A series of scandals involving civilian killings in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq, have drawn renewed attention to the way Marines are trained for combat.
“Rules of engagement training, handling detainees, military ethics, these are all areas of instruction that are getting an increased emphasis,” said Maj. Paul Merida, who oversees the training of 2nd lieutenants at the Marine Corps’ Basic School in Quantico, Va.
“Those are very important things that we have to do well in order to do well in the type of environment we’re in,” he said in an interview.
Allegations of civilian killings and other abuses against Marines bring to mind the notion of the “strategic corporal,” a moniker that captures the widespread significance that the actions of one person can have.
It does not have to be a corporal, Merida said. The concept applies to any Marine. “The guy’s called a strategic corporal because not only can he make a good decision that has strategic implications, but he can also make a bad decision that can have strategic implications. He can be a corporal, he can be a sergeant, he can be a lieutenant — that’s why these guys have to know these things and be trained how to operate as far as ethics and rules of engagement,” Merida said.
At the center of the Corps’ renewed attention to ethics is the martial arts program, which has been around for a decade and is required for all Marines. The Marine Corps martial arts program, or MCMAP, to an extent has influenced the service’s approach to close quarters combat, morality training, and the concept of employing a “spectrum of force,” which typically is taught in law enforcement.
Supporters of the program assert that it better prepares Marines for the moral gray areas that they encounter in combat situations.
“It’s a huge part of leadership training,” Merida said. “We’re training leaders who can make decisions that are in accordance with the rules of engagement.” The program “teaches there’s a right time and a right place to use force, and the right level of force.”
Retired Lt. Col. Joe Shusko, the director of MCMAP, describes the program as having three disciplines — physical, mental and character. The physical part is the easiest, he said, and it teaches the Marines a form of martial arts that blends elements of karate, tae kwon do, wrestling and ground fighting. For discipline, the Marines study Marine Corps history and warrior cultures such as Spartans, Apaches, Zulu and the battles of World War II.
The third part, and the component which is most linked to the concept of the strategic corporal, is character discipline.
“We’re teaching our Marines to do the right thing 24/7, even when no one’s watching,” Shusko said. “Character is measured by what you do in the dark.”
Retired Marine Corps Maj. Rick Spooner said Marines today are better equipped to make decisions thanks in part to programs like MCMAP.
“Marines have traditionally thought of themselves as being really tough when it came to a fight,” he said. “Now they really are. MCMAP doesn’t turn people into a bunch of thugs because they’ve learned a lot of techniques and disciplines. It teaches them ethics, and it teaches them to defend those who need defending.”
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