Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Marines: 235 Years of Individual Valor and Institutional Adaptation

The Marines: 235 Years of Individual Valor and Institutional Adaptation

One of Philadelphia’s often overlooked historical points is that the city is the birthplace of this Nation’s Corps of Marines. It was here, on November 10, 1775, that the Second Continental Congress voted to establish two battalions of Marines. It was here that the first Marine commandant, Major Samuel Nicholas, was commissioned and began creating what ultimately became a legendary fighting force. Nicholas was a local Quaker innkeeper, and graduated from the Philadelphia Academy (now the University of Pennsylvania). He started recruiting in the popular Tun Tavern, and raised five companies of “leathernecks” for duty with the embryonic U.S. Navy in the Revolution. With little funding (a trend that has not changed), the Marines established a reputation for discipline, adaptability, and flexibility at sea, in the surf, or in battles far from shore. This reputation has been sustained and burnished for the past decade.

Speaking in San Francisco in August, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates defined the present as one “of great challenge and change for America’s military and an important point in the history of the United States Marine Corps.” The Secretary noted that it has been nearly nine years since Task Force 58, led by then Brigadier General James Mattis, was lifted into the Afghanistan desert from ships more than 400 miles away. In keeping with their motto, “First to Fight,” Mattis’ Marines established our first conventional foothold in Afghanistan after 9/11.

That day in 2001 began nearly a decade of continuous combat for our nation’s military. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, Marines-as intended by our country’s elected leaders-responded rapidly and effectively to an ambiguous and dangerous situation. In both conflicts, the Marines have been handed some of the dirtiest tasks and roughest neighborhoods in which to work. The battles for Ramadi and Fallujah in Al Anbar province bore witness to some of the most vicious and brutal urban fighting in military history, adding further streamers to the Corps’ battle color. However, these same Marines then restored Iraqi governance and assisted international development experts with stabilizing the area, transforming the one-time epicenter of Sunni resistance and hotbed of al Qaeda recruiting before they withdrew last year. Now, in Afghanistan, nearly 20,000 Marines are in the thick of the fight to clear the Taliban out of Helmand Province, operating far from the littoral but certainly in an austere and complex operating environment.

Gates noted that a decade of war has taken the Marines far from the sea and their traditional working relationship with the U.S. Navy. Many Marines are concerned that, having functioned for years as a so-called “second land army,” they might be perceived as redundant when the two current operations wind down and the Defense Department’s accountants begin looking for efficiencies. The Marine Corps’s leaders are fully aware of the need for prevailing against today’s persistent irregular enemies, but are equally aware that this focus has detracted from the Corps’s readiness for the amphibious mission that has been the Corps’ traditional forte. Today’s Marines are as battle-hardened as any in Marine Corps history, but many have never stepped aboard a ship, much less planned or executed an operation from a sea base.

Secretary Gates went on to note that as an expeditionary force in readiness, the Marines would occasionally find themselves, as they did in Korea in the 1950s, in the rice paddies of Vietnam in the 1960s, and in Kuwait’s desert in 1991, serving as a second land army. In recognizing that the Corps might believe their budget is vulnerable right now, Mr. Gates also suggested that the emerging security environment is well suited to the Corps core competencies. “The Marines unique ability to project combat forces from the sea under uncertain circumstances,” he said, “…forces quickly able to protect and sustain themselves-is a capability that America has needed in this past decade, and will require in the future.”

So the future looks bright for the Marines even within the context of today’s larger Defense debate. Drawing from the Secretary again:

Ultimately, the maritime soul of the Marine Corps needs to be preserved, notwithstanding the imperatives of today’s wars. This institutional challenge is not unique to the Marines. All of the military services have been challenged to find the right balance between preserving what is unique and valuable in their traditions, while at the same time making the changes needed to win the wars we are in and prepare for likely future threats in the years and decades to come.

To find to an answer to this challenge, Mr. Gates has asked the Marine Corps to determine what an “expeditionary-force-in-readiness” should look like in the twenty-first century. As many security analysts have noted, the ongoing changes in the character of modern conflict present a more complex future and a broad range of scenarios across the spectrum of combat with increased lethality. The Secretary suggested that this emerging world is tailor made for the Marines, as long as they preserve the Corps’ broad portfolio of capabilities.

The willingness of Marines to adapt to the future instead of clinging to the past is a given. Of all the Services, perhaps only the Corps cannot be accused of wanting to “refight the last war” or of ignoring the future. During World War I, the Marines mounted an expeditionary brigade, pulled together from a number of ships and naval installations. The German divisions that tangled with this “pick up team” at the battle of Belleau Wood in 1918, limped away in disarray, awed by the tenacious Marines they called “Devil Dogs.”

But instead of resting on these laurels, the Marines moved on to 20 years of guerrilla warfare in Central America. They formally collected the lessons from these conflicts into the “Small Wars Manual,” a guide to irregular conflict that is still in print (and in demand) today. They also looked ahead to the emergence of rising powers in Asia, and the critical importance of securing advanced bases as part of the Navy’s war plans should conflict arise across the Pacific. Instead of focusing on Europe, the Marines immersed themselves in developing the basic amphibious doctrine, equipment and organizations that would be needed in the Pacific campaigns of World War II. If a few Marine visionaries had not possessed the foresight to create that amphibious expertise, the campaigns to re-enter Europe and throw back Imperial Japan would have been vastly more costly.

After World War II-though the Marines were drastically reduced in size-they still maintained their future orientation. They took stock of the specter of nuclear weapons and reexamined their doctrine. They created new concepts for “vertical envelopment,” envisioning the use of helicopters to support maneuver and logistical support over great distances. In “Operation Bumblebee,” in Korea in 1951, the Marines demonstrated that these concepts were indeed feasible in combat. The Marines’ performance in Korea-rapidly responding to the defense of the Pusan Perimeter and their epic withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir under fire from a vastly more numerous enemy-validated America’s faith in its national force-in-readiness.

The Marines preserved both their amphibious warfighting skills after Korea, landing in Lebanon in 1958, in Vietnam in 1965, and in Santo Domingo later that same year. During the long fight in Vietnam, against both the conventional North Vietnamese Army and the more elusive Viet Cong, the Marines developed innovative tactics to offset the communist-based revolution, including techniques now used in today’s irregular campaigns.

After Vietnam, the Marines reestablished their exacting standards and recruit training regimen, while polishing their Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) doctrine. To ensure greater responsiveness to crises, they established maritime prepositioning ships to enable them to respond rapidly to conflicts before they erupted. They also exploited remotely piloted vehicles in the 1980s before they were fashionable, and developed the revolutionary tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey to support creative amphibious concepts (urged by then Secretary of the Navy John Lehman on both items). The efficacy of the MAGTF and maneuver warfare doctrine of the 1980s were ably demonstrated in Operation Desert Shield/Storm when the Marines sliced through the Iraqi defenses and liberated Kuwait city while General Norman Schwarzkopf’s famous deep “left hook” crushed Saddam’s main force.

After that demonstration of combined arms warfare in a desert, the Marines did not step back and refashion themselves into a mechanized force. Instead they foresaw a future in which urban chaos in the developing world, along the littoral rimlands, would become more frequent and more disruptive to U.S. policy interests. General Charles Krulak’s “three block war” and Strategic Corporal concepts gave the Marines a head start in getting ready for nasty forms of irregular conflict and stability operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The American people need not worry about the Marines becoming complacent. In fact, the foregoing reveals a track record of rigorous self-evaluation and steady adaptation. The latest successor to Samuel Nicholas, General James Amos, 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, recently issued guidance for shaping tomorrow’s force. He emphasized the need for readiness to embrace change as well as fidelity to the Corps’ enduring values. “The spirit of innovation and fidelity form the foundation of our Corps,” he noted but “new challenges, requiring the same spirit of innovation and institutional flexibility, await us.”

As an institution, the Marine Corps has focused on being ready whenever the Nation has asked it to respond. Being ready also requires innovative thinking about new challenges, developing new capabilities, technologies, or operational concepts as needed. If past is prologue, we can be confident the Marines will be at the front once again in the years ahead. The Corps has an uncanny ability to anticipate problems and a matchless record of institutional success. The title “Marine” has become synonymous with victory, discipline, and continuous institutional adaptation. It’s quite a record. So if you happen to know a Marine, wish him a Happy Birthday.


The Marines: Premier Expeditionary Warriors, by Frank G. Hoffman, ENOTES, November 2007


Teaching about the Military: Some Basics, by Paul Herbert, FOOTNOTES, May 2007


Iwo Jima and the Future of the Marine Corps, by Mackubin T. Owens, ENOTES, February 2005


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