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Interview With Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler, Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Programs and Resources

Despite the drawdown, a new era for the Marine Corps

Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler is deputy commandant for Programs and Resources, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Washington, D.C. The son of a Marine, Wissler graduated with honors from the United States Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science in ocean engineering and was commissioned a second lieutenant June 7, 1978. Some of Wissler’s previous command assignments include commanding general, 2nd FSSG (Fwd) and 2nd Marine Logistics Group, II MEF; deputy commanding general, MNF-W during OIF 2009; deputy commanding general, II MEF; and commanding general, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. Staff assignments have included commandant of the Marine Corps’ Amphibious Plans Study Group in support of Operation Desert Storm; Marine Corps aide to the president from July 1991 to August 1993 (serving presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton); operations officer and executive officer for MWSG-17, 1st MAW; Division Engineer, 2nd Marine Division, II MEF; deputy director and director, Strategic Initiatives Group, Plans, Policies & Operations Department, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps (where he headed the War Room for Gen. James L. Jones, 32nd commandant of the Marine Corps); assistant chief of staff, G-3, 2nd FSSG; and senior military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense (the Hon. Gordon England). While serving as the deputy secretary of defense, at the request of the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Wissler deployed to Iraq for two months in support of the Joint Forces Command Enabling Force Study that preceded “the surge.” Wissler recently sat down for an interview at the Pentagon with Defense senior writer John D. Gresham.

 

John D. Gresham: What is the current state of the Marine Corps after a dozen years of war, in multiple theaters, across the globe?

Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler: I think the USMC today is the best Marine Corps I’ve been a part of in 34-plus years as a Marine. We have the best-trained, most highly capable young men and women with 10 – in some cases 10-plus – years of combat experience, with an ability to react to widely changing situations. I was fortunate enough to serve 34 months in Iraq. I was there when we went across the berm in [Iraq in March] 2003. I also came back [to Iraq]. I went back again in 2005 and ’06 before that. Then in late 2006 and early 2007, Secretary [then-Deputy Secretary of Defense] England sent me on a little special project when I was up with him. I was the commanding general of the Marine Logistics Group in Taqaddum in 2005-06 and went back in 2009 and ’10 and closed out the Marine Corps presence as a deputy commanding general there doing governance and economics.

USMC Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Programs and Resources Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler

USMC Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Programs and Resources Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler

I saw Marines adapt from the very traditional [combat] mission that we had in 2003 to figuring out what it took to deal with other cultures and to do counterinsurgency. [We had] some tremendous Marines, guys like Col. Steve Davis, who actually got the beginnings of the “Anbar Awakening” to happen as early as 2005 when the Mahalawis came to support his regiment out in the western parts of Anbar province. From the dark days of 2006 and ’07 in the “pre-surge” [period], and then to the awakening, to come back and to watch an Iraq now that I think has a very good chance of being able to do the things they need to do to retain representative governance. I still maintain contact with the governor of Anbar province [Gov. Qasim Abid Muhammad Hammadi al-Fahadawi] who’s got that province significantly better off than it was pre-2003, and on its way to making some great economic headway. …

So the bottom line is I’ve seen that adaptability in the force. I saw a force that shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan – two totally different environments for the force – and was able to deal with that. I saw [Marine] families grow over that time. And I’ve seen a Marine Corps that’s balanced and ready for the future, a force that’s drawing down to 182,000 Marines on a measured pace, but with a force that will be ready to meet the challenges of the strategy. Where are we [today]?

There are aspects of our Corps that we have to pay very particular attention to. Our families have certainly sacrificed much over the past 10 years, and our equipment certainly needs a reset. We have a modernization issue, but all in all, I think the Corps is the best it’s been in a long time.

The “2012 Defense Strategic Guidance” lays out the administration’s plans and intentions for the future. How does the Marine Corps view this document, and how does it affect long-range interpretations of roles and missions?

Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler holds up a map titled, "The Darwin View," graphically illustrating the sense of basing a force of Marines in the Australian port city. Photo courtesy of John D. Gresham

Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler holds up a map titled, “The Darwin View,” graphically illustrating the sense of basing a force of Marines in the Australian port city. Photo courtesy of John D. Gresham

[Holds up a map with Australia at the center. A wide expanse of blue stretches off to either side; the Indian Ocean to the west, the Pacific to the east, Indonesia, the Philippines, Micronesia, Taiwan, and China to the north, the Southeast Asian littoral to the north-northwest.] I got this map because when we look at the globe, we [Americans] always look at it [from the perspective] the United States is over here, and this is how Asia looks, if you want to look at Asia. So why are Marines in Darwin important? Because they can influence that. [Indicates area surrounding Australia on map] That influences the Pacific. So sometimes you just take a little bit different perspective on life and it changes the whole way you look at the importance of where you are, and where you are laid down, and what you’re trying to get after. If you look at the globe from that perspective, Marines in Darwin make a whole heck of a lot of sense. Marines in Japan make a whole lot of sense. Marines in Guam make a whole lot of sense. Marines in this whole area working with all these partner nations make a whole lot of sense.

So, you look at the Marines in III MEF [III Marine Expeditionary Force – forward based on Okinawa, Japan], and they’re looking at their piece of [any future] fight through a different lens, because we are a nation that has been at war for over a decade, and we now understand that cultures matter. So they’re looking at these cultures, and they’re not looking to dominate the culture. They’re looking at them to partner with the culture, and to make our presence here something that’s anticipated and desired.

So if you start at the beginning – “Phase Zero” – with people who are there, you know our position on this is you have to be “forward present.” You have to be there to reassure the allies, to train them, to be with them. You know, there’s no such thing as “virtual presence.” Virtual presence is actual absence. If you are not present, you’re not there when the crisis happens. You’re not there when the people need your help. You are not there to build other nations’ forces, partnerships, and understandings between cultures. And you’re not there, should something happen that’s bad, to give decision space to the national command authorities.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...