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The Marine Corps is reinventing itself to reflect America, says top general

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, pictured in 2019, says that the goal behind the service's new changes is to develop a corps that reflects America.
Alex Brandon
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, pictured in 2019, says that the goal behind the service's new changes is to develop a corps that reflects America.

The Marine Corps, the smallest U.S. military force, has plans for a big overhaul designed to address its lack of diversity and problem with retaining troops.

The goal that's driving what amounts to a cultural shift within the service, is for the Marines "to reflect America, to reflect the society we come from," Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition.

It's not a matter of being politically correct or "woke," he said.

The core of America's strength lies in its diversity, Berger said, adding that the same is true for the military.

"Our advantage militarily is on top of our shoulders," he said. "It's not actually our equipment. We are better than anybody else, primarily because we don't all think exactly alike. We didn't come from the same backgrounds."

His new plan, titled Talent Management 2030, outlines measures the Corps will implement to boost recruitment and improve career flexibility. About 75% of troops leave the Marine Corps at the end of their four-year term, the highest turnover rate among the military services.

To compete in an age of cyber warfare and space-based weaponry, the Marines wants to shake its "manpower" model that historically prized youth, physical fitness and discipline over education, training and technical skills. According to the new plan, the aim is to grow a corps that is "more intelligent, physically fit, cognitively mature, and experienced."

"The capabilities that we think we're going to need are a force that's able to operate much more distributed, much more spread out than perhaps we're accustomed to in the past, using a different set of technologies than we had five or 10 or 15 years ago," he said. "I think the people that we bring in will be able to handle the technologies and also the decision-making. It's really more about the decision-making than it is about technology."

But the focus on physical fitness remains important as ever, Berger said, with boot camp demanding "the same challenge for officers and for Officer Candidate School."

It will take time, he said, before the Marine Corps, senior leadership included, starts to look like America, due in part to the fact that the Marines didn't open combat roles to women until 2016, the last military branch to do so. As of 2019, less than 10% of active duty Marines were female. The other services are in the 20 to 25% range.

"We are a purely combat force," he says, a distinction that separates the service from others. "We were built under a different set of circumstances — but that is changing."

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Taylor Haney is a producer and director for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First.