First To Fight Essay

Why, in June 2007, would Gen James T. Conway, 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps, direct every member of the United States Marine Corps (USMC), whether officer, noncommissioned officer, or Marine, to read First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps? After all the book is now 25 years old. It was written in the post-Vietnam USMC and at the height of the Cold War. Since 1984, the year the book was first published, the characteristics of war, the enemy, and the USMC have changed a number of times; so how is First to Fight relevant? To understand these questions, a reader should understand both the author and the USMC.

The author was the quintessential Marine, having served in the USMC in all major American conflicts from 1941 until 1968. LtGen Victor H. Krulak, who passed away on 29 December 2008, was a 1934 U.S. Naval Academy graduate; served with 4th Marines in China in 1937–39; commanded the 2d Parachute Battalion, 1st Marine Amphibious Corps, in World War II; served as Chief of Staff, 1st Marine Division, in Korea; served as Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency Activities, Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 1962–64; and was Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, in 1964–68, which included some 54 trips to the Vietnam theater.

The USMC, as an integral part of the U.S. Navy and as a historically junior Service, in both size and funds, to the U.S. Army, is an organization that relies on a dominant narrative for organizational survival—“perennially the smallest kid on the block in a hostile neighbourhood.” As LtGen Krulak noted:
The Corps is in a sense like a primitive tribe where each generation has its medicine men—keepers of the tribal mythology, protectors of the tribal customs, and guardians of the tribal standards.

In directing the mandatory reading of First to Fight, it is perhaps fair to assume that Gen Conway, heading a Marine Corps at war for almost a decade, has sought to keep the USMC firmly focused on the twin elements of LtGen Krulak’s significant service and the lessons First to Fight’s straightforward narrative and “tribal mythology” provide for all Marines.

Interestingly and powerfully, LtGen Krulak asked Clare Booth Luce (1903–87) to write the foreword for First to Fight. The Honorable Ms. Clare Booth Luce was, in an accomplished life, editor of Vanity Fair, playwright, politician, journalist, and diplomat. She was a formidable member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a significant supporter of the U.S. military. Variously Clare Booth Luce alleged that President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought the United States into World War II unprepared, consistently spoke on behalf of American troops and addressed issues concerning their eventual return to civilian life, advocated aid to Italian war victims, warned against a growing threat of communism, and was instrumental in the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission. It seems that LtGen Krulak appreciated the strength Clare Booth Luce bought in her own service to the United States and decided to juxtapose her service with the service of the dogged and determined USMC through First to Fight.

Given Gen Conway’s focus on First to Fight for the modern USMC, and the 25 years since the release of LtGen Krulak’s book, perhaps the release of a silver jubilee edition of First to Fight may be warranted. A silver jubilee edition would also give the USMC an opportunity to provide an additional foreword to First to Fight. This foreword could set the scene for the current generation of Marines by articulating the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ intent in having them read, study, and absorb the book.

First to Fight is divided into six parts, plus a conclusion. Introducing these six parts is a series of single line quotes that are designed to focus the reader’s mind on LtGen Krulak’s next message supporting the USMC dominant narrative, which includes thinking, innovation, improvisation, fru-
gality, brotherhood, and warfighting. Such pithy quotes are not easy to find, and their effective employment in First to Fight is testament to LtGen Krulak’s intellectual abilities.

In early 2014 and mid-2015, under Joint Project 2048, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) will accept delivery of two Navantia-designed amphibious ships (LHDs), each with landing space for 6 helicopters, hangar accommodation, garaging for heavy and light vehicles, a well dock capable of taking 4 large watercraft, 1,403 personnel bunks, and a fully integrated SAAB 9LV 454 Mk3E combat management system with onboard interfaces to external operational and support elements. Joint Project 2048 will exponentially enhance the ADF’s operational reach and warfighting capabilities.

First to Fight’s narrative of amphibious experimentation, development, success, and failure, based frequently on LtGen Krulak’s own experiences, is essential reading for all ADF personnel who plan involvement with Joint Project 2048. As noted by LtGen Krulak:
Only a few, a very few, visionaries were willing to attack the formidable conceptual, tactical, and material problems associated with the modern amphibious assault landing.

First to Fight describes a myriad of USMC amphibious projects and ideas, including amphibious tanks and tractors, amphibian cargo trailers, the exercise of command authority during the sensitive transition period ashore, the precise utilization of naval gunfire, close air support to ground forces, the tactical employment of helicopters, the evacuation of casualties, expeditionary airfields, and all-weather bombing. These projects and ideas, when combined, created an amphibious system and, in many cases, remain critical components of 21st century USMC warfighting from the sea. Through Joint Project 2048 and associated ideas, the ADF will not replicate USMC capabilities, but as First to Fight demonstrates, the ADF can learn from a significant body of work and hard lessons previously experienced by the Marine Corps. For the sake of the Australian nation, this learning in support of Joint Project 2048 cannot be from only “a few, a very few, visionaries.”

For a joint planner in the ADF, LtGen Krulak in First to Fight provides a salient lesson in having the moral courage to back one’s own professional military judgment, and then make events comply with that judgment. For LtGen Krulak, one test of his own moral courage was on 30 June 1950, as the newly appointed Operations Officer, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. On that day LtGen Krulak was asked, via cryptic message, by the Chief of Naval Operations: “How soon can you sail for combat operations in the Far East [Korea]: (a) A reinforced battalion; (b) A reinforced regiment?” To these questions, LtGen Krulak replied, “(a) 48 hours; (b) Five days, including a Marine aircraft group.” The truth was that LtGen Krulak, experienced Marine that he was, did not know if Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, or indeed the entire Marine Corps, could achieve the deployments as he promised. What he did know was that the Marine Corps, which was constantly scrutinized for relevance by elements of the U.S. Government, must produce force elements when needed by the United States. In LtGen Krulak’s own words, “If we can’t, we’re dead.”

The ADF faces a similar challenge described by LtGen Krulak’s statement. The ADF is an expensive and highly trained organization. Relative to other government agencies available to serve the Australian Government, the ADF is enormous. Our joint planners must always keep in mind LtGen Krulak’s moral courage to back their own instincts and make a professionally informed call when government requests our force elements. To do anything less weakens the faith of our government in the ADF, takes away the initiative for ADF commanders to employ mission command and crash through readiness notices, and leads the ADF into the realm of Gen Krulak’s “if we can’t, we’re dead” scenario.

LtGen Krulak’s conclusion to First to Fight sums three challenges facing the USMC. Noting that he was writing in 1984, the relevance of his thinking has not diminished. His three concerns were (1) the threat to USMC standards of excellence, (2) the need for USMC austerity, and (3) the dead hand of bureaucracy. For many people serving in the ADF, and the USMC, these concluding thoughts from LtGen Krulak remain true in the 21st century.

Not only was LtGen Victor Krulak a significant thinker and innovator, but also his son, Charles C. Krulak, rose to become the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps. Many readers would know that in 1999, Gen Charles Krulak bought into the lexicon of warfighters throughout the world, the intellectual concept of The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War. And in 1998, Gen Charles Krulak, presciently predicted, “The threat of the early 21st Century will not be the ‘son of Desert Storm;’ it will be the ‘stepchild of Chechnya.’”

The question remains for the ADF, what is our equivalent of reading First to Fight? What is our dominant narrative? And shall we seek, as amply described by LtGen Victor Krulak a “tribal mythology” for all ADF warfighters?

FIRST TO FIGHT: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps.
By LtGen Victor H. Krulak, USMC(Ret).

Blue-jacket Books, Annapolis, MD, 1999

ISBN 1557504644, 227 pp.

$19.95 (Member $17.96)

President Trump’s first two confirmed cabinet picks are drawn from the ranks of the military—retired General James Mattis, now U.S. Secretary of Defense, and retired General John Kelly, current U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. Both herald from the same branch of service—the United States Marine Corps. Moreover, both held commands in the very same unit—the First Marine Division. The coincidence is curious, and invites consideration. What might the history and culture of the division Mattis and Kelly led say about the way they would lead their two departments charged with our nation’s defense?

I am not particularly qualified to undertake such an analysis. Like many in my generation, I did not enlist. My grandfather served in World War II, and my father in the Vietnam War. But ours is not a military family. I served briefly twenty years ago as a political appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense, but can claim no military expertise.

I can claim one surreptitious connection to the First Marine Division, however. Three months each year, I worship at Christ Church Episcopal in Middlesex County, Virginia. We own a summer home nearby. In the cemetery of the sanctuary, which dates to 1666, is buried a parishioner born more than a century ago, one Lewis Burwell Puller. The rural road running next to Christ Church is named after this man as well.

To a civilian like me, the name held little significance. To Marines, it is readily recognizable. Lieutenant General Puller, known as “Chesty” for his distinctive torso, remains to this day the most decorated Marine in American history. Over a 37-year career in uniform, in combat and command, from Haiti to Nicaragua, from Guadalcanal to Peleliu, from the Inchon Landing to the Chosen Reservoir, Puller earned five Navy Crosses, a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, among other honors. Although he would command many different units, his heart lied with the First Marines, the “old breed” as they are called. In aptitude, attitude, and achievement, Puller epitomized the First Marine Division, and is lionized by Corpsmen to this day.

The 2005 HBO miniseries The Pacific follows the First Marines during their island-hopping battles against the Japanese in World War II. Puller, played by William Sadler, has a central role as the father figure to the young leathernecks. In the first episode, following the Pearl Harbor attack, he steels the green recruits for the fight to come in a subdued but stirring speech. “For those lucky enough to return home for Christmas, hold your loved ones dearly, and join them in prayers for peace on earth and goodwill toward all men. And then report back here, ready to sail across God’s vast ocean, where we will meet our enemy, and kill them all.” Later, huddling with his officers in the midst of the melee at Guadalcanal, he boosts their morale by sharing with them an intercepted Japanese message. It read: “The Americans on this island are not ordinary troops, but Marines. A special force, recruited from jails and insane asylums, for bloodlust.” To hearty cheers from his men, Sadler’s Puller adds: “They got that right.”

This fictionalized account of Puller comports with reality, as Colonel Jon Hoffman in his balanced biography Chesty testifies. He was known as a Marine’s Marine, fearlessly charging into the teeth of battle, risking life and limb, to mercilessly cut down his enemies. Even as a senior officer, he insisted on siting his Command Post on the front lines, in the thick of whizzing bullets and bursting shells. He displayed his battlefield bravado most famously in Korea, when his unit found itself surrounded by the Chinese. “They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29 to one,” Puller is quoted as saying. “They can’t get away from us now!” The First Marines, under Puller’s command, escaped the trap, inflicting by some accounts the highest casualty ratio on an enemy in Marine Corps history.

His superiors ennobled him. “You have acted with singleness of purpose guided by your highest sense of right,” said four-star General O.P. Smith on his retirement. But those who served at his side had a more realistic assessment of Puller. “He was about the only man in the Corps who really loves to fight,” said one peer, according to Hoffman. “You could sense his grim determination to slaughter more Japs than anyone else,” said another.

Puller was a courageous and decorated warrior, but was he a just one? How might a Christian judge his service and the values he represented? These philosophical questions have practical importance given the role Puller’s prodigies now play in defending our country. Mattis, in his recent book Warriors & Citizens, raises a similar question: “Does the public appreciate that [the military’s] values and practices…are considered by many in the military to be integral to their fighting functions?”

The ethics of soldiering has always been a complicated one for Christians. Jesus implores us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek rather than respond violently, which would seem to prohibit warfighting. On the other hand, the New Testament repeatedly condones military service; in fact, it is a centurion who first recognized the divinity of the crucified Jesus (Mark 15:39). Christ Himself forcefully drives out moneychangers from the Temple, and claims to have brought not peace, but the sword.

St. Aquinas attempted to reconcile these differences by professing the so-called doctrine of double effect. The doctrine, which the 13th century scholastic introduces in his commentary on killing, teaches that an act which is by nature and intention good, but causes an evil consequence, is nonetheless morally permissible. The sanction extends even to actions whose evil consequences are foreseen. In other words, a soldier who is prepared—even expects—to slay his or her enemy is justified if the death is unintentional collateral damage in defense of self or others, or in pursuit of justice.

Oxford scholar and Providence contributor Nigel Biggar tests the feasibility of St. Aquinas’ doctrine in his compelling apologia In Defence of War. “Can this theory of double effect really get up and walk on the battlefield?” he asks. In combat, we often react viscerally rather than cerebrally. “One cannot reasonably expect squaddies to plough their way through the mind-bending literature on the principle of double effect,” Biggar rightly observes. He nonetheless answers his own question in the affirmative by defining intention as both willing and wanting, choosing and desiring. A just warrior is willing to kill, but does not want to, reluctantly accepting violence as a necessary means to a justified end. He or she may kill with foresight and ferocity, but not with malice or reckless abandon.

Do Puller and the killer instinct embedded in the ethos of the First Marines meet Biggar’s nuanced moral threshold? I believe so, but only if we admit additional evidence. Puller showed genuine respect for his enemies, especially those whom he believed fought valiantly. He praised the Chinese in Korea, for example, as “excellent fighters… [who] are not fanatics, but go about their business with resigned determination.” He viewed death in battle as regrettable but honorable, urging his own officers to risk their lives as needed to take the lives of others. And he notably, if crudely, mourned the destruction of innocent lives and property, as he did during street-fighting in Seoul. “I hate to see people in a shack like that get hurt. Probably the same family has been living generations in that same dump.”

These are the behaviors not of a berserker, but a military professional, capable of maintaining a conscience while executing orders. Because he chose to live by the sword, he was prepared to die by the sword, and respected all who upheld that code of honor, friend and foe alike. This is a love thy enemy of a different stripe, dignifying their service and sacrifice with an honorable, if deadly, tribute.

To many, such warrior love may seem absurd. How can raking an enemy line with machine gun fire or assaulting a bunker with a flamethrower be an act of charity? Admittedly, it represents one extreme, reserved for a specialized segment of society granted a license to kill and subject to extraordinary discipline. Extreme, but not boundless. A soldier may pay respect to another by killing him in battle, but not by showing him cruelty or causing him gratuitous suffering. The just war tradition encompasses ad bellum criteria governing the decision to wage war, and in bello criteria governing the means of waging it. The latter includes proportionality—using only means necessary to accomplish the just end—and discrimination—sparing innocent civilians violence. The just warrior obeys these prohibitions as he or she prosecutes the deadly work of war.

Following a 2007 survey showing only 40 percent of Marines would report a colleague for abusing civilians, General Mattis expressed dismay. He is quoted as reacting, “Whenever you show anger or disgust toward civilians, it’s a victory for al-Qaeda and other insurgents.” His was not a moral argument for the in bello imperative of discrimination, but a pragmatic one. As such, it remains contingent in his mind, and not a moral absolute. But his principled position is nonetheless praiseworthy, and reflects the sense of duty and honor that characterize the First Marines both Generals Mattis and Puller led. One can hope it will also shape the Trump Administration’s continued deliberations about the role of torture. The president has suggested he seeks his defense secretary’s counsel on this issue.

In April 1952, as the war in Korea raged, the Marine Corps deployed their most decorated veteran to an unlikely theater—West Point, Virginia, a howitzer shot’s distance from Christ Church where he and I worshipped. Gen. Puller was invited to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the county’s founding with keynote remarks. The rough-hewn leatherneck with a sailor’s tongue summoned rare eloquence to mark the historic occasion. “There will always be wars and rumors of wars,” he said. “Remember that there are far worse things than death and destruction. Further remember that there is no substitute for performance of duty, whether you are a statesman or a fighting man, and that there must be character and integrity at all times.” This same call of duty to fight honorably can be found in the Marines’ hymn, which boasts that the Corps is the “first to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean.” The First Marine Division’s paragon of virtue, Chesty Puller, upheld the standards of just warfighting and respect, if not love, of the enemy. We pray his progeny leading the defense of our nation today will do the same.

Matt Gobush served on the staff of the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee. He also served as chairman of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. He currently works in the private sector and lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and three internationally adopted children.

Feature Photo Credit: Colonel Lewis B. Puller, CO 1st Marines. Taken November 22, 1950, at Chigyong, North Korea. From the Oliver P. Smith Collection (COLL/213), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections. Official U.S. Marine Corps photo.

Tagged with: Discrimination • Donald Trump • Double Effect • First Marine Division • James Mattis • John Kelly • Jus Ad Bellum • Jus In Bello • Just War • Korean War • Lewis "Chesty" Puller • Nigel Biggar • Proportionality • Second World War (WWII) • Thomas Aquinas • U.S. Marine Corps

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