In his latest book, America's Victories - Why the U.S. wins wars and will win the war on terror, national defense and economics historian Dr. Larry Schweikart describes the performance of U.S. troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “The Marines, given their superiority in combat training and despite their youth (Marines are the youngest, on average, of the enlisted troops) generally fared far better than the regular Army in combat situations,” he writes.
It’s not a statement that would necessarily endear Dr. Schweikart to Army officers. But right or wrong, U.S. Marines do indeed have a reputation for combat prowess that often surpasses the reputations of other military organizations – even the really good ones. And this rep has fueled the interservice rivalry that has existed since the birth of the Corps on November 10, 1775 – exactly 231 years ago, today.
Born in an old Philadelphia alehouse, with the barkeep as its first officer, the fledgling Continental Marine Corps was composed of a motley band of adventurers and street toughs; nothing like the 178,000-plus elite U.S. Marine Corps we know today. But somewhere along the way the proverbial formula was discovered. According to tradition – and in Lt. Gen. Victor H. “Brute” Krulak’s book, First to Fight – Marines started telling themselves they were the best. They started believing it, and they’ve been busy proving it ever since.
Best-selling author Tom Clancy refers to the result of this formula as magic. "Marines are mystical,” he once wrote. “They have magic … [a magic that] may well frighten potential opponents more than the actual violence Marines can generate in combat."
Indeed, this magic has been working to America’s benefit as a force multiplier in both peace and war for decades.
During the Korean War, for instance, Chinese premier Mao Tse Tung was so-concerned about the combat prowess of the 1st Marine Division that he put out a death contract on the entire division, which he stated, “has the highest combat effectiveness” of any division in the U.S. armed forces. “It seems not enough for our four divisions to surround and annihilate [the 1st Marine Division’s] two regiments,” Mao said in orders to the commander of the 9th Chinese Army Group. “You should have one or two more divisions as a reserve force.”During the same war, a captured North Korean officer confessed, “Panic sweeps my men when they are facing the American Marines.”
The Marines didn’t earn their reputation overnight. Many military historians would argue as to where, when, and in what specific combat-action the Corps’ rep was actually solidified.
Some might point to Lt. Presley O’Bannon’s successful 1805 expedition across several-hundred miles of North African desert to attack the Tripolitan city of Derna, where the U.S. flag was raised for the first time in the “old world.”
Others might point to the famous 1847 storming of Mexico’s Chapultepec Castle, the so-Christened “Halls of Montezuma.”
Still others might point to the First World War battle of Belleau Wood, in which bayonet-wielding Marines – led by a grizzled old Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly who rallied his men with, “Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?!” – successfully assaulted a line of German machine-gun nests in 1918.
And most would agree in spirit with Navy Secretary James Forrestal, who, from an offshore ship witnessed the famous flag-raising over Iwo Jima in 1945, said, “The raising of that flag on [Mount] Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”
Such events throughout Corps history have contributed to an ethos matched only by the most elite military organizations in the world.
“A LITTLE DANGEROUS”
Yet “a Marine Corps for the next 500 years” has not always been the wish of every member of the Marines’ sister services, some of whom have harbored a distaste for Marines perhaps stemming from envy, a desire for the same reputation, or competition for Defense budget dollars (the latter of which the Corps has always come in last). In fact, there have been efforts albeit unsuccessful to have the Corps either disbanded or absorbed into either the Army or Navy. Even after the Marines’ stunning performance in World War II, Army Gen. Frank Armstrong proposed in the late 1940’s absorbing Marines into the Army, and referred to the Corps as “a small bitched-up army talking Navy lingo.”
Decades later, in 1997, Assistant Secretary of the Army Sara Lister proclaimed before a Harvard University audience, “I think the Army is much more connected to society than the Marines are. Marines are extremists. Wherever you have extremists, you’ve got some risks of total disconnection with society. And that’s a little dangerous.”
But there has been much more expressed respect, than criticism, from the Corps’ counterparts:
“The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.”— U.S. Army Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing
“The safest place in Korea was right behind a platoon of Marines. Lord, how they could fight!”— U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Frank Lowe
“Marines have it [pride] and benefit from it. They are tough, cocky, sure of themselves and their buddies. They can fight, and they know it."— U.S. Army Gen. Mark Clark
“Marines I see as two breeds, Rottweilers or Dobermans, because Marines come in two varieties, big and mean, or skinny and mean. They’re aggressive on the attack and tenacious on defense. They’ve got really short hair and they always go for the throat.” — Rear Admiral Jay Stark, U.S. Navy
“[U.S.] Marines have the swagger, confidence, and hardness that must have been in Stonewall Jackson's Army of the Shenandoah.” — A British military officer in a report to his command after visiting U.S. Marines in Korea
FACTORS THAT MAKE THE DIFFERENCE
Some praise, because of interservice rivalry, has been either conservatively guarded or incidental.
U.S. Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded all American military forces in Vietnam and later served as Army chief of staff, stated flatly he “admired the élan of Marines.”
During the 1983 invasion of Grenada, Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, picked up a telephone and demanded to know why “two companies of Marines [are] running all over the island and thousands of Army troops [are] doing nothing. What the hell is going on?”
James Adams, former CEO of United Press International, described in his book, Secret Armies, "Marines with 20 percent of the [American] force ended up occupying 80 percent of the island [Grenada]"
The reputation and performance of Marines stems from several factors beyond simply the aforementioned formula of first boasting, then believing, and forever proving:
First, the Marine Corps is the smallest of the four traditional American armed forces. It is organized as a separate arm of service, but officially exists as a quick-reaction combined-arms amphibious force under the Department of the Navy. And as I wrote in National Review Online back in 2004, “the Corps' philosophical approach to training and combat differs from other branches. Marine boot camp—more of a rite-of-passage than a training program—is the longest and toughest recruit indoctrination program of any of the military services. Men and women train separately. All Marines from private to Commandant are considered to be first-and-foremost riflemen. And special-operations units in the Marines are not accorded the same respect as they are in other branches. The Marines view special operations as simply another realm of warfighting. Marines are Marines, and no individual Marine or Marine unit is considered more elite than the other.”
“ANGELS OF DEATH”
Ask any former Marine (Marines are never ex-Marines): Being a Marine is something more akin to a tribal religious experience then simply a hitch in the service. As a consequence, brand-new boot Marines are convinced of their superiority – justified or not – over other soldiers. Other soldiers often view this self-perception as unjustifiable arrogance. But none of this is to suggest that the individual Marine is a better man (or today, woman) than any American soldier, sailor, or airman currently serving around the globe. All American servicemen are “good.” They all bring unique skill-sets to the table, and they are all working together better than ever.
But since we are talking about the Marine Corps – on the 231st anniversary of its founding – the question remains: just how effective is the combat prowess of America’s Marines?
Terrifyingly effective if you were to believe Saddam Hussein’s soldiers, who in 1991 dubbed U.S. Marines, “Angels of Death,” and whose senior commanders deployed 100,000 Iraqi troops behind the Iraqi-Kuwaiti beaches in anticipation of a landing that would never take place by 17,000 “Angels of Death.”
In 1992, the year following the Gulf War, a study conducted by the Heritage Foundation determined that “for every [U.S.] Army soldier in a combat position, one soldier is behind the lines in such supporting roles as administration and supply; for Marines the ratio is two combatants to one administrator or supplier. As a result, the Marine Corps delivers the most firepower in the quickest time when responding to a crisis. … The Marine Corps’ greatest advantage over other services is the speed and muscle with which it can respond to a crisis.”
Still, from a combat-power / force-multiplying perspective, it is the old formula – which creates the magic – that truly sets Marines apart from other soldiers. Perhaps impossible to define, this magic may be expressed in the words of a frantic terrorist whose radio transmission was intercepted by U.S. forces during the assault on Fallujah in 2004: “We are fighting, but the Marines keep coming. We are shooting, but the Marines won’t stop.”