marine and the unyielding determination to persevere because Marines and the Corps do not fail."
Notable Marines John W. Thomason, John A. Lejeune, Smedley Butler, and a long list of distinguished leaders and heroes wrote extensively about our Corps' unique culture of unit over self; always. Among those distinguished Marines is Lieutenant General Victor "Brute" Krulak.
From page 90: Lieutenant General Krulak remarks, "Although the Corps contains its share of visible heroes, its triumphs, in an aberration of history, are triumphs of the institution itself and not the attainments of individual Marines. We remember that Marlborough defeated the French, that Togo defeated that Russians, that Scipio defeated Carthage. But we know only that it was the Marines who won at Belleau Wood, the Marines who won at Guadalcanal, the Marines who led the way at Inchon. And that is exactly the way the Corps's heroes--big and small--would have it, for the Corps is less of the flesh than of the spirit."
The closing sentences of FMFM 1-0, that follow Lieutenant General Krulak's words, offer a charge: "These are the legacies that we have inherited and that we must pass on. Learn them, study them, and live them." In a word, leadership.
'Sign Me Up' at main gates? Is this reflective of the mentoring--our ethos--offered in FMFM 1-0; the humility expected of Marines entrusted with the privilege of command; and, most fundamentally, is it Marine like?
Rhetorical questions all.
1 The "Eastern Recruiting Region" is a geo-dispersed entity of rural communities, towns, and big cities--east of the Mississippi River--under command of the Depot's commanding general. The "region" is not behind the Parris Island gate--where Marines are made.
Note: The authors, Colonel A. F. Weddington and Lieutenant Colonel R. H. Barrow, Jr., are retired Marines. They served in Second Recruit Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, MCRD, Parris Island, South Carolina, from 1983-1986.
From the perspective of a retired Marine general (comfortable with use of name but we felt best to retain privacy)...
"Reviewed this again over the weekend. I think your logic is good on this and as you note, this is a core issue. I am sure sociologists would be arguing this both ways but this is another instance where change is not for the better. This is my simple read; if a person familiar with the Marine Corps drives up to an installation, they already know who the commander is and if they don't, they have the means and the need (to know), they can do so. If a person unfamiliar with the Corps drives to an installation, they want to know what it is and they assume there is someone in charge and who he (or she) is is incidental. Therefore, the names on the sign really add no value. The more I thought about this one, the more I thought about places like North Korea, where the endgame on these transitions becomes a cult and not an organization."
And the General continued...
"I have a much more fundamental comment on PI; if you were to query every person going through the gate as to whether they cared whose name was on the gate, 99% of them would not care nor would have a need to know (i.e. recruits). However, they definitely would want to know and let everyone else know (upon completion) they had graduated from the recruit depot. Another way to look at it, combine the recruits with the taxpayer or the visitors (parents) to the installation, not very many people going through the gate have an interest in the commander's name, they only care and assume there is a quality commander in place."
And, some clarifying points from the authors of 'Sign Me Up'?...
The Eastern Recruiting Region (ERR) was established in the mid-70s as a manpower initiative to hold recruiters accountable to the same general who commanded the depot. That is, the commanding general was now, by design, responsible for input quality and the process of making Marines from that input. Some 25 years passed and a dozen or so commanding generals--fine men all--did not feel need to add "Eastern Recruiting Region" nor their name and the name of their sergeant major to the sign. So as it were, the sign stood unmolested for 60+ years. One retired general we spoke with, who commanded the depot, was, to put it kindly, a bit puzzled and disappointed by the changes.
To reiterate, the ERR is not what is behind the gate at Parris Island (nor is WRR behind the San Diego Recruit Depot gate). The ERR is a region the general commands. With ERR and names on the sign it's a sign about the general and what he or she commands and not about the magical place where Marines are made.
When someone drives aboard Parris Island do they think, "Wow, I'm aboard the Eastern Recruiting Region now."? Ask a newly minted Marine where they went to boot camp--with certainty they will not say, "I graduated from Parris Island home of the Eastern Recruiting Region." And for that post-graduation morning photo op, what's more meaningful--beaming in front of a sign with the depot's name and our emblem worked so hard for or a clutter of words and names, of Marines--memorized and never seen, not remembered in a week's time?
And, oh by the way, just in case you missed the sign entering the depot, there's another in front of the headquarters, at the street intersection, with the general's and sergeant major's names on it. Goodness.
About a month ago, Brigadier General Lori Reynolds assumed command of the depot Parris Island (and ERR)--newsworthy as the first woman to lead that command. During an interview with Brian Kilmeade of Fox News she rightfully downplayed her gender-breaking assignment focusing more on simply being a Marine assigned new duties. Exactly. And, she mentioned being a student of history. Good, history and tradition are important--especially to Marines. So perhaps there's now climate for restoring the historic, and timeless, sign identifying the depot where Marines are made, and, to be direct, ending the fairly recent practice of identifying--headlining--Parris Island's temporary gatekeepers. Maybe.
As for the signs at Marine Corps bases and stations gates--take them down.
The authors, independently, during the past 18 months or so and one more than the other, have traveled to over 20 U. S. Navy, Air Force and Army bases--coast to coast. Interestingly, no similar signs exist at a single base of the other services; contrary to the observations and wisdom shared in FMFM 1-0.
How to explain what's going on in our Corps? At first blush, plain and simple, ego. But that's not it. It can't be. Egos have always been around, even before Freud offered his psychoanalytic theory and labels. Our Corps has had it's share of strong personalities but the signs are something relatively new. Why? No, something else disconcerting is going on and it's not healthy. Other senior Marines, holding respectable positions, have opined, "The signs are out of control," and "We've developed a culture of me-ism and a focus up rather than on our junior Marines, but overall, the Corps is filled with exceptional Marines," and, "After one base/station did it, all are doing it."
Are the signs a big deal? Yes, yes they are, they sure are. It's not a matter of "old Corps" (whatever that is)--the signs simply are not Marine like.
Absolutely--our Corps is filled with exceptional Marines!
This week's announcement that Corporal Dakota Meyer will soon be presented the Medal of Honor a fitting way to conclude this Commentary. His remark about the medal being for his fallen comrades, Marines whose heroism may not have been witnessed, and our Corps a consummate example of the selfless Marine spirit. He may not consider himself an exceptional Marine but so goes humility. Exemplary.
1. Most welcome to pass along, Marines.
2. Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=109532469070130
"Return the iconic front gate sign at Marine Recruit Depot, Parris Island"