W. Thomas Smith, Jr

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.

W. Thomas Smith, Jr

W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor. He is the author of six books, and he has covered war and conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and Lebanon. Visit him online at http://www.uswriter.com.
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