UNDERDOGS: THE MAKING OF THE MODERN MARINE CORPS
By Aaron B. O’Connell
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 381 pages
I was 17. We were in the last weeks of Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. Our platoon was drilling, marching ramrod straight, shoulders back, heels crashing into the parade-ground crushed rock, our drill instructor calling the cadence in that hard nasal singsong. Suddenly he gave us a halt, a right face and a parade rest. We were facing a ragtag platoon of new recruits, outfitted in ill-fitting new fatigues, freshly scalped and shaved and run through the nightmare processing of the first days, faces reflecting something between fright and despair, shifting from foot to foot, trying to remember which was left, which right, much as we had just a couple of months earlier.
Our drill instructor stood for a moment, swagger stick tapping his leg (some of us had had unpleasant encounters with that swagger stick), hard eyes sweeping over them.
“You people were watching my men,” he said to them in that rasping Southern-tinged monotone we’d come to loathe and fear. “You people do not look at my men. You people are s***. My men are Marines.”
He did a sharp left face, saluted his fellow drill instructor with his swagger stick and gave us a forward march. We never marched with more pride. And from that moment on, the fear and loathing were forgotten, and we gladly would have followed him into combat anywhere in the world. We were Marines.
A personal example, but one essentially re-enacted with each new platoon from the earliest days of the Marine Corps, and the effectiveness of this transformational process has been attested to by a variety of Americans, among them the historian William Manchester, in something very much like spiritual terms.
“This spiritual tone,” writes Aaron B. O’Connell, assistant professor of history at the United States Naval Academy and a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, “is commonplace in memoirists’ descriptions of Marine Corps boot camp. In the Marine Corps, the emphasis on spirituality pervades the ranks, from the lowest private to the highest general. ‘War,’ the Commandant of the Marine Corps said in 1943, ‘is about one fifth body, four fifths mind and spirit.’”
From the first days at boot camp, recruits are immersed in the history and legends of the Corps — from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, from Belleau Woods in World War I to Wake Island and Iwo Jima, from the Chosin Reservoir to Vietnam, where in the midst of widespread military deterioration, the Marine Corps kept its honor clean. Recruits are tutored in a history of valor and exceptional service, with an unbroken chain running down from the earliest days to the present, and everyone who has ever served is linked to it. (A boot camp treat: We were marched to an outdoor theater, told to sit at ease, the smoking lamp was lit, and we watched John Wayne as Sgt. Stryker in “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” a movie made, as Mr. O’Connell writes, with the active involvement of the Marine Corps.)
There are myth-making exaggerations in constructing the history — the ‘Devil Dogs’ nom de guerre may not have appeared in a 1918 German newspaper as claimed — but there is no exaggeration in the record of excellence in combat. Nor are the stories told only for unit morale and cohesion; they’re also aimed at society at large for purposes of simple survival.
Mr. O’Connell speaks of the “paranoia” that informs part of the Marines’ unique identity. But even paranoids can have real and powerful enemies, and in Washington, when he assumed the presidency, Harry Truman made it part of his stated policy to require unification of the services and eliminate the Corps.
Mr. O’Connell writes of how this was defeated by the Chowder Society, a small, elite group of Marine officers and communicators, sympathetic journalists and civilians who waged guerrilla warfare on Capitol Hill, winning enough legislative hearts and minds to defeat President Truman’s initiatives. They may have been underdogs in that battle. (Mr. O’Connell’s title, “Underdogs,” is a play on the perhaps apocryphal “Devil Dogs,” representing the Marine’s “skillful manipulation of their own image.”) But just as they’ve consistently won on the battlefields of war, often as underdogs, there’s no doubt that although greatly outgunned, they won a resounding victory on the legislative battlefield.
Later, they briefly encountered plans for unification under President Eisenhower, but during his administration, the Corps proved to be “one of the sharpest, swiftest tools of American military power,” a tool that he came to rely on, as have his successors. Today, despite the advent of nuclear weapons and various mechanized and computerized instruments of war, the Corps’ “force-in-readiness [has] become a principal military tool of American foreign relations and national defense.”
In the end, Mr. O’Connell concludes in this thoroughly researched and splendidly written book, “it has been the internal bonds of affection that explain the Corp’s cohesion in both the past and present,” as well as “an ideology of elitism, superiority, and paranoia elements that run through the powerful narratives of Marine exceptionalism today.”
“That ideology, which shares some similarities with narratives of American exceptionalism, has kept the Marines forever on the attack. Their sense of being a ‘David-like fighting unit’ engaging ‘Goliath-like enemies’ is a principal reason for their present-day success.”
As it will continue to be into the foreseeable future. Beyond that, there awaits a higher duty, which explains why service unification never can succeed:
“Should the Army and the Navy / Ever look on Heaven’s scenes, / They will find the Streets are guarded / By United States Marines.”
You could argue the “Marine’s Hymn” is not divinely inspired, of course. But try telling that to the Marines.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).