View Full Version : Defining what it means to be a Marine

11-08-05, 05:36 PM
Defining what it means to be a Marine

By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

As we celebrate the Corps' 230th birthday, I find myself reflecting on what it means to be a Marine: How do we define the overall experience?

Moreover, what does the Marine Corps mean to outsiders, both friends and foes? Fifty-five years ago last month, China's premier Mao Zedong grappled with this very issue as Red Army soldiers crossed the Yalu River into North Korea and prepared to attack elements of the 1st Marine Division near the Chosin Reservoir. Mao knew that engaging American ground forces would be dangerous. Even more unsettling was the fact that the lead elements of those forces were two Marine regiments.

"It seems not enough for our four divisions to surround and annihilate [the 1st Marine Division's] two regiments," Mao said to Gen. Song Shilun, commander of the Chinese 9th Army Group. "You should have one or two more divisions as a reserve force." Mao's directive was a veritable death contract on the heads of the 5th and 7th Regiments of the 1st MarDiv, which he added had the highest combat effectiveness of any division in the U.S. armed forces. But the contract would not be fulfilled.

During that same war, a captured North Korean army officer confessed, "Panic sweeps my men when they are facing the American Marines." A British army officer, observing U.S. Marines in Korea, reported, "Marines have the swagger, confidence and hardness that must have been in Stonewall Jackson's Army of the Shenandoah." And Army Maj. Gen. Frank Lowe admitted, "The safest place in Korea was right behind a platoon of Marines. Lord, how they could fight!"

This Marine reputation has often served senior American military commanders as a force multiplier. But it is far more.

All Marine recruits are familiar with the story of their World War I forebears who attacked a line of German machine-gun nests during the Battle of Belleau Wood. The fighting was bitter, ultimately hand-to-hand, and Marines became known to their enemies - and the world - as "devil dogs."

Seventy-three years later, the descendants of those devil dogs became "Angels of Death" to their Iraqi foes in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It was enough to tie up more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti coast in anticipation of a landing - that would never take place - by 17,000 Marines offshore.

Best-selling author Tom Clancy referred to this dynamic as something beyond simply reputation and standing. "Marines are mystical," he wrote in "Marine: A Guided Tour of a Marine Expeditionary Unit." "They have magic" that "may well frighten potential opponents more than the actual violence Marines can generate in combat."

This is true. And it cuts three ways: Terrifying to the enemy, reassuring and heartening to a friend, and empowering to anyone who has ever worn the eagle, globe and anchor.

Though it is an abstraction of sorts, it is every bit as real as the rifle I carried to the 500-yard line at Parris Island, 20-plus years ago. It is what enabled me to keep a cool head, years later, as a journalist operating in some of the world's most dangerous war zones. It is what has since compelled me to try to move beyond my peers - though never stepping on them, and always trying to bring them along with me - in the competition of life and work.

It is the same ethereal dynamic (Clancy's so-called "magic") that will cause me - and every other active, Reserve, retired and former Marine - to pause and remember on Nov. 10 that which in many ways will forever define who we are.

Semper Fidelis.

---The writer is a former Marine rifle squad leader and parachutist. He has written about military issues for a variety of publications.