Published 19 June 06
[Originally published at NavySEALs.com, 06 Jun 06]
W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Descendents of giants
The Marine Corps is still producing a few good men
In the wake of recent allegations of atrocities committed by U.S. Marines at Haditha, I've been asked several questions that go straight to the heart of the modern Marine Corps as an American military institution.
We could talk about what might have happened at Haditha and why. No one knows for sure. I've discussed it at length in a few publications over the past couple of weeks, and attempted to provide some context for understanding the oft-misunderstood realities of armed combat. But let's instead now reexamine the Marine Corps, because some of the Haditha-spawned questions have been about competency, morality, training, and whether or not 21st-century Marines are cut from the same cloth as those giants of men who stormed Iwo Jima back in the spring of 1945.
Several months ago, I watched an aging former Marine on TV talking about "the real man's Marine Corps," the one in which he had served as a young rifleman. It was a Marine Corps, he argued, so steeped in a Gary Cooperesque blend of machismo, fair-play, and defending the weak that no post-World War II Marine Corps would ever be able to match it.
This, ironically, was not long after several thousand 21st-century Marines (and many soldiers and sailors) had stormed and recaptured Fallujah in what I've taken to calling a tooth-to-eyeball slugfest in which most Americans were – and still are – clueless as to just how much of that battle was actually close-quarters fighting: A battle where split-second decisions had to be made on who's friendly, who's the enemy, who's at the end of the hallway, who's behind the door, who lives, who dies.
I wonder if the old man on TV realized what he was saying. Not to mention the fact that wars have been breeding both unintended tragedies and deliberate atrocities by moral and immoral men since the beginning of time. It's one of the ugly particulars of armed conflict.
At any rate, let's try to determine if the new breed of Marine measures up to the Old Corps, or vice versa. Of course some will say it's impossible for me – as a former Marine (Old Corps by 21st century standards; new breed by World War II, Korea, and Vietnam standards) – to be objective. Perhaps, but I can – and will – address the subject with an authoritative understanding of what a Marine actually is and is not.
Back when I became a Marine nearly 25-years-ago, I remember a conversation I had with my Uncle Mac – retired Marine Lt. Col. Heath L. "Mac" MacMeans – who said to me, "Your Marine Corps is nothing like as tough as the Old Corps I was part of." Then he smiled, and said, "Seriously, when I joined back in the 1940's, the old Marines from World War I said the same thing to me, and the Spanish-American War Marines said the same thing to them."
Surely, Israel Green and the Marines who stormed the fire-engine house at Harpers Ferry in 1859 would have said the same to the Spanish-American War Marines. Andrew Jackson's New Orleans Marines would have said the same to Green's Marines. And John Paul Jones' Marines would have been rolling their eyes at all of us.
So which was the better Marine Corps? General Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller, "the most decorated Marine in history," may have said it best: "Old breed? New breed? I don't give a damn as long as it's the Marine breed."
Puller's reasoning was simple: The Corps has never stopped being the Corps since the Continental Congress authorized the raising of two battalions back in 1775. It has existed as a continuous line of a few good men leading and standing up a few more good men, teaching the latter to lead and stand up other good men, and so on.
Of course today there are Women Marines, but they've been thoroughly grafted into the 230-year bloodline since October 12, 1942 when Major General Thomas Holcomb, then the commandant, announced his decision to recruit women into the Corps. That night, at a dinner party given at his home, Holcomb was asked how he personally felt about bringing women into the fold. Before he could answer, a portrait of Archibald Henderson – the fifth and longest-serving commandant of the Marine Corps – crashed to the floor.
Sounds like a legend? It actually happened. But women were recruited in World War II to do what a few World War I-era "Marinettes" had done: Free-up male Marines to fight. That they did. And today women serve in a variety of roles in the Marine Corps, but they do not serve in ground combat units. Nor do they train with the males during boot camp (unlike women in other branches of service). Marines are big on tradition, and rugged men are still the only combat riflemen fielded by the Corps.
So how does the modern Marine Corps differ from the Corps of the last two centuries?
Technology is one thing. Marines today are equipped with all manner of precision weaponry, life-saving armor, optical and communications equipment, and satellite tracking wizardry. There are still lots of foot patrols, but modern Marines almost always ride into battle in armored seaborne or land vehicles or thunder to the objective in helicopters. Next year, according to Marine Corps officials, leatherneck infantrymen will be roaring into battle aboard tilt-rotor Ospreys: a cross between a fixed-wing airplane and a helicopter.
Then there is training.
Old salts will argue boot camp is not nearly as tough as it once was. Perhaps in terms of the unrestrained profanity, fists to the jaw and kicks in the rear, it is not.
But in terms of length of training, martial arts, new swimming requirements, basic special operations skills, and The Crucible – a final 54-hour period of military problem solving, obstacle courses, food-and-sleep deprivation, all while undergoing some 40 miles of forced marches – boot camp is probably more challenging than it has ever been. And according to retired Marine Col. Jeff Bearor, the former chief of staff of the Marine Corps Training and Education Command, the training of a new Marine – from boot camp to unit pre-deployment work-up training – is as tough and thorough as anytime in the history of the Corps.
"We've recognized that this isn't an 'order of battle' world anymore," says Bearor, who also commanded the Recruit Training Regiment at Parris Island, S.C. "In addition to ensuring they remain preeminent in the kinetic skills of fighting and killing, Marines are given extensive training in foreign languages and foreign cultures to prepare them better for the 'nuance' of the current fight."
What hasn't changed are raw combat tactics and marksmanship: the latter a Marine specialty since the days when Marines positioned high up in the ships' rigging were picking off British sailors on opposing decks. So, it's not so much that one generation is better than another. The giants who stormed Iwo Jima were no better men than those serving in Iraq today. Nor are the Iraq-based Marines better than those who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi in 1945.
I see it as more along the lines of a direct lineal dynamic wherein we can look at the men who stood atop Suribachi and have a better understanding of how their descendents were able to storm and capture the city of Fallujah nearly 60-years-later.
"This is the best trained and educated, best equipped, most motivated, highest caliber, best led armed force the world has ever seen," says Bearor. "More than 70 percent of them are in their first four-year enlistment. That means all the current lance corporals, privates first class, and privates, who make up the majority of Marines deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; joined the Corps after 9/11 and after [the beginning of operations in] Afghanistan. The country and her Marines have been at war the entire time they've been in the Corps. Adversity and war did not stop them from signing up to serve their country, nor has it stopped them from reenlisting at record rates."
Bearor adds, more than 95 percent of new Marines are high school graduates, and "none are draftees or were even threatened by a draft."
Why do they join? Because aside from an unquenchable sense of duty and patriotism, becoming a Marine still "represents the pinnacle of manhood, the zenith of what every boy should aspire to become," says retired Marine Col. John W. Ripley – who single-handedly blew up the Dong Ha bridge in Vietnam, thus blunting a massive North Vietnamese offensive in 1972. "God grant that they – and we – never change."
— W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
© 2006 W. Thomas Smith Jr.