A. Scott Piraino
The United states has two armies. Today we take this for granted, and don’t question the reasons for funding both the United States Army, and the United states Marine Corps. But it wasn’t always this way.
There were no Marines in the Continental Army that won the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War, Congress authorized less than 3,200 men for the Marine Corps, this while the Union Armies totaled nearly one million men. The fact is, for most of their history the United States Marine Corps was little more than a security force for the Navy.
The myth of the Marine Corps as a second army began in WW I. When the United states entered the war in 1917, over two million U.S. Army soldiers were deployed to France along with one brigade of marines, about ten thousand strong. Despite being a tiny fraction of the American forces fighting in WW I, the Marines managed to make a name for themselves at the U.S. Army’s expense.
General Pershing, the Commander of all U.S. Forces in France, had ordered a news blackout that prevented reporters from mentioning specific units in their dispatches. The purpose of the order was obvious; to prevent German intelligence from learning about American troop movements. But one reporter circumvented the order, a war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune named Floyd Gibbons.
After Mr. Gibbons was severely wounded at the battle of Belleau Wood, the press corps passed on his dispatches without the approval of Army censors. The result was a storm of press coverage in the US claiming that the Huns were being defeated with “the Help of God and a few Marines”. No mention was made of the thousands of Army soldiers who were fighting and dying with equal valor.
Floyd Gibbons made no secret of his “friendship and admiration for the U.S. Marines”. There is no proof that his writings created the mythology of the Marine Corps, but we do know he wrote a biography of Baron von Richthofen, more popularly known as the Red Baron. His description of the German aviator reads as propaganda, not journalism, and his other works were probably embellished as well.
Today all Marines in basic training are taught that German soldiers in WW I referred to them as “Devil Dogs”. H.L. Mencken, an American writing in 1921, clearly states that; “The Germans, during the war, had no opprobrious nicknames for their foes…Teufelhunde (devil-dogs), for the American marines, was invented by an American correspondent; the Germans never used it.”
In addition, there is the legend of “Bulldog Fountain”, where the U.S. Marine’s mascot originated. This fountain is located in the village of Belleau, not the wood of the same name. Although the Marines fought in Belleau Wood, the US Army’s 26th division liberated the village, three weeks after the Marines had left the area.
There is no documented evidence that Germans ever referred to Marines as “Devil dogs”, and the Marines never captured the village of Belleau with its “Bulldog Fountain”. It is not clear exactly where these stories come from, but their source is most likely Floyd Gibbons. Perhaps the Marines knew this, because they made him an honorary Marine posthumously in 1941.
Floyd Gibbons helped enhance the image of the Marines, but the United States Marine Corps as we know it today came of age in WW II. Most Americans believe that the Marine Corps won the war in the Pacific, while the US Army fought in Europe. In fact our Pacific operations were hampered by a conflict between the Army and the Navy, that split the theatre in two.
The Navy adamantly refused to place their fleet, (and their Marines), under the command of the Army. After five weeks of bureaucratic wrangling, General MacArthur was given command of the Southwest Pacific theatre, while Admiral Nimitz had jurisdiction over the remainder of the Pacific ocean. The result, in Macarthur’s own words, was a “divided effort, the… duplication of force (and) undue extension of the war with added casualties and cost”.
The US Army fought the main force of the Japanese Imperial Army in New Guinea and the Philippines. The Navy and Marines carried out an “island hopping” strategy that involved amphibious assaults on islands such as Guadalcanal and Saipan. General Macarthur complained bitterly to the President that “these frontal attacks by the Navy, as at Tarawa, are tragic and unnecessary massacres of American lives“.
By way of comparison, General Macarthur’s Army killed, captured, or stranded over a quarter of a million Japanese troops during the New Guinea campaign, at a cost of only 33,000 US casualties. The Navy and Marines suffered over 28,000 casualties to kill roughly 20,000 Japanese on Iwo Jima. Even then, the Army played a greater role than Marines like to admit; the Army had more divisions assaulting Okinawa than the Marines.
The famous image of Marines raising the US flag on Mount Suribachi is actually a photograph of the second, staged flag-raising ceremony. The Marines raised the flag a second time to replace the original, smaller flag, and to provide the press corps with a better photo opportunity. That photograph has become one of the most enduring images of WW II, and served as the model for the Marine Corps Memorial statue.
The Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was on Iwo Jima that morning in 1945, and when he saw the Stars and Stripes go up he declared; ‘The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years!”
In fact the Marine Corps was nearly legislated out of existence two years later. After the bureaucratic infighting that characterized inter-service relations during WW II, there was a strong desire among military professionals to unify the military commands. President Truman agreed, and in 1946 his administration proposed a bill to unify the separate service bureaucracies.
Having one budgetary authority for the Armed Forces, and one chain of command each for land forces, ships, and aircraft makes sense. But this would have placed the US Navy at a distinct disadvantage. The Navy had their own air wings aboard their carriers, and their own army, the Marine Corps.
The Navy and Marine Corps were determined to scuttle this legislation. Marine generals created a secret office code named the Chowder Society to lobby behind the scenes, (in opposition to their President and Commander in Chief), and thwart the unification bill before Congress. The Commandant of the Marine Corps even made an impassioned speech before Congress to plead for his separate service.
It worked. Congress rejected the Truman administration’s unification bill, and instead passed the National Security Act of 1947. This Act guaranteed separate services, with their own independent budgets, and was a victory for the Navy and Marine Corps.
In addition, the Marines succeeded in having their separate force structure written into the language of the legislation. It is very unusual for Congress to dictate the actual composition of a military service. Yet the National Security Act mandates that the Marines Corps must maintain “not less than three combat divisions and three aircraft wings and such land combat, aviation, and other services as necessary to support them“.
President Truman was furious, and military professionals were appalled. General Eisenhower characterized the Marines as “being so unsure of their value to their country that they insisted on writing into the law a complete set of rules and specifications for their future operations and duties. Such freezing of detail…is silly, even vicious.”
The war between the Army and Marines would get more vicious in Korea. On November 27th, 1950 a division of Marines 25,000 strong, was ordered to proceed along the west side of the Chosin reservoir, while a much smaller task force of 2500 Army troops went up the eastern side. Waiting for them were 120,000 troops of the Chinese Communist 9th Army Group.
The Army soldiers fought a running battle for three days against a Chinese force eight times their size, in temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees. Despite the death of two commanding officers, the task force lumbered south with over 600 dead and wounded soldiers loaded into trucks, fought through repeated ambushes, and was even mistakenly bombed by US Marine aircraft. Finally, just four miles from safety, the convoy was cut off by the Chinese and annihilated.
385 men made it to the safety of American lines by crossing the frozen Chosin Reservoir.
The First Marine Division, with the help of allied air power, managed to fight their way out of the Chinese encirclement. Marines claimed that the Army had disgraced itself, and passed on stories of US soldiers throwing down their weapons and feigning injuries. A Marine Chaplain even made statements to the press and wrote an article accusing army soldiers of cowardice.
There were so few officers and men left from the Army task force that the Marine’s claims were accepted as fact. But newly released Chinese documents prove otherwise. The Army task force fought bravely against overwhelming odds before being destroyed, and their stubborn defense bought time for the Marines to escape the encirclement.
Nevertheless, Marines to this day hold up the fight at the Chosin reservoir as proof of their superiority over the Army.
In Vietnam, a Marine regiment at Khe Sanh refused to come to the aid of a Special Forces outpost only four miles from their perimeter. On Febuary 7th, 1968, the camp at Lang Vei was overran by heavily armed North Vietnamese troops during an all-night battle. The Marines had earlier agreed to reinforce the camp in the event of an attack, but two requests for assistance were denied.
General Westmoreland himself had to order the Marines to provide helicopters for Special forces personnel, so they could be airlifted into the besieged outpost. By this time the post had been overrun, at a cost of 208 soldiers killed and another 80 wounded. Ironically, two months later this same Marine regiment would be besieged at Khe Sanh, and they would be relieved by Army troops of the First Cavalry Division.
During Operation Desert Storm 90,000 Marines attacked Iraqi forces alongside over 500,000 US Army and coalition troops. Yet the Marines garnered 75 percent of the newsprint and TV coverage. This was not an accident.
The Commanding General of the Marines in Iraq, Gen. Walt Boomer, was the former Director of Public Affairs for the Corps. He issued the following order to Marine units in the theater:
“CMC [Commandant of the Marine Corps, then General A. M. Gray] desires maximum media coverage of USMC … The news media are the tools through which we can tell Americans about the dedication, motivation, and sacrifices of their Marines. Commanders should include public affairs requirements in their operational planning to ensure that the accomplishments of our Marines are reported to the public.“
During the war Marine officers used military communications systems to transmit stories for reporters in the field, and even assigned personnel to carry press dispatches to rear areas. The Marine Commander also had his own entourage of reporters complete with satellite uplinks, and used them to good effect. He received far more air time than his Army counterparts.
The US Army performed a “Hail Mary” operation that trapped Iraq’s Republican Guard divisions and fought numerous running battles in the Iraqi desert. But no one saw them. Instead the press focused on Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer parading triumphantly through the streets of Kuwait City.
When George Bush the Second launched his misguided invasion of Iraq, the Marines were once again included, and this time the goal was Baghdad. The invasion, which began on March 20th, 2003, called for a two pronged assault on Baghdad. The Army’s 5th Corps would advance from the desert west of the Euphrates river, while the First Marine division was ordered to cross the Euphrates and make a parallel advance through central Iraq.
The invasion did not go well for the Marines. In several cities, including Umm al Qasr and Nasiriya, their units suffered heavy casualties fighting remnants of the Iraqi Army and fedayeen guerrillas. Since the Marines had fewer armored vehicles, and they were exposed to a more tenacious enemy, their progress was slower than the Army’s.
Major General Mattis, the commanding general of the Marines in Iraq, was not pleased. He repeatedly pressured his regiments to make greater speed, and this pressure grew more intense as the Marines lagged further behind Army units. On the morning of April 3rd, the First Marine Regiment, commanded by Colonel Dowdy, was ordered to drive to the town of al-Kut.
The city was another choke point, where Iraqi fedayeen guerrillas could ambush Marine convoys in city streets. As soon as his Marines reached the city, they began taking fire. Colonel Dowdy could not forget the mauling another regiment had received in Nasiriya, where 17 Marines were killed and another seventy were wounded.
He had to make a choice. His orders were to proceed to al-Kut, but the decision to push through or bypass the town was up to him. However, Colonel Dowdy was receiving mixed signals from his superiors. According to him “there was a lot of confusion”, some officers were recommending an attack, others urged withdrawal.
Colonel Dowdy decided to bypass al-Kut. His regiment would take an alternative route to Baghdad that was safer, but the detour of 170 miles meant that the Marines fell further behind schedule. Colonel Dowdy‘s superiors were furious with his decision.
After the withdrawal from al-Kut, General Mattis and other staff officers let the Colonel know that his regiment was to make greater speed. That night on the road to Baghdad, vehicles of the First Marine Regiment were ordered to drive the highways of Iraq with their headlights on, irregardless of security. But their progress was not good enough, the Army‘s Fifth Corps had already reached Baghdad.
Colonel Joe Dowdy was relieved of his command the following day. The Marine Corps will never admit it, but he was fired because he failed to carry out the Corps most important mission in Iraq: Colonel Dowdy failed to upstage the US Army by being the first to reach Baghdad.
The Marines would return to Iraq one year later, when the First Marine Expeditionary Force assumed responsibility for Al Anbar province, which includes the city of Fallujah.
During the change of command ceremony Lt. Gen. James T. Conway of the I MEF proclaimed that; “Although Marines don’t normally do nation-building, they will tell you that once given the mission, nobody can do it better.” The Marines took control of the area from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and they made no secret of their distain for the Army’s strategy in Iraq.
Before deploying, General Conway had told the New York Times “I don’t envision using that tactic“, when asked about Army troops using air strikes against the insurgents. “I don’t want to condemn what [Army] people are doing. I think that they are doing what they think they have to do.”
On March 30th, General Conway told a reporter that “There’s no place in our area of operation that we won’t go, and we have taken some casualties in the early going making that point“. The next day four civilian contractors were killed and mutilated in Fallujah, and five Marines also lost their lives. The Marines sealed off the city and attempted to reassert control over Fallujah, but the insurgents proved to be more determined than expected.
When their patrols came under heavy fire the lightly armed Marines had only two choices; Fight it out with the insurgents on foot, or call in artillery and air strikes. The inevitable result was scores of Marines killed or wounded, and hundreds of civilian casualties. The world was appalled by the carnage in Fallujah, and the Marines were called off.
While Marines were fighting in Fallujah, the US Army was heavily engaged against militiamen loyal to Muqtata al-Sadr in cities throughout Iraq. But in contrast to the Marine’s failure to recapture Fallujah, the US Army’s heavy armored vehicles could enter hostile cities with impunity. They brought al-Sadr to heel after two months of fighting, while suffering relatively few casualties.
An uneasy truce was made between the US Army and al-Sadr’s militia, that would last until the Marines again became involved. On July 31st 2004, the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit replaced Army units in the holy city of Najaf, headquarters of Muqtata al-Sadr. Just five days later, al-Sadr’s militia would again be waging open war against the US, and the Marines would be calling for reinforcements.
The Marines began skirmishing with al-Sadr’s militiamen as soon as they were given responsibility for Najaf. After the uprising in April, US Army units had avoided driving past al-Sadr’s house as part of the informal truce, but this would not do for the Marines. The second Shia uprising began after Marines in Najaf provoked al-Sadr by driving their patrols right up to his stronghold.
A firefight ensued, and al-Sadr’s militiamen took up arms in cities throughout Iraq in a replay of the uprising in April. The Marines had not just picked a fight with Muqtada in Najaf, they had engaged his militia in an ancient cemetery that abutted the Imam Ali Mosque, Shiite Islam’s holiest shrine. And they did this without informing the Army chain of command, or the Iraqi government.
According to Maj. David Holahan, second in command of the Marine unit in Najaf, “We just did it”. But in a replay of the Fallujah assault, the Marines faced an enemy that they were not prepared for. Within hours of launching their attack on August 5th, the Marines were pinned down, and requesting assistance.
Unfortunately for the Marines, their rash attack on al-Sadr’s headquarters had sparked another revolt by his militiamen. Army units were once again fighting the Mahdi army in cities throughout Iraq. When the Army’s Fifth Cavalry Regiment received orders to reinforce the beleaguered Marines, they were deployed against al-Sadr’s militia in the outskirts of Bagdhad, 120 miles away.
The Fifth Cavalry arrived in Najaf after a two day drive through insurgent controlled territory. By then any opportunity to capture al-Sadr had been lost, because the press, and the Islamic world, were focused on the Imam Ali Mosque and the adjacent cemetery. Any attack on Shiite Islam’s holiest shrine, where Muqtata al-Sadr was holed up, would have had disastrous consequences for the US war effort.
In Fallujah and Najaf, inexperienced Marine units picked fights with insurgents, and in both cases ended up handing the enemy a strategic victory. Their failure to recapture Fallujah made the city a rallying cry for Islamic militarism worldwide, (that is until the second US assault rendered Fallujah uninhabitable). The Marine’s botched attempt to capture Muqtata al-Sadr has only strengthened his hand.
Today there are 23,000 Marines in Iraq, out of a total 138,000 U.S. Armed Forces personnel. Marines are 17 percent of our total force, yet they have suffered 29 percent of all U.S. casualties; 530 of the more than 1,820 U.S. service personnel killed in Iraq. The Marine’s aggressive tactics combined with a lack of armored firepower has proven lethal, their bravery notwithstanding.
The United States Marines pride themselves on being better than the US Army. They are harder, more gung-ho, and they possess some magic that enables them to do things the US Army can’t do. If this is not true, (as recent events in Iraq suggest), then there is no reason for a separate Marine Corps.
President Harry Truman once stated that Marines; “Have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s.” The Marines have always advertised themselves, but in Truman’s day, they at least had something to sell. The original raison d’etre of the USMC was their ability to carry out amphibious landings on hostile beaches.
The truth is, the US Army conducted the biggest amphibious assault in our nation’s history when they captured the Normandy beaches. And neither the Army or the Marines have assaulted an enemy held beach since the Korean war, over fifty years ago. In every subsequent conflict Soldiers and Marines have fought in the same way, using similar equipment and tactics.
The Marines are in fact a second Army, and since they compete with the Army for funds, missions, and prestige, their real enemy is… the US Army.
However, the Marine Corps has an unfair advantage in this competition. Since the end of Desert Storm the US Army has been downsized by one third, losing over 200,000 troops and eight combat divisions. By Contrast the Marines have lost only twenty thousand personnel. The reason is the National Security Act of 1947, which prevents any changes in the force structure of the Marines.
Today’s United States Marine Corps is only slightly larger than the US Army in Iraq. That war is stretching our Army to the breaking point. The obvious solution is to merge the Army and Marine corps into one service.
The savings would add up to tens of billions of dollars when their training, logistics, administration, and headquarters were merged. The personnel shortages that are now crippling both services would disappear. And so would the rivalry between the Army and the Marine Corps.