Warrior-Maverick Culture
: The Evolution of Adaptability in the U.S. Marine Corps

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


U.S. Marines place great pride in their organisational heritage and culture. But 240 years after its inception, the Marine Corps had yet to offer a precise description of its organisational culture. Instead, Marines argued that their culture cannot be understood, and observers of the Corps used the term “magic” to describe the Marines’ norms. This thesis identifies the existential centre of the Marine Corps’ culture: it is success-driven adaptability that results from externally and internally influenced dualisms. Marines are expected to succeed, but are presented with a series of unresolved dualisms as “tools” to achieve success. They are simultaneously expected to be top-notch warriors—courageous, self-sacrificing, and tightly disciplined—and also maverick individualists who think independently and are prepared to disobey orders when necessary. Each Marine is required to negotiate these dualisms in every situation to find a way to succeed. The norm for adaptability exists in the nexus between the simultaneous, unresolved expectations for warrior and maverick behaviour. This mostly informal norm for adaptability is central to the Corps’ success in and out of war.
Unravelling the Marine Corps’ evolutionary embrace of adaptability revealed strong connections between the “internal” Marine culture and the popular literature, films, and other artefacts that constitute “external” culture. Warrior-maverick dualisms are equally present in both internal and external culture, and there is evidence that external culture both influenced and has been influenced by the evolving Marine Corps culture of warrior-maverick adaptability. This finding is reinforced by the near total absence of official efforts to reinforce the norm for adaptability for nearly 50 years (1940-1989), even as adaptability became the organisation’s dominant norm. Evolution of the central element of the Marine Corps’ culture took place primarily at the grass-roots level and in the cultural artefacts that reflected and influenced the development of Marines’ cognitive schemas. These findings suggest a modest shift in the way military change analysts examine organisations: future studies should seek to incorporate both external cultural influences and a deeper understanding of the collective value of the individual experience in the formation of military organisational norms.
Date of Award2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorTheo Farrell (Supervisor) & John Stone (Supervisor)

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