The Magazine

Leatherneck Tales

How the Marines have survived, and why.

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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O’Connell focuses less on the strategic issues that shaped the Marine Corps during the 1950s and early ’60s, emphasizing, instead, the way in which the Marines continued to sell their virtues to the American people. They not only stressed military virtues of toughness, courage, and battlefield success, but also the intimate, nostalgic, and familial elements of Marine culture. Hollywood helped with such movies as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) with John Wayne and The D.I. with Jack Webb (1957). But those who live by their public image can die by it as well. The Marines suffered a massive setback to their reputation as a result of the Ribbon Creek incident in the spring of 1956: A drill instructor who had been drinking on duty took his recruit platoon on a night march to punish poor performance. Six recruits drowned. O’Connell argues that Ribbon Creek was merely a microcosm of the broader problem of unauthorized violence in the Marine Corps of the 1950s. 

This is, for the most part, an excellent book. O’Connell tells the Marines’ story, warts and all, but there are some shortcomings as well. First is a stylistic problem: O’Connell is a fine writer, but the reader is often jarred by his use of postmodern social science jargon. (Whoever derived the verb “to privilege” from a perfectly good noun did the English language no favor.) Other issues are substantive. For instance, O’Connell takes the Marines to task for their tactics during the unification debate: stealing and then leaking classified Joint Chiefs of Staff papers to the press and to Congress; coming close to accusing the Army (and those who favored a more unified defense establishment) of favoring Prussian-style militarism; and what O’Connell calls “fear mongering” about an overly centralized executive branch. O’Connell suggests that the Corps was more interested in its institutional survival than in the good of the nation.

But the Marines believed that they made a strategic contribution to the nation—one that would be lost were they marginalized. In essence, the Marines were advocates of “strategic pluralism,” the idea that national defense requires a broad array of capabilities. The unification proposals, in contrast, pushed “strategic monism,” which sought to impose a single vision on the defense establishment. The risks of strategic monism were illustrated by the strategy pursued by the Eisenhower administration. The centerpiece of the “New Look” was long-range strategic airpower, but this focus on strategic bombing to the exclusion of other capabilities resulted in strategic inflexibility. The only reason the United States could respond to threats at the lower end of the spectrum of conflict was that the Marines had (in the face of much opposition) maintained the necessary capabilities. 

Regarding the dark side of the Marine Corps of the 1950s—domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and the like—O’Connell makes a common mistake: He fails to compare the Marines with their civilian counterparts by cohort. (We saw this flawed approach after Vietnam, when veterans of that war were portrayed as ticking time bombs that could explode at any time, and whose rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and incarceration were unusually high.)

Finally, the post-World War II Marines were not unusual in forging an alliance with Congress and Hollywood to get their story out to the public. The newly emerging Air Force mastered this approach as well with such movies as Twelve O’Clock High (1949) with Gregory Peck. In addition, James Stewart, an Army Air Forces bomber-pilot who flew numerous missions in Europe and served as a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve, helped to push the airpower story with movies such as 1955’s Strategic Air Command. Today, of course, no organization has used Hollywood to tell its story more successfully than the Navy SEALs. In Congress, the Air Force was able to count on powerful members to advance that service’s interests. The actions by both the Marines and the Air Force illustrate an important element of U.S. civil-military relations: Rarely is the military per se pitted against the civilian per se; rather, civilian-military coalitions struggle for advantage in the corridors of the Pentagon, the halls of Congress, and in the press. 

In his firsthand account of Marine Corps history, First to Fight (1984), General Krulak relates the story of his exchange with a Marine gunnery sergeant in 1935. Krulak, then a lieutenant, asked the venerable gunny how the Marines had gained their reputation as one of the world’s great fighting forces. “Well, lieutenant,” the gunny replied, “they started right out telling everybody how great they were. Pretty soon they got to believing themselves. And they have been busy ever since proving they were right.”

Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.