Men on a Mission Fight: To Keep The Warrior Spirit. Wall Street Journal 12/1/02

The Marines have landed.

Those very words inspire confidence, and well they should, for the Marines have developed a reputation as some of toughest fighting men in the U.S. armed forces.

Doubters -- and there are many, particularly in competing services -- scoff that the Marine aura is a triumph of image over reality. The Corps, they argue, is neither heavy enough for sustained ground operations nor light enough for commando raids. It is a source of constant consternation for the other services to see themselves outmaneuvered by the Marines in the battle for congressional support, leading to cracks about how the "Marines are best at storming Capitol Hill."

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There is no denying that the Marines have devoted a great deal of energy to burnishing their image. They've had to. Ever since the Corps' birth in 1775, it has been the target of attempts to eliminate it. The Marines have responded by cultivating the American people, whether through their famous band (once led by John Philip Sousa) or through movies like "The Sands of Iwo Jima." It will surprise no one familiar with the Corps that the first reporters allowed to accompany U.S. troops into action in Afghanistan were brought in by the Marines.


Yet it would be wrong to think that the Corps' reputation is mainly the product of slick PR work. I remember sitting in a classroom at the Naval War College a few years ago with students from all four services. The Air Force, Army and Navy officers present all lamented that their services had lost focus since the Cold War; between peacekeeping assignments and sexual-discrimination training, they no longer knew what their mission was. The lone Marine officer present offered a striking contrast. He knew his job -- to fight, and if necessary kill, the enemy -- and remained confident that there would be as much call for his skills in 2000 as in 1800.

To put it another way, the Marines have done a better job of instilling, and preserving, a warrior ethos than the other services. During a visit earlier this year to Camp Lejeune, the Marines' main East Coast expeditionary base, a grizzled infantry colonel complained to me that the Corps had gone soft. Why, his men were sleeping in dormitory-style apartments, not in open squad bays! But the other services have made far greater accommodations to modern American mores.

The Marines alone segregate the sexes during basic training, and they put the emphasis on preparing for combat above all, as exemplified by their slogan, "Every Marine a rifleman." You can see the difference in something as trivial as a haircut: In the other services, most officers sport hair that's almost as long as a civilian's, while even the most senior Marine generals maintain a crew cut that would do a recruit proud. To outsiders, this can make the Marines appear to be cultish, abnormal, even frightening. That is precisely the point: Normal people don't go to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban.

The Marines won their greatest glory in two major wars: World War I produced the memorable nickname "devil dogs," and World War II the iconic image of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. But the Marines have an even longer track record at the kinds of low-intensity operations that they are now undertaking in Afghanistan.

Between 1800 and 1934 the Marines landed abroad 180 times. Whether battling Haitian cacos (1915-20) or Nicaraguan Sandinistas (1927-33), they showed a flair for counter-guerrilla warfare matched by few of their compatriots in the more staid services. To take only one example: Marine Sgt. Herman Hanneken and Cpl. William Button darkened their bodies in order to pass as Haitians and infiltrate the camp of the leading anti-American rebel. Leading their own phony band of locally recruited "revolutionaries," they managed to kill Charlemagne Peralte and helped end the revolt.

This is not a tactic likely to be found in any operations manual, but this kind of improvisation comes naturally to the Marines, who push initiative and responsibility down to the lowest ranks. The Corps' organizational structure reflects its flexibility. Marine Expeditionary Units can be formed quickly by drawing on infantry, air power, artillery, armor -- whatever is right for the job at hand, whether that means delivering relief supplies to a devastated Third World country or rescuing American diplomats from a besieged embassy.

The Army, organized in a divisional structure that has changed little since Napoleonic days, is racing to catch up. Many of the Army's heavier units have been of little use in post-Cold War assignments. M-1 Abrams tanks, for instance, were too heavy to traverse the bridges leading into Bosnia. Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, has recognized the problem and has formed a medium-weight brigade designed to respond to emergencies within 96 hours.

Some Marine officers look askance at this development, worried that the Army will try to usurp their role. If history is any guide, they have little to fear. America will always need "a few good men."