The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street: 11 Key Principles from Battlefield to Boardroom

The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street: 11 Key Principles from Battlefield to Boardroom

by Ken Marlin


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Many Americans view Wall Street as a bastion of greed and corruption; a place that attracts people who don't deserve the money they make but are willing to break the law to get more of it. Yet for all their mistrust, many of these same Americans believe that Wall Street is essential for our economy to function. How do we fix it? Send in the Marines.

Known for its exemplary discipline, the Marine Corps ensures victory by obeying key commands, such as: establish clear, tactical objectives; know the terrain before heading into battle; identify and capitalize on combat advantages; control timing; leverage complementary skills within the unit; negotiate from a morally defensible position; harness strength of leadership to craft a bulletproof plan. Ken Marlin served ten years' active duty as a Marine officer before taking on the financial sector. He's seen this program of pride, professionalism, and fidelity work - from the battlefield to the boardroom.

Marlin is no socialist: he's a capitalist and risk-taker who enjoys earning money for himself and his clients. In The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street, he teaches you the Marine Corps way to win on Wall Street and on Main Street: to sacrifice short-term gains for the long-term interests of your clients and your company. Deploying Marine-tested tactics, he engineers lasting, honorable success while lowering the ethical cost of doing business. That's the Marine Corps way.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250066664
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/30/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

KEN MARLIN is a Marine-turned-corporate executive. Between 1970 and 1981, he rose from the enlisted ranks to become a Marine captain and infantry commander. He's spent his thirty-plus years on Wall Street applying Marine Corps principles to business. The founder and managing partner of the award-winning investment bank Marlin & Associates, he is a member of the Market Data Hall of Fame, twice named one of Institutional Investor's "Tech 50." He lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter.

Read an Excerpt

The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street

11 Key Principles from Battlefield to Boardroom

By Ken Marlin

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Ken Marlin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7686-6


Take the Long View

In 1972, I was in training at The Basic School (TBS), the six-month-long course of instruction after OCS that is designed to give newly minted Marine officers the skills needed to lead Marines in ground combat. This was weighty business. Even though American involvement in the Vietnam War looked to be winding down, we lived with the real possibility that it could reescalate or that we might be sent to war elsewhere. And the instructors were deadly serious about having us develop both the hard skills we would need to survive (hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, field first aid, physical fitness, land navigation, skills to call in artillery and air support, communication, etc.) as well as (particularly) the leadership skills we would need to lead Marines to success in battle. They wanted us to know how to fight, and they wanted us to know how to win. These are separate. As part of this effort, they wanted us to understand not only what to do in various situations and how to do those things, but also why Marines do things a certain way. After all, once we were in the field, we would often be on our own — and we would have to lead our Marines. Failure to apply these lessons properly could result in our own deaths and those of our men.

Our instructors were all combat veterans. They used their real-life experiences in Vietnam to punctuate our daily lessons. Several of them had been involved in a battle in Vietnam near a small village called Khe Sanh, astride a key North Vietnamese Army (NVA) supply route a few miles from the Laotian border.

The battle at Khe Sanh was fought in 1968 — and has already entered Marine lore every bit as much as those battles fought in World War I at Belleau Wood, World War II on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, or Iwo Jima — or for that matter the 1847 battle at Chapultepec (the "Halls of Montezuma" that is celebrated in the opening lines to the "Marine Corps Hymn").

Most battles in Vietnam were measured in minutes — or at most in a few hours. The siege at Khe Sanh lasted more than seventy-seven days — and we weren't even fighting over any particularly important territory. Whenever the subject of Khe Sanh came up in conversation, our Marine instructors who had fought there would physically tighten. Their manner would become more serious. For them, Khe Sanh was the embodiment of two almost diametrically opposite feelings: One feeling was that of pride that Marines had fought valiantly and defeated the enemy. But the one that came through most to me was a feeling of anger: anger that our political and military leaders had put us in a position to incur more than twenty-five hundred Americans and allies killed and more than nine thousand wounded, for what they saw as no particularly good reason. For them Khe Sanh was both vindication of our military prowess — and a painful example of the complete failure of the senior leaders to have a clear sense of how to win a war.

More than that, they taught us that this had been a failure to understand that any individual action (or battle) that puts men and matériel at risk must support and advance us toward achieving the larger mission — or it should not be fought. Sure, at times when overwhelming forces dictate a need to act quickly without regard to the long term — when survival is at stake. But, time permitting, you need to take the long view, or you are more likely to fail at achieving the larger mission. You may also get people killed for no good reason.

To understand Khe Sanh, you first have to understand something about two of the top American generals in the war: US Army general William Westmoreland (four stars), and US Marine Corps lieutenant general Lewis Walt (three stars). Both were legends. By the time I made it to TBS, Westmoreland had gone on to become the chief of staff of the entire US Army. A distinguished artillery officer, he had graduated at the top of his West Point class in 1936, attended Harvard Business School, and had his first taste of combat in World War II, in Tunisia, Sicily, France, and Germany. He had been superintendent of the US Military Academy at West Point and had led the Army's storied 101 Airborne Division. He looked the part of the military hero: he was tall and fit, with short hair and flawless military bearing, and he'd been in Vietnam nearly since the start of American military involvement there, rising to command of all allied forces in the country — including both Army troops and Marines. The Battle of Khe Sanh was his battle, and for many, Vietnam had become identified as Westmoreland's war.

Walt was the other general involved. He was a Marine's Marine, and his background was very different from Westmoreland's. If Westmoreland was the epitome of the aristocratic and politically astute general, Walt was the down-in-the-mud-with-the-grunts general — sometimes known as Uncle Lew. Westmoreland briefed presidents. He was on the cover of magazines. It was said by some that he might someday seek to follow in the footsteps of General Eisenhower and himself run for president. Walt would never be in that category. He was a warrior.

At seventeen, Walt had enlisted in the Colorado National Guard, earned a commission in the Army Reserve, and then resigned it in order to pursue a commission in the Marines. He'd fought in the Pacific in World War II with the First Marine Division (later to be my division) in such places as Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester and had twice been awarded the Navy Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor as a recognition of extreme valor in combat). Twice! That doesn't happen often. He also fought and was decorated for actions in Korea. In 1968, General Walt was commander of all US Marines in Vietnam, and he reported to General Westmoreland. After his return from Vietnam, Walt would be promoted to four-star rank and become the assistant commandant of the entire US Marine Corps.

My instructors had little good to say about General Westmoreland. Walt, on the other hand, they loved. Now, you may think this would come down to institutional loyalty (Army vs. Marines), but in fact, as they told it, it came down to their approach to winning the war. One leader took a long view that they understood, agreed with, and embraced; the other did not.

Like all US military leaders of that time, General Westmoreland and Walt both operated within political constraints in Vietnam. They were not free to expand the ground war beyond South Vietnam by seizing the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, for example, and they were not free (at least until late in the war) to cross national borders into Laos or Cambodia to interdict the enemy's supply routes. This allowed the enemy fairly free passage for their soldiers, supplies, and weapons just out of our reach along what was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was frustrating for all and made it much more difficult for the Americans to achieve our stated national goal of protecting the south from being taken over by the communists of the north. They would need another approach.

As my instructors described it, General Westmoreland's long-term strategic objective was to demoralize the NVA and their irregular compatriots (the Vietcong) by a combination of killing as many of them as possible and bombing their industrial capacity to rubble. He was a big believer in the use of artillery and air power. It was sometimes called a war of attrition.

General Walt was a warrior who was more than willing to engage with and kill the enemy, but according to my instructors, he simply didn't believe that a war of attrition would work in Vietnam given the realities of the situation, in which, among other things, we were prohibited from having ground forces cross into neighboring countries, much less into North Vietnam. Further, they pointed out, killing masses of people hadn't resulted in victory for the Nazis in Russia or for the German air force bombing London in World War II. It just made the survivors angry. And even when it did work — such as when the Germans took Poland and Czechoslovakia, or when the Russians themselves later occupied Poland and Czechoslovakia, the resentment of the people ensured that success didn't last. Further still, in Vietnam, limiting the killing to those you could bomb from the air or soldiers you could find in a jungle environment — where the enemy could often just melt away — was even more challenging. Walt believed that defeating the North was a very different task from defeating the Nazis or the Japanese, and that a long-term strategy to win this war meant finding a way to do so that would result in a lasting peace.

A big part of Walt's long-term strategy was to convince the noncombatant Vietnamese in the South that they would be better off with the stability and prosperity of the market-driven, democratically elected government that the United States supported, as opposed to the dictatorship and centrally controlled communist economy that North Vietnam wanted to impose. For the people to reach that conclusion, they would need to see the benefits of our approach personally in every hamlet and village. They would need to be protected, to be free to pursue their livelihoods, and to feel safe. They would need to believe that their children would be better off if the regime that we were supporting prevailed. Conversely, if they perceived that their personal lives and the lives of their children would be better, safer, and more prosperous under the communists of the North, that's whom they would support.

Pursing this strategy, Walt greatly expanded the concept of "combined action platoons" that included medical personnel as well as forces of the South Vietnamese Army. Their mission was more than just to kill the soldiers on the other side who dared venture near the villages; their mission was also to protect locals (which they did with vigor) and to thereby enlist them to our side. Meantime, they worked with local South Vietnamese forces to open health clinics and improve water quality. Marines patrolled like cops, protecting regular people. In some cases they patrolled on foot, greeting the locals at farms, homes, villages, and markets, trying to win hearts and minds one at a time. It was a "pacification and protection" strategy to complement a "search and destroy" tactic. Walt wanted to deny refuge to the interlopers from the North and at the same time win over the villagers for the long term. In 1967, Life magazine put Walt and his combined action platoons on its cover.

General Walt's strategy may seem obvious after recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, but at the time it was anything but. General Westmoreland, for one, had serious doubts about the long-term efficacy of Walt's pacification and protection strategy. It is possible that he simply believed that it wouldn't work — and that even if it did, for a time, it wouldn't last. Certainly, he had seen what had happened when the Americans left these villages. The communists moved in, killed the leaders who had been friendly to the Americans, and left others in their place who were friendlier to the North. He may also have been skeptical that the rampant corruption of South Vietnamese politicians would ever cease. My instructors weren't too keen on those government officials either. But they could see that Westmoreland's strategy was to win by attrition — by killing so many of the enemy forces that they would withdraw behind their borders — and Walt didn't believe that strategy alone would work. But General Westmoreland was in charge.

In 1966, Westmoreland made the village of Khe Sanh near the Laotian border and its surrounding area a focal point of his plan to wipe out large numbers of the enemy. US Army Special Forces had established an airstrip and a small combat outpost there, and if Westmoreland couldn't yet cross into Laos to interdict the NVA supply lines, his idea was to at least interdict them near Khe Sanh — and perhaps draw the NVA into large-scale combat. He began building up a small base there from which US ground forces could patrol and air forces could conduct reconnaissance. He may also have hoped that someday Khe Sanh could be a jumping off point, if permission was granted, to cross into Laos and cut off the North's supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Media reports said that in 1967, Westmoreland petitioned President Johnson for permission to conduct combat operations in Laos. But that permission was denied.) Westmoreland ordered Walt to send a battalion of Marines — about a thousand people — to protect the base at Khe Sanh.

My TBS instructors said that, for at least two reasons, General Walt hated the idea of having his Marines tied to a base. First, as his strategy suggests, he felt the Marines were better used in the villages — patrolling and protecting the people. And second, to engage in a large-scale battle with the North from a fixed defensive position near one small village was counter to the Marine ethos. Or as Sun Tzu, the famed Chinese general and author of The Art of War, once said, "One defends when his strength is inadequate; he attacks when it is abundant."

"Winning" (killing a lot of the enemy at Khe Sanh and causing them to withdraw) would do little to advance us toward accomplishing our longterm mission. But Westmoreland was spoiling for a fight. As he would soon learn, the North Vietnamese commander, General Võ Nguyên Giáp, was happy to oblige.

General Giáp was the third player in this dynamic, as we studied at TBS. A confidant of North Vietnam's president, Ho Chi Minh, thirteen years earlier, in 1954, the Vietnamese general had led about forty thousand soldiers to a decisive victory over the French, who had established their own fixed defensive position in a valley near the village of Dien Bien Phu. That victory was credited with leading the French to withdraw from Indochina altogether. Giáp wanted to drive the Americans from Vietnam, and he knew he could not do so with military might alone. Giáp coveted the opportunity to try to replicate his success against the French — this time, with the Americans. At Khe Sanh, he saw the Americans making the same foolish mistake as the French: underestimating the communist forces of the North; setting themselves up in a fixed base and just waiting to be attacked.

His tour of duty over, in late 1967 General Walt returned to the United States, where he was soon promoted to four-star rank and made the assistant commandant of the US Marine Corps. He was replaced in Vietnam by Marine lieutenant general Robert E. Cushman Jr. (who was later to become the commandant of the Marine Corps). In January of 1968, Giáp's force, estimated at seventy thousand NVA soldiers, attacked the Marines at Khe Sanh. Over the next seventy-seven days, television, newspapers, and magazines around the world followed the battle daily — and nightly. It is said that no single battle in history had ever been viewed by so many, over such a prolonged period. Taking his cue from Westmoreland, President Lyndon Johnson ordered that the base be held at all costs. Westmoreland ordered General Cushman to send four thousand more Marines as reinforcements, and Westmoreland sent thousands more soldiers from the Army's First Cavalry Division. US Air Force B-52s from Guam reportedly dropped nearly one hundred thousand tons of bombs during this battle. (This compares to about nineteen thousand tons of bombs that the Nazis rained on Britain over seven months of the London Blitz.) General Westmoreland was said to have requested permission to use low-yield tactical nuclear weapons, if required — a request that was denied.

Despite many differences militarily between Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu, politically they were cousins. Khe Sanh was perhaps as influential in ending American involvement in Vietnam as Dien Bien Phu had been for the French. Months of continuous media coverage exposed Americans to the truth of the war. Westmoreland's attrition strategy may have been to kill a lot of North Vietnamese, but their willingness and ability to continue their quest seemed unabated. Giáp's strategy was not only succeeding militarily but also politically, as American support for the war waned.

Eventually, the NVA largely withdrew from the fighting at Khe Sanh, and Westmoreland asserted that the United States had won. He also asserted that the NVA had suffered more than fifteen thousand soldiers killed, a number that was impossible to verify as the NVA generally took their dead with them. But the cost to the United States had undoubtedly been high. Further, while the NVA did draw back, they did so only after their larger Tet Offensive had successfully been launched. Their attack on Khe Sanh had diverted critical American military resources that left cities and towns across South Vietnam vulnerable. In short order the NVA captured many of these cities and towns, but the real victory by the North was that no battle more clearly demonstrated to the American public that America's strategy was failing. Further, the NVA never really completely left the area around Khe Sanh; they continued to shell the base sporadically.


Excerpted from The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street by Ken Marlin. Copyright © 2016 Ken Marlin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Introduction 1

1 Take the Long View 21

2 Take a Stand 42

3 Be the Expert (or Use One) 58

4 Know the Enemy 78

5 Know What the Objective Is Worth 93

6 Know Yourself 113

7 Control the Timing 129

8 Negotiate from the High Ground 143

9 Seek Foreign Entanglements 165

10 Trust and Verify 185

11 Be Disciplined 202

Acknowledgments 217

Index 219

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