What's the Matter with Jim Amos?

October 13, 2014

General James Amos, the 35th commandant of the Marine Corps, will come to the end of his term of office this week. Marines, as a matter of custom and temperament, are well known for revering their commandant. Difficult questions of doctrine or procedure within the Corps may be settled by asserting, without a shred of irony, that "the commandant wants it this way." Famously the most disciplined of the services, this respectful and admiring deference for the leader is part of what it has traditionally meant to be a Marine.

Which makes it all the more strange that Jim Amos is so widely—and, on social media, openly—disliked by Marines.

Over the weekend there was a new outbreak of criticism about the man, inspired by an 80-page report prepared by a critic of the commandant, a former Marine and lawyer named Lee Thweatt.

The Marine Corps Times has the story:

At issue is whether Amos attended basic Marine officer training in 1972 as he said in the career service record he provided Congress four years ago upon his confirmation as the service’s 35th commandant.

Amos was a Navy pilot and lieutenant junior grade who cross-decked to Marine Corps aviation and bypassed The Basic School, a rite of passage for all Marine officers. The Corps says its top officer did complete TBS – five years later than claimed and via correspondence course.

A spokesman for Marine Corps headquarters said it was impossible to provide documentation late Friday afternoon, at the front end of a three-day weekend. Marine Corps Times had sought details on Amos’ TBS history since Wednesday.

The controversy, raised by longtime critics of Amos, centers on a signed and sworn document showing Amos’ attended TBS as portrayed during his confirmation process.

The commandant’s spokesman, Col. Dave Lapan, on Wednesday told Marine Corps Times that there was proof Amos completed the time-honored training regimen, but refused to provide that proof to anyone but Congress.

"Marine Corps records confirm the commandant came into the Marine Corps through an inter-service transfer from the Navy and he completed The Basic School," Lapan said.

You read that correctly. At issue is whether or not Amos attended basic officer training (called The Basic School, or TBS) in the early 1970s. As it happens, I know that he did not—because he told me and several hundred other people gathered for some informal remarks in May of this year at the Naval Academy that he didn’t. He conveyed this factoid by way of a longer speech about his own career given for the benefit of midshipmen about to enter the Corps. His explanation was that in the early 1970s the Corps faced such a crisis with getting pilots into combat that it had some of them skip TBS. No one in the crowd was scandalized by the news.

But there is a problem, as Mr. Thweatt points out. For some reason, the resumé provided by Amos’ staff to Congress for his confirmation hearings as commandant clearly lists "The Basic School, 1972" as one of his professional achievements. Provided as evidence for a congressional hearing, the resumé constitutes a sworn document. The general’s aides claim that Amos did in fact attend TBS, but as a correspondence course in 1977. A mistake of this nature on a sworn document, even if entirely innocent and inadvertent in nature, would likely have significant career consequences for a more junior Marine.

Of course, Amos is not a more junior Marine. Despite calls for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to investigate, it seems unlikely that this controversy will actually have any lasting legal or administrative effect on Amos, who will almost certainly turn over his position and retire on schedule. (Indeed, part of the evidence provided by Thweatt against the commandant includes documentation to the effect that Amos couldn’t have been at TBS in 1972, because he was too busy ejecting from an F-4 Phantom in July of that year—not exactly a ‘stolen valor’ type situation.)

But the lengths to which Amos’ enemies are going in order to embarrass him during his final days in office is telling, as, indeed, is the angry reaction among Marines on their private social media accounts, where many were of the mind that Amos’ non-attendance at TBS explains a lot. TBS is for Marine officers what Recruit Training (boot camp) is for enlisted Marines: the place where the values and traditions of the Corps are hammered in to you, regardless of how you came to the Corps.

Amos’ broader problem is that he is widely suspected by Marines of not being truly invested in those values. This perception stems largely from a nasty incident in Afghanistan in 2011 in which a group of Marines urinated on the bodies of some dead Taliban fighters and, this being the twenty-teens, committed the thing to video. (Full disclosure: I know some of the Marines involved, either through serving overseas with them on a different deployment, or going through training with them.) There was an investigation, and a number of the Marines involved were courtmartialed.

So be it, you may say—and, indeed, once word got out that such a thing had happened, there was no stopping the disciplinary action, nor should there have been. But not a few Marines noticed that General Amos seemed a bit more concerned about rushing in front of microphones to condemn this action—and in so doing, joining the rush of Obama administration officials who seemed intensely concerned about making it very clear that they found the whole thing disgusting, rather than reflecting that their own policy decisions had placed these young men in the awful circumstances in which they found themselves, patrolling through minefields every day, and losing their friends one by one while fighting a war that had already lasted a decade.

In other words, sure, something had to be done in the way of corrective action but—as they teach at the Basic School—the failure of Marines is primarily the failure of their leaders. It was hard to see that principle in practice in the aftermath of the event. The most senior officer court-martialed—who was unaware of the urination incident while it happened, and made no effort to cover it up after the fact—was a young lieutenant. A more senior officer with responsibility for the area where the incident occurred had the benefit of the last name "Conway"—as in, he was the son of the 34th commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway. His career continued apace.

When evidence emerged that Amos had attempted to influence the court-martial process, telling the general in charge to "crush" the young Marines involved and, later, apparently removing that general from the investigation when it appeared he wanted to show some leniency in terms of punishments, that was pretty much the end for Amos’ credibility, even though he survived a DOD Inspector General investigation into the matter.

In a sense, Amos’ talent for career survival is the key issue in the widespread distaste for him. There is more than a creeping suspicion among Marines—and indeed, among those in uniform for all of the services—that they are led by men whose principal talent is the preservation of their own careers. This latest scandal for Amos is unlikely to achieve much more than passing embarrassment and awkwardness for the man, but it is a reminder of the sad fact that he commands much less loyalty than commandants in the past.

General Joe Dunford, recently the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, takes over the Corps at the end of this week. Marines hope that he appreciates just how much work he has to do.

Published under: Chuck Hagel , Marines