Marine Corps Identity from the Historical Perspective


During his retreat into Pennsylvania in late 1776, after getting mauled by British expeditionary forces in New York, George Washington wrote Col. John Cadwalader asking if his marines in Philadelphia were “resolved to act upon Land or meant to confine their services to the Water only.” By disembarking from two frigates and joining Washington’s forces during his famous raid on Trenton, the Marines began a tradition that has continued to this day: They make themselves ready to fight on land and at sea. The flexibility required to perform in both domains has guided and shaped Marine service culture for generations. Marine Corps identity has often been obscure to most people. “Who” or “What” the Marines are is a question older than America’s time as a great power, and it could be argued, older than the United States itself. The fact that they are soldiers (not sailors) who serve at sea has been a significant part of the confusion.

The identity question from both within and outside the Marine Corps has kept popping up throughout history. Col. Commandant Archibald Henderson fought throughout his 38-year tenure in the first half of the 19th century to keep marines on ships while at the same time arranging Marine participation in the Seminole and Mexican-American Wars. He continuously had to argue before 11 presidents and 18 secretaries of the Navy that the Marines were the military arm of the Navy and useful to the nation. In 1916, within the pages of the very first issues of the Marine Corps Gazette, a group of field grade officers including John A. Lejeune, John H. Russell, George C. Thorpe, and Earl H. Ellis debated one of the central questions regarding Marine identity: their own mission and doctrine. Surrounded as they were by the preparedness craze sweeping across the United States and the grim statistics of the Western Front in France, these officers discussed the best approach to prepare the Marines for war. Although nearly all of the officers in the discussion agreed that the Marine Corps was a striking arm of the Navy, they never reached a consensus regarding doctrine. Readiness was the Corps’ mission: for war, for expeditionary duty, and for advanced base operations.

Maj. Leo Spaeder’s open letter to the incoming commandant of the Marine Corps along with responses by Brian Kerg, Mark Nostro, and Gordon Emmanuel and Justin Gray address the same question many have asked over the last 242 years. Spaeder correctly points out that since the end of major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress, and thereby the defense establishment, wants the military to position, train, and equip itself for near-peer threats like China and Russia. As a staff officer at Marine Corps Headquarters, he is privy to how the Corps’ leaders are conceptualizing their future responsibilities and how complex and challenging that can be. He thinks the ideas now swirling around headquarters are incoherent and reflect an institution that does not know itself anymore.

The Marine Corps has gone through what Spaeder is writing about after nearly every major war it has participated in during the 20th century: a post-war reduction in manpower with attendant efforts at reorienting around a singular driving mission, a “core attribute.” It has been asserted that the incoming commandant needs to pick a core attribute, essentially a raison d’etre, sell it to Congress, and form the Corps along those lines. It has also been argued that if the Marine Corps doesn’t do this, then it risks – in the words of Spaeder – “irrelevance and eventual extinction.” Marines often look back to the interwar period (the 1920s and 1930s) as an example of when their service rallied behind a core attribute, amphibious landings, which prepared the Corps for World War II and thereby kept them from going extinct.

Despite being popular wisdom within Corps lore, this isn’t what actually happened. The narrative that the Marine Corps threw all its energy into a single mission in the interwar period is a myth. The post-World War I Marine Corps faced drastic manpower reductions in the 1920s while their operational tempo remained high. Marines trained for advanced base operations at Culebra and Hawaii and conducted counter-insurgency operations in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti. American withdrawal from Haiti in 1933 marked the end of the “Banana Wars” which gave marines the opportunity to focus more on doctrine and training. With years of small wars fighting behind them, and faced with the rising Japanese threat in the Pacific, the Marine Corps focused more on fleet exercises and amphibious landings with the Navy. The old Army manuals that Marine Corps schools in Quantico had used for years were obsolete because they didn’t cover the broad spectrum of warfare that Marines had experienced and had to be ready for in the 1930s. Marines needed doctrines of their own that took into account both small wars and amphibious landings.

Ben Fuller and John Russell canceled classes at Quantico in the winter of 1933/34 so students and instructors could publish the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations and reorganize the Corps’ force structure into the fleet Marine force we know today. At the same time however, marines worked on the Small Wars Manual which came out in 1940. Both texts together say much more about the Marine Corps’ character than either one by itself. They reveal that, like the marines of the American Revolution and beyond, the Corps has always had to make ready for multiple missions. The adoption of both doctrine manuals just before World War II shows that the Marine Corps can be naval, military, and also expeditionary, something Marine officers today appear to have a problem with because they believe being “all things to all people” will lead to the Corps’ extinction.

The Marine Corps is not going away, however. The Corps exists for important historical, legal, and strategic reasons. The infamous “Chowder Marines” (of the immediate post-World War II defense unification fights) and a bi-partisan coalition of congressman wrote the Corps’ missions into law in the National Security Act of 1947. Five years later, their force structure, too, was codified in the Douglas-Mansfield Act. Legally speaking, the Corps is here to stay barring a major and unprecedented act of Congress. Strategically speaking, the United States is a premier maritime power with crucial economic and strategic interests in helping allies and protecting world-wide trade. This country needs a Navy to defend this system and the Navy needs a landing force, preferably a fleet Marine force organized as Marine air-ground task forces, to project power ashore and serve as its military arm. The Army could do this, sure. But if history is any guide, the Navy would much rather work with Marines in the prosecution of naval campaign than with the Army. If today’s global system remains in place, the Navy and Marine Corps will have dominant roles to play in national defense into the foreseeable future.

What this means is that the Marine Corps is both naval in character and purpose and there is nothing wrong or damaging about that. As long as the United States is a world power, the executive branch of the U.S. government will need a forward deployed naval force ready to provide a range of capabilities to theater commanders across the globe. Immediately after the end of the Cold War, and despite not having a clear threat on the horizon, countries needed humanitarian assistance, embassies needed to be defended, and a whole range of potential crises erupted where American lives and interests were at stake. Commandants Alfred Gray, Carl Mundy, and Charles Krulak of the late 1980s and 1990s had to make sure the Marines could respond to all of these things. To this day the Corps is built, in part, to conduct naval campaigns and respond to these crises. It should be common knowledge that naval campaigns are not exclusive of ground and air combat that require infantry, armor, air, and the logistical capabilities to support all three. The commander in chief, the theater commanders, and the Navy need a force that can do all these things from ships off shore. Focusing too much on a core attribute like a “heavy mech force” or even “a small wars force” could make the Marine Corps far less useful in a world that will continue to require flexibility of capability.

The Marine Corps’ raison d’etre is the same today as it was in 1916: readiness. Back then, the Marines pitched themselves as “America’s handyman.” Today the Marines’ tool belt is full of hammers, nails, screw drivers, pry bars, pliers, and box cutters. Amphibious assault is the big shiny hammer that clearly hasn’t been used often but looks good when carried around and is fun to talk about. “Small wars” are the least popular instrument in the belt but the one that has been worn down over years of constant use and re-use. These two are surrounded by others such as non-lethal crises response and humanitarian assistance. These tools and the ability to use them effectively are important to the United States’ strategic concerns and keeping them ready for use is not indicative of a loss of identity. The Corps should make sure those tools are serviced and ready, not discard the entire belt to be expert only at swinging hammers or driving screws.

Alas, the description of the Marines currently being in the “frozen middle” is reflective of what is going on in the society the Marine Corps serves. Moderation is not sexy in these days of “disruptive innovation” and revolutions in military affairs. The plea for a single revolutionary mission shows that marines are just as susceptible as politicians and ideologues to the demanding calls for going hard one way or the other as opposed to a sensible path between the two.

Marines and national security professionals should remember that history informs the Corps’ identity as much if not more so than its current mission sets. Who are the Marines? Every commandant and recruiter since Lt. Col. William Ward Burrows, the original commandant of the Marine Corps from 1798 to 1805, has had to form an answer for that. But here is an answer based on history, an answer that can date all the way back to George Washington and the founding era. Marines have military characteristics but the Corps is not an army. Marines serve on ships and have naval language and traditions but they are not sailors. If history is any guide, then marines are soldiers of the sea, they are naval infantry, they are America’s expeditionary and amphibious force in readiness. All that means is they usually work in concert with the Navy, as in the 1804 assault on Derna, but are quite useful when detached far inland working jointly with the Army, as in France during World War I. Recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan may seem different, but they are not. Heavy and high-end tech has always been secondary to developing the Corps’ most important asset, the individual marine. Today’s cry for an identity reflects historical amnesia in much of the Corps, I’m afraid.

The solution is to keep doing what marines have always done after long wars. Look forward and plan, but remain flexible. Adapt to the needs of society and the Navy and train for both maneuver warfare and small wars. Equip the air-ground task forces with the training and equipment they need to respond to the most likely scenarios. Don’t become complacent with threat scans and preparation. If the United States finds itself in a war with a major military and economic power, then the Navy and Marine Corps will be just as able to respond quickly to that as they would still a more likely “other-than-war” or “gray-zone” scenario. If any of this sounds familiar, good, because historically speaking, this has proven to work.

Marines should look back at their own history, but they must do it carefully. They will find that it’s full of examples of adaptation and survival. Remember that complete and total readiness is another myth. Honest military historians will admit that branches of the U.S. military have never been fully ready for any of the major wars this country has ever fought. Because of the Marines’ steady adherence to flexibility, however, their path to readiness was often shorter and less painful than it could have been. But it was a path they always had to take regardless. The Marine Corps is currently on this path and the people who control the purse strings understandably want answers on which way the Marines will go.

As a former marine and a current Marine Corps historian I have an understanding of who the Marines are and where they’ve been, formed through both experience and years of study. Therefore, I’m optimistic about where they are going. Hopefully they will continue to be America’s force-in-readiness that can respond quickly to an array of potential threats as they have always done. This is what the United States still needs whether the American people and Congress realize it now or not.


Mark R. Folse, PhD, is the Class of 1957 Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the United States Naval Academy where he teaches Naval and Marine Corps history. He is also a former enlisted Marine infantryman with combat tours to Afghanistan and Iraq.  

Image: Marine Corps