The U.S. Marine Corps turns 246 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 War, Fortitudine (meaning “with courage”), and Per Mare, Per Terram (“by sea and by land”), which the Marines borrowed from the British Royal Marines.
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 Carew, Roberto Clemente, Eddie Collins, Bill Veeck, and the incomparable Ted Williams. Marines who made it in Hollywood include Adam Driver, Gene Hackman, Harvey Keitel, Lee Marvin, Steve 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 (GoDaddy.com), and Fred Smith (FedEx).
The Marines are the second smallest of the five U.S. armed services in the U.S. Department of Defense, with roughly 179,000 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 489,000 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 James A. Ryans II, 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. Ryans’s suggestions.
Robert Coram, Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine (2010). Brute provides a unique perspective on the history and culture of the U.S. Marine Corps by chronicling the thirty-four-year military career of Victor "Brute" Krulak, the father of the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps. General Krulak’s adventures, trials, and tribulations provide an unvarnished picture of Marine culture as well as the types of individuals who are drawn to join. The author weaves in military history, providing insight into the Marine Corps’ role in the Battle of Okinawa, as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. While from a different period, it also touches on Krulak’s family life as a distinguished military officer.
Hampton Sides, On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle (2018). On Desperate Ground tells the story of one of the most significant moments of the Korean War, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in which China launched an attack to destroy the U.S forces that crossed into North Korea. Significantly outnumbered and surrounded, the 1st Marine Division under the command of Major General Oliver P. Smith conducted a fighting withdrawal in frigid weather. This well-researched book provides true stories of extraordinary heroism, compassion, and leadership. The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir has been turned into a case study through which senior leaders and Marines are taught leadership by the Lejeune Institute in Quantico Virginia. This is due to positive example of leadership, management, and tactical decision-making categorized in this book.
Nathaniel C. Flick: One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer (2005). In One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, Nathaniel Fick reflects on his transformation from a college student to a combat leader of Marines. The story begins with Nathaniel's experiences at Officer Candidate's School in Quantico, Virginia and details his deployments. His transparency concerning his reasons for joining the Marine Corps, how the training influenced his life, and his promise to protect his Marines provide a unique insight into the Marine Corps. (Full disclosure: Nathaniel Fick is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Board of Directors.)
Col. Ryans also recommended one film and one miniseries:
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). This film was directed by Allan Dwan, and stars John Wayne, John Agar, Forrest Tucker, and Adel Mara. It tells the story of an infantry squad leader guiding his men through historic battles in the Pacific, a portrayal of leadership that Marines have desired to emulate. Marine Sergeant John Stryker (John Wayne) is a battle-hardened leader initially feared and resented by his men due to his harsh approach as he attempts to prepare them for combat. After a series of battles in the Pacific, they begin to understand and respect Stryker's tough training as they struggle to survive against a hardened enemy. Although times and methods have changed, Marine leaders often sympathize with Sergeant Stryker’s Spartan-like approach and his love for his troops.
The Pacific (2010). The Pacific miniseries provides a great depiction of the 1st Marine Division's battles in the Pacific during World War II. The Marine Corps’ exploits in the Pacific have defined its culture over the last seventy years. Staff non-commissioned officers teach all Marines about the battles of Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. This series projects these historical battles through the eyes of the participants. Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone is a main character, and the miniseries shows why his exploits are legendary. It also depicts the cost of prolonged combat on Marines. According to executive producer Steven Spielberg, the miniseries is based on the memoirs of two U.S. Marines: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific by Robert Leckie.
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.