By Col. Daniel F. Bolger, USA
(Excerpt from DEATH GROUND: TODAY’S AMERICAN INFANTRY IN BATTLE)
What makes Marine infantry special?
Asking the question that misses the most fundamental point about the United States Marine Corps. In the Marines, everyone–sergeant, mechanic, cannoneer, supply man, clerk, aviator, cook–is a rifleman first. The entire Corps, all 170,000 or so on the active rolls, plus the reserves, are all infantry. All speak the language of the rifle and bayonet, of muddy boots and long, hot marches. It’s never us and them, only us. That is the secret of the Corps.”
“If Army infantry amounts to a stern monastic order standing apart, on the edge of the wider secular soldier world, Marine infantry more resembles the central totem worshipped by the entire tribe. Marines have specialized, as have all modern military organizations. And despite the all-too-real rigors of boot camp, annual rifle qualification, and high physical standards, a Marine aircraft crew chief or radio repairman wouldn’t make a good 0311 on a squad assault. But those Marine technical types know that they serve the humble grunt, the man who will look the enemy in the eye within close to belly-ripping range. Moreover, all Marines think of themselves as grunts at heart, just a bit out of practice at the moment. That connections creates a great strength throughout the Corps.”
“It explains why Marine commanders routinely, even casually, combine widely disparate kinds of capabilities into small units….
Marines send junior officers and NCOs out from their line rifle companies and expect results. They get them, too.”
“Even a single Marine has on call the firepower of the air wing, the Navy, and all of the United States. Or at least he thinks he does. A Marine acts accordingly. He is expected to take charge, to improvise, to adapt, to overcome. A Marine gets by with ancient aircraft (the ratty C-46E Frog, for example), hand-me-down weapons (such as the old M-60 tanks used in the Gulf War), and whatever else he can bum off the Army or cajole out of the Navy. Marines get the job done regardless, because they are Marines. They make a virtue out of necessity. The men, not the gear, make the difference. Now and again, the Marines want to send men, not bullets.”
“This leads to a self-assurance that sometimes comes across as disregard for detailed staff-college quality planning and short shrift for high-level supervision. Senior Army officers in particular sometimes find the Marines amateurish, cavalier, and overly trusting in just wading in and letting the junior leaders sort it out. In the extreme, a few soldiers have looked at the Corps as some weird, inferior, ersatz ground war establishment, a bad knockoff of the real thing. ‘A small, bitched-up army talking Navy lingo,’ opined Army Brigadier General Frank Armstrong in one of the most brutal inter-service assessments. That was going too far. But deep down, many Army professionals tend to wonder about the Marines. Grab a defended beach? Definitely. Seize a hill? Sure, if you don’t mind paying a little. But take charge of a really big land operation? Not if we can help it.”
“Anyone who has watched an amphibious landing unfold would be careful with that kind of thinking. The Marines actually have a lot in common with their elite Army infantry brothers, if not with all the various Army headquarters and service echelons. True, Marine orders do tend to be, well…brief. But so do those of the airborne, the air assault, the light-fighters, and the Rangers, for the same good reason: Hard, realistic training teaches soldiers how to fight by doing, over and over, so they need not keep writing about it, regurgitating basics every time. More enlightened soldiers consider that goodness. A three-inch thick order, a big CP, and lots of meeting do not victory make. The Marines consciously reject all that.”
“A Corps infused with a rifleman ethos has few barriers to intra-service cooperation. The Army talks a great deal about combined arms and does it down to about battalion level, often with great wailing and gnashing of the teeth. Marines do it all the way down to the individual Marine. Soldiers have defined military occupational specialties and guard their prerogatives like a union shop stewards. Finance clerks don’t do machine guns. Mechanics skip foot marches to fix trucks. Intell analysts work in air-conditioned trailers; they don’t patrol.
Marines, though, are just Marines. They all consider themselves trigger pullers. They even like it, as might be expected of an elite body.