Paul Greenberg

That doesn't mean inter-service rivalry is dead. An ex-soldier named Harry Truman (Captain, U.S. Army Artillery, in The Great War) is better known as a president of the United States. Immune to the Marine Corps' glamour, he considered disbanding it. As he put it in his always direct, Harry S. Truman way: "The Marine Corps is the Navy's police force, and as long as I am President that is what it will remain. They have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin's."

Ooo-wee. Talk about a political firestorm. That was one fight HST lost. After the fierce reaction to his remark, the commander-in-chief decided that retreat was the better part of valor when dealing with the U.S. Marines. He apologized profusely, even attending a Marine Corps dinner to deliver his regrets in person. He also wrote the commandant of the Corps to express his admiration for "the magnificent history of the United States Marine Corps." He gave a whole new, apologetic meaning to the expression, Tell it to the Marines.”

Mr. Truman wasn't the first Army man to find he needed the Marines. A general named MacArthur discovered they could come in mighty handy when the Army was struggling to establish a beachhead on Guadalcanal.

I heard my cousin Sammy, who's now in his 90s and senior cousin of the whole clan, talk about his wartime service as a GI just once. It was at his granddaughter's wedding. Weddings aren't just for celebrating but for exchanging confidences. That's when I learned he'd been on Guadalcanal. I'd never known that before.

He'd arrived with the reinforcements, and all he ever said about it, his voice sorrowful, reflecting both compassion and admiration for those who'd been through the worst of it, was: "Those boys went through hell."

Nobody had to sell him on the Marines. Sammy was never much of one for protocol, but courage and sacrifice he knew -- and respected.

. .

In another war, after the North Koreans invaded the South in 1950 and threatened to overwhelm the whole peninsula, Gen. MacArthur pulled his broken ranks back to a small perimeter around the port of Pusan. The Marines would prove indispensable then, too.

Just where the U.S. Marines fit into the unified command has always been a source of confusion, even contention, from time to time. I remember my immigrant mother, always curious about all things American, asking my older brother in her uncertain English: "Irvink, I understand what the Army, the Navy and the Air Force do. The army fights on the land, the navy on the sea, and the air force in the air, no? But what do the Marines do?"

"Ma," he explained, "they're shock troops."

"Shock troops?" She was still mystified.

"Yeah, you know, shock troops. The advance guard. They go in, destroy everything in sight, and then the regular troops can follow."

"Ah!" my mother said. Now she understood. "Cossacks!"

Realization had dawned. Her pale eyes lit up with recognition. Her voice took on a respectful tone. Not unlike Mr. Truman's once he'd seen the light.

-- Inky Wretch

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.