A birth­day chal­lenge for the Marine Corps

As it ap­proaches its 243d birth­day there’s talk of a new small wars spe­cialty for the Marine Corps

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Gary An­der­son

Start­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tion in a bar is a risky propo­si­tion, and one of two things can hap­pen. First, it might de­gen­er­ate into a drunken brawl — the al­ter­na­tive is that you will end up with a very in­ter­est­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion. In the case of the U.S. Marine Corps, the sec­ond hap­pened. When it be­gan re­cruit­ing at Tunn Tav­ern in Philadel­phia fol­low­ing a 1775 act of the Con­ti­nen­tal Congress, the Marine Corps con­sisted of a few hun­dred qual­i­fied ri­fle­men des­ig­nated to act as ship­board po­lice­men, pro­vide the nu­cleus for board­ing par­ties and pro­vide snipers to fire at the crews of op­pos­ing ships. It would have taken a very pre­scient vi­sion­ary in 1775 to en­vi­sion an or­ga­ni­za­tion of nearly 200,000 with its own air force. De­spite its present size and pres­tige, the Marine Corps has been on the en­dan­gered species list a num­ber of times ap­proach­ing its 243d birth­day on Nov. 10. This year, its ex­is­tence is not in ques­tion, but its core mis­sion may be.

Af­ter the Civil War, the age of steam and the devel­op­ment of iron­clad war­ships made close quar­ters com­bat and the use of board­ing par­ties ob­so­lete as a naval tac­tic. Sailors in the Steam Age had to be in­creas­ingly pro­fes­sional — thus, the need for ships’ po­lice to put down mu­tinies was no longer a ma­jor prob­lem. This caused some se­nior naval of­fi­cers to ques­tion the need for Marines. By that time, how­ever, the Corps had de­vel­oped a sense of self-iden­tity and esprit de corps. Con­se­quently, the Marines found an­other way to prove them­selves use­ful. The Steam Age re­quired that world-class navies have a se­ries of coal­ing sta­tions around the world. The seizure and de­fense of such ad­vanced bases re­quired the use of naval in­fantry, and the Marine Corps em­braced that role. The cap­ture of the Guan­tanamo Bay naval base in Cuba dur­ing the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War val­i­dated that mis­sion.

Dur­ing World War I, an un­pre­pared United States des­per­ately needed trained in­fantry in France. The Marine Corps gladly helped fill that gap, but the na­tion­wide pub­lic­ity gained by Marines at the Bat­tle of Bel­leau Wood an­gered sev­eral se­nior Army of­fi­cers who be­gan to pub­licly ques­tion whether the na­tion needed “two land armies” af­ter the war.

The post-Great War Marine Corps was called on to con­duct coun­terin­sur­gency op­er­a­tions in Cen­tral Amer­ica and the Caribbean, and some se­nior Marine Corps of­fi­cers be­lieved that such small wars should be the pri­mary mis­sion of the Corps. How­ever, oth­ers saw the com­ing war with Ja­pan and the need to seize Ja­panese-con­trolled is­lands by am­phibi­ous as­sault as a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of the ad­vanced base mis­sion. De­spite this mis­sion ar­gu­ment, suc­ces­sive Marine Corps com­man­dants wisely de­cided to pur­sue small wars as­sign­ments while si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­vel­op­ing am­phibi­ous ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Con­se­quently, the Marine Corps de­vel­oped the na­tion’s first of­fi­cial man­u­als on both coun­terin­sur­gency and am­phibi­ous op­er­a­tions.

World War II val­i­dated the need for am­phibi­ous ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and places like Guadal­canal and Iwo Jima be­came leg­endary. How­ever, by 1950 the devel­op­ment of atomic weapons was be­lieved to have made ground com­bat — in­clud­ing am­phibi­ous op­er­a­tions — ob­so­lete. Even Pres­i­dent Tru­man held this be­lief un­til the Korean War, when a Marine am­phibi­ous op­er­a­tion at In­chon proved to be the turn­ing point.

Since Korea, the Marine Corps has main­tained its am­phibi­ous ex­per­tise, but has been care­ful not to lose its abil­ity to per­form in con­ven­tional land com­bat as well as coun­terin­sur­gency op­er­a­tions. This de­ter­mi­na­tion to “walk and chew gum at the same time” has served the na­tion well in Viet­nam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. Less known have been the countless am­phibi­ous res­cue op­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can civil­ians and diplo­mats from cri­sis sit­u­a­tions rang­ing from Le­banon to So­ma­lia to Africa.

The abil­ity to make it­self use­ful has en­sured the sur­vival of the Marine Corps over the cen­turies more than any­thing else. This year, the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee is con­sid­er­ing a con­cept that would have the Marine Corps

The abil­ity to make it­self use­ful has en­sured the sur­vival of the Marine Corps over the cen­turies more than any­thing else.

spe­cial­ize in small wars — par­tic­u­larly coun­terin­sur­gen­cies and drop the am­phibi­ous mis­sion. This con­cerns many ac­tive and re­tired Marines. The naval threat of China might well re­quire par­tic­i­pa­tion in an­other Pa­cific naval war and if the na­tion loses its am­phibi­ous ca­pa­bil­ity, it might well have to re-cre­ate it.

Marines also worry that turn­ing the Corps into spe­cial­ists in coun­terin­sur­gency might re­open the two land-armies ar­gu­ment. The Marine Corps’ of­fi­cial motto is Sem­per Fidelis (al­ways faith­ful), but its un­of­fi­cial motto has al­ways been “we do win­dows.” That at­ti­tude has served the Corps and its na­tion well. Gary An­der­son is a re­tired Marine Corps colonel. He lec­tures in Al­ter­na­tive Anal­y­sis at the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity’s El­liott School of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs.


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