Gallery of Grunts
Sunday, November 19, 2006
The new National Museum of the Marine Corps shows you the Marine Corps as it is, which is mostly enlisted men, anonymous grunts, and war as it is, which is dirty, crazy and endless.
No victory parades up the Champs-Elysees or down Fifth Avenue through the tickertape, no full-dress surrenders, no girls kissing Marines at war's end, no wreaths, triumphal arches, reflecting pools or any of the World War II Memorial stuff on the Mall, no generals holding binoculars with one hand and pointing over the battlefield with the other, not that many officers at all, really. And just about no ideology about freedom, America the beautiful or making the world safe for democracy.
A staff sergeant named Steven Sullivan, one of the builders of the exhibits, last week stood inside the big circular hall that holds fighter planes and displays, which include a helicopter disgorging troops in Korea and Marines hitting the beach at Tarawa. He summed up the ethos of the whole 118,000 square feet of the place: "No grandiosity, no heroic garbage."
One doesn't think of the Marine Corps shrinking from advertising its glamour: the Iwo Jima flag-raising monument, those grandiose TV ads with knights, dragons and swords, and the bumper sticker braggadocio: "Marines -- When It Absolutely, Positively Has to Be Destroyed Overnight." And there's the 210-foot spire that slants over the museum in unavoidable line-of-sight of travelers driving on Interstate 95 past the Marine base at Quantico.
The museum itself, however, is not about glamour; it's about the Marine mystique. And despite the glamour created by supremely adroit Marine public relations, the mystique is founded on -- of all things -- a willful and even perverse modesty.
Not the modesty of Spartans or kamikazes, or the French Foreign Legion parading at a half-time funeral step with leather aprons and axes, but a pristine and hard-eyed dirt-farm stinginess, a nearly lost American poor-but-proud aesthetic that makes Marines enjoy their belief that they're always fighting with hand-me-down equipment and not enough troops (because one Marine is as good as 10 of any enemy, a belief that was just as wrong when the Confederate army believed it, too). There are also the casualties that provoke the perverse Marine boast that the corps is the finest machine ever developed for the killing of young American men. A friend of mine once heard a Marine colonel say to an Army colonel: "The Army uses tanks to protect men. The Marines use men to protect tanks."
Hence, at the end of the museum's three most powerful displays -- World War II, Korea and Vietnam -- you see not jubilation in triumph but merely a list of Marine casualties, dead, wounded and missing. And carved into the stone of the entrance hall are the words of Sgt. Maj. Dan Daly, twice a Medal of Honor winner: "Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?"
If you cannot savor this sort of irony and understand that it is irony, the Marine mystique will elude you. But like a beautiful woman, the Marine Corps is secretly delighted to think that you don't understand it. Beyond that, it doesn't give a damn.
A museum video screen shows a reporter in Vietnam talking to a Marine who just put himself under enemy fire, risked his life, to retrieve a dead man.
"What possessed you to go out and get that body?"
"He's a Marine."
"What do you mean?"