As Citizens you have a right, and I would submit a duty, to have some understanding of what the Marine Corps is about. You are, after all, paying for it.
For my non-American readers I think you too, can benefit from exposure to this unique organization, The United States Marine Corps.
Earlier this month about 40 of us old Marines showed up for the 50th Anniversary reunion of my USMC Basic School Class. The reunion included trips/visits to Marine Corps Base Quantico, to Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, DC, and to the Museum of the Marine Corps. We were able to have a number of interactions with current active duty Marines.
I want to share my take-a ways from the visit.
While I have included a few of my Marine buddies on the notification list for this Blog Post, my assumption is that the majority of you reading this do not have much direct experience with the military, much less with the Marines.
Most of you know that I joined the Marines in 1967 and served with them in Vietnam. I assume that you know this since I only direct and promote this Blog to friends and relatives. If you don’t know me personally, I will try and give you enough of my background so that you have some idea of where I am coming from.
For you Marines, especially those of you who attended the recent reunion of The Basic School Class 7-68, please call BS on me if you think I am overstating, overlooking, or misinterpreting my take-a ways from our recent re-exposure to the Marine Corps.
Take Away # 1 – Things Have Changed
As the tour bus carrying our group of old Marines and spouses pulled in to The Basic School parking lot at Quantico there were three Marines doing physical training; pull ups, push ups, etc. One of the Marines jumped up on the big 25 foot hanging rope and quickly ascended to the top with seemingly no effort. Almost all of the old Marines and their wives saw this Marine and were impressed and nodded approvingly as she slid down the rope and ran off in step with her male counterparts.
All but two of the 250 of us who attended The Basic School together in 1968 were white men. That is who were officers in the Marine Corps at that time. Of the hundreds of Marine Officers I came in contact with during my 4 years in the Marines (1967-1971), I only remember personally meeting one African-American Marine officer and that was in Vietnam.
There were women Marine Officers who also trained at Quantico when we were there, but they were totally separated from us – I don’t remember ever meeting any. The women officers did not attend The Basic School, they had a separate course of their own somewhere else on the base. As I recall it, the women 2nd lieutenants had to salute their male counterparts of the same rank – at least while at Quantico. Although many women served as Marine officers during that era, my guess is that is was a very small percentage of the total.
Today the scene at The Basic School is quite different. The Corps is more representative of America. There are Marine officers of color and the training is fully integrated for men and women.
The Marines even recently graduated one female from the very difficult Infantry Officers Course. Very few women will likely serve as Marine Infantry Platoon Leaders, but the door is open for those exceptional women who can complete the extremely difficult physical and mental course. The reality is that many men would not make the cut in the Infantry Officer Course either and will serve in other specialties, like communications, as I did.
I didn’t take notes during the visit, but I understand that about 20% of Marine Corps Officers today are non-white. This is certainly different from our society as a whole, but it is a big change from 50 years ago.
The face of war has also changed. In 1968 lieutenants primarily made tactical decisions relating to deployment of their Marines. These were often life and death decisions.
One of the changes that I took notice of is that now Marine lieutenants and captains deployed to the middle east are still making those life or death tactical decisions. But in addition, they might well be the senior military presence in a small remote village and often have to work closely with a wide array of local military forces.
This forces junior officers into the position of having to make, in addition to tactical and leadership decisions, strategic and ethical decisions about interactions with local civilians without the benefit or help of senior officers. A lot is being asked of today’s young officers.
And of course the technology has greatly advanced. During our sit-down dinner, we had a very comprehensive review of new technology by our keynote speaker, Major General Niel Nelson, from the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. In his current role, General Nelson is the deputy commander of the organization within the Marine Corps that evaluates and procures new equipment and weapons systems for the Marine Corps.
As you might guess there are technological advances worthy of the latest super-hero or action-adventure movies, but of course these are real. This aspect did not really surprise me, nor did the cost. Again, I did not take notes, but I did hear a lot of people murmur “wow” when the General quoted the costs of the new equipment. The cold hard truth is that if you want the very best equipment, it is going to cost.
We got to see, and try out, one of the new simulated small weapons ranges while at The Basic School. This range uses real rifles, machine guns, and anti-tank weapons that have been modified to be used with a gigantic video screen simulating various combat situations. The weapons recoil and function in a manner similar to their “real” counterparts, but the “rounds” are electronic and you can see them hit (or miss) their targets on the giant screen. I tried out one of the machine guns and found that my marksmanship skills are certainly not up to par.
The Marines still use live fire ranges of course, but this simulated range affords much more opportunity for Marines to familiarize themselves with the weapons, improve their skills at a small fraction of the cost of live ammunition. A single anti-tank round today costs about a thousand dollars so you get the idea.
I was also reminded of the lethality of the weapons that Marines carry and must be trained to use. While they still use a version of the M-16 that was used in Vietnam, today they are trained on a much wider range of modern weaponry.
During our tour of Quantico we also got to visit HMX-1, the aviation unit at Quantico which provides the Marine One helicopter that carries the President. We got to visit one of the hangers and talk with some of the pilots. On the walls were pictures of all of the Presidents back to Eisenhower boarding or un-boarding one of the Marine helicopters.
The pilots were very personable and articulate and you could tell that they took their job and responsibility very seriously. The unit also provides aviation support for other Marine operations in the DC area including training missions at Quantico. In addition to the Marine One helicopters (there are actually several) this aviation unit flies the V22 vertical takeoff aircraft. The V22 has become the workhorse for transporting Marines and equipment.
Another aspect that has changed is that the Marine Corps now provides additional training for those officers most likely to engage in combat, the Infantry officers, or as we used to call them, the grunts.
When we graduated from The Basic School in 1968, those assigned to the Infantry went directly to infantry platoons in Vietnam. Many were killed, often soon after arriving. I don’t know the statistics off the top of my head, but there is no doubt in my mind that the these officers had the most dangerous assignments. I certainly respected them and saw them as a few among the few. What I also believe is that they were not given enough training prior to being deployed in the nitty gritty aspects of leading an infantry platoon in combat. All of us at The Basic School were provided this training, but I know for sure I would not have been ready for those assignments.
Fortunately the Infantry officers today receive an extra 13 weeks of training at the Infantry Officers Course (The one mentioned above) at 29 Palms in California. By accounts it is one of the toughest courses in the military, on par with Army Ranger and Navy Seal training. I’ll leave that debate as to which is tougher to others, but suffice it to say it is a comprehensive exhausting course which should better prepare these officers for combat. No amount of training can make one fully ready for combat, but the Marines seem to be addressing an important need.
Times have changed indeed.
Take Away # 2 – Things Have Not Changed
On the other hand, the basic essence of being a Marine does not seem to have changed much at all.
At The Basic School we observed marshal arts training. We got a briefing by a really gung-ho retired colonel who now leads the marshal arts program there. He and his Marine demonstrators were pretty impressive. The Marines have modernized some of the terminology and now issue different color belts for achieving higher levels of proficiency, much like what civilian marshal arts instructors do.
At the end of the presentation, however, I did not see that much difference in purpose from the hand -o-hand combat and bayonet training that I received at boot camp at Parris Island as an enlisted Marine and again at OCS and The Basic School as a candidate or newly minted second lieutenant. There is still a strong emphasis on building a warrior mindset and building self-confidence. Make no mistake about it; even though these are outwardly very respectful and clean cut young men and women, these Marines are still being trained to kill if necessary.
All of the men who I served with at The Basic School in 1968 had chosen to be there. We all knew full well that we were going to Vietnam. It is also undeniably true that, since almost all officers were primarily from the middle to upper-middle class, we could have chosen an easier/safer path as did most of our non-Marine contemporaries whether they served in the Military or not.
The Marines today also know full well that they will likely be serving in combat at some time in the not too distant future. They also realize that, unlike most of their Vietnam era counterparts (Us old guys), they will probably serve multiple tours whereas most of us only did one tour in Vietnam.
The draft ended in 1973, so these Marines, like all service men and women who have served during the last 4 decades have been volunteers. Having spent the vast majority of my own 29 years of military service mostly in administrative personnel positions in the Army, I can testify that there are “volunteers”, and then there are “VOLUNTEERS.” These young Marines, like Navy Seals, Army Rangers, and Air Force Special Ops persons all fall into the later category.
They have chosen a path that is difficult and dangerous like virtually every Marine before them.
The Marines we met talked a lot about tradition. The Marines, both officers and enlisted, were respectful, articulate, well informed, and positively focused on their duty and mission.
I am not naive to the fact that the Marine Corps certainly hand picked the women and men we came in contact with during our tours of Quantico and the Marine Barracks at Eighth and Eye in DC. Nor am I blind to the fact that not all Marines are admirable. We had some bad actors in the Marine Corps in 1968 and I have no doubt that there are some today as well among the 180,000 plus on active duty around the world.
But the culture of the Marine Corps seems sound and I believe that the overwhelming majority of Marines today are more than deserving of our respect and support. Traditions of honor, character, honesty, and professionalism have endured and, I might add, seem stronger than they were at the height of the Vietnam War when I served.
While today’s Marines have much better equipment, weapons, communications and all sorts of air support available to them, the really crucial life and death decisions are still made at the squad (13 Marines) or platoon (about 44 including a Navy Corpsman) led by junior NCOs and Officers. These Marine leaders have to be women and men of character as well as being warriors.
Take Away # 3 – We Should be Grateful
I know that some among you reading this post are pacifists and don’t have much use for aggressive military action of any kind, much less war. I respect that desire for peace, and I venture to surmise most Marines share your dislike of war.
I believe, however, that humans have not yet come anywhere near the levels freedom and justice that would allow us to live safely and securely without a strong military capability. The Marines represent a major portion of that capability for the United States.
During the reunion we also got to visit the Museum of the Marine Corps. It is one of many wonderful National Museums in the greater Washington, DC area and I strongly recommend it. This was my third visit to this museum and this time we spent quite a bit of time in the WW1 exhibit which details the Battle of Belleau Wood which was fought near the Marne River in France in 1918. The exhibit brings home the gravity of the sacrifices of the Marines who fought and died there. Even 100 years later the “reasons” for WW1 are not clear.
I was saddened to think that we as a Nation could put today’s fine young men and women Marines at risk without really good reasons. It worries me that only a very few of the political leaders making decisions that could cost Marines their lives have any military service themselves. Most have no more than a cursory understanding of what these fine young men and women Marines are all about or the consequences of deploying them unnecessarily.
It is one thing to boast about how strong our military is and to threaten adversaries in a display of false bravado. It is quite a different thing to have the experience that tempers bravado with wisdom and true physical, mental, and moral strength.
As Eisenhower guided the graduating cadets at the West Point graduation in 1947, “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men. Though you follow the trade of the warrior, you do so in the spirit of Washington — not of Genghis Khan. For Americans, only threat to our way of life justifies resort to conflict.”
Fortunately we do have a number of senior leaders within the military today with combat experience who, like Eisenhower, temper the warrior spirit with wisdom and character.
There are dictators, strongmen, and tyrants in the world who daily impose their will upon their peoples for their personal gain of power and wealth. There are also zealots of many backgrounds who would impose their singular views on the rest of us using any means necessary.
We can argue about exactly who these people are and why they do what they do, but their existence is undeniable. This was true in 1918 and it is true today: There is still evil in the world.
Like it or not, we need the Marines.
But this post is not about politics, it is about the reality that we as Americans are blessed that we still have young men and women of character and courage willing to risk their lives to support our democracy.
We are very lucky to have them in today’s United States Marine Corps.