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 last 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.
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