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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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