HBO's 10-part series on the Pacific campaign of World War II just ended. That story of island- hopping mostly was about how the old breed of U.S. Marines fought diehard Japanese infantrymen face-to-face in places such as Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Guam and Okinawa.
We still argue over whether it was smart to storm entrenched Japanese positions or whether all those islands were strategically necessary. But no one can question the Marine Corps' record of having defeated the most savage infantrymen of the age, shattering the myth of Japanese invincibility.
Since WWII, the Marines have turned up almost anywhere the United States has found itself in a jam against supposedly unconquerable enemies: in bloody places such as Inchon and the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, at Hue and Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War, at the two sieges of Fallujah in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan.
Over the past two centuries, two truths have emerged about the Marine Corps. One, they defeat the toughest of U.S. adversaries under the worst of conditions. And two, periodically their way of doing things — and their eccentric culture of self-regard — so bothers out military planners that some higher-ups try to curb their independence or end the Corps.
After the Pacific fighting, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson wanted to disband the Marines Corps. What good were amphibious landings in the nuclear age? Johnson asked. His boss, President Harry Truman, agreed and didn't like the cocky Marines either.
Then came Korea, and suddenly the Pentagon wanted more Marines. The fighting against hard-core the North Korean and Communist Chinese proved again that the antiquated idea of landing on beaches was a smart way to outflank the enemy.
The Marines survived Korea, Louis Johnson and Harry Truman, and continued to carve out their own logistics, air-support and tactical doctrine. Marine self-sufficiency was because of lingering distrust of the other services dating back to the lack of air and naval support in World War II, and to Marine paranoia the other services liked their combative spirit but not their independence.
The Corps again is being re-examined. This time, the stereotype of the gung-ho Marines supposedly doesn't fit with a sophisticated urban counter- insurgency under integrated, international command.
After all, the United States is fighting wars in which we rarely hear of the number of enemy dead, but a great deal about the need to rebuild cities and infrastructure. There have been rumors of a new medal for "courageous restraint" that would honor soldiers who hesitate pulling the trigger against the enemy out of concern about harming civilians.
The Marines are starting to redeploy to Afghanistan from Iraq. They plan to win over southern Afghanistan's remote Nimruz province, a Taliban stronghold. While NATO forces concentrate on major cities, the Marines think they can win over local populations their way, take on and defeat the Taliban, and bring Nimruz back from the brink, with their trademark warning "no better friend, no worse enemy."
Again, the Corps is convinced its ingenuity and audacity can succeed where others have failed. Again, not everyone agrees.
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, retired three-star Army Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, reportedly made a comment about there being 41 nations serving in Afghanistan, and a 42nd composed of the Marine Corps. An unnamed Obama administration official was quoted by the Washington Post as saying, "We have better opera- tional coherence with virtually all of our NATO allies than we have with the U.S. Marine Corps."
But it would be wise not to tamper with the Corps.. The technological and political face of war is always changing. But its essence — organized violence to achieve political ends — is no different from antiquity. Conflict will remain the same as long as human nature does.
The Marines always have best understood that. Americans want a maverick Marine Corps — a sort of insurance policy that has kept them safe, just in case.
TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES