- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003


By Leon Uris

Harper Collins, $39.95, 394 pages


The late Leon Uris had two institutional passions in his life, the state of Israel and the United States Marine Corps. The book that first made his reputation as an author was “Battle Cry” in 1953. As a Marine Corps veteran, he captured his experiences in the Pacific in a work that remains one of the great war novels of the 20th century. “Exodus” was Uris’ tribute to the founding of the modern state of Israel.

I first read both books as a high school student. “Battle Cry” cemented my desire to follow my father, uncles, and a cousin into the Marine Corps. “Exodus” helped turn a Swedish-American Lutheran into a believer in the logic of Zionism.

In the last book he wrote before his death, Uris returned to the theme of the Marine Corps, this time in its infancy. Most Americans think of the Corps as an institution. They visit the Iwo Jima statue in Arlington and see Marines collecting “Toys for Tots,” and probably believe the Corps to be immortal.

However, there was a time when the Marine mammal was an endangered species. In the years following the Civil War, the existence of the Corps was threatened. Marines had traditionally served two roles aboard ships in the age of sail. First and foremost, they were the ship’s police in an age when many of the crew were sullen conscripts scraped from the dregs of society. They protected the captain from mutiny. Additionally, in combat, Marine Corps riflemen manned the fighting tops and formed the core of boarding and landing parties.

The Civil War and the advent of steam-powered ironclad warships ended much of the rationale for shipboard Marines. That development decreed the need for better-paid professional crews with marketable skills. The threat of mutiny evaporated. As sea battles were increasingly fought with miles, rather than feet, separating the ships, the need to board other ships declined. Many naval officers and not a few politicians viewed the Marines as a relic of the past.

The Marine Corps’ fight for survival in that era is a matter of legend in the Corps, but is not well known outside it. This fight forms the setting for “O’Hara’s Choice.” As the book relates, the Marines found a new mission, the seizure and defense of advanced naval bases; in doing so they developed a new technique in amphibious warfare.

Deftly using some well-placed friends in Congress and a flair for public relations, the Marines resisted all odds to find a new place in the world for themselves. “O’Hara’s Choice” is a parable for that struggle. It compresses an evolutionary process into a shorter length of time, but then again, this is a parable.

The protagonist is the first member of the second generation of Marines that call themselves the “warthogs,” a crew of Civil War veterans built around a comradeship forged in the fire of combat. Zack O’Hara rises from the enlisted ranks of the peacetime corps to become an officer, the son of the Marine Corps’ highest-ranking non-commissioned officer.

He is also a gifted intellectual who authors a critical study on the future of amphibious warfare. Along the way, he beds and marries the daughter of a shipbuilding robber-baron and enemy of the Marines. The fact that young Zack is Irish-Catholic and a Marine causes inevitable class conflict. On the East Coast in the late 19th century, Irish-American Marines only outranked African-Americans socially, and not by much. The choice of the title is that between love and duty.

“O’Hara’s Choice” is not Uris’ greatest book, but it is probably one of his most passionate. Some readers will think the characters too good, and too colorful, to be true. In actuality, the people who brought about the amphibious “revolution in military affairs” were more colorful and just as talented than the characters in the book. The Marine Corps would not have been around today if they had not been so.

Uris captures the spirit, if not the historical accuracy, of that revolutionary effort. This is a book about loyalty, honor and comradeship. It makes for a good read.

As Marines grow older, the bad memories fade. In our minds, we all grow braver, and the women get better looking (I assume the men do too, in the minds of female Marines). What does not change is our loyalty and esteem for the Corps. Most former Marines, when writing to their comrades, use “S/f” or Semper Fidelis (“always loyal”) as a parting salutation.

Semper Fi, Leon.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer. He lectures on the “Revolution in Military Affairs” at George Washington University.

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