Forging A Way Forward: Accountability In the Corps After The 'Marines United' Scandal

Sgt. Debra C. Riddle, anti-tank missileman (gunner), and Cpl. Thomas P. Gray III, anti-tank missileman (assistant gunner), both with Weapons Company, Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force, fire the Mk-153 shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon during a squad supported attack at Range G6 aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Feb. 4, 2015.
U.S. Marine Corps photo

In the months since the exposure of revenge porn social media sites such as “Marines United,” the Marine Corps has been forced to confront the digital manifestation of its culture of toxic masculinity. The Marines United Facebook group was just one of numerous social media websites where intimate images of female Marines were shared without their consent.

At the Joint Women’s Leadership Symposium on June 15, 2017, I asked the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Glenn Walters, how he planned to ensure that commanders had the will to hold integrity-violators accountable and not treat victims like nuisances. He acknowledged a need to change the culture, but warned that such a change would be slow. “If I could take a bullhorn and tell 180,000 Marines in formation to cut it out and change their culture, I would,” he said.  

To date, the Marine Corps Task Force, currently led by Walters, has promulgated several forms of guidance on social media misconduct. Among these are “ALMARS 008/17-Social Media Guidance—Unofficial Internet Posts,” which includes broad language stating that “Marines must never engage in commentary or publish content on social networking platforms or through other forms of communication that harm good order and discipline or that bring discredit upon themselves, their unit, or the Marine Corps,” and “Leaders’ Handbook and Discussion Guide,” which contains guidance for identifying and investigating online misconduct, as well as guidelines on administrative and punitive actions. The Marine Corps Task Force is in the process of transitioning to a permanent structure that will have a long-term focus on cultural change.

Under the policies implemented by the task force, 67 Marines have been investigated, according to figures provided by the Marine Corps. Five remain under NCIS investigation, 62 have been returned to their commands for disposition, and 35 dispositions have been completed. Cases returned to commands have resulted in two administrative separations, five non-judicial punishments, and 21 cases of adverse administrative action; seven Marines, meanwhile, have received no action (which can include informal counseling, or extra duty, but nothing formally adverse included in their record). The Marine Corps did not provide a rank breakdown of those under investigation, but noted that most are under E-5, along with several senior noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers.

The Marine Corps should be commended for its thorough and swift efforts to combat social media misconduct. It’s a start. The introduction to the leaders’ handbook acknowledges “Our readiness and unit cohesion are being adversely impacted by this gender discrimination and harassment,” adding that “we will eliminate this discrimination and harassment from our collective psyche.”

The Corps has asked victims and the public to put trust in the chain of command. Yet it’s that same chain of command that ignored previous reports of social media harassment starting as early as 2013. The first known arrest made in relation to the Marines United scandal was a senior enlisted leader holding the rank of master sergeant. Besides a single reference in ALMARS 008/17 to a standing order and the UCMJ related to retaliation and reprisal, there is no guidance on ensuring victims and their supporters are not retaliated against or undermined by their commands for reporting harassment. Often even the most “perfect” victims are treated like nuisances who waste time and distract from the mission.

Holding integrity-violators accountable may help stop the bleeding, as sexual harassment on social media previously took place for years with impunity. But social media isn’t actually the problem — The Marine Corps remains blind to the toxic masculinity ingrained in its culture that allowed such corrosive behavior to run rampant in the first place.

From the day they stand on the yellow footprints at boot camp, male and female recruits are trained separately. Officer Candidate School in Quantico is also sex-segregated. The reality of the training’s content and rigor aside, this separation already creates the perception of inequality. It is no secret that male drill instructors openly disparage female recruits in front of male recruits and encourage males to base their identity on being “real” Marines in being superior to female Marines. Retired Marine Lt. Col. Kate Germano, who commanded the female recruit battalion, was relieved for the perception of being abusive because she criticised and actively corrected deficiencies in the lower training standard to which female recruits had been held.

The mentality of this toxic, “hegemonic” masculinity, is that being a Marine and proving one’s masculinity are intertwined. Imagining or even creating a link between women and lower standards is a way to preserve this identity and relative position of power. If women are given an equal place, this identity is disrupted. As a male former teammate in the special operations community explained to me, “These guys were raised to think that girls were weaker and inferior, and put all their identity and manhood in what they do. So when these guys see women in the field, they panic, thinking ‘oh my God, what does that make me?’”      

Enduring the first test of grit in the military and working toward a shared goal builds unit cohesion, trust, and respect among teammates. This is a fact proven time and again by peer-reviewed research, including the Marine Corps’ own study on women in combat units.  Every other branch of service besides the Marine Corps has known this for years, and men and women go through accession training together. The reality is that in war, men and women fight and die next to one another. If the military trains like it fights, and fights as it trains, then the Marine Corps is undermining its own mission effectiveness in perpetuating inequality in its training.

While the Marine Corps’ efforts to change its culture appear to be genuine, they will fall short without a comprehensive understanding of how and why it became so toxic in the first place. Corps leadership should continue to work with both active-duty female Marines and their male allies, as well as servicewomen and veteran activist groups like Actionable Change and Not in My Marine Corps to forge the way forward. These women believe in the core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment, and want to see the Marine Corps believe in them too.

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