March 7, 2005


A Force for Good (ROBERT D. KAPLAN, 3/03/05, NY Times)

When the tsunami hit in December, the Third Marine Expeditionary Force, based on Okinawa, had just finished providing disaster assistance in the typhoon-wracked Philippines. Nonetheless, these marines quickly set off for Indonesia, bringing food, forklifts and desalinization equipment ashore with the same spirited aggressiveness that their fellow grunts have been demonstrating with assault rifles in Iraq.

There is no contradiction in this. Indeed, dealing with typhoons, tsunamis and guerrilla insurgencies all at the same time has brought the marines back to their roots as unconventional warriors. The "Small Wars Manual," the sacred text of the corps, is the product of the lessons learned in amphibious landings in the Caribbean, Central America and the Far East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its focus is describing all the ways you can dominate the enemy with - but preferably without - firing a shot.

The official Marine motto may be "Semper fidelis," but the unofficial one is "Semper Gumby": "always flexible." The marine fighting in Falluja is interchangeable with the marine providing help in Sumatra. For the logistics of humanitarian assistance are similar to the logistics of war: both demand fast infiltration and the movement of equipment and supplies to a zone of activity. [...]

Liberal democratic societies have commonly been defended by conservative military establishments, whose members often lack the sensitivities and social graces of the elites whom they protect. As much as the military wants to help the downtrodden, it is not the Peace Corps. To wit, I have spent many months embedded with marines in Iraq, the Horn of Africa and West Africa, watching them fight, rebuild schools, operate medical clinics and mentor soldiers of fledgling democracies. I've learned that marines swear all the time out of habit, and love to be in on a fight, or otherwise they would not have joined the Marine Corps.

Yet those same swearing marines are capable of a self-discipline and humanitarian compassion - drawn, often, from an absolute belief in the Almighty - that would stun the average civilian. In Iraq, there was nothing more natural for marines (and soldiers, too) than to go from close-quarters urban combat to providing food and medicine, and back again.

A prime example of this outlook is Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, who was reprimanded last month for saying at a conference in San Diego that he finds it "fun" to kill people like the Taliban. Yet I stood next to General Mattis at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq - several weeks before the abuse scandal broke - as he spoke in the same roughhewn manner, this time warning Marine grunts against even the appearance of mistreating prisoners. I have also seen him at Camp Pendleton in California pleading at length with his troops to try to bond with the Iraqi people - to always look them in the eye - as a way of winning their respect.

Of course, this does not excuse his remarks on killing. But it does demonstrate why General Mattis has for a long time been particularly revered by young grunts: whatever he does - saving lives, taking them - is done to the nth degree.

America has not had a true citizen army for decades. Instead, it has an expeditionary military of professional warriors, drawn mainly from the working classes, who enjoy the soldiering life for its own sake. For them, combat and humanitarian relief are easily interchangeable, and efforts to reshape the military for the war on terrorism are vital to both functions. The troops are comfortable with their dual role; it is our job to supply them with what they need to do it best.

A couple of observations. Mr. Kaplan is obviously smitten by the Marines, as well he should be. But the gap between the elite and the Military in this country is not a natural phenomenon. It is willed. The elite decided in the 60s that it wanted to side with the Communists and decided that it was not going to study war anymore. The expulsion of ROTC from the Ivy Leauge campuses is a symptom of that decision. In previous eras, the Military was thought to be a fine career for the younger sons as was the clergy (another area abandonded by the elite in the 60s). The decision of the elite to disconnect themselves from the military (and the clergy) is a major factor behind the collapse of their power.

Posted by Robert Schwartz at March 7, 2005 10:35 AM

B.S. I was on campus during the "anti-war" era, right up until I reported to Quantico. The "movement" was just the yellow stripe--no more, no less.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 7, 2005 10:47 AM

IF we were to return to the policies of Ancient Rome or the British Empire where there were organized means for soldiers to carry off booty from their defeated foes or to take possession of their lands, our 'best and brightest' would be flocking to West Point the way they currently do to Wharton.

Joining the clergy was always a means for the mediocre sons of the wealthy to keep themselves occupied far away from the family business without becoming too dissolute. Sadly, that role is now taken by places like academia or the civil service.

Posted by: Bart at March 7, 2005 11:18 AM


Well said. I have to wonder, though, whether the retreat of the elites from the military proved to be a blessing in disguise, at least short term. The change in the popular image of the U.S. military in the early 70's versus to-day is nothing short of miraculous. There must have been a lot of housecleaning.


Do you have any ideals or do you share the marxist view that all behaviour is determined by material self-interest?

Posted by: Peter B at March 7, 2005 11:46 AM


I merely believe that if we apply the Law of Large Numbers to human behavior that it will track with commonly understood definitions of short or long term economic need. Individuals behave as individuals but the population behaves in such a way as to maximize its creature comforts, however defined.

Posted by: Bart at March 7, 2005 12:22 PM

One major problem with Bart's suggestion is that there's very little worth looting by individuals or even companies. There is frequently not much worth looting by anyone.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at March 7, 2005 2:55 PM

If this were 1750, we really would have just taken over the oil fields in Iraq. Large sections of Africa would have been given to American military men who would be having them platted and subdivided into latefundia.

Posted by: Bart at March 7, 2005 5:08 PM

Lou: the yellow stripe was a large part of what motivated the followers. But the core of the movement, like John Kerry, were dedicated to the spread of communism and the abasement of American power.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 7, 2005 6:02 PM