Marine Corps Birthday

Victor H. Krulak

The United States doesn’t need a Marine Corps.  Its officers innovate to remain funded for the next generation.

Adventuring in the Caribbean for Woodrow Wilson they developed skills that proved useful in the Pacific.  Not long after Iwo Jima a junior officer was already talking with the French about helicopters in Indochine.

Daniel Ellsberg

In Viet Nam the USMC tried fighting with less air support and artillery, an aspiration that has persisted through the terror wars.  Their reserves at home raised funds for civic action in Viet Nam.

Now all our militias are fighting overseas after most of them ignored the hot parts of the Cold War.  But one USMC innovation from Viet Nam remains avant-garde and that is candor.

Ronald H. Spector

While in command of all Marines in the Pacific Victor Krulak spoke to our president against the conduct of the war.  David Shoup retired as commandant and joined with the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War in their dissent.

Former lieutenant Daniel Ellsberg finished first in his class at Quantico, married a general’s daughter then rose high in national security where he revealed the “History of United States Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy, 1945–1967” as the Pentagon Papers. Colonel Robert Heinl announced the demoralization of American armed forces everywhere by their interference in Viet Nam.

David Marr

These days officers of all branches are more likely to remember nonsense about hippie girls spitting on soldiers. But our Marines from that war are still telling the truth.

Lieutenant Colonel Ronald H. Spector arrived at the siege of Khe Sanh with a doctorate from Yale and is still writing history. Captain David Marr began with after-action reports to narrate Vietnamese anti-colonialism from 1885.

Ernest Spenser

Captain Ernest Spenser provided a rare account by a fighting commander. Lieutenant James Webb’s novels mention the unspoken conflict between the Viet Nam generation and their fathers from World War II.

Lieutenant Robert Anderson left Yale with the fighting class of 1966 and kept notes for his novel Cooks & Bakers and the more fanciful Service for the Dead, which I name because they should be in print.  Lieutenant Philip Caputo broke through for all Viet Nam veterans with his Pulitzer prize.

James Webb

Combat correspondent Gustav Hasford wrote an entire novel in the disassociative slang of lethal teenagers.  Sergeant W.D. Ehrhart has built an oeuvre in prose and verse addressed to young men as want to join up.

Sergeant Wayne Karlin joined with a People’s Army correspondent he may have fired on to bring out in English more fiction from Viet Nam than anyone else.  Corporal Peter Brush earned a history degree and got a library job from where he exposes error about a war which all sides get wrong.

Philip Caputo

Private David A. Willson USA, son of one Marine, bibliographer of dozens, thinks that so many from that small corps have published so widely because they were told they were special.  An entire force cannot be elite but disregarding logic feeds the publicity that keeps an optional branch funded by our democracy and builds morale.

The institution teaches confidence to enthusiasts and idealists. Rifle instructors used to brag on Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Whitman, both Marines.

W.D. Ehrhart

Fewer recruits would have heard of Paul Moore.  Still many learned to fire with hope in despair.

But my explanation lies rather in what Marines think is ordinary. They have certain expectations.

Wayne Karlin

The USMC began celebrating its birth about the same time the Foreign Legion began marching around relics from Algiers and Indochine and the very halls of Montezuma, when apartheid became a word and colored-only signs went up over the United States. No one knew they were living through the last hurrah of white rule.

Whiteness in settler societies excludes the colored to fence in a utopia where every man is known by his deeds and will tell anybody what he thinks. There was nothing normal about that.

Paul Moore

Lots of people would have liked to rise on their merits and say what they thought. The Viet Nam generation of Marines lived through the opening of this franchise.

The affecting quality of Quang X. Pham’s memoir of his father, a Republic of Viet Nam pilot, lies in this Marine from Desert Storm relating as a comrade to men from the whites-only world. Already in Viet Nam they had put Ernest Spenser, a Korean American, in command of fighting men.

Quang X. Pham

But there was nothing easy about the change and Ernie won’t shut up about it. No one is shutting up, in itself a huge change from the men of the Pacific who sent their sons off without a word.

It is hard to imagine the American people now sending thousands to die on some island we don’t need, to freeze in hundreds around a reservoir of no strategic value, to lose even dozens in a siege by rockets in the middle of nowhere. The men from Viet Nam have been talking too much.

Rye Barcott

One of their sons, Captain Rye Barcott, has been innovating already. His adventures starting a soccer league in Nairobi’s shantytown on break from the terror wars may be what all Marines do next, now that everyone may claim the rights of a settler.

Many happy returns of the day.

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12 thoughts on “Marine Corps Birthday”

  1. Good posting, Dan. I would make one correction and one addition. We (marines) did have our own air and artillery support in Vietnam. The Marine Corps is structured with air wings and artillery battalions for that purpose. I’d also add David Marlantes’ novel “Matterhorn” and his non-fiction meditation “What it is Like to go to War”, two recently published works which carry on the marines-as-truth-tellers thread you mention.

  2. Wayne, thanks for the correction and extension.

    I meant to compliment the Marines for trying at times in VN to fight without using air and artillery. I have revised the post with that emphasis.

    I’m off to read Marlantes…

  3. Major Ed Palm, a CAP veteran beginning as a Corporal in 1967, made a point of making presentations at conferences on the war and writing “Tiger Papa 3,” so that we could hear contrarian opinions such as:

    “I would like to believe, with some, that combined action was the best thing we did… …In my experience, combined action was merely one more untenable article of faith. The truth, I suspect, is that where it seemed to work, combined action wasn’t really needed, and where it was, combined action could never work.” See See also his affecting website at

  4. Marc, thanks for noticing my reference to CAP and for the citation to Palm’s discussion. I was trying to convey a sense of the corps as a place of innovation.

    I am not arguing for the merit of any specific innovation. I am skeptical of even whether Krulak invented LSTs.

    I do buy his insight, widespread and persistent among officers, that the USMC persists because it innovates. It also persists because it practices publicity, which has the democratic virtue of addressing the people and the democratic vice of peddling them dreams.

  5. Hi, here are some additions from readers sent in by email. Karl Marlantes keeps coming up, a major miss on my part.

    He started publishing after I started reading mostly Vietnamese and French so I haven’t read him yet. I am looking for an occasion to redress this oversight.

    Another reader recalled Josiah Bunting III to my attention. His service as an enlisted Marine before his commissioned Army career no doubt gives his great officers’ novel, The Lionheads, its detached yet engaged view.

    One of the Marines I did mention just now recalled to me another major miss, an author directly in my line of argument, William Corson, author of The Betrayal.

    See below from

    “William R. Corson, 74, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps and expert on counterinsurgency warfare who was almost court-martialed for publishing a book that was highly critical of U.S. policy in Vietnam, died July 17, 2000, at Suburban Hospital, Virginia. He had lung cancer.

    Early in 1967, he was named director of the Combined Action Program, in which small detachments of Marines served with South Vietnamese militia in villages throughout the country.

    In 1967, when he returned to the United States, he received another sensitive assignment in Washington, becoming deputy director of the Southeast Asia Intelligence Force in the office of the assistant secretary of defense.

    But by that time he was convinced that U.S. policies in Vietnam were doomed and he decided to write a book.

    The book, “The Betrayal,” argued that the Saigon government supported by Washington was corrupt and incompetent and that it was perceived by ordinary Vietnamese as being as much of a threat to their well-being as the communists. Unless the United States devised policies to take this into account, the book said, the war would be lost and American servicemen would have died in vain.

    This brought into play a Marine Corps regulation that required officers on active duty to submit statements on public policy to review before making them public. Colonel Corson claimed that this did not apply to him because the book would not go on sale until after he had become a civilian.

    Marine Corps officials responded by having his retirement held up and by taking steps to convene a general court-martial. These plans were dropped on the grounds that they would only serve to draw attention to the book. Colonel Corson’s retirement went through a month later than originally scheduled. ”

    Please note that all above text between quotations is not from Dan Duffy or VNLP. It is from

  6. Dan, I would add another fairly recent memoir to your list: Loon: A Marine Story by Jack McLean, Presidio Press, 2009; Ballantine Books paperback, 2010. His account will strike a familiar chord with those who remember the 3rd Marine Division’s experiences in I Corps.

  7. And one more (sadly) neglected classic, Dan: Sand in the Wind by Robert Roth, a novel which centers on the experiences of a CAP unit. One of the best.

  8. I’m honored to be mentioned in your post, Dan. Happy Birthday and Semper Fidelis.

    In remembrance of Lieutenant Colonel Pham Van Hoa, VNAF, and Colonel John Braddon, USMC, who served together in a place called Do Xa, II Corps, April 27, 1964.

  9. Another author mentioned has pointed out to me that I left out Lewis Puller as well. From the comments there is now a whole new post to write for next birthday and on many occasions in between. Thanks!

  10. First, Happy Birthday! You might consider adding Mike Archer’s A PATCH OF GROUND: KHE SANH REMEMBERED (2004), an excellent, honest, no-nonsense memoir by a former Marine radio operator.

  11. By email from Wayne Karlin:

    Yes–we could go on and on. After I sent the post, I also remembered one of the best books on A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered by Michael Archer–a person and book I mention in chapter two of WS. Mike (who was there) has investigated the number of American casualties at the Khe Sanh seige and puts it at about 1000 KIA–much higher than the official count. His friend, Robert (Doc) Topmiller, was a Navy corpsman with the marines at Khe Sanh; he became a Buddhist, a professor at University of Kentucky, and wrote a book about the Buddhist peace movement in Vietnam, as well as a book about Khe Sanh (Red Clay on My Boots), which dealt also with his journeys back to Vietnam. In his conclusion, he wrote: “After eleven trips to Vietnam, I still found it impossible to come to terms with a conflict that caused such long term damage to Americans and Vietnamese.” Last year he killed himself.

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