The Magazine

SEMPER FI?

Nov 24, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 11 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Thomas E. Ricks

Making the Corps

 

Scribners, 320 pp., $ 24


The American military, writes Thomas Ricks in his extraordinary new book, Making the Corps, "is extremely good today." Indeed, it is "arguably the best it has ever been and probably for the first time in history the best in the world." But as good as it is, it is beset by the changing nature of its security tasks, by substantial cuts in defense spending, and, most important, by the American people's ambivalence toward their own military.


What then, asks Ricks, the Pentagon correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and perhaps the finest military journalist writing today, should be the character of our armed services? Should military service be "just another job" carried out by an organization that mirrors American society, or should the military maintain a distinct ethos that "differs in critical respects from the society it is sworn to protect"?


The Marine Corps has always opted for difference. Indeed, "the Marines are distinct even within the separate world of the U.S. military," notes Ricks. And the distinguishing characteristic of Marines is precisely their culture: " formalistic, insular, elitist, with a deep anchor in their own history and mythology. . . . It is what holds them together."


Ricks observes that if an American soldier is asked to identify himself, he is likely to say that he is "in the Army," while a Marine usually replies, " I'm a Marine." That small difference is significant: "The first is a matter of membership or occupation; the second speaks to identity."


In Making the Corps, Ricks shows how this Marine identity is created, following the members of a recruit platoon through the rigors of their training at Parris Island, South Carolina and then through their first year as full-fledged Marines. With empathy for the recruits, appreciation for what is at stake in their training, and respect for their drill instructors, the author conveys the "unfailing alchemy that converts unoriented youths into proud, selfreliant, stable citizens -- citizens into whose hands the nation's affairs may be safely entrusted" (as it was once described by Victor H. Krulak, a retired Marine general and father of the current corps commandant).


In Ricks's analysis, two things make the Marines what they are: their understanding of the importance of unit cohesion for victory, and the " expeditionary" nature of the Marine Corps.


While feminists dismiss the military experience of cohesion as "male bonding," research has shown that comradeship is critical for those facing death and misery together. The Marines have traditionally recognized that a central goal of recruit training is to instill an attachment to other Marines and to the corps as an institution. It is not insignificant that Ricks chooses for his epigraph the St. Crispin's Day speech of Shakespeare's Henry V before the battle of Agincourt: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."


Out of necessity, all the branches of the armed services have recently developed some capability to move rapidly on short notice, but this approach to national defense has always constituted the essence of the Marine Corps. " 'Expeditionary' is not so much a mission as it is a mindset," observes the former commandant, General Carl Mundy. The modern image of the Marine Corps was made in large-scale amphibious assaults during World War II, but before the war the Marines had specialized in what the Quadrennial Defense Review now calls "small-scale contingencies." They had, in fact, literally " written the book," the Small Wars Manual, first issued in 1940, which summarized the lessons of Marine operations, largely in the Caribbean, between the two world wars.


Ricks notes that this manual is back in use and that it is of great help in the "imperial policing" for which the Marines have often been employed. This expeditionary, small-war approach is far more appropriate to what will most likely characterize the security environment for the foreseeable future than are the two other approaches sometimes touted as the answer to U.S. military needs: the long-range precision strike (advocated primarily by the Air Force), and the overwhelming "boots on the ground" technique (pushed primarily by the Army).