As a Marine platoon and company commander, I was held to a typical Marine Corps standard: “You are responsible for everything your unit does or fails to do.”
From a recent New York Times report, it appears the Marine Corps has significantly under-promoted Black officers. The Marine Corps leadership, beginning with Gen. David Berger, the Corps Commandant, should acknowledge responsibility for this failure and take ownership in addressing it.
My time in the Corps, including two deployments to Iraq, taught me that Marines are eminently capable of holding each other to the highest standards. Those high standards hold not just in combat zones, but also in developing policies that support and advance Marine leaders without regard to color, sex or creed.
It is time for our Marine Corps leadership to hold itself to these high standards, to confront fully a system that has perpetuated injustice and to make the changes needed to maintain the Corps as our nation’s preeminent war-fighting force.
Those changes require walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Luckily, there is plenty of evidence at hand, and easy-to-implement changes, on how this can be done.
My own academic research clearly showed that military officers respond to the same incentives that the rest of us do — a meritocratic system where development is encouraged and talent is rewarded. Implementing changes to the hiring, retention, development and promotion of Marine Corps officers of color therefore requires, first that we strip the hidden injustices out of the system and enable great leaders to rise of their own accord.
How might we do this?
A useful approach is to “get left of the bomb,” as we used to say in Iraq. That means addressing the underlying conditions that have caused the problem rather than reacting to it only once it has occurred.
First, to better address the upstream inequalities that produce newly commissioned officers who are far whiter than the country they protect and defend, the Marine Corps should increase its outreach and awareness to college students of color. Talented, patriotic Americans are in high demand everywhere, which means the Marine Corps needs to plan, resource and execute a recruiting effort that competes with top companies and other public institutions.
Luckily, I know the Marine Corps loves a great competition, and with the fall recruiting season about to begin for rising college seniors, there is no better time than right now to upgrade the Corps’ recruitment approach.
Second, the Marine Corps should remove all individually identifying information from command and promotion reviews. It is long documented, and still holds true, that Black mortgage applicants still face discrimination relative to their white peers. Similar studies can be performed for military promotion boards, but we don’t have to wait for the results to come in — eliminating the use of photographs from promotion reviews is a good initial step, but there’s no reason not to follow that policy to its rational conclusion, and to do so right now.
Third, implement well-designed 360-degree reviews, which academic studies have generally supported as an effective approach to leadership evaluation. Because Marine Corps officers are more than 80% white while enlisted Marines are more than 40% people of color, such a change would provide review boards with a more inclusive view of a Marine officer’s leadership approach. It could also identify any leaders who continue to hold white-supremacist views (a continuing scourge among service members).
Marines love a simple plan, ferociously executed. We can, and should, continue to discuss additional reforms. But that doesn’t mean we can’t act now. Every day’s delay is a day of justice denied, and I know there’s nothing that fires up Marines more than a tough fight for a just and noble cause. Let’s begin that fight now.