MILINET: IWO JIMA AND THE FUTURE OF THE MARINE CORPS--Mackubin Thomas Owens
Wednesday, February 23, 2005 9:27:47 AM GMT-05:00
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IWO JIMA AND THE FUTURE OF THE MARINE CORPS
by Mackubin Thomas Owens
February 23, 2005
Mackubin Thomas Owens, an FPRI senior fellow, is Associate Dean of
Academics for Electives and Directed Research and a professor of
national security affairs at the Naval War College. He is also a
Contributing Editor to National Review Online. He led a Marine infantry
platoon in Vietnam in 1968- 69 and retired as a colonel after 26 years
of service in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve.
IWO JIMA AND THE FUTURE OF THE MARINE CORPS
by Mackubin Thomas Owens
Sixty years ago-February 23, 1945-a Marine patrol from Easy Company,
2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment reached the summit of Mount
Suribachi, the highest point on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima. It
was the fifth day of the savage battle for the island, which would
last another month and kill nearly all of the 22,000 Japanese
defenders and 6,825 Marines and sailors. Another 19,000 Americans were
wounded during the 36-day operation. One out of every three Marines was
either killed or wounded, including 19 of 24 battalion commanders.
Twenty-seven Marines and naval medical corpsmen were awarded the Medal
of Honor for their actions on Iwo, 13 posthumously. In the words of
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific
Command, "Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon
valor was a common virtue."
After reaching the summit of Mt. Suribachi, members of the patrol
raised a small American flag that one of the Marines had brought with
him. It was too small to be seen from the beach, so the Marines
raised a second, larger flag. The second flag raising was captured
on film by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal. The result was the most famous
image of World War II.
Rosenthal's photo also has come to symbolize the Marine Corps as a
fighting force. The sculptor Felix de Weldon rendered the photo
into three dimensions, creating the Marine Corps Memorial that
stands near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
As subsequent events in such places as Inchon, the Chosin Reservoir,
Hue City, Khe Sanh, and Fallujah prove, uncommon valor continues to
characterize the Marine Corps. But while soldierly virtue is important,
there are two other virtues that have contributed to the success of the
Marines, making the Marine Corps one of the world's premier fighting
forces: adaptability and innovativeness in response to changing
The Marines who landed on Iwo Jima sixty years ago were part of a force
that was built in accordance with what the eminent political
scientist Samuel Huntington called a "strategic concept," which he
defined as "the fundamental element of [a] service _ its role or
purpose in implementing national policy." A service's strategic concept
answers the "ultimate question: What function do you perform which
obligates society to assume responsibility for your maintenance?"
The centerpiece of the World War II Marine Corps' strategic concept was
the conduct of amphibious assaults against a defended beach in order
to seize advanced naval bases in support of a naval campaign. This
strategic concept was part of an attempt to solve a particular
strategic problem: how to project US naval and air power over the vast
expanses of the Pacific Ocean to bring the home islands of Japan under
During the interwar period, if not before, Navy planners were
convinced that the United States eventually would go to war with Japan.
In support of War Plan ORANGE, the Navy's plan for such an
eventuality, Marines such as the brilliant Major Pete Ellis developed
the doctrine for the sort of amphibious operations-bombardment,
ship-to-shore movement, assault of a defended beach, consolidation
of the beach head, and further operations ashore to secure
the island-that would be required to seize the necessary bases. This
doctrine evolved in practice from the amphibious operation for
Guadalcanal to the Gilberts and the Marianas and finally to Iwo and
Okinawa, as circumstances changed.
The development of amphibious doctrine during the inter-war period and
its successful application in the war with Japan represents just one
example of the ability of the Marine Corps to adapt its
strategic concept to security environment. During the Cold
War, the Marine Corps reinvented itself as an expeditionary "force
in readiness," capable of responding with tailored, task-organized
forces to any crisis across the spectrum of conflict-including
short-fuse contingencies that could arise any time or any place. The
new strategic concept of the Marine Corps complemented that of
the United States Army, which centered on the requirement to fight and
win the nation's land wars. In accordance with this strategic concept,
the Army helped to deter major war by stationing units in or near the
most likely theater of war.
During this time, the Marines also shifted from a narrow focus on
amphibious assault to a broader conception of amphibious operations
that included such capabilities as maritime pre-positioning and
"operational maneuver from the sea" (OMFTS). Marines never claimed to
be the only land force necessary, but they did organize and plan to
deploy rapidly with a force capable of holding the line until
heavier forces could arrive.
As part of this role, the Marines developed an "operational concept"
that exploited a flexible Marine organization, the Marine Air Ground
Task Force (MAGTF). A MAGTF combines a command element, a ground
combat element, an air combat element, and a logistics support
element that can provide a task organized force ranging in size from
a few hundred Marines to a multi-division, multi-air wing force of
While the Marines maintained their amphibious and
expeditionary character, their use alongside the Army in Vietnam and
in the Gulf in 1991 led commentators to ask whether the Marines were
redundant. In a watershed speech in July 1991, then-Senator Sam Nunn
(D-GA) asked why the United States needed two land armies. That is a
fair question. Does the United States need a Marine Corps that is
larger than the armies of most other countries? The answer depends a
great deal on whether the strategic concept of the Marine Corps can
How do we differentiate between the Marine Corps and the Army? The
Army's strategic concept has been reasonably stable for about 60
years, focusing as mentioned previously, on the requirement to fight
and win the nation's land wars. But now the whole US military is
seeking to acquire an expeditionary capability. In particular, the
Army is moving toward a lighter, more deployable force structure that,
some have observed, looks a great deal like a MAGTF. Where does that
leave the Marine Corps?
The key to understanding the difference between the strategic
concepts of the Marine Corps and the Army is to return to the
original meaning of the word "amphibious." In 1960, the British
military writer B.H. Liddell Hart argued that "Amphibious flexibility
is the greatest strategic asset that a sea power possesses." But
over the past 30 years, the term often has been used in roles and
missions debates to "box" the Marine Corps into "amphibious assault."
But the meaning of amphibious is much broader. It is derived from a
classical Greek word meaning to live "all around" or "on both sides,"
i.e. in two worlds-land and water. In this sense, the strategic concept
of the Marines means literally to come from the sea in order to conduct
operations on land, and then return to the sea. But given the
evolution of the word and its current narrow connotation, it might be
best to employ the splendid British term, "amphibiosity." This
captures the broader meaning of "amphibious:" the strategic leverage
achieved when a sea power dominates the "commons" of the sea and can
use it as maneuver space in order to project land power at a place
and time of its choosing
The traditional focus of the Marines, along with its sister service,
the United States Navy, has been on the world's littorals. But the
employment of Marines in Afghanistan in late 2001 and in Iraq from
2003 to the present demonstrates that amphibiosity extends well beyond
the littorals. In the first case, Marines seized an airfield in a
theater of operations far from any shoreline. In the second, they
provided the forces for one of the two main axes of advance on Baghdad.
Since the fall of that city, Marines as well as soldiers have been in
the thick of fight against Iraqi "insurgents and foreign jihadis."
The use of the Marines in both cases illustrates the degree to which
the security environment has evolved over the past decade, and the
fact that responsiveness, flexibility, and adaptability are the
characteristics most necessary in military forces of the future.
The Marine Corps helps to address the geopolitical problem that the
United States faces. To protect its worldwide interests, the
United States must be able to project power globally. But given its
geographical position, the United States can project power only by
overcoming what a former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General
Charles Krulak, has called the "tyranny of distance."
The tyranny of distance creates a dilemma for ground forces- -the
tradeoff between rapid strategic deployability on the one hand, and
lethality, sustainability, and self-protection on the other. Thus an
airborne unit can deploy more quickly than any other ground force, but
it lacks the killing power and sustainability necessary to win once
it gets on the ground. On the other hand, an armored unit
possesses the latter characteristics, but takes a long time to get
into the theater of war.
During the Cold War, the United States handled the tyranny of distance
problem by identifying the most likely theaters of war and stationing
Army and tactical Air Forces there during peacetime as a deterrent.
Of course, the defense of Europe required more forces than the ones
already there, so equipment for reinforcing forces was
pre-positioned in theater. In the event of an emergency, troops would
be flown into theater from the continental United States (CONUS)
where they would "marry up" with their equipment. This approach
worked as long as we were planning against an identifiable
adversary, the Soviet Union, but became less relevant as the security
environment became less certain.
The tyranny of distance problem manifest itself during the Gulf War
of 1990-91, when it took the United States nearly six months to
deploy the ground combat power thought necessary to defeat Iraq.
It has only become more acute as time has passed.
One response to the tyranny of distance problem is to increase
the nation's reliance on airpower. Indeed, airpower advocates seized
upon the Gulf War to argue that force planning models were biased
in favor of land power. They claimed that the actual conduct of the
war demonstrated that land power was now less important than it once had
been, and that thus, the balance of US forces should be shifted to
The campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to have refocused attention
on land forces. As both cases illustrate, "boots on the ground"
are necessary for successful "war termination"-the translation of
military success into a favorable peace.
Military planners have concluded that the missions that will required
land forces in the future will be expeditionary in nature. As former
Marine Commandant Gen. Carl Mundy was fond of saying, "'expeditionary'
is not a mission. It's a mindset." The Marines have developed
this expeditionary mindset over decades, while the Army is only now
coming to grips with it. As Tom Ricks wrote in his excellent book,
Making the Corps, "The Marines tend to display a kind of funky joie
de vivre, especially in the field. In their own parlance, they know how
to 'pack their trash,' something the Army is learning slowly and
painfully as it too becomes 'expeditionary' in hellholes like Somalia
The strategic concept of today's Marine Corps is called
"Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare" (EMW). EMW subsumes OMFTS and such
operational concepts as "ship-to-objective maneuver" (STOM) and
increases the ability of naval forces-- Navy and Marines--to use the
sea as both a base and a maneuver space. A key element of today's
amphibious doctrine is "seabasing" the naval concept that envisions
projecting maneuver forces ashore to conduct combat operations while
keeping logistics, command and control, and fire support at sea. This
is the essence of amphibiosity.
Amphibiosity is broad enough to accommodate the strategic and
operational concepts of both the Marine Corps and the Army. But the
strategic concept of the service that comes from the sea offers a
particularly attractive alternative. As long as the Marine Corps
maintains its commitment not only to the inculcation of soldierly
virtue in individual Marines and cohesion in its units, but
also to innovativeness and adaptability, this naval service will
always have a role in securing the national interests of the United
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