They stormed the shores of Tripoli in 1804 and the beaches at Tarawa in 1943 and Iwo Jima in ’45.
They fought America’s foes house by house in Hue in 1968 and in Fallujah in 2004.
They died at Belleau Wood, halting Germany’s last great offensive in World War I. Every day, they fight to stem the tide of Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.
But in the halls of the Pentagon, they may be fighting their most desperate battle yet.
They’re the United States Marines. Two hundred thirty-five years ago today, the Continental Congress authorized the creation of the corps, which quickly evolved into America’s most reliable fighting force and the toughest unit in the US military.
Generations of young men, and now young women, have passed through the Marines’ unique 13-week boot camp at the Parris Island and San Diego recruit depots, where they’re prepared body and soul for a love of country as well as of combat — and a love for the traditions of the Marine Corps.
That’s why they are easy for a historian to love. It’s why the 1st Marine Division takes pride in being called the “Old Breed” — where “old” means upholding the sometimes unfashionable values of honor, duty, courage and sacrifice.
That’s why some of us would feel a whole lot safer if President Obama had done his 13 weeks at Parris Island. Because right now, this administration is casting a shadow over the Marines and their future.
When Navy Secretary James Forrestal watched Marines plant the flag on Mount Surabachi on Iwo Jima — the most iconic image of World War II in the Pacific — he told Marine Gen. Holland Smith, “That means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”
His prediction is looking premature.
Back in August, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered a massive review of the corps’ future role, due out in December. In Pentagon speak, “review” usually means “get ready for cuts,” and this is no exception.
Gates has been quoted as saying that the Marines have “gotten too big” since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars grew their numbers from 175,000 to 202,000, and “too heavy, too removed from their expeditionary, amphibious roots” as during World War II. Too many Marines “have never stepped aboard a ship.”
That’s fine, except Gates has also mused about whether big amphibious operations like Iwo Jima or Inchon are even feasible any more in the age of long-range anti-ship missiles — and whether the money spent on ships, helicopters, landing vehicles and planes for close air support of Marines attacking from the sea might be better spent elsewhere.
Today’s Pentagon is focused on saving money, no matter what. If the Marines are best suited for one kind of warfare, and that warfare is becoming obsolete, that begs the obvious question: Why have Marines at all?
Yet here, Gates’ view of history is distorted. The Marines have never been just a fighting force that existed to land and die on beaches. They literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency back in 1940, the “Small Wars Manual,” based on their 180-year experience fighting in remote jungle and rough terrain environments from Latin America to the Philippines and North Africa.
The Marines pioneered the strategy of not just fighting an enemy but understanding his mind-set and culture, as well — a huge advantage in counterinsurgency operations — which is why Marines have led the way in the surges both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
Five times past administrations have tried to take down the Marines, and five times they’ve failed. President Harry Truman was the last to publicly talk about dismantling the corps to save money. Then as (one hopes) now, Marines were too tightly woven into the fabric of American life to let that happen.
And the Marines soon proved how wrong Truman had been in the Korean War, during the landings at Inchon and at Chosin Reservoir, where the Old Breed fought off 8-to-1 odds against the Red Chinese army in 40-degree-below-zero weather, and won 17 Medals of Honor.
Still, the Marines have an even more powerful enemy in the Obama White House. Gay activists pushing to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” see them as the last bastion of resistance to a social ethos that puts personal rights over teamwork and self-sacrifice, and tolerance over group cohesion.
Yet that warrior ethos has been why presidents have been able to say “Send in the Marines!” in response to sudden crises around the world for more than 200 years.
Some argue that, today, this role can best be done by such special forces as the Navy SEALS. But Marines are trained not just to fight but to die — if necessary, to the last man. They are our American Spartans — and like the Greek Spartans of old, their tradition of courage and self-sacrifice is the ultimate guardian of our freedom.
We tamper with the Marine Corps at our peril. The corps’ new commandant general, James Amos, needs to defend it against those who would do so, for budgetary or ideological or other short-sighted reasons.
It’s not just the corps that’s at stake, but our nation.
Arthur Herman, author of “Gandhi and Churchill,” is an American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar.