QUANTICO, Va. -- Here at "the crossroads of the Marine Corps," some officers are uneasily pondering a paradox: No service was better prepared than the Marines for the challenges of post-invasion Iraq, yet no service has found its mission there more unsettling to its sense of itself.
When asked in 1997 to describe the kind of conflict for which Marines were training, Gen. Charles Krulak, then the Corps' commandant, replied with one word: "Chechnya." He meant ethnic and sectarian conflict in an urban context. He spoke of "the three-block war" in which a Marine wraps a child in a blanket, then is a buffer between warring factions, then engages in combat, all within three city blocks.
For Marines, however, fighting such a war for more than four years jeopardizes the skills essential to its core mission -- combat as an expeditionary force. Marines have not conducted a major amphibious landing since Inchon in Korea, but the Corps, which specializes in operational maneuver from the sea, remains, in theory, a force that penetrates, performs, then departs. Marines say: The nation needs the Army, Navy and Air Force, but it wants the Marine Corps as an expeditionary power, more than just a miniaturized Army.
Marines have an institutional memory of "small wars," from the Philippines to Central America, and this competence serves them well in Iraq, which is, an officer here says, "a thousand microcosms." But the exigencies of the protracted Iraq commitment have forced the Marines to adopt vehicles that are heavier and bigger than can easily travel with an expeditionary force on ships. And there is tension between the "nation-building" dimension of the Marines' Iraq mission and the Corps' distinctive warrior (BEG ITAL)esprit(END ITAL), which is integral to why the nation wants the Corps.
Officers studying here at the Marine Corps University after tours in Iraq dutifully say they understand that they serve their combat mission -- destroying the enemy -- when they increase the host nation's capacity for governance. Besides, says one officer, when his units are helping with garbage collection they know that "garbage collection is a matter of life and death because there are IEDs (improvised explosive devices) hidden under that garbage."