Corps Values
By Nathaniel Fick,
who led Marine infantry platoons in Afghanistan and Iraq and is the author of "One Bullet Away"
Thursday, December 22, 2005; C04


The U.S. Marines: A Combat History From Iwo Jima to Iraq
By James A. Warren
Free Press. 376 pp. $26

Young Marines learn quickly that their song isn't the "Marine Corps Hymn"; it's the "Marines' Hymn." The subtle distinction can be lost on those unfamiliar with the Corps, but it highlights the organization's focus on its people -- the song belongs to the Marines themselves, not their organization. Likewise, James A. Warren's inspiring "American Spartans," which he calls "an interpretive history of the Marine Corps from the Corps' bloodiest battle, Iwo Jima, up through the fall of Baghdad," is properly subtitled a history of Marines, not of the Corps.

With its human-centered -- as opposed to technology-centered -- view of war, the Corps' success rests on a "remarkable facility to transmit its values and habits of mind" to successive generations of Marines. Warren gets it exactly right when he alternately compares the Corps to a religious order, samurai and the Spartans. If such claims sound hyperbolic, applicable only to a pantheon of warriors long dead, the feeling fades as we read of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines in Baghdad less than three years ago. When 76 Marines were wounded in a firefight, all but 22 refused medical evacuation, preferring to fight on with their buddies.

This book promises "to give the reader a sense of what the ordinary infantry Marine endured in the field" during campaigns from 1945 to 2003. Warren, who also has written books on Vietnam and the Cold War, is at his best when weaving a history of the Corps from the stories of individual Marines and small units, in battle and during the years of innovation between wars.

In December 1950, for instance, Lt. Col. Ray Davis's 1st Battalion, 7th Marines rushed to reinforce troops holding the crucial Toktong Pass near Korea's Chosin Reservoir. In weather so cold that Marines carried rations in their armpits to keep them from freezing, the men "began their lonely and treacherous march through the mountainous wilderness. . . . In the eerie darkness and subzero temperatures, exhausted men stumbled into one another, fell on slick, packed snow, and rolled off the trail, only to have to expend precious energy rejoining the column above. NCOs and officers had to prod and kick at those who fell, urging them to get up quickly, to resist the natural temptation to rest -- or, even worse -- to fall asleep and risk dying of hypothermia."

Warren shows that steadfast leadership off the battlefield is just as important as valor on it. A legacy of two past Marine commandants, Alfred Gray and Charles C. Krulak, is an "enormously influential" manual on war fighting. This document, which was commercially reprinted for business leaders, codifies the Marines' human-centered view of war. "Human will, instilled through leadership, is the driving force of all action in war," it teaches. "Any doctrine which attempts to reduce warfare to ratios of forces, weapons, and equipment neglects the impact of the human will on the conduct of war and is therefore inherently flawed."

Warren illustrates the power of "the human will" with the story of Lt. Col. Michael Kurth, a helicopter pilot in the 1991 Gulf War. Lacking the Army's infrared night-vision systems, Marine pilots were blinded by the smoke of burning oil wells. Kurth, whose father-in-law worked for a defense contractor that manufactured the systems, "obtained" one for his helicopter. He then led other Marine pilots in Cobra helicopters "through the black night, sometimes flying under electrical wires, to the front, where the Cobras were able to knock out many enemy tanks with their Hellfire missiles once Kurth had put his laser designator on the targets."

Of course, Warren is walking a well-worn path here. Military historian J. Robert Moskin's "The U.S. Marine Corps Story," first published in 1977, is a standard reference. More recently, retired Marine Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Simmons updated "The United States Marines: A History" in March 2003 -- the month the 1st Marine Division invaded Iraq. It would seem, then, that the natural advantage of "American Spartans" is its inclusion of the Marines' missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, the book's chief deficiency is its thin treatment of the post-9/11 Marine Corps.

In Warren's defense, writing a definitive history of such recent events is a risky undertaking, but readers of a book billed as "the first modern battle history of the Marines in a generation" deserve a better overview than his abrupt account of Marine campaigns since 2001. Warren's narrative of the final battles of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm deftly blends political history with military tactics and uses human examples to great effect. By contrast, he offers little contextualizing history for the initial Marine invasion of southern Afghanistan in 2001, then wholly neglects operations in that country since early 2002.

The book's treatment of the Iraq War is equally shallow. Task Force Tarawa -- nearly a quarter of the entire Marine invasion force -- is never mentioned. The 1st Marine Regiment -- another quarter of the force -- receives but a few sentences. Chronologically, Warren skips from the beginning of the invasion to after Baghdad's fall, and then back to the assault on the city in 2003, forward to fighting in Fallujah in 2004, then back again to the initial drive toward Baghdad. The effect is jarring and obscures more than it reveals.

Despite these shortcomings, "American Spartans" is a welcome, readable and concise history of the Corps' past 60 years. Warren may miss some of the details, but he nails the Marine ethos, and that should be the real measure of his book.