- - Wednesday, February 14, 2018


By Scott Laidig

Potomac Institute Press, $19.95, 422 pages

When Marines talk about the great commandants in the history of the Corps, Al Gray is always on the short list. The Marine commandant is as close to the papacy that America gets in the absolute exercise of authority; when the commandant says jump, the rest of the Corps only asks, “how high?” Very few commandants have used that power to reshape the Marine Corps as effectively or lastingly as Gen. Al Gray.

This book is the second volume in the trilogy of Gen. Gray’s biography. It covers his years as a field grade officer (major through colonel). It was a formative period of his life and goes a long way toward understanding the commandant he became.

The book period corresponds with the draw down from Vietnam and the final fall of South Vietnam. Gen. Gray was involved in virtually every event that the Marine Corps participated in, and also had a hand in many of the technological innovations in intelligence and military electronic warfare in those periods when he served outside the Corps. His observations on what the Marines were doing right and where the Corps needed improvements were the foundations of the innovations he would institute as Commandant in making profound changes to the way the Corps fights, trains and educates its Marines.

Scott Laidig is an experienced historian/author. In writing this biography, he is fortunate in that the subject and many of the key participants are still alive for interviews. The volume is well written and any military acronyms are clearly defined.

Gen. Gray’s career was unusual for a senior Marine Corps officer. He came up from the ranks and achieved a college degree late in life, but he read extensively. He saw combat in three military occupation specialties (intelligence, infantry, and artillery). Gen. Gray remains one of America’s foremost experts in signals intelligence, and has been one of the military’s leading advocates of the seamless integration of intelligence and military operations.

Gen. Gray pushed tirelessly for such fusion until the time he retired and beyond. The ability to quickly act on information gained from surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence is key to Gray’s push to implement maneuver warfare philosophy as the Marine Corps‘ combat doctrine.

The final years of the Vietnam War were the low point of the American military experience, and the Marine Corps was no exception. Drugs, racial violence, and lack of support or understanding from officials in Washington made leadership in that period extremely challenging.

The hostility from the anti-war crowd fueled by often unprofessional conduct by many in the media exacerbated an already bad situation. As an institution, the Marine Corps has largely succeeded in forgetting that period; but those of us who lived through it never will. Al Gray was one of a relatively few mid-grade commanders during that period able not only survive, but to excel.

As a battalion commander, Al Gray took over a deeply troubled organization that was preparing for a six-month Mediterranean deployment and turned it around through positive leadership. He was able to divest the unit of its worst elements such as racial agitators and the most flagrant drug users by deciding that he would rather be better off under strength than saddled with malcontents.

Later, as a colonel, he turned around the equally troubled Camp Hansen in Okinawa after finding it to be a racial “ticking time bomb.” I commanded Camp Hansen in the 1990s, and it is a challenge on a good day; what he did was nothing short of a miracle. Along the way, he also began the Marine Corps combined arms exercise program at Twentynine Palms which still continues today.

The climax and culmination of the book is Gen. Gray’s instrumental role in Operation Frequent Wind, the 1975 evacuation of Vietnam by Americans and many Vietnamese who had worked for us as Saigon crumbled under a North Vietnamese armored attack. Gen. Gray overcame seemingly insurmountable odds, to include an indecisive and delusional ambassador, in planning and executing one of the most fraught and frustrating military operations in American history.

A particular strength of the book is that the author begins each major chapter with a discussion of the political-military context in Washington and Vietnam that Gen. Gray was working in. It helps to understand the context of the times that this extraordinary individual lived through for those readers too young to have experienced them. The book will be of most use to military buffs and Marines, but others interested in history will enjoy it as well. I look forward to Volume 3.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who served as a senior State Department civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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