The U.S. Marine Corps is a fighting force at war, confronting adversaries in Afghanistan, Syria and other corners of the globe. Now a new battlefront has emerged for the Marine Corps following the revelation of nude photo sharing among Marines and it’s unlike anything they’re accustomed to facing on distant shores and combat zones.
As soon as it was reported publicly that Marines were posting lewd photos of female Marines online through private social media sites, Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller responded forcefully and without hesitation or delay.
The Marine Corps, at his direction, committed to a full investigation and to take appropriate action against those who violated the privacy and rights of the Marines who are the subjects of the photos.
For some lawmakers and observers, this commitment isn’t enough. Predictably, the controversy has now morphed into an opportunity for elected officials—led by New York Democrat Senator Kristen Gillibrand—to publicly chide the Commandant and raise questions about his leadership without regard for the fact that he is still presiding over Marines in a shooting war.
No different than the blatant disrespect demonstrated by the Marines at the center of the controversy, Senator Gillibrand and others echoing her narrative underscore an obvious level of disdain for the Marine Corps and gives added attention to the wrongful view that Marines are nothing more than a group of uncontrollable misfits. Something they’re not.
During a Senate hearing this week, Senator Gillibrand lambasted the Commandant as if he himself sanctioned the wrongful behavior of the Marines who posted photos or even encouraged it by virtue of his leadership. Never mind the fact that the Commandant has taken ownership of the problem and vowed to expend all resources to continue addressing a challenge that is neither easily nor immediately solvable.
What should give Senator Gillibrand hope is that the Commandant is leading the charge and if there is anybody in the Marine Corps who can make a difference, it’s him.
This Commandant is like his predecessors in so many ways, especially when it comes to caring for his Marines and ensuring they’re the most effective fighting force in the world. But he has his own distinct qualities and attributes, and it’s safe to say that no Commandant has ever rivaled his dedication to the creation of a diverse Marine Corps.
In fact, it was the Commandant who led a diversity task force under previous leadership and his takeaways from that experience are no doubt informing his efforts today.
His leadership team is no less committed. Sitting behind the Commandant during this week’s hearing was General David Furness—a true patriot with over 30 years of service. So too was General Lori Reynolds, also with 30 years of service to the Marine Corps. Lambasting the Commandant might be good for appearances, but doing so not only undercuts his effectiveness, it also calls into question the ability of his team to set things straight.
What Senator Gillibrand fails to understand is that when she targets the Commandant as she did, there’s a cascade effect that gives others the courage to take even more drastic steps, among them calls for the Commandant’s resignation. That was the case again this week.
Should the Commandant consider resigning? The answer isn’t just no—it’s hell no. Rather, he should be entrusted to fix the problem and given the operating space to do exactly that.
Whether Senator Gillibrand and others want to hear it or not, it’s a fact that the Marine Corps doesn’t surveil the internet looking for nefarious sites. Upon discovery, their response is how they should be judged as well as what they do to impose control mechanisms to the extent the law permits.
The nude photos that were posted are not exclusively a Marine Corps problem. The other military services are sure to encounter private sites among their own ranks. And with the prevalence of social media, it’s worth asking how much of this is a byproduct of a deeper cultural issue that compels both men and women—whether students, employees or uniformed military—to allow themselves to be photographed so freely or even post content about themselves that they might one day regret. This should by no means excuse the behavior, but it should reinforce the point that this latest controversy is not unique solely to the Marine Corps.
The Commandant deserves to be trusted—he’s earned it. But any suggestion that he might not be taking this latest controversy seriously or can resolve the matter with a snap of his fingers is absurd.
The behavior of Marines who posted nude photos and violated the rights and privacy of their fellow Marines is atrocious and it’s something the Commandant rightly said he won’t tolerate.
What he needs now is less showmanship in the halls of Congress and more trust that he will lead in a way that we all expect and know he will.
Congressman Duncan D. Hunter (R-CA) represents California's 50th Congressional District. He is the first Marine combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan elected to Congress.