Holding the Government Accountable

Are the Military Services All That Different?

Actually, the Marines’ nude-photo scandal highlights the similarities
Photo: U.S. Marine Corps / Julien Rodarte

An astute and longtime observer of the U.S. military floored me last week when she asked: “Are the Marines, given this naked-pictures scandal,” she asked, “worse when it comes to this kind of stuff than the other services?”

Newsreels of decades of naughty behavior in the ranks that I’ve covered as a reporter flickered through my mind: the Army’s 1996 Aberdeen sexual-harassment scandal, the court martial of its top enlisted soldier two years later, the sergeant who filmed women at West Point in the shower while serving there from 2009 to 2013; similar Air Force outrages in basic training that began in 2009 and 2003 academy outrages; the Navy’s 1991 Tailhook fiasco and the clandestine videoing of naked women aboard a nuclear submarine in 2014.

“Um,” I told my interlocutor. “No—the Marines are no worse, or better, than the other services in this regard.”

But that got me to thinking: after nearly 40 years of reporting on the services, just how do they differ from one another?

Bottom line: there obviously are great men and women in all four of what most members of the public deem the services (and we know the Coast Guard, and elements of the Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are deemed uniformed services, too). But, not immune to human foibles, each has occasional stray dogs. Unfortunately, without adequate command, sometimes such stray dogs become packs. And, as highlighted by these never-ending sex scandals, the packs can become feral.

“You have to understand that all of the branches are just more aggressive versions of the post office.”

But there are difference among the services. Stereotypes are dangerous, but they’re stereotypes for a reason: they have an element of broad-brushed truth to them.

The Navy likes to think of itself as apart from the other services. And it was, literally, until the Department of War and the Department of Navy were joined in a 1947 shotgun marriage to create the Department of Defense. In the days before radio—never mind GPS and ship-to-shore email—a U.S. Navy ship was truly isolated when on the high seas, and its captain was truly in command.

The Army and the Marines are the ground-pounders, down in the mud and blood of ground combat. That’s one reason they’re the last services to open up combat slots to women. By comparison, the Air Force and Navy wage war more antiseptically, flinging weapons from their ships and planes from afar. There was plenty of grumbling from the Air Force and Navy during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq about all the “playing time” the Army and Marines were getting on the battlefield. And there’s been backbiting from the ground-pounders that the war against ISIS has dragged on for so long because it is being waged largely from the air by Air Force and Navy warplanes.

But there is also much good-natured rivalry among the services. “You have to understand that all of the branches are just more aggressive versions of the post office,” one anonymous, but wise, poster said on Reddit. “They each have a preferred method of delivering packages to people and addresses that need them.”

S/he elaborated:

  • “The Air Force wants to deliver from an airplane and get back to the comfort of the corporate office as quickly as possible.
  • “The Navy would like to load the package on a ship at some point before delivering it even if it has to travel the last bit by plane or maybe even hand delivery.
  • “The Army moves the package overland most of the time and does a great deal of deliveries from some sort of truck. They tend to set up local offices and maintain regular routes, really getting to know the end users.
  • “The Marines are like a merger of the Army and Navy, only they prefer to be miserable the whole time.”

Sergeants in the Army and Marines tend to be preoccupied with fixing balky personnel, while senior non-commissioned officers in the Air Force and Navy spend more of their time tinkering with faulty avionics and wayward radars. These fundamental building blocks tend to draw different kinds of men and women to enlist.

The differences seem most pronounced among the senior enlisted ranks, where service loyalties have been steeped in years of service, undiluted by joint assignments serving along those wearing a different service’s uniform.

By the time you get to the three- and four-star ranks, a lot of service-specific idiosyncrasies have been sacrificed to win promotions. Reporters used to pay a lot of attention to the service of an incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs, thinking that the color of his uniform would be a clue to what sort of military the nation would have. It doesn’t work that way. As the chief military adviser to the president, a chairman is among the first to concede that he can only recommend, and then carry out, the orders of the commander-in-chief. Any impact he has is only at the margins.

Over the decades, I have been with troops of every service in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Cuba, Europe, Iraq, the Philippines and elsewhere around the world. By and large, they make for great company and are willing to help an outsider feel at home. The differences among members of a single service’s unit are far greater than the variations among units from different services. In fact, as I wrote in my prior life at Time, the real, and far more consequential, gap is between U.S. troops and the rest of us (I never served in the military).

Each service is proud of its ethos, and most of its members believe their service is the best. And while nearly all acknowledge that their service can’t do the job alone, they are mighty territorial when it comes to protecting the “roles and missions” they have been assigned over the years.

The Air Force (321,000 in active-duty uniforms), rules the skies (helicopter excepted, which are an Army responsibility). The Navy (324,000) reigns supreme over the seas.

The Marines take pride in their small size (185,000), which allows them to set higher standards for enlistment (although they are forever seeking to keep from shrinking too much and being swallowed whole by the Army).

The Army, given its sheer size, is the least picky when it comes to who can sign up. But its 476,000 members make it the most reflective of America. Among its ranks are some of the nation’s smartest officers and enlisted troops. But, being the largest, it also includes some of the stupidest.

But, as the Marines’ latest woes show, no single service has a monopoly on stupidity.