Marine Commandant aims to boost Corps' mobility and stay out of politics while addressing social issues

"Would you trust them in a firefight?" is the big question for Gen. Berger.

July 6, 2020, 4:07 AM

Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger sat down with ABC News Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz to talk racial tensions, deterring China and Russia, and keeping the Corps away from politics.

Here is their discussion.

Banning the Confederate flag, examining possible racial disparities

As debate over Army installations named after Confederates rages, the Marine Corps, which has no such bases, has led the services in banning displays of the Confederate battle flag.

"It became pretty clear that some symbols were being hijacked by organizations and used a very bad, negative way," Berger said on Tuesday. "The Confederate battle flag was part of that."

The order to remove depictions of the flag on Marine bases, made by Berger in February, took effect in early June. Berger said that while he anticipated resistance from some Marines who see it as part of their heritage, that such divisive symbols can ultimately undermine unit cohesion.

Marine Commandant Gen. David H. Berger sits down for an exclusive interview with ABC News' Martha Raddatz.
Matt Seyler/ABC News

"We're not erasing history by any means. It's a symbol. But the bigger symbol is the things that draw the team together so that we can operate with that kind of implicit trust. We have a flag -- it's the American flag. We have the Marine Corps colors. We have things that unify us -- we'll be able to operate as a team," Berger said. "Anything that gets in the way of that is a problem."

When asked about data that show African American Marines are more likely to receive a guilty finding for courts martial and non-judicial punishments, Berger was careful not to take correlation as causation, and vowed to review the matter.

"Those things to us are facts. They're not debatable -- it's data. So now we have to trace back what does it actually mean? I am more patient in jumping to a conclusion now than probably I was 15, 20 years ago," Berger said.

Not your father's Marine Corps?

In a February Twitter thread, Berger listed social issues such as paid maternity leave and encouraging women to enter combat roles as his "most important matters for immediate execution."

"Too many leaders ... the more senior you get the more you talk, the less you listen," Berger told Raddatz. "I am trying to be more disciplined and listen more."

Berger said many of his priorities came from listening to his Marines.

He related a story of speaking with troops in Rhode Island in which one Marine suggested making the maternity leave policy more flexible for those married to other service members. Instead of giving the mother and father each a set amount of time, she proposed giving the couple one lump sum of days for them to split up depending on their particular circumstances.

"I never would have thought about it, you could stay up all night and not think of those kind of ideas," Berger said. "But to them it's real."

But Berger was careful not to frame the proposed changes as handouts.

"She's not complaining, she's got a solution," he said.

Berger's tweet thread also mentioned expanding the parental leave policy to include adoptive parents and same-sex couples. Raddatz asked him how his thinking has evolved since the times before gays were allowed to openly serve.

"I think, based on the people who were my mentors, my coaches, they kept circling me back to what's the standard? Can you do the job? Would you trust them in a firefight? Everything else doesn't really matter," Berger said.

Berger's sense of fairness cuts both ways; while he supports opening up combat roles previously closed to women, he insists standards will not be lowered to let them in.

Marines participate in an exercise during the Infantry Officer Course at Quantico, Virginia, Aug. 10, 2017. The first female Marine to complete the course graduated Sept. 25, 2017.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Chad McMeen/USMC

"You are not going to have any kind of advantage based on your gender or your ethnicity or anything else. You gotta be able to carry the load. That's why I trust you, right? Because if we're going to go through that doorway right there, you and me, and I get shot at, I know you're gonna drag me out, because I trust you can carry the load, you can do the job. So standards are the standards," he said.

A new vision: Leaner, meaner, ready to face China and Russia

While Berger voiced his social concerns on Twitter, he proposed a dramatic revision of the Marine Corps' fighting posture and took on grave possibilities like facing China and Russia in his Commandant's Planning Guidance report.

"I will continue to advocate for the continued forward deployment of our forces globally to compete against the malign activities of China, Russia, Iran, and their proxies -- with a prioritized focus on China's One Belt One Road initiative and Chinese malign activities in the East and South China Seas," his planning guidance read.

Berger's plan is an integration of both future and past, of returning the Marine Corps to its forward-deployed, expeditionary roots with the Navy, as well as adopting more modern platforms like drones.

The more lithe force Berger envisions means doing away with heavy assets like tanks over the next decade, and working in a "very close pairing" with the Navy.

"Then you can move around. You can be in one place, and then six hours later be in a very different place. You have the mobility, you're not required to use a country to base out of at all. You can move America's force where you need it," Berger said.

Berger said that war with China would be "terrible for both countries," adding deterrence is his focus with it and Russia.

"You have to convince them that taking the next step would ... not be worth it, so don't go there," he said.

The separation of Corps and state

America's top military official apologized for taking part in President Donald Trump's photo op in front of St. John's Church in June.

"I should not have been there," said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a commencement address to National Defense University. "My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

Berger defended Milley to Martha Raddatz.

"If you know the chairman like you and I do, you knew right away that was not where he intended to be," Berger said. "So although some people would see the photograph and don't know him and draw a quick conclusion, those of us who have served with him ... knew that was not where he intended to be."

Berger went on to say that staying out of politics is "part of the reason why America trusts its military."

"We understand the chain of command, but we cannot become a political tool either," Berger said. "We are determined to stay on the outside, and Chairman Milly is leading that charge, as he should as chairman."

Training through COVID-19

Unlike the Army, which briefly shut down its boot camps, Berger kept his service at work building recruits into Marines, while cutting numbers and adding precautions.

"Our approach was: We need to keep going. We need to keep recruiting. We need to keep recruit training, we need to keep training officer candidates," Berger said.

Families of fallen Marines 'entitled' to answers on alleged Russian plot

The White House on Tuesday continued to provide briefings to select members of Congress on the intelligence about reported Russian bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which a military official told ABC News showed Russian intelligence officers had offered to pay Taliban militants to kill American troops over the last year. Lawmakers have called on the administration to share more information and possibly take action.

Berger, who commanded troops in Afghanistan, said he doesn't believe he ever saw anything about Russian meddling in intelligence reports, but added that "it takes a lot to surprise me now."

PHOTO: U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David H. Berger, center, commanding general, Task Force Leatherneck, speaks to Lt. Col. Andrew Niebel, right, on Patrol Base (PB) Lazika, Helmand province, Afghanistan September 18, 2012.
U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David H. Berger, center, commanding general, Task Force Leatherneck, speaks to Lt. Col. Andrew Niebel, right, commanding officer, 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, Regional Command (Southwest), on Patrol Base (PB) Lazika, Helmand province, Afghanistan September 18, 2012. Berger visited PB Lazika to speak with Marines on the ground about the progress and importance of the build.
LCpl. Joshua Rudy/USMC

Staff Sgt. Christopher K.A. Slutman, Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines and Cpl. Robert A. Hendriks were killed when a car bomb exploded near their vehicle as their convoy headed back to the base, making them three of the 17 Americans killed during combat in Afghanistan in 2019.

Some parents of the fallen Marines have demanded answers as to whether the possible plot was known of by the U.S. before their sons' demise, and if it played any role.

"And I think they're entitled to it," Berger said. "You don't want to lead them in any direction. You just have to look at the facts like always, investigate thoroughly."