From modest beginnings — 350 men and officers organized in 1775 to serve aboard U.S. Navy ships — to today's 175,000-strong "force of readiness," the United States Marine Corps is usually first in battle when our country goes to war. The Marines are the nation's 911 force, with two Marine expeditionary units sailing aboard ships somewhere in the world at all times, ready to strike when the president orders them into action.
Military historian James A. Warren recaps the history of the Leathernecks in a new book called "American Spartans," a reference to the legendary warriors of ancient Sparta. The subtitle of the book, "The U.S. Marines: A Combat History from Iwo Jima to Iraq," appropriately defines the role the Marines have played in many significant combat victories in the past 60 years, right up to today's struggle in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iwo Jima was the defining moment for the Marines. Some 30,000 American fighting men stormed the beaches of the desolate volcanic island-fortress on Feb. 19, 1945, and spent the next 36 days in ferocious combat against 22,000 battle-hardened Japanese troops. More than 6,800 Marines and Navy personnel died taking Iwo Jima from the Japanese. All but 200 Japanese troops died defending the island. The raising of the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi remains one of the most memorable images of World War II.
"To have fought at Iwo Jima is to have taken part in the battle that cost more Marine lives than any other," Warren writes. "Iwo figures in the American popular imagination as the defining battle of the Marine Corps, for it showcased in dramatic fashion all the qualities we think when we utter the words 'United States Marine'."
Warren tries to present an objective history of the Marines, but you sense the admiration he has for the men and women who make up the Corps throughout the book. He concludes, correctly, that no branch of the military has done so much with so little as the Marine Corps.
For the longest time, the Marines were considered a stepchild to the Army and Navy and later, even the Air Force. The Marine Corps would go through long stretches of neglect by the Pentagon, especially from 1953, the end of the Korean War, to 1965, when full-scale deployment of Marines to Vietnam began.
In addition to the caliber and dedication of the men and women who serve in it, much of the success of the Marine Corps has been its adaptability and resiliency.
The Marines emphasize flexibility in weapons and tactics, adapting with changing technology and battlefields. The Corps is the smallest of the military branches and has kept its edge because, as Warren points out, the Marine Corps "has always had to fight for its place at the table" and the Corps has shown repeatedly that it "has been better at adapting than its sister services."
The world remains a dangerous place. The Marines are as critical today at projecting U.S. military power as they were 60 years ago when they stormed the beaches of Pacific islands. Between 1990 and 1997, U.S. forces were deployed 36 times (compared to 22 deployments between 1980 and 1989), according to Warren. "The U.S Marines have been the force of choice in the majority of these deployments," Warren writes.
The author skims through some of the low points in the Corps' history, including the 1982 deployment of Marines to Lebanon by President Reagan to prevent more bloodshed in the Lebanese civil war. On Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives into the Marines' makeshift barracks at Beirut International Airport, killing 241 Marines as they slept. Warren never fully explains the mistakes made in using America's best fighting force for some undefined peacekeeping role.
Another mishandling of the Marines came in Somalia in 1993 when President Clinton sent Marines to help with distribution of humanitarian aid in the middle of another civil war. This deployment resulted in the deaths of eight Marines and brought about the poorly planned engagement of Army Delta Force troops and Rangers chronicled in the book and film, "Blackhawk Down." Eighteen U.S. Rangers were killed in Somalia before Clinton pulled out all U.S. forces.
An important lesson gleamed from the book is that the Marines are at their best when they have a defined mission and are led by military commanders on the ground, not civilian politicians in Washington, D.C.
One of the best passages in Warren's book sums up the respect and admiration most Americans have for the Marine Corps:
"In the end, the awesome power of the U.S. Marines comes not from their rifles, their hovercrafts, their F-18s, or their nine regiments of infantry, but from the proud and resilient hearts of all Marines, past and present, warriors united in their commitment of the five-syllable Latin expression seen in the banner above the eagle on their emblem: Semper Fidelis. Its English translation: Always Faithful."
E-mail Tony Phyrillas at firstname.lastname@example.org