The United States Marine Corps is currently embroiled in a massive scandal that strikes at the heart of the U.S. military service and the trust the military establishment has built with the American people. Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, 14 March, and was raked over the proverbial coals about the scandal. At issue is the distribution of explicit images of female service members through Facebook groups.
The Facebook group is called “Marines United” and has nearly 30,000 followers of mostly active-duty U.S. Marines, Marine Corps veterans, and British Royal Marines, according to Marine Corps Times. In a document acquired and published by Marine Corps Times, senior Marine Corps leadership address the background of the matter and the way ahead regarding the Marine Corps’ response.
According to the document, the closed Facebook group “Marines United” solicited members for explicit photos of female service members and posted them to a Google Drive account. The link to the account was provided to members of the page. Some of the women on the Google Drive account were identified as Marines and included their name, rank, and duty station. Women portrayed in the photos were also subject to misogynistic threats and harassment. The account was maintained by a Marine veteran and has since been removed from the internet, although multiple media sources report that Marines United has created alternate Facebook pages and continues to distribute these revealing images.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) has initiated an investigation and has identified hundreds of Marines who are members of the group. NCIS is currently investigating to determine whether the identified Marines shared these types of photos without the consent of the women involved. In addition, they are seeking to find out whether these women have been harassed.
This is not the first time the Marine Corps — or the rest of the military for that matter — has been involved in this type of scandal. The military has a long history of changing its programs and modifying training to combat sexual harassment and sexual assault within its ranks.
To echo the Senate Armed Services Committee, what are we going to do about this? What we cannot do, is blame the victim or quietly disregard this type of behavior by saying, “Oh well she should not have taken those photos anyway,” or “What do you expect from a bunch of rough and tumble trained killers?” These are unacceptable responses and do nothing to address the issue or prevent it from happening again.
Issues of this nature pose several problems to an organization such as the Marine Corps. First, it causes the breakdown of unit cohesion. When members of the unit are denigrated, it chips away at the trust soldiers have with each other. Simply put, this is a readiness issue.
Another problem is the breakdown of trust and confidence between the military and the American people. Part of the military ethic is that Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines are “servants of the nation” and maintain a special bond of trust with those they defend.
When America loses faith with its Armed Forces, the military loses the ability to complete its missions: funds dry up, decisions are second-guessed, additional oversight is added. It is a recipe for disaster.
So what are we to do? First of all, we need an increase in leader engagement. A one-hour block of PowerPoint-based instruction is only giving lip service to addressing an issue of this nature. Commanders and leaders at all levels need to create a climate where actions like these are not tolerated. At all.
Obviously, every transgression such as this cannot be caught. But when something is reported or brought to the attention of the command, it needs to be addressed swiftly and mercilessly. Leaders need to be held accountable for failing to address matters such as these within their formations. As well, we need equal and equitable treatment up and down the chain of command.
There have been numerous instances in recent years of senior leaders and, in some cases, generals who have committed sexual harassment/assault and other acts, which bring discredit to the service. Too often the punishment for senior leaders has been light in comparison with similar offenses of the enlisted ranks.
If the standard is the standard, then there should be no difference between an infraction by a Lance Corporal and one by a Lieutenant General. If anything, the senior leader should be held to a higher rubric. And yet, infractions that would have an enlisted soldier drummed out of the military, when committed by a flag grade officer, consistently result in retiring at a slightly lower rank.
If the military is going to take these issues seriously, it needs to hold leaders accountable for the climates they create and the (in)action taken. Failing to do so is detrimental to readiness, to good order and discipline, and to the soul of our Armed Forces. Your move, Marine Corps.