Talking softly and carrying a big stick

On stepping down as 38th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General David Berger leaves a USMC ready for the fight tonight and the fight tomorrow. With a clear vision of what the force needed to look like – based on evidence, a good deal of rumination and a pragmatic eye for the possible – Berger set about making the requisite changes more than four years ago. Not simply in terms of acquisition and procurement but also in logistics, engineering, support, interoperability, partnering, sustainment, and people. Indeed, his approach to his people – one of the more overlooked aspects of his programme – was at the core of everything he did. Not simply in rhetoric and well-meaning speeches but in deeds. That ‘every marine is a rifleman’ attitude explains why Berger will be remembered as one of the most important Commandants since Brute Krulak.

Dave Berger ends a career with the USMC that started in the Cold War and then during the era of the ‘peace-dividend’ when the Corps was consistently engaged in combat operations – and losing marines in fighting: whether the 19 killed in Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury, or the bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut which killed 220 marines, through to the Gulf War in 1990, and the CONUS attacks in 2001. It is not hard to understand why anyone serving would feel an intensely personal loss – especially when some of those killed would have gone through training with you.

Later combat deployments with Berger in command saw him lose marines under his command. He has talked openly about these moments and the profound impact they had on him.

Throughout this period, the USMC was – as usual – engaged in a very healthy and sometimes difficult debate about adapting force structures, designs, concepts and threats. Berger did not play a huge role in this public debate but evidently watched with interest. It was also clear that his priorities were on the sharp end – most of his appointments were taking part in or running operations, not in the supporting structures. This changed relatively late in his career when he became Commanding General of Marine Corps Combat Development Command and Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration. It was here, he has admitted, that he started to consider what he would do if he had the responsibility and authority.

Berger’s changes reimagined the way marines would be equipped for a potential contemporary island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. This was not simply a few headlines but a root and branch adaptation for modern combat, contextualised for the distances and threats of the Indo-Pacific theatre. It included some big decisions – including the removal of armour from the USMC ORBAT, and a reduction in artillery capability by more than 40% – and a new acquisition process to equip marine units with a range of hard kill capabilities, surveillance, targeting, movement, lethality, sustainment, and survivability. His 2019 Commandant’s Planning Guidance was expansive in detailing how the USMC would fight in future. And with whom. Berger’s evangelising for other national marine forces in the Pacific – notably from Australia and South Korea – was also noteworthy. His deep-seated belief and trust that these forces could and would deliver alongside USMC forces was a divergence from the beliefs of many other American military and political leaders.  Berger’s structural changes of the USMC were not without opposition – indeed, he seems to be have been disappointed in how public these critiques became. The very public challenge to his plans was not without cause: the force he shaped will become a potent fighting force for a specific war in one specific part of the world. How it would fare in other fights, in different parts of the world remains a valid question.

Against this, one must balance the capabilities of the other levers of the US military, particularly a US Army laser focused on combined arms, large scale, high intensity warfare. That balance was clearly at the forefront of Berger’s mind: something evident from his performance as a member of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff – the other major duty he held in conjunction with being Commandant.

On balance, it seems (at time of writing in July 2023), that Dave Berger’s reforms have been spot on in preparing the USMC for a particular war, in a particular part of the world whilst retaining the centrality of a creed that sees every marine as a rifleman.

Throughout a challenging four years as Commandant, Berger managed to retain a level of optimism, positivity, and steadfastness in his plans and his beliefs. It was revealed in his retirement ceremony that he considered leaving the Corps if he had three successive bad days. That he remained serving after 42 years of service is a testament to his own personal stamina and the enjoyment he got from being a marine.

Underlying Berger’s performance are some notable character traits (courage, humility, open mindedness, belief and faith in the institution), and also some behaviours (listening more than talking, asking for and taking advice from all ranks, always having an open door), as well as a philosophy that put people first (both across the military system, and families too).

One hopes that Berger continues to be an active participant in USMC discussions over its future in retirement although given his shock at the public attacks on his plans by his predecessors, it would seem likely that he will do more in private than more openly.

Leave a Reply