Permissible Arms

“…and every once in awhile, they let us out to attack someone.”

Posted in us military by Karaka on 21 June 2010

I’ve been working my way through Flags of Our Fathers for a little while, taking it a chunk of intensely patriotic moto narrative at a time. So I found it interesting that I had recently read this:

The Marines had until then been on the fringes of the American armed forces. Organized as an internal security and marksmen adjunct of the Navy in 1775, the Marine Corps had never played a significant role in American military history. As recently as the spring of 1940, the Marines had numbered only 25,000 enlisted men.

But by then, forward-thinking military strategists had long since perceived the coming importance of Marines in twentieth-century warfare.

It was in the early 1920s that a veteran Marine officer of World War I by the name of Holland M. Smith (nickname: Howlin’ Mad) assembled a team of officers to conceive the Marines’ mission. Smith, a man at once pugnacious, profane, and professorial, proposed that the business of mounting continental land offensive was the historic province of the Army, and should remain so. But the ominous stirrings in the Far East, Smith insisted, suggested that a great many American boys must soon be trained to master a more exacting array of combat skills. These skills would coalesce around the concept of amphibious warfare: troops disembarking from large ships, speeding toward enemy beaches under heavy fire, and charging ahead to enemy-held islands. Smith and his colleagues foresaw that the islands would be in the Pacific; the enemy, Japan (96).

and then caught this headline from the LA Times. U.S. rethinks a Marine Corps specialty–storming beaches:

Marines argue that amphibious operations encompass much more than Iwo Jima-style landings, referring to the U.S. assault on the Japanese island during World War II. In fact, most operations from the sea involve uncontested landings, including humanitarian relief missions and disaster response, including January’s earthquake in Haiti. Others call for evacuations of Americans from war zones, as the Marines did in Lebanon in 2006.

“When visualizing amphibious operations, some people default to Iwo Jima or Inchon, and those are not the operations we are contemplating in the future,” said Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn, the Marines’ deputy commandant for combat development.

Still, many officers concede that Gates has a point. The development of defensive technology means the Marines must rethink how they come ashore and avoid fortified beaches or landing zones.

But many Marines believe the ability to conduct amphibious landings is what makes them different. Take away their unique characteristics, and you take away the Marines’ reason for being.

“There is a paranoia, bred into every Marine, that the Marine Corps will be made to look like the Army, and then in lean times something will get cut — the ‘extra’ army,” said Emerson “Emo” Gardner, a retired lieutenant general who served as a close advisor to Gates.

Ahh, existential paranoia–not just limited to Middle Eastern countries that shall remain nameless. I do find it interesting that this critique is actually being undertaken now, in light of the last ten years of Marine warfare. But more than that, I think it speaks to a necessary internal review that the Marine Corps should undertake to revise and refine their mission and capabilities.

After all, Howlin’ Mad’s insight was to prepare twenty years in advance for a warfare model that came to fruition. Should the Marine Corps apply the same principle, it would strive to meet a similar far-off (or arguably more close) situation with different strictures and demands.

I get the argument that amphibious warfare has come to define the Marine Corps and its purpose in a foundational way. But can’t the Marines retain a uniqueness, a capability that stands them apart while reinforcing the idealism of being “America’s pitbull,” in the immortal words of Ray Person, while focusing on future probable engagement tactics?

(Also, Howlin’ Mad is the best nickname ever.)


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