For the past decade, the public has ranked the Marines as the most prestigious service by a wide margin. After serving one tour of duty in the Corps, you are considered a Marine for life and expected to conduct yourself accordingly. Why? Because the commandant of the Marine Corps says so, that’s why, and once a Marine, always a Marine.
In his new book, Aaron B. O’Connell investigates how an organization averaging 180,000 active members has succeeded in attracting such intergenerational fealty and admiration. Covering the period from 1940 to 1965, “Underdogs” is a scholarly work based on a decade of research. An assistant professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, O’Connell enlivens his academic framework with sharp anecdotes and assertive personalities. He reaches several conclusions about the Marine Corps, some old and some refreshingly new.
He begins by describing the old, well-known essence of the Marine image: heroism in combat. Every Marine is a rifleman, and you do only one thing with a rifle. There are no doctors or chaplains in the Corps, only shooters. They pay a cost for their aggressiveness. In World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines absorbed proportionately heavier casualties than the U.S. Army and other units such as the Special Operations Command. In response, Marines forged a powerful self-identity that O’Connell calls a narrative of exceptionalism.While Army draftees in World War II and Korea saw themselves as citizens first and soldiers by necessity, the Marines held themselves apart from society. One advertising slogan summed up that attitude: “We don’t promise you a rose garden.”
The Marine motto was the “first to fight” — and mayhap to die. To cope with that loss of life and limb, they embraced an ethos that transcended any one life or any one time. O’Connell refers to this tradition as “the Marine belief in a timeless community of the living and the dead.” That community’s most famous members — like Smedley Butler, John Basilone, Chesty Puller andJim Mattis — shared the trait of boldness in battle and defiance of death. Starting in boot camp, a Marine learned about a heritage two centuries in the making.
The tradition persists today. Last year, for instance, when a string of improvised explosive devices killed and maimed six Marines in southern Afghanistan, the company commander exhorted his men to remember the hardships borne by that same company in Korea, 61 years earlier. The next day, the Marines again attacked, some with waiting tourniquets strapped to their legs so they could staunch the bleeding when the next IED scythed through their ranks.
That Spartan code of the Marines is well-known; what O’Connell adds is a new insight. He argues that for several decades in the mid-20th century, the Marines were an organizational underdog, fighting for survival against the U.S. Army and the White House. The Marine Corps risked being disbanded after World War II. In the view of Army generals, there was no need for two land forces; the Marines should revert to their 18th-century mission as guards on board Navy ships. Both President Truman, who had proudly served in the U.S. Army, and President (and former Army General) Eisenhower saw merit in a small or nonexistent Marine Corps. In response, the Marines sought allies in the public and in Congress. O’Connell weaves a tale of intrigue, describing how the Corps survived the bureaucratic wars in Washington by engaging in guerrilla politics. They organized what was called the Chowder Society, an unofficial, clandestine cabal of officers that leaked budgetary and organizational plans from the Pentagon and the White House to the Congress; some of the officers’ actions were so outrageous that a secretary of defense like Robert Gates would have sacked a bevy of Marine generals. But the generals successfully conducted a bureaucratic insurgency, never confirming their insubordination to the public. Knowing funding was tight, the Marines made a virtue of doing with less, a parsimony that won widespread approval on Capital Hill. The Marines also enlisted journalists and Hollywood to tell their stories. John Wayne, playing Sgt.Stryker in “Sands of Iwo Jima,” received plenty of help from script-writing Marines.
The Marines’ desperation, brought on by the realization that their service was the most likely to be eliminated, spurred innovation. After World War II, the Corps opposed the national strategy of tactical nuclear war and was determined to place infantry battalions on ships, ready to land at a moment’s notice as a “force in readiness.” In 1956, when England, France and Israel seized the Suez Canal, President Eisenhower sent a Marine battalion ashore the next day at Alexandria, to protect Americans and signal his anger at our allies. Two years later, as the Lebanese government tottered, Eisenhower sent 6,000 Marines ashore to stabilize the situation. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, 25,000 Marines were afloat in less than two weeks, poised to invade.
By 1965, the Marines had established themselves in the minds of the public and the Congress as the “can do” service, asking for little and delivering more. Gradually, the antagonism with the executive branch and inside the Pentagon waned. As the war in Vietnam escalated, political furor over the unpopular war overwhelmed any reservations inside the Pentagon about the Marines as a duplicative land army. Marines fought hard; that was reason enough to retain the underdog.
After Vietnam, American attitudes about war changed dramatically, because our volunteer military comprised only about 2 percent of our youths. The public, with few relatives involved, moved to the sidelines. War became a spectator sport, in which all-star teams were cheered. Our commandoes — the Special Operations Command — captured the public’s imagination. The small SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden garnered more publicity than the 100,000 soldiers and Marines who toiled in Afghanistan.
Today’s Marine Corps is no longer the underdog, scrapping for its existence. Marines are now part of an integrated military machine, where the four services perform all tasks jointly. Alongside the Army, the Marines are cutting back their numbers and funding as we pull out of the war in Afghanistan. O’Connell concludes that Marine Corps, even as its size diminishes, will retain “an ideology of elitism, superiority, and paranoia . . . which shares some similarities with narratives of American exceptionalism [and keeps] the Marines forever on the attack.”
The Making of the Modern Marine Corps
By Aaron B. O’Connell
Harvard Univ. 381 pp. $29.95