Ethics and Leadership, Part 1

Long, Rambling Preamble

Others argue that (good) morality is a chiefly male enterprise, and it is something I’ve always concerned myself with. Growing up without much of a father figure (save my brother, who had his own problems) made developing a good sense of morality and ethics trickier than it otherwise could have been. Yet even at a young age, I still tried to work out some kind of code – without the help of a religion. And before you get too critical of some of the sophistry evident in those earlier posts of mine, keep in mind I was then a sophomore in high school, with the incessant emotional abuse of my mother and heart wrenching nonsense of my first girlfriend providing constant background noise. Again – without a father figure. At best, I had video games and random internet friends to study under. What were you doing when you were 16?

If I seemed a little pre-occupied with partying back then, it was because I’d seen my brother completely ruin his life due to an indulgence in alcoholism and drug addiction (that began with innocuous partying in high-school – he’s still recovering, at age 29), and my girlfriend of the time (who I had convinced myself I loved dearly) was stringently pro-partying. You’ll notice after the break-up and prophetic-though-emotionally-tinged revelations that followed, I rarely, if ever, wrote about partying again.

The take-away point from all of the above is this: before enlisting in the Marine Corps, my personal ethics had congealed around a simple idea I’d developed with one of my best friends. Together, we determined that there was no higher purpose in life than trying to improve oneself, and the best method for improvement was total honesty. As writers, we were fans of brevity and trying to pack a big idea in a small space. Below is how we phrased our ethics:

Self improvement is the only priority; honesty is merely the best way to achieve it.

I suppose “self-improvement” is rather vague, but we took it to mean becoming stronger, smarter, inflicting less damage on the world and causing greater good, among other things. And honesty meant total honesty – critical honesty – none of this politically-correct coddling horseshit. If I found fault in myself or others, honesty demanded that such faults be addressed and corrected. Regular introspection and self-reflection were thus necessary requirements for self-improvement. Things like integrity, accountability, resolve, respect for logic and rationality, and so on, naturally folded into our conception.

But it isn’t easy ‘going-it-alone,’ if you will. Isolation seems to have a distinct effect on the mind, and I believe the mind naturally seeks to commiserate with like-minded individuals in order to cope with that isolation. Unfortunately for me, it is notoriously hard to find people above self-indulgence and consumerism in the general American populace. I used to wonder why that was, but now I know I was just looking in all the wrong places. I wanted something more, some allies in the fight against decadence and mindless consumerism. Someone else always says it best, and in this case, that someone else was me, albeit a year or two ago (from my memoirs):

American living was so completely unsatisfying to me. Why bother going to college, when all one can hope to do is make more money and buy more things? Where was the virtue in that? Our ancestors fought and died for freedom, liberty, for a noble and beautiful idea, in order to change the world forever. We fought and died for the latest electronic gadget and the prettiest estate. What was the fucking point in life?

Success in American culture was based on a disgusting infatuation with value – value defined not by intrinsic quality, but by how much money something could generate. “Good” music was not necessarily well composed, performed, or emotionally stirring – “good” music generated a lot of sales. Good writing was not necessarily perceptive, striking, or emotionally stirring – good writing generated a lot of sales. Anything “good” was something which generated a lot of sales. Even in public debate, be it the lunch table or on the internet, followed this notion – disputes over whether or not something was “good” often boiled down to how successful that particular thing was commercially.

Military service seemed like the only place I could escape this ubiquitous lust for wealth. Here were the men and women who still believed in freedom and liberty, in giving up their lives for something greater than themselves. Here were the men and women of noble character and virtue, fighting to protect those who were too weak to protect themselves. Politicians be damned. Even if you were tossed into a war you didn’t agree with, you could still fight to make sure the Marine to the left and the right of you had a chance to go home to his or her family and his or her loved ones. Selflessness – a necessary trait for anyone in the military, perhaps THE necessary trait.

This isn’t a post about the military failing to live up to my hopelessly high ideals. On the contrary, this is a post about Marine Corps ethics, which are surprisingly robust and cogent. Then again, the Marine Corps has produced stellar heroes like Major General Smedley Butler, Lieutenant General Lewis “Chesty” Puller, Sergeant Major Dan Daly, and Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, to name a few. (MRAs and feminists alike might note the lack of female exemplars. Sorry – none come to mind, except for Opha Mae Johnson, who we remember merely for being the first female Marine.) Oh, while we’re at it, why not throw in Colonel John Ripley, Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, and a personal favorite of mine from more recent times, Captain Nathaniel Fick (read or watch Generation Kill to understand why I admire him)? This list is by no means exhaustive, so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that the Marine Corps has a lot of intelligent and well-reasoned things to say about ethical behavior and leadership.

So, Marine Corps Ethics

The Marine Corps, like myself, tries to distill ethical behavior down to the absolute simplest ideas it can. The backbone of Marine Corps ethics revolves around a set of three values – called the Core Values – that are taught to every Marine during basic training. If you’ve ever known a Marine, you probably know them already – they are Honor, Courage, and Commitment. Those three words conjure the essence of the Marine Corps – the fabled “esprit de corps” – the much talked about “brotherhood” of the Marine Corps. Let’s take a closer look at the Core Values.
HONOR is the idea that Marines must possess the ultimate sense of gallantry in service to the United States of America, and embody responsibility to duty above self, including, but not limited to:

  • INTEGRITY: Demonstrating the highest standards of consistent adherence to right, legal, and ethical conduct
  • RESPONSIBILITY: Personally accepting the consequences for decisions and actions. Coaching right decisions of subordinates. A chain is only as strong as the weakest individual link, but a battalion of Marines is more like a cable. Together we are stronger than any individual strand, but one strand may hold us together in a crisis if it’s strong enough. One Marine taking responsibility for a crisis may save the day.
  • HONESTY: Telling the truth. Overt honesty in word and action and clarifying possible misunderstanding or misrepresentation caused by silence or inaction when you should speak up. Respecting other’s property and demonstrating fairness in all actions. Marines do not lie, cheat, or steal.
  • TRADITION: Demonstrating respect for the customs, courtesies, and traditions developed over many years for good reason, which produce a common Marine Corps history and identity. Respect for the heritage and traditions of others, especially those we encounter in duty around the world.

At first, one may be inclined to think that respecting tradition for tradition’s sake is a fallacy, and such a reader would be correct. Note, however, that the Corps compels obedience to traditions that have been “developed over many years for good reason.” The Corps has a keen interest in adopting and maintaining only those traditions which make sense or serve some useful purpose, generally speaking. Most Marines will be able to explain the origins of their uniforms and certain customs to you, as most are emblems of former battles or serve to honor former heroes – try asking a soldier (Army) why his uniform is the way it is or why he acts the way he does and see what sort of response you get.

So, who would be a paragon of honor? In the opinion of this Marine, Smedley Butler fits the bill. Like all of the examples I mentioned above, he could easily be a paragon of all three Core Values, but I chose him for honor for a specific reason. He certainly served his nation with gallantry, but his personal integrity, responsibility, and honesty were peerless. There is a well known example from his time as a younger officer – then Major Butler exposed himself to enemy sniper fire in order to direct the fire of his own men to the snipers’ nests. He was awarded a Medal of Honor for this action – which, tellingly, he then tried to refuse! He claimed he was merely doing his job and had done nothing spectacular to earn the award. Later, in his post military career, he would warn of the burgeoning military-industrial complex decades before Eisenhower gave it a name – demonstrating again his integrity and honesty.

COURAGE is the moral, mental and physical strength to resist opposition, face danger, endure hardship, including, but not limited to:

  • SELF-DISCIPLINE: Marines hold themselves responsible for their own actions and others responsible for their actions. Marines are committed to maintaining physical, moral, and mental health, to fitness and exercise, and to life-long learning.
  • PATRIOTISM: Devotion to and defense of one’s country. The freely chosen, informed willingness to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
  • LOYALTY: Steady reliability to do one’s duty in service to the United States of America, the United States Marine Corps, one’s command, one’s fellow Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, citizens, oneself and to one’s family.
  • VALOR: Boldness and determination in facing danger in battle, and the daily commitment to excellence and honesty in actions small and large.

In effect, the Marine Corps idea of Courage could be summed up as “doing the right thing,” regardless of circumstance or personal expense/danger/peril. Marines are often reminded that being a good Marine means “doing the right thing, even when no one is looking” and this is essentially a matter of having the courage to do said right things. Sometimes it takes courage to report the discrepancies of your buddies, for instance – but if everyone in the Marine Corps lacked such courage, and valued friendship over duty, discipline would quickly erode and have a precipitous effect throughout the rest of our operations! As is outlined in our General Orders, a Marine knows no friends in the line of duty.

Paragon of courage? None other than Chesty Puller, of course. My own words would do him shame, so here’s one of his many telling quotes: “They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29:1. They can’t get away from us now!” MRAs may find something to like in this quote: “Our Country won’t go on forever, if we stay soft as we are now. There won’t be any AMERICA because some foreign soldier will invade us and take our women and breed a heartier race!” But he wasn’t just bark. Take a look at some of his bite, as evidenced through one of his MANY award citations:

Fighting continuously in sub-zero weather against a vastly outnumbering hostile force, Colonel Puller drove off repeated and fanatical enemy attacks upon his Regimental defense sector and supply points. Although the area was frequently covered by grazing machine-gun fire and intense artillery and mortar fire, he coolly moved along his troops to insure their correct tactical employment, reinforced the lines as the situation demanded, and successfully defended the perimeter, keeping open the main supply routes for the movement of the Division. During the attack from Koto-ri to Hungnam, he expertly utilized his Regiment as the Division rear guard, repelling two fierce enemy assaults which severely threatened the security of the unit, and personally supervised the care and prompt evacuation of all casualties. By his unflagging determination, he served to inspire his men to heroic efforts in defense of their positions and assured the safety of much valuable equipment which would otherwise have been lost to the enemy. His skilled leadership, superb courage and valiant devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds reflect the highest credit upon Colonel Puller and the United States Naval Service.

COMMITMENT is the promise or pledge to complete a worthy goal by worthy means which requires identification with that goal and demonstrated actions to support that goal, including, but not limited to:

  • COMPETENCE: Maintaining, and improving one’s skill level to support the team. Commitment to growing toward a standard of excellence second to none.
  • TEAMWORK: Individual effort in support of other team members in accomplishing the team’s mission. Marines take care of their own. All worthwhile accomplishments are the result of team effort.
  • SELFLESSNESS: Marines take care of their subordinates, their families, their fellow Marines before themselves. The welfare of our country and our Corps is more important than our individual welfare.
  • CONCERN FOR PEOPLE: The Marine Corps is the custodian of this nation’s future, her young people. We exist to defend the nation, but just as importantly, we are in the business of creating honorable citizens. Everyone is of value, regardless of race, nation of origin, religion, or gender. Concern includes a commitment to improving the level of education, skill, self-esteem, and quality of life for Marines and their families. On the battlefield, a Marine is fiercest of all warriors and the most benevolent of conquerors.

Emphasis in the Marine Corps, from day one, is on the triumph of teamwork over individualism. You can’t turn shit into gold, unfortunately, and as the youth of our nation decline in moral character, the Marine Corps can only do so much to undo the 18 years of poor training that many potential enlistees “receive” as a result of poor social circumstances. Still, for those that are willing to learn, or looking for something more in life, the Marine Corps provides excellent guidance.

Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone is my paragon of commitment. After being awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Guadalcanal (where his 15-man unit was decimated to two men, who still managed to hold off 3,000 Japanese troops), he was shipped back to the States to go on a sort of public relations tour for war bonds. Generally, Medal of Honor recipients are not allowed to go back to combat, but Gunnery Sergeant Basilone was committed to the defense of the nation and the unit of Marines he had left behind on the front lines. He returned to active combat duty and gave his life in the battle of Iwo Jima, one of America’s (and the Marine Corps) bloodiest battles. (Anecdotally, my grandfather, who retired from the Marine Corps as a Lieutenant Colonel, survived Iwo Jima.)

Parting Thoughts

The bulk of this post comes from work I had done previously in preparing to teach an ethics course at my command. I pored over order after order, assembling the best and what I felt was the easiest to understand information about ethics. I relied on materials that are used to prepare company grade officers for taking command of their units, and tried to make that information as accessible to junior enlisted Marines as possible. I think it is accessible to a wider audience as well.

I think it’s pretty easy to see why Marine Corps ethics and values resonate with me – my insistence on honesty and self-improvement are part of the building blocks of ideal Marine behavior. I hope you enjoyed this crash course in Marine Corps ethics and leadership.

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2 thoughts on “Ethics and Leadership, Part 1

  1. It's quite impressive that you figured these things out so young. If you are taking an ethics class, then you are probably familiar with the Ancient Athenian concept of “arete”. I think “arete” is the highest value. I greatly admire Ancient Athenian culture. These were men who fought battles during the day and discussed philosophy at night. These were men of thought and action.

  2. We've discussed “arete” briefly in a few of the courses I've taken. I've only recently taken the plunge into a formal study of ethics and morals, so I still have much to learn.

    My high school history teacher – also one of the finest men I've had the pleasure of knowing – often talked about the ancient Greek ideal of honing/perfecting body and mind. This was an idea that stuck with me, and eventually got me thinking about the Marine Corps. I had always been rather smart and good at academics, but had led a sedentary lifestyle. Joining the Marine Corps would bring me closer to that ideal my history teacher had talked about, which seemed to make so much sense.

    In a lot of ways, I think the Marine Corps carries on in the finest traditions of many excellent cultures – mostly warrior cultures. I might be confusing facts here, but I think there was a time where the Marine Corps considered itself developing a “new” or “modern” bushido. (Other possible source for my thinking this – the idea of the “New Bushido” in the Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons. Good sci-fi books!) In either case, the Marine Corps is committed to the physical, moral and spiritual development of its Marines as a matter of policy if not always as a matter of execution. You can have the greatest organization in the world, but it comes down to individuals to live up to the standards of the organization – and American society overall is on the decline.

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