Politics & Policy

The Marines@230

The Marine Corps was formed in a bar and then immediately went on a Caribbean cruise.

On November 10, 1775, 230 years ago, the Continental Congress authorized the formation of two battalions of Marines. Tradition says that the earliest recruiting of Marines took place at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, owned by Robert Mullan, who later became a Continental Marine officer. The Marines’ first operation was a raid on a British base in the Bahamas. As I like to say, the Marine Corps was formed in a bar and then immediately went on a Caribbean cruise.

The Marine Corps has the reputation of being one of the finest fighting organizations in history. In his wonderful book First to Fight, Lt. Gen. Victor H. “Brute” Krulak recounts a discussion he had early in his distinguished career with a senior Marine NCO. To Krulak’s query about how the Marines had come by their reputation, the old Gunny replied, “Well, lieutenant, they started right out telling everybody how great they were. Pretty soon they got to believing it themselves. And they have been busy ever since proving they were right.”

They were proving it in Fallujah at this very time last year. And they are proving it again now in Al Anbar province. As Marine general Jim Mattis says, “The Marines: no better friend, no worse enemy.”

The first thing about the Marine Corps is the people. I have known Marines all my life. My dad was a Marine for 25 years, fighting in two campaigns in the Pacific during World War II and again in Korea. My dad and his friends were very tight; they had been through hell together in such places as Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Tarawa, Guam, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Just five years later, they were fighting again in Korea. The bonds they established in combat and training extended to their social life and each other’s families. These were hardened, tough men, but they were like putty in the hands of their wives and children.

I guess I was destined to be a Marine from the beginning. When I was about four, my dad would sit me on his knee and ask me what I was going to be when I grew up. “A fireman,” I would tell him. Then he would laugh and rub his rough face against mine until I finally shrieked, “I’m going to be a Marine! I’m going to be a Marine!” Based on the example that my dad and his friends set, I concluded that to be a real man–a gentleman–one had to act like them.

Of course, I have also known members of all the U.S. services and have always been impressed by their competence and professionalism. I have special affinity for the Army since I spent a great deal of my active duty Marine career with the Army at Fort Sill, Okla., the home of the field artillery.

But there is something special about Marines. It’s not surprising, then, that the Marines with whom I served in Vietnam and after were of the same mold as those of my dad’s generation. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I would put the Marines I knew in Vietnam up against any other group in history.

Of course, the dysfunctional Vietnam vet has become a staple of American popular culture. As I observed on NRO not too long ago, the conventional wisdom portrays those who served in Vietnam as mostly young, poor, and non-white. Many, if not most, committed or observed atrocities (thank you John Kerry). The horrors of the war led them to turn to drugs and a life of crime. Vietnam veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless and the incarcerated. The Vietnam veteran was and is a time-bomb waiting to go off.

But that is slander. Writing in The American Enterprise several years ago, Jim Webb observed:

The sizable portion of the Vietnam age group who declined to support the counter-cultural agenda, and especially the men and women who opted to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, are quite different from their peers who for decades have claimed to speak for them. In fact, they are much like the World War II generation itself. For them, Woodstock was a side show, college protestors were spoiled brats who would have benefited from having to work a few jobs in order to pay their tuition, and Vietnam represented not an intellectual exercise in draft avoidance or protest marches but a battlefield that was just as brutal as those their fathers faced in World War II and Korea.

I have recently reestablished contact with two of my comrades from Vietnam: Jack Higgins and Carl Marlantes. Jack was on his second tour when we served together in 1st Battalion 4th Marines. On his first tour, he had been involved in the terrible fight at Dai Do in the spring of 1968, where he earned a Silver Star.

What can I say about Carl? At a time when the Ivy League was not sending many people to Vietnam, Carl was a Yale graduate. He looked like he was 16 years old and with his long hair Carl didn’t exactly fit the mold of a Marine officer. But when he went home, he was wearing a Navy Cross, a Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts. In my book, Jack and Carl, as well as Tim Rabbitt, Andy O’Sullivan, Vic Reston, Buzz Fry, Calvin Spaight, Larry Boyer, and many others are the best men I have ever known. They are my “band of brothers,” and I will never forget them.

And these Marines did a remarkable job against some pretty tough odds. As Webb writes:

Dropped onto the enemy’s terrain 12,000 miles away from home, America’s citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality that may never be truly understood. Those who believe the war was fought incompetently on a tactical level should consider Hanoi’s recent admission that 1.4 million of its soldiers died on the battlefield, compared to 58,000 total U.S. dead. Those who believe that it was a “dirty little war” where the bombs did all the work might contemplate that it was the most costly war the U.S. Marine Corps has ever fought–five times as many dead as World War I, three times as many dead as in Korea, and more total killed and wounded than in all of World War II.

Significantly, these sacrifices were being made at a time the United States was deeply divided over our effort in Vietnam.

As I always do, I’ll be attending the Marine Corps Birthday Ball this year. It’s one of the great social events of the year here in Newport, and there will be Marines as old as 90 and as young as 18. What do they have in common? That old and young alike are members of a remarkable martial fraternity–the United States Marine Corps. That those who have gone before have set a high standard. That those who can meet that standard ought to be very proud of themselves.

At the ball, I’ll drink all the official toasts, but I’ll save a special one for Jack, Carl. and all the rest of my “band of brothers.” They lived up to the standard and have now passed it on to the latest generation. Happy Birthday, Marines, and Semper Fidelis!

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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