Spirited Marines get the job done
HBO's 10-part series on the Pacific campaign of World War II just ended. That story of island-hopping was mostly about how the old breed of U.S. Marines fought diehard Japanese infantrymen face-to-face in places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Guam and Okinawa.
We still argue whether it was smart to storm those entrenched Japanese positions or whether all those islands were strategically necessary. But no one can question the Marine Corps' record of having defeating the most savage infantrymen of the age, thereby shattering the myth of Japanese military invincibility.
Since WWII, the Marines have turned up almost anywhere that America finds itself in a jam against supposedly unconquerable enemies — in bloody places like Inchon and the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, at Hue and Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War, at the two bloody sieges of Fallujah in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan.
Over the past two centuries, two truths have emerged about the Marine Corps. One, they defeat the toughest of America's adversaries under the worst of conditions. And two, periodically their way of doing things — and their eccentric culture of self-regard — so bothers our military planners that some higher-ups try either to curb their independence or end the Corps altogether.
After the Pacific fighting, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson wanted to disband the Marines Corps. What good were amphibious landings in the nuclear age? Johnson asked. His boss, President Harry Truman, agreed and didn't like the cocky Marines either.
Then came Korea — and suddenly the Pentagon wanted more Marines. The fighting against hard-core North Korean and Communist Chinese veterans was as nasty as anything seen in three millennia of organized warfare. The antiquated idea of landing on beaches proved once again a smart way of outflanking the enemy.
The Marines survived Korea, Louis Johnson and Harry Truman — and continued to carve out their own logistics, air-support and tactical doctrine. Marine self-sufficiency was due to lingering distrust of the other services dating back to the lack of air and naval support in World War II, and to Marine paranoia that the other services liked their combative spirit but not their independence.
We are once again seeing one of those periodic re-examinations of the Corps. This time, the old stereotype of the lone-ranger, gung-ho Marines supposedly doesn't fit too well with fighting sophisticated urban counterinsurgency under an integrated, international command.
After all, America is fighting wars in which we rarely hear of the number of enemy dead, but a great deal about the need to rebuild cities and infrastructure. In Afghanistan, there have been rumors about a new medal for "courageous restraint" that would honor soldiers who hesitated pulling the trigger against the enemy out of concern about harming civilians.
The Marines are now starting to redeploy to Afghanistan from Iraq and are building a huge base in Delaram. They plan to win over southern Afghanistan's remote, wild Nimruz province that heretofore has been mostly a no-go Taliban stronghold. While NATO forces concentrate on Afghanistan's major cities, the Marines think they can win over local populations their way, take on and defeat the Taliban, and bring all of Nimruz back from the brink — with their trademark warning, "No better friend, no worse enemy."
So once again, the Marines are convinced that their own ingenuity and audacity can succeed where others have failed. And once again, not everyone agrees.
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, retired three-star Army General Karl W. Eikenberry, reportedly made a comment about there being 41 nations serving in Afghanistan — and a 42nd composed of the Marine Corps. One unnamed Obama administration official was quoted by the Washington Post as saying, "We have better operational coherence with virtually all of our NATO allies than we have with the U.S. Marine Corps."
Some officials call the new Marine enclave in Nimruz Province "Marinestan" — as if, out of a Kipling or Conrad novel, the Marines have gone rogue to set up their own independent province of operations.
Yet once again, it would be wise not to tamper with the independence of the Marine Corps., given that its methods of training, deployment, fighting, counterinsurgency and conventional warfare usually pay off in the end.
The technological and political face of war is always changing. But its essence — organized violence to achieve political ends — is no different from antiquity. Conflict will remain the same as long as human nature does as well.
The Marines have always best understood that. And from the Marines' initial mission against the Barbary Pirates to the battles in Fallujah, Americans have wanted a maverick Marine Corps — a sort of insurance policy that kept them safe, just in case.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.