Small Wars Journal

Thirty Years as a Marine Officer: Lessons for Many Audiences

Thirty Years as a Marine Officer: Lessons for Many Audiences

Joseph J. Collins

1

The best way to understand history is to make a lifetime of serious study. Reading about people and especially leaders is a popular and interesting way to begin to learn history and, at the same time, comprehend the human condition.  One new, interesting, and well-presented book is Jason Bohm’s From the Cold War to ISIL: One Marine’s Journey.[1] Bohm wrote this Naval Institute Press book as a colonel and has since risen to the stars. His work is not only a personal memoir, but it is the story of his comrades, their families, and the evolving strategic context that they have encountered over the last three decades.

Bohm enters the force at the end of the Cold War, itching (in vain) to get to the first Gulf War. He soon found himself in Haiti immersed in a Three Block War of combat, peacekeeping, and humanitarian operations.[2]  This was followed by the years of maintaining naval presence, securing embassies, fighting terrorists, and conflict in Iraq. In his spare time, Bohm did recruiting duty, staff and war college (where I met him), legislative liaison, and a tour in the Pentagon’s J5 where he understudied our most senior officers. In his last command, Colonel Bohm and the 2500-marine task force built around the storied 5th Marine Regiment helped the Iraqis and other nations to battle ISIL.[3] Throughout his career, Bohm’s units touched many countries in the Middle East, Haiti, Kenya, Iraq (4 times), Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Japan, and many other countries. In the journey, the author also tells you what it is like to be a Marine and how that adaptable force has served our strategy across the globe.

In telling his tale, Bohm is careful to give the strategic context and to talk about the main events, even if his units were not at the center of the action. He quotes liberally from national strategies that invisibly guide the work of his Marines and provide a history lesson for his readers. He gives great credit to his peers and bosses, and includes the families and their sacrifices in the story.  With little visible preaching, the reader can feel the importance of faith and family to our men and women in uniform.

Bohm’s story is also an excellent presentation of how Marines see themselves.  They are small, flexible, and hungry for business.  His excellent description of Marine culture is ready today for use by Headquarters, Marine Corps. While the Army has a vast array of specialty units, the Marine infantry appear as America’s swiss army knife, adaptable to whatever task you can throw at it, deployable at any level from platoon to a multi-division expeditionary force with its own accompanying air force.  Marines have a genius for adapting the mud Marine and their share of Naval aviation to the future fight.  Citing the great work of General Al Gray, who, in the historian Allen Millett’s words, led a “crusade of self-improvement and plotted a course to redefine the Marine Corps for the post-Cold War era,”[4] Bohm highlights the importance of preparing for the future to Marine Corps culture:

Marines are visionary. Although the nature of war is enduring, the character of war is not. Marines understand this. They are never content with being able to fight the last war but look to remain one step ahead of potential adversaries by developing the operating strategies and technologies to win the next war. Small war concepts, amphibious warfare, close air support, and the employment of the amphibious tractor, helicopter, and tilt-rotor aircraft are all examples of Marines leading in new and innovative ways.[5]

At the same time, reading between Bohm’s well-crafted lines, Marine units appear overcommitted and saddled with overlapping chains of command. At one point, as a Colonel at Camp Pendleton working up his unit for overseas duty, Bohm gently lamented that he worked for three different generals and had two widely separated headquarters (not to mention a near fatal rattlesnake bite while on a long, solo cross-country run.) In the field, his chains of command were also complex and redundant, a disease that affects the modern Army as well. It is not clear to me why a combat commander can’t have a simple chain of command with one boss. I suspect that interservice rivalry is at fault here, as well as the multiplication of large staffs at so many levels. Everybody wants to help.

I would argue that this book needs to read by three audiences. It should be marketed to civilians.  Less than one percent of our nation serves.  Reading Bohm’s book will give them a chance to learn about life in the service and the sweep of our national security affairs over three decades. Where possible, professors of national security-related subjects should urge their students to read this book. If they can’t read the whole book, they should study Chapter 11 where Bohm’s China Marines were in the thick of the fight in Iraq.  Dead and wounded Marines are often the result of decisions made by our civilian leaders. That’s an important lesson for the attentive public.

Army officers and senior NCOs should also read this book.  Some Army leaders see the Marines as second cousins, soldiers who have mastered Navy lingo and are blessed with neat uniforms.  There is much more to it in my view. They have a unique culture, organization, and approach to battle.  Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak noted a key fact: “the United States doesn’t need a Marine Corps [:] … the United States wants a Marine Corps.”[6]  The Marines are constantly seeking to prove their value and continually re-adapt their assets to changing circumstances. Marine career patterns are more varied and their operational experience has more variety than many typical Army careers. Their force is smaller and more intimate. Marines will deploy in small detachments or platoons to accomplish security missions.  Their work with embassies is unlike any interagency experience that is familiar to the Army. Marine junior officers often find themselves working outside their branches or military specialties. Their relationship with the Navy is unique, and often a source of friction. Their size dictates that they will often live off either Army or Navy support assets. Marines appear to pay more attention to combat training for non-combat units. They tend to deploy more frequently but for shorter periods of time than Army units.  They are less wedded to specific aspects of doctrine and more fixed on adaptation. Only Army airborne and special operations forces experience the variety of atypical, small-unit experiences that are common to Marines. If comparison is essential to learning, Bohm’s book can help to open the minds of Army officers or senior NCOs.

Marines, especially Marine officers can learn from Bohm’s book. It depicts not only a successful, three-decade, career experience, but it is a chronicle too of our changing strategy and the amazing variety of allies and adversaries that a Marine officer will face in his or her career. It is also a story of a warrior-strategist-thinker, working in a service characterized by tradition and a world where change is the only constant. On top of all of that, this excellent book is an interesting read and a model for seeing how your daily duties fit into the broader security environment and the national strategy. It will be well worth your effort.

End Notes


[1] Jason Q. Bohm (Brig. Gen., USMC), From the Cold War to ISIL: One Marine’s Journey (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019), xiv + 264 pages.

[2] In 1997, General Charles Krulak, Commandant of the Marine Corps, coined the term, the Three Block War to describe the complex environment that faced Marines in the future, where a Marine squad in a short period of time could find itself fighting, conducting peacekeeping activities, or delivering humanitarian assistance. Leading Marines in that action would be young leaders whom Krulak later dubbed “strategic corporals.” The three block war focused Marine training at a time when other services were looking toward information dominance and high-tech precision warfare. It was one of the few prescient future battle visions from a service chief in my four decades in Washington. It also became the guiding philosophy of Canadian Forces in their operations in Afghanistan. I believe that it still has considerable conceptual utility.

[3] In the book, part of Bohm’s storied 5th Marine Regiment became the centerpiece of what was called the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force for Crisis Response in the CENTCOM AOR. Its unit abbreviation was SPMAGTF-CR-CC, which is more easily spelled out than pronounced.

[4] Bohm, From the Cold War to ISIL,  15.

[5] Ibid., 14. Emphasis in the original.

[6] As quoted in Ibid., 11.

Categories: SWJ Book Review

About the Author(s)

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army Colonel, served DoD in and out of uniform for four decades.  His decade plus in the Pentagon was capped off by service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-04. He taught for 25 years at West Point and the National War College, and for more than two decades in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He is an author in and co-editor (with Richard Hooker) of Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, NDU Press, 2015. Collins is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University.