Is the United States Marine Corps creating a cultural clash for itself? Born in famed battles, passed through internal indoctrination, and cemented by the perception of a group set apart from its sister services, the mythos of “the few, the proud, the Marines” is a bedrock notion of America’s understanding of the Corps and the Corps’ understanding of itself. Aaron O’Connell, a Marine himself, emphasizes in his book Underdogs the Corps’ purposefully developed view of self. “Marine culture may not have been entirely unique or exceptional, but it was so to (the Corps). . . . This exceptionalism, with its attendant sentiments of insularity and mistrust of outsiders, was the first principle of Marine Corps culture.”

Last year’s announcement that the Marine Corps will start a cyber auxiliary, intended to “train, educate, advise, and mentor Marines” on cyber skills and tactics, seems at odd with that ingrained culture. In overcoming one problem—the need for resources, namely highly technical human capital, for the Marines’ expanding mission set—the service seems to have created another: the need to successfully accept and indoctrinate outsiders into their organizational ways.

Last year, Nina Kollars and Emma Moore argued at War on the Rocks that the Marine Corps’ proposed cyber auxiliary will face significant difficulty finding volunteer members who can both achieve the auxiliary’s mission while subscribing to the Corps’ warrior culture. “Hackers able to do the work for the Marine Corps operate on the edges of the law, given their skillset. This will likely weed out a significant number of any candidates willing to step forward.” Additionally, they pose concerns that current members of the cyber workforce are “burnt out” and will not desire to take on a volunteer mission, while the Marines will not know how to properly utilize the new force or how to value their skills and qualifications.

However, it is important to note the successes of former and current auxiliaries from which the Marines should take their cues. Within the Corps’ own history is the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, which “freed a Marine to fight” in World War II and represents the ability to integrate seeming outsiders into their strong, inward-looking organizational culture. The Marines could also take cues from the Coast Guard’s successful Auxiliary University Programs, drawing from a pool of college students to augment its active-duty missions. These women of past and students of present represent specific models of skilled workforces. They had or have a strong commitment to volunteerism, as well as resources, flexibility, and organizational passion that their respective services could use to expand their capabilities in a time of need for additional labor. The Marine Corps should follow suit and develop an academic arm of its auxiliary, drawing in eager volunteers early and young.

Auxiliaries Past and Present

The issue at hand for the Corps (an expanding mission set combined with limited human capital) and the solution (an auxiliary, though one whose membership seemingly clashes with its foundational beliefs) are not exclusively twenty-first-century concepts, as shown by the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. The Marine Corps of World War II, O’Connell notes, was foundational in developing the Corps’ culture that exists today. The service’s pride in its “all-volunteer” force contributed to a sense of superiority reinforced by its head-on tactics, which led to a higher casualty rate than members of any other branch. Such high loss rates made it critical to identify human resources that would allow the nation’s smallest military component to focus its fighting forces on just that—fighting. The answer was not to recruit additional men to conduct noncombatant tasks, but to seek volunteers from the population of women ready to volunteer in support roles.

Established in November 1942, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was built on the notion, as Lt. Col. Pat Meid notes in the official service history, that the women reservists were Marines, not part of a separate group as were the WAVES, SPARs, or WAACs of other services. No separate moniker was to be adopted, such as the proposed “Femarines.” The women reservists were provided the same style of uniform as their male colleagues. Importantly, the Marines were adamant about not considering the new group as an auxiliary. Women reservists were to embed in their jobs the same as any other Marine in that role. While significant measures were in place in deference to the sensibilities of that era in matters of discipline and assignments, women typically reported to the same chains of command as men.

The fact that the Marines refuted the notion of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve as an auxiliary is at once a folly of semantics and a key to the initiative’s success. The majority of women reservists filled clerical roles typical of the other auxiliaries, with mechanical, managerial, and semiskilled work also being common. While the opportunities available to women expanded as the war progressed, particularly in the field of aviation, the categorization as an auxiliary hews closer to the group’s purpose than that of a reserve. However, by emphasizing that a Marine was a Marine regardless of gender set a precedent, allowing women to serve in new, nontraditional, and often technical capacities while meeting organizational goals. Meid emphasizes that Marine posts clamored for women reservists to fill over forty-four hundred roles immediately upon the group’s development, and over eighteen thousand ultimately signed up. By accepting nontraditional members fully, the Marines increased both their operational effectiveness and the efficiency of support for those missions, an approach a future Marine Corps auxiliary should seek to emulate.

Auxiliaries continue to find success in the present as well. In 2007, the United States Coast Guard’s longstanding auxiliary started a college-based program, the Auxiliary University Programs, with the goal of providing additional augmentation to the active force and increasing participation among young adults, while providing students experiential learning. To date, approximately one thousand students have given of their own time supplying administrative and operational support at air stations, small-boat units, headquarters offices, and elsewhere while earning internship credit and progressing toward graduation from the Auxiliary University Programs. Further, the program prepares members for service by requiring classes on Coast Guard history and customs, some of which have been adopted by the auxiliary at large. The aim is for student auxiliarists to be largely indistinguishable from the junior active-duty members they will be serving alongside.

All this comes at minimal investment to the Coast Guard. Students, just like all other auxiliarists, buy their own uniforms, pay for their own travel and annual dues, and receive no scholarship money. Further, the program is not a precommissioning program—28 percent of its members continue on to active-duty service. However, the postgraduation retention rate for the auxiliary is 41 percent, meaning alumni continue to volunteer their time as possible as they move forward into other careers. The Marine Corps auxiliary will hopefully be able to experience similar retention success and returns on investment while reaping the benefit of cyber professionals who continue to grow in both their private professions and volunteerism.

Auxiliaries and the Future

There is, it’s important to note, an element of risk involved with this proposal not equally present in either of the aforementioned examples. The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve existed at a time of total war and was bolstered by a society fully committed to victory, while the Coast Guard’s mission set is so wide as to offer opportunities not focused on the ultimate goal of lethality upon which the Marines would definitionally need to focus. Today’s America is less connected to its military and the conflicts in which it is actively engaged, a problem particularly notable within Silicon Valley, the ostensible target of this effort. Attempting to integrate a new population of young, cyber-savvy members—civilians over whom the Marine Corps will have to exert limited yet amorphous authority—into an apparently opposing military culture presents challenges. The Marines can overcome this, however, based on the prestige of that culture and by targeting a group would be particularly eager to engage with it: college students.

One out of every four college students reported volunteering in 2015, the last year of available data, producing 286 million hours of service. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, this puts them on par with Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, while being more likely to volunteer than nonstudent millennials. Student volunteering efforts range from fraternity- and sorority-related activities to service trips abroad.

The surplus of available opportunities is wide and makes competition for students’ time tight. Further, a Marine auxiliary, which should rightfully require a commitment of time and mental resources that other collegiate opportunities do not, will not be for all. However, the reputation of the United States Marine Corps will create an automatic niche in the market. Personality assessment firm Hogan Assessments has compiled an analysis of the main personality characteristics that are best-suited for the cybersecurity field. The eight traits that the company concluded are indicative of a successful career in cybersecurity are modesty, altruism, composure, scientific tendencies, inquisitiveness, skepticism, responsiveness, and diligence. Many of these are exactly what the Marines expect of themselves, all of them are what they need in their cyber force, and a readymade population with such traits readily exists on college campuses. Further, the Marines’ organizational ethos is a double-edged sword in active-duty recruiting. It draws in young people who want to be part of the culture of “the few, the proud,” but excludes those who are not able or willing to commit fully to the lifestyle it entails. Allowing those who appreciate the mission and ethos of the Corps to submit to that culture while remaining detached from the full commitment that active service entails is an attractive middle ground for the auxiliary and its potential members. This should be operationalized by requiring auxiliary members to meet uniform standards and pass basic training on Marine traditions, bringing them into the service’s fold just as women reservists were in World War II.

College auxiliarists will benefit personally and professionally from their association with Marine service while the Corps reaps the benefits. For those who do decide to commit to a career path on active duty, the logical path through Officer Candidate School is transparent. For those who decide to move on to private employment, they will remain resources upon which the Corps can draw for years to come, pending the auxiliary’s successful retention of college graduates. Skilled auxiliarists with semiprofessional experience would be valuable fodder for high-tech employment after graduating, giving the Marines another conduit to engage with Silicon Valley. Embedding Marines and their supporters on Capitol Hill and in newsrooms was critical to the service’s growth during World War II and after, as O’Connell points out in his book, and another such opportunity exists here.

There is an additional specific benefit to the military in attaching itself to low-cost academic resources. The military’s use of universities to grow the cyber skill base will not be unique to the Marine auxiliary. In a sign of aggressive growth of such initiatives, the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act laid out plans to develop cyber education programs in conjunction with the Reserve Officer Training Corps at senior military colleges. An auxiliary format, however, will engage students not seeking a military career path but who want patriotically minded volunteer opportunities. Students at universities have ready access to resources of time and research capabilities that field-level operators do not. The cyber auxiliary concept will do well to station itself at schools with self-selecting populations currently engaged in cutting-edge cyber research.  While far from exhaustive, the National Security Agency has already identified a number of institutions with robust cyber academic tracks through their Centers of Academic Excellence that will be logical locations at which to stand up auxiliary programs.

Ultimately, a Marine Corps auxiliary represents an outside-the-box solution to a critical need for the Corps to succeed in today’s expanding realm of cyber conflict. An auxiliary may seem to require an expansion of the idea of what it means to be a Marine. In fact, it requires just the opposite, and can be accomplished by identifying members early in their personal and professional careers, ready to buy into all the Marines represent. In doing so, a new auxiliary stands the best chance to reap the benefits of engaged, effective, fully integrated Marine cyber advisers and assistants to their active-duty counterparts.


Lt. Christopher Papas, US Coast Guard, is a marine inspector currently stationed at Sector Miami. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and the Coast Guard Auxiliary University Programs, which he now advises.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.


Image credit: Staff Sgt. Jacob Osborne, US Marine Corps