Since sometime before Caesar was a lance corporal, the United States Marine Corps’ greatest fear has been becoming “a second land army.” It has long believed that if the country perceived it had two armies, it would require one to go away, and that one would be the Marine Corps. It is therefore ironic that the United States now finds itself with not one, but two Marine Corps, and the final result may be that both disappear.
Almost any Marine knows the two Marine Corps of which I speak. One is the heir of the maneuver warfare movement of the 1970s and 80s, of Al Gray and Warfighting, of free play training, officer education focused on how to think, not what to do, of the belief that the highest goal of all Marines is winning in combat with the smallest possible losses. This is the Marine Corps that led the advance to Baghdad in the first phase of the ongoing war in Iraq. It is also the Marine Corps that recently “fought smart” in Fallujah by not taking the city.
The other Marine Corps’ highest goal is programs, money and bureaucratic success “inside the Beltway.” Its priorities are absurdities such as the MV-22 “Albatross” and reviving the 1990s “Sea Worm” project under the label “distributed operations,” which are referred to openly at Quantico as “putting lipstick on a pig.” This Marine Corps is anti-intellectual, sees the First Generation culture of order as sacred, believes that sufficient rank justifies any idiot and regards politics, not combat, as the “real world.”
Regrettably, in the war between these two Marine Corps, the second one is winning. I recently encountered a horrifying example of its success at the Marine Corps Command & Staff School at Quantico. At the end of this academic year, the Command & Staff faculty simply got rid of 250 copies of Martin van Creveld’s superb book, Fighting Power. This book, which lays out the fundamental difference between the Second Generation U.S. Army in World War II and the Third Generation Wehrmacht, is one of the seven books of “the canon,” the readings that take you from the First Generation into the Fourth. It should be required reading for every Marine Corps and Army officer.
When I asked someone associated with Command & Staff how such a thing could be done, he replied that the faculty has decided it “doesn’t like” van Creveld. This is similar to a band of Hottentots deciding they “don’t like” Queen Victoria. Martin van Creveld is perhaps the most perceptive military historian now writing. But in the end, the books went; future generations of students at Command & Staff won’t have them.
A friend who attended the last Marine Corps General Officers’ conference reported the same division between the two Marine Corps. The officers from the field, he said, had completely different concerns from those stationed in Washington. They were ships passing in the night. But it is the interests of the Washington Marine Corps, not those in the field, that determine Marine Corps policy. And that policy is affected little, if at all, by the two wars in which Marines are now fighting.
Throughout my years as a Senate staffer, the Marine Corps’ clout on Capitol Hill was envied by the other services. The Marine Corps then had little money and not much interest in programs. Its message to Congress and to the American public was, “We’re not like the other services. We aren’t about money and stuff. We’re about war.” That message brought the Corps unrivalled public and political support.
In the mid-1990s, the Marine Corps changed its message and, without realizing what it was doing, abandoned its successful grand strategy for survival. The new message became, “We are just like the other services. We too are now about money and programs.” And that new message is what now dominates Headquarters Marine Corps and Quantico. Thinking about war is out; money and stuff is in. In effect, the Marine Corps has sat down at the highest-stakes poker game in the world, American defense politics, with 25 cents in its pocket. It simply cannot compete with the Army, Navy or Air Force at buying Congressional and public support. But it is determined to try.
If the dumb (and increasingly corrupt) “Washington” Marine Corps finally triumphs over the smart, Warfighting Marine Corps, in the end both will disappear. And that will be a shame, because the smart Marine Corps, Al Gray’s Marine Corps, really had something going. It was on its way to becoming the first American Third Generation armed service.
Maybe Martin van Creveld’s next book should be The Rise and Decline of the United States Marine Corps.