By Major Brian Kerg, USMC
Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. June 12th, 205X.
Lieutenant General Molly Spears slipped, caught herself, and swore.
Her aide-de-camp, Major William Troy, hurried to her side. “You alright, Ma’am?”
“I’m just fine, Bill,” she said, waving the major aside. “It’s these damn pumps, and the skirt doesn’t help either. I’m just not used to wearing this stuff. I haven’t had to in years. I’ll be glad when they’re phased out next month and we can all stick to slacks and oxfords.”
Bill grinned. “Yeah, I had to dust off the uniform regs to see how to prep your Service Alphas with the skirt instead of pants. But it’s just for the photo, ma’am. I’ve got your normal kit ready in the garment bag.”
“As long as it’s ready for the confirmation hearing,” Molly said. “And don’t go leaving your cover behind in Quantico again before we leave for D.C.! The senators might grill me a little harder if they see you trailing behind me with one hand on top of your head like a recruit.”
“Aye aye, Ma’am,” Bill said, smirking.
Leaving the conference room, the pair walked down the hall of Marine Corps University’s Gray Research Center, heading toward the exit. Bill stopped suddenly, riveted by a painting on the wall.
Molly stopped beside him and followed his gaze to the now familiar image.
“I knew the History Division had a combat artist paint this,” Bill said. “But I’ve never seen it in person.”
The painting depicted a littoral firefight. Under fire, Molly – then a captain – leapt from a jet ski, rifle in hand, to board a patrol boat of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia. Her recon platoon followed behind her, some on jet skis, others farther back in a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, laying down a base of covering fire. The faces of the Marines showed equal parts desperation and defiance.
Almost involuntarily, Bill glanced at the navy blue, white-striped ribbon at the top of Molly’s ribbon rack, the Navy Cross she earned during the action depicted in the painting.
“I just did what any Marine would do,” Molly said. “We made the best out of a bad situation, and got lucky.” She strode forward and through the set of double doors leading outside. Bill hurried after her.
On the front lawn, the public affairs team stood ready beside a statue of a female Marine. Sighting the general, the team came to life, appeared a little busier, and stood a bit taller. Molly waved them at ease and stood beside the statue.
Molly sighed internally, enduring the usual exchange of formality between her and the young public affairs officer (PAO), keeping a stoic front for the benefit of the young Marines. After, the team went into action, taking photos, asking questions and recording the answers to prepare for release on the Marine Corps’ official social media accounts.
“Ma’am,” the PAO asked, “Thank you for joining us to honor the latest anniversary of the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act. We know your time is valuable – every general is busy, especially when you’ve been nominated to serve as the next commandant! Can you tell us your thoughts about the importance of today’s anniversary and why you’re appearing in a uniform that the Corps is phasing out?”
Molly nodded. “It’s no coincidence that I carry the same name as this statue, ‘Molly Marine.’ My parents were Marines, and they named me after her,” she said, glancing at the figure.
“She honors all those women who came before her and serves as inspiration for all those who will come after. In one hand, she holds a book said to carry the history of female Marines. In her other hand, she carries a set of binoculars to look forward to the future of our Corps. Today we might consider her uniform outdated – indeed, we are phasing out the skirt and pumps I’m wearing to bring all Marines closer to a single standard, uniforms included. But ‘Molly Marine’ shows us how far women have come, and how far we’ve had to fight to get here.” The general gestured to her own skirt with one hand, and to the statue’s with the other. “It’s my goal to honor that legacy by standing in solidarity with Molly, one last time.”
Unit 54777 (Psychological Operations), GRU. Moscow, Russia
Colonel Irina Bravikova read the tweet and slowly smiled.
“Kozlov!” she called, waving over her deputy.
Major Micah Kozlov hurried across the watch floor to Irina’s desk. “Yes Ma’am?”
“We’ve got our opening,” Irina said, pointing at her screen. “Take a look.”
Micah leaned in. The tweet was from the official Marine Corps Twitter account. It featured a photo of Lieutenant General Spears standing beside the statue of Molly Marine. Spears wore a skirt and pumps, matching those of the statue. The body of the tweet commemorated the service and legacy of women in the Marine Corps.
“Forgive me, I’m not following,” Micah said.
“Right now, Marine expeditionary advanced bases only pop up when tensions rise,” Irina said. “We don’t care, because by then it’s too late and we’ve already achieved our objective. It’s why the Americans and the Chinese ended up in a shooting match all those years ago – deterrence failed. Deterrence by denial doesn’t work when you can’t present a credible threat until after the fact.”
Irina pointed an accusing finger at her computer screen. “Spears has been the chief architect of Force Design 2060. If approved, it will put Marines inside our sphere of influence, on a rotating basis, permanently. Their tagline of ‘persist forward indefinitely’ won’t just be a tagline anymore. There are a lot of opponents to her plan, but if she gets confirmed as the next Commandant of the Marine Corps, she’ll see it through to fruition.”
Micah’s eyes raised, understanding. “But if she doesn’t get confirmed…”.
Irina nodded. “Exactly. And if we help our American friends see this photo the right way, they’ll cancel Spears in a heartbeat. And her plan, tenuous as it is, will be forgotten. No Spears, no Force Design 2060.”
“I’ll get the team together,” Micah said. “We can start rolling something out by this evening. What’s our focus? Put a skeleton in her closet? The team has a few new options from the playbook they’ve been hoping to try.”
Irina shook her head. “A gentle hand, Micah, with proven plays. Help the Americans believe what they’re already prepared to believe. There are groups on both sides of the aisle that are just waiting for the next scapegoat. If we tailor the message to the fault lines, Americans will do all the hard work for us. We just need the right groups to take a closer look at Molly Spears.”
Hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Capitol Building, Washington D.C.
Having just parried the latest round of questions, Molly allowed herself a sigh of relief. It’s going better than I expected, she thought. She stretched her legs beneath the table, filled with a new appreciation for the comfort of her slacks and oxfords.
Senator Howard Gordon lifted his tablet, adjusted his glasses, and leaned forward to read his next question. “General Spears, I’d like to talk about the future. I’m familiar with what you’re proposing in Force Design 2060. But the rest of our audience might not be, and I want to ensure you have a chance to explain, personally, what you’re getting after.”
“Thank you, Senator,” Molly said. “If you will, allow me to step to the past to help understand the future. I joined the Corps just as Force Design 2030 was reaching maturation, and I saw firsthand what the fight was like under that model. And a lot of Marines died because we still had to ‘fight to get to the fight.’” She let that hang, giving the comment extra time by taking a sip from her glass of water.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she continued. “It was a great model, but it was still vulnerable because we – the Marine Corps – couldn’t be where we needed to be in time for it to matter. And the time when it matters is before escalation begins. Force Design 2060 isn’t as revolutionary as it seems – it simply takes the force we have now, and ensures it is forward deployed all the time. This will let our sensors and shooters act as an extension of the Navy’s fleet, and facilitate entry of naval and joint forces into theater. And to do that, we’ll trade on obsolete structure and build more Marine Littoral Regiments (MLR). This way, MLRs can deploy rotationally with the same reliability as the Marine Expeditionary Units of old, ensuring we always have a deterrent presence in the littorals of our adversaries.”
There were murmurs of assent from the members of the committee. Molly wanted to smile but repressed it. She sensed the room, knew she was on the cusp of success, had seen the same group momentum in the countless briefs she’d given in the past. If the conversation stayed on the rails, she’d be a shoe-in. I just might be the first female commandant after all, she thought. She thought once more of Molly Marine, and the women that had blazed the trail for her to reach this moment.
A congressional aide approached the bench, whispered into the ear of Senator Janine Rathskill, and hurried away. Rathskill raised an eyebrow, looked at her tablet, then cleared her throat.
“All this is very fascinating, general,” she said. “But I think we could benefit from some clarity on how else you plan to change the Corps. Is it your intention to keep female Marines dressing differently from males? Do you want to keep female Marines ‘in a box’, so to speak?”
Molly raised an eyebrow. “No, senator,” she said. “Nearly all uniform requirements across the service are exactly that – uniform. The last gender-specific items, which have been optional wear at the service-member’s discretion for over a decade, will be phased out by month’s end.”
Rathskill scratched her chin. “I’ve got to admit, I’m a bit confused at your intentions, when you seem to be promoting the very gender divide you claim to be fighting against.”
She tapped on her tablet, and it projected a holographic display of the photo that Molly took just yesterday, photoshopped to put an apron over Molly’s uniform. The image was embedded in the tweet of a story from the New York Times, reading, “The Few, the Proud, the Feminized: The Next Commandant Will Lead the Women of the Corps Back to Domestic Slavery.” Floating beside it was a feed of live tweets scrolling beside it, all negative. A common hashtag kept appearing in every tweet: #CancelMolly.
Rathskill shook her head. “Isn’t Ductus Exemplo – ‘lead by example’ – still the motto at Officer Candidates’ School?”
Molly wouldn’t allow herself to rise to the bait. “Senator, you know our history as well as I do. That was the uniform the first women in the Corps were required to wear. While I agree in phasing it out and standardizing the attire of all Marines, it was perhaps the last chance I’d have to stand in solidarity with those women came before me.”
Senator Walter Gray grunted from his chair. Fidgeting with his own tablet, he projected a different image, this one showing the photo of Molly through a rose-tinted filter. The picture was edited to make Molly appear small, fragile, and impossibly young to be wearing three stars on her shoulders. It was embedded in a story from One America News Network titled, “Every Marine A Rifle-Woman? Next Commandant to Lower Standards, Open Floodgates for Our Daughters to Lose the Next War.” Again, a live feed of condemnatory tweets scrolled beside the story, carrying the hashtag #CancelMolly.
“It’s no secret to my constituents,” Gray wheezed, “that the Corps has been lowering standards to get more women into combat arms. Maybe that’s why our little spat with China ended in a draw instead of a win for our homeland. This latest stunt just proves your nomination to be the first female commandant is nothing more than meat being tossed to the president’s base. I won’t abide it.”
Molly clenched her teeth, biting back the easy, low blow that Senator Gray hadn’t been in a position to meet a single physical standard for any military branch his entire life. I’ll think it, but I won’t degrade myself by saying it, she thought.
The other senators tapped at their devices, and hologram after hologram popped up, showing the accelerating churn of developing stories and interactive polls sweeping across social media, pushed by influencers, celebrities, and interest groups across the political spectrum. The stories, tweets, and headlines cascaded down the air in the Capitol Building, a digital waterfall of online outrage:
“The statue of Molly Marine sexualizes women and should be torn down! #CancelMolly.”
“General Spears will be putting our boys in skirts next. #NotMyCommandant #CancelMolly.”
“Women were not meant to fight wars. China is laughing at America today. #AmericaFirst #CancelMolly.”
“The skirt is a symbol of oppression and this ‘general’ should know better. #CancelMolly.”
Molly took a breath to steady herself, then slowly stood. Her commanding presence silenced the muttering from the senators, and they tore their eyes from the digital mudslinging and gave their attention to Molly.
She pointed first to the eagle, globe, and anchor on the lapel of her blouse. “I was with the first class of fully integrated men and women within the same platoons at Officer Candidates’ School, when gender-neutral standards were set. I exceeded every standard, and broke a few records, to earn the title, ‘Marine.’”
Next, she pointed to the jump wings and dive bubbles over her left breast pocket. “I was the first female reconnaissance officer. I exceeded every standard that was set for the job. The standard was the same for men and women.”
Her finger slid down to the navy blue, white-striped ribbon at the top of her ribbon rack. “And for actions during our ‘spat’ with China, I became the first female Marine to receive the Navy Cross.” Finally, she pointed to her Purple Heart. “And I almost died in the process.”
She let her gaze travel across the room, meeting each member of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the eye. “Unless anyone else wants to challenge my credentials, or my commitment to our nation, I’d like to get back to discussing how I’d plan to prepare our Corps for its next fight.”
For a moment, the room was silent. But one by one, the senator’s eyes flicked back to their tablets and feeds showing the furious digital howls of the online electorate.
Unit 54777 (Psychological Operations) GRU. Moscow, Russia
Irina and Micah clinked glasses, shot their vodka, and laughed, slapping each other’s shoulders and backs. Behind them, their screens featured the headlines they’d conjured through the subtlest nudges of social engineering:
“Pressed on both sides, President withdraws nomination for Spears.”
“Future commandant gets #Cancelled, forced into retirement.”
“Molly Marine statue, deemed ‘an edifice to sexism,’ to be torn down.”
“Corps scraps Force Design 2060, mulls return to traditional MAGTF.”
Irina kicked off her heels, fell back into her chair, and put her feet on her desk. “We did it, Micah, we did it! We made them eat their own!”
Micah nodded, smiling. “America lost a general, and Russia is about to gain one.” He pointed at the general’s shoulder boards sitting on her desk, ready for the promotion ceremony next week. “An early ‘congratulations’ is in order, Ma’am.”
Irina waved him down. “It’s not official until I’m wearing it. Don’t jinx me.”
Micah refilled their glasses, sat down, and turned his attention back to the headlines. “I just don’t understand how they keep falling into the same trap. We’ve been running plays like this on America for decades. We build a few dummy accounts inside of divided political groups, then feed a few stories to the angriest voices. And then it’s off to the races as they blast the message we want to send. The Americans run the influence operation for us. In fairness, we should be paying them!”
Irina shook her head. “Not on our budget, we shouldn’t.”
Micah nodded back at the screen. A news feed showed a video of a crane driving up to the statue of Molly Marine aboard Quantico, surrounded by a watching crowd.
“Do you feel bad for her, at least?” Micah asked.
“I do,” Irena said. “I even feel bad for General Spears. But I don’t feel guilty. We are all soldiers, fighting in our own way. If there is anyone to blame, the Americans can look to themselves. A people that won’t stand for their values don’t deserve to keep them. And if they aren’t willing to learn from their history, they don’t deserve that, either.”
Together, the two soldiers watched the feed as the crane gripped the statue, which cracked under the pressure of the crane’s jaws. The crowd gave a frenzied cheer as Molly Marine crumbled to pieces. The book and binoculars she’d held fell to the ground. They shattered into a pile of chips and erupted into a cloud of dust, which was caught by the wind, and slowly blew away into nothing.
Brian Kerg is a Non-Resident Fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare. He is currently serving as a graduate student at Marine Corps University’s School of Advanced Warfighting. Follow or contact him at @BrianKerg.
Featured Image: “Marines” by Klaus Wittmann via Artstation.