After the Sands Of Iwo Jima

Wall Street Journal

December 19, 2012

By Aaron B. O'Connell
(Harvard, 381 pages, $29.95)

The Marines are the most celebrated but least understood of our four military services. They have done a brilliant job of burnishing their martial image, from the days of the 1949 John Wayne movie "The Sands of Iwo Jima" to today's "The Few, the Proud, the Marines" commercials. With nearly 200,000 personnel and their own aircraft, tanks and artillery, they comprise one of the most capable military forces in the world. But so adept have the Marines become at telling their story—somehow the even less-than-heroic portrayals in "Gomer Pyle, USMC" and "Full Metal Jacket" have enhanced their reputation—that it isn't always easy to separate myth from reality.

That is a task that Aaron B. O'Connell, a history professor at the Naval Academy and himself a Marine reservist, tackles with brio in his absorbing account of the Marines between 1941 and 1965, "Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps." Prior to World War II, Mr. O'Connell notes, the Corps "was tiny, unpopular and institutionally disadvantaged"—it had just 50,000 men, and it was seen as an adjunct of the Navy. Its commandant was a two-star general who didn't even merit a seat on the newly created Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1942.

By the start of the Vietnam War in 1965, the situation was quite different. As Mr. O'Connell writes, "the Corps had almost quadrupled in size"; its commandant was a four-star general and a member of the Joint Chiefs; and it had long eclipsed its earlier role as a force designed to seize temporary forward bases for the Navy. It had, in fact, become virtually a second Army, which in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan was to perform the same mission as the larger ground service.

Its growth in the face of opposition from the other services and civilian officials—Harry Truman wanted the Corps cut back to a naval police force—can seem puzzling. Mr. O'Connell tries to explain the success of the Marines by arguing that they had developed a culture like no other, which celebrated the individual warrior ("Every Marine a rifleman"), that extolled sacrifice and kept bureaucracy to a minimum. "They were the service least enamored with machines and computers," he writes, "and most committed to intimate, spiritual, and transcendent themes." That, in turn, made the Marines a favorite of politicians and the public.

What did this mean in practice? Mr. O'Connell notes that during World War II most articles about the Army "were filled with the language of tactics—delaying actions, secondary main efforts, and pincer movements," because this is what its officers were comfortable talking to reporters about. And "coverage of the Navy and Army Air Forces was deeply technocratic: it made heroes of the ships and planes, and of the officers who controlled the great machines of war."

The Marines were different: The Corps' director of public relations, Brig. Gen. Robert L. Denig, had the idea of enlisting journalists, photographers and moviemakers as noncommissioned officers, allowing them to mingle easily with enlisted Marines and tell their stories. The Marines' combat correspondents, Mr. O'Connell writes, "left tactics and technology aside and focused almost exclusively on the wartime experience of the average private—'Joe Blow,' they called him—both in and out of combat." That made the Marine story far more compelling to the civilians back home.

The sacrifices the Marines made in the island fighting of the Pacific—taking higher casualties than the Army troops who fought alongside them—gained them public esteem, and to this day the Corps is known for being more aggressive than the Army. Mr. O'Connell explains this difference in philosophy by arguing that the Army, with its ground-warfare tradition, "believed in conserving manpower at the expense of time or terrain seized," whereas the Marines, more focused on amphibious assaults, preferred to push ahead at all costs because they knew that the longer they waited, the more risk to the Navy ships offshore. The Marine view was: "Speed of conquest was critical; the carnage it produced was the unfortunate but necessary price for victory." The fact that the Marines suffered higher casualties demonstrated, at least to their own satisfaction, that they were tougher and more deserving of admiration than the Army.

When it came to fighting on Capitol Hill, however, the Marine Corps understood that sneaky stratagems worked better than up-the-middle charges. When a group of congressmen were set to visit the Marine base at Quantico in the early 1950s, one wily liaison officer advised hiding the horses and fine booze—he didn't want the lawmakers to see the Marines enjoying the good life. Instead, "have crackers and cheese, and the cheapest brand of whiskey you can find." Sure enough, on the bus ride back to Washington, the liaison officer "heard several of the members saying, 'My God! These guys sure do need a pay increase. Did you ever see such cheap whiskey in your life?' "

In their quest for bureaucratic survival, the Marines didn't hesitate to employ rougher tactics either. A small cabal of postwar Marines known as the Chowder Society sabotaged Truman's plans for cutbacks in the Corps by leaking top-secret planning documents. And they did it so effectively that their machinations never blew up in their face. The Navy wasn't so lucky—it was severely embarrassed by the 1949 "revolt of the admirals," when, Mr. O'Connell notes, senior officers "disobeyed orders, leaked classified information, and aired their grievances against the other services to Congress and in the press." The Marines had done exactly same thing, but they got away with it.

Yet for all their skill at lobbying, the Marines would never have emerged on top, time after time, if they hadn't legitimately earned considerable credit on the battlefield. Their reputation may have been deliberately manufactured, but no one—not even the Army—could deny that their publicists had great raw material to work with.

“Destined to be the classic account of what may be the oldest . . . hardest form of war.” —John Nagl, Wall Street Journal


"Enormous, brilliant and important…. Terrific… Astute… Boot’s Invisible Armies should be required reading in the White House and Pentagon." —Michael Korda, Daily Beast

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