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To the Shores of Tripoli

New Survey by Belfer Fellow Examines USMC Morale

Newsletter Article, Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Winter 2004-05

Author: Paul Kane, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, February 2004–August 2008


One of the earliest victories of the U.S. Marine Corps occurred in 1801 during the Barbary War. Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon led a small band of men across 500 miles of desert to attack Tripoli. Lt. O'Bannon became an instant national hero with the victory, and the battle was later immortalized in The Marines Hymn. Despite his accomplishments, however, O'Bannon grew frustrated with what he perceived to be bureaucracy, and two years later, he resigned and left the Marines. The early Corps was authorized to have only four captains: O'Bannon, the most decorated Marine, could not be promoted. The Marine Corps lacked an effective mechanism for listening to its people and changing to retain its best.

Today's Marine Corps is eager to listen to its members and adapt its policies to the changing nature of war and today's realities. During October 2004, the Corps asked me to design and execute a survey of the 35,000 Marines returning from serving on combat operations in Iraq. The purpose of the survey was to gather attitudinal data to gauge the impact of the deployment and fighting in Iraq on Marines' desires to re-enlist and continue to serve.

The survey was conceived by senior commanders as a way for the organization to take a candid look at itself. What in the Corps works well, and what are Marines frustrated or unhappy with?

The survey consisted of 44 questions designed to elicit candid responses and comments to measure attitudes about issues such as future re-enlistment, morale, and support for Marine families. The draft survey was designed in October 2004. An ad hoc Survey Working Group composed of various Kennedy School and other scholars was established to review and offer comments on the survey design, sampling techniques, and results. Noted military sociologist, Professor Charlie Moskos of Northwestern University, and Harvard alumnus Colonel Mark Cancian, USMCR (Ret), reviewed and refined the survey. Belfer ISP fellows Omar McDoom, Bonnie Jenkins, Margaret Sloane, and Assaf Moghadam generously lent support in analyzing the data.

Professor Bear Braumoeller of Harvard, Marie Besançon of BCSIA's Intrastate Conflict Program, and Raj Arunachalam (University of California) contributed their expertise with statistical tools and quantitative analysis.

During December 2005, a sample population of 2,700 returned Marines who served in Iraq were identified and asked to complete anonymous surveys at their bases in the United States. The survey results are now being briefed to the Commandant of the Marine Corps for action, and it is expected they will be released to the public this May.

The survey is the only scientifically accurate "polling" of the attitudes of U.S. combat forces serving in Iraq about the war. Four more surveys will be executed during 2005 to assess what works well and to monitor trends that will help the Marine Corps better attract and retain the Presley O'Bannons of today and tomorrow.


Paul Kane is an ISP fellow at the Belfer Center and a decorated Marine veteran of the Iraq war.


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Kane, Paul. "To the Shores of Tripoli." Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Winter 2004-05.

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