from The Water's Edge

Happy 244th Birthday to the United States Marine Corps!

The U.S. Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon participates in Independence Day celebrations in Washington, DC. Tom Brenner/REUTERS

November 10, 2019

The U.S. Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon participates in Independence Day celebrations in Washington, DC. Tom Brenner/REUTERS
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The U.S. Marine Corps turns 244 years-old today. On November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress adopted a resolution to create a Marine force composed of two battalions. Since then, the Marines have been “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” and many other places as well.

You probably know that the Marines’ motto is Semper Fidelis, or Semper Fi for short. It means “always faithful” in Latin. It signifies a Marine’s loyalty both to the U.S. Marine Corps and to the United States. However, Semper Fi didn’t become the Marines’ motto until 1883. During its first century of existence, the Marines had a few unofficial mottos. These included “to the shores of Tripoli,” which commemorates the Marines’ service in the First Barbary WarFortitudine (meaning “with courage”), and Per Mare, Per Terram (“by sea and by land”), which the Marines borrowed from the British Royal Marines.

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No Marine has ever become president, but several have made it in politics. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly were both U.S. Marine Corps generals. U.S. Secretaries of State James A. Baker and George P. Shultz, Senator John Glenn (who first gained fame as an astronaut), and legendary political consultant James Carville also served in the Marines. Several baseball hall-of-famers are veterans of the Marines, including Rod CarewRoberto Clemente, Eddie CollinsBill Veeck, and Ted Williams. Marines who made it in Hollywood include Gene HackmanHarvey KeitelLee MarvinSteve McQueen, and George C. Scott. Comedians Drew Carey and Rob Riggle were Marines, as was the late, great Jonathan Winters. If you are old enough to remember Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan), he was a Marine. Several famous musicians served in the Marines, including country legend George Jones, hip-hop artist Shaggy, and “The March King,” John Philip Sousa. Marines who made it in the business world include Tom Bell (Taco Bell), Tom Monaghan (Dominos), Bob Parsons (, and Fred Smith (FedEx).

The Marines are the smallest of the four U.S. armed services in the U.S. Department of Defense, with over 186,000 active-duty personnel deployed around the world. To put the size of the Marine Corps in perspective, the U.S. Army is more than two and a half times larger with 482,000 troops. But compared to most of the world’s militaries the Marines are a giant. Countries that have armies smaller than the Marines include France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan.

I asked Colonel Michael A. Brooks, a Marine Corps officer spending a year as a visiting military fellow in CFR’s David Rockefeller Studies Program, to recommend reading for those wanting to learn more about the Marines. Here are Col. Brooks’s suggestions.

Thomas E. Ricks, Making the Corps (1997). Ricks observed a squad of young Marines on patrol in Somalia and wondered how the U.S. Marine Corps turned a diverse group of young people into a confident and effective combat unit. He went on to write Making the Corps based on his close observation of the Marines’ recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina. The book describes the transformation of American youths into Marines and reveals the contemporary insights of what it means to be a Marine.

E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (1981). This book aptly describes the ordeal of combat experienced by the Marines in the Pacific during World War II in the battles at Peleliu and Okinawa. It is also one of the books that provided the basis for the HBO miniseries The Pacific. Sledge immerses the reader in the brutality and fear of combat, but also reveals the strong bonds forged amongst the initiated. 

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Victor H. Krulak, First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps (1984). Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak was a renowned veteran of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. This excellent work details some of the major battles the Marines have fought, including the battle for the Marine Corps’ continued existence over the years.

Col. Brooks also recommended three films:

The Pacific (2010). This HBO miniseries complements Sledge’s With the Old Breed by portraying what he and two other young Marines experienced during the Pacific campaign during World War II.

The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). John Wayne plays a hard-nosed Marine who provides rigorous training to prepare his young Marines for the crucible of combat.

Heartbreak Ridge (1986). Despite its Hollywood flair and excesses, this entertaining film captures the spirit of the Marines in Clint Eastwood’s character, Gunny Highway.

If you want to know what all Marines are required to read, the U.S. Marine Corps has posted its reading list online. also has a great timeline of the history of the Marines.

A tip of the TWE cap to all the men and women who have worn the uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.

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