The War Time Generations

EGA 2018No serviceman today will diminish the service, sacrifice, or achievements of our World War II heroes.  After all, they were our fathers, uncles, brothers, or maybe even our grandfathers. What they accomplished in Defending America, under the most difficult of circumstances between December 1941 through September 1945, should cause every one of us to stand in honor of their presence. They are entitled to our deepest respect.

And yet, to claim that one generation of American warrior is “greater” than any other is grossly inaccurate.  I have never heard a veteran of World War II proclaim themselves as such. The phrase, as one might expect, originated with a journalist by the name of Tom Brokaw who used that phrase in the title of his book.  It was later borrowed by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in several films recreating events in World War II.  Neither Brokaw, Spielberg, nor Hanks ever served their country in uniform —so I suspect they wouldn’t have any first-hand knowledge about combat, or what actually defines a “greatest” generation.

Tens of thousands of Americans served in the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.  Some of these men and women also lived during the Great Depression, experiencing tough times in the 1930s and 1940s.  It is certainly true that our Iraqi and Afghan war veterans grew up at a different time, but these men and women stepped up to serve; some gave all they had to give.  Most of our latest greatest volunteered for military service; all of them had to leave behind a loved one to worry about them over many months.  Do they not also count as among America’s greatest generation(s)?

In World War II, ten million Americans were conscripted into military service; another 3 million were volunteers.  Of these, 407,316 US servicemen gave up their lives.  An additional 671,846 received serious wounds.  In the Korean War, the United States drafted 1.5 million men, with a much smaller number volunteering to fight.  In total, 326,823 Americans served in Korea; of these, 33,651 Americans laid down their lives.  In Vietnam, 2.2 million Americans were forced to serve; only a quarter of these people actually served in Vietnam.  We lost 58,318 Americans in Vietnam; an additional  303,656 received combat wounds.

Do the Americans who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars deserve as much respect as those who served in World War II —particularly since neither of these conflicts received the popular support of the American people?

Of course, they do …

Yet, today, people who never once placed themselves in harm’s way will argue that the modern battlefield is far less demanding than those of earlier wars.  I suspect that our Iraqi and Afghan War veterans will disagree.  To begin with, while there does continue to be a draft registration, today’s military is an all-volunteer force.  These are America’s true warrior class citizens.  There is as much (or more) courage displayed on the battlefields of today as in our previous three conflicts.  What does stand out is that veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars received fewer combat awards than those in previous eras.  There are several reasons for this, but none of them related to any lack of courage among our modern-day warriors.

Wooldridge 001For those who think that the Iraq and Afghan Wars were “long distance” engagements, think again.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once said, “Our enemy generally use weapons at a distance from us, so there’s less hand-to-hand or in-close combat than there has been in previous years.”  Mr. Gates probably never met Corporal Clifford Wooldridge, United States Marine Corps.

On 17 June 2010, Cpl. Wooldridge was riding in a convoy when the vehicles came under heavy enemy fire from a group of Taliban fighters in Helmand Province [1], in Afghanistan.  The story of Wooldridge’s heroism is told in the following award presentation:

Navy Cross 001Navy Cross Citation:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Corporal Clifford M. Wooldridge, United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving as Vehicle Commander, Combined Anti-Armor Platoon White, Weapons Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, Regimental Combat Team 2, FIRST Marine Division (Forward), I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) Afghanistan, on 18 June 2010 in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.  When their mounted patrol came under intense enemy fire, Corporal Wooldridge and his squad dismounted and maneuvered on the suspected enemy location. Spotting a group of fifteen enemy fighters preparing an ambush, Corporal Wooldridge led one of his fire teams across open ground to flank the enemy, killing or wounding at least eight and forcing the rest to scatter. As he held security alone to cover his fire team’s withdrawal, he heard voices from behind an adjacent wall. Boldly rushing around the corner, he came face-to-face with two enemy fighters at close range, killing both of them with his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon. As he crouched back behind the wall to reload, he saw the barrel of an enemy machine gun appear from around the wall. Without hesitation, he dropped his empty weapon and seized the machine gun barrel. He overwhelmed the enemy fighter in hand-to-hand combat, killing him with several blows to the head with the enemy’s own machine gun. His audacious and fearless actions thwarted the enemy attack on his platoon. By his bold and decisive leadership, undaunted courage under fire, and total dedication to duty, Corporal Wooldridge reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.

Notes:

[1] Also known as “Marine-istan.”

Evaluating the Apple

A good friend recently sent me a book review by Mark Bowden, which I can only assume appeared in The Atlantic.  Bowden is best known for writing Black Hawk Down: A story of Modern War.  The subject of Bowden’s review is a book titled Eat the Apple: A memoir, by Matt Young.

Bowden begins,

“The trouble with writing the unvarnished truth in a memoir is that it requires you to be hard not only on others, but also on yourself.  Matt Young’s inventive, unsparing, irreverent and consistently entertaining [book] is that, but it is also a useful corrective to the current idealization of the American soldier —or in this case a Marine.  Patriotism and respect for the military is so high in this country that we have lately held a national debate over whether professional athletes should be required to stand for the national anthem.  Men and women in uniform are given preference in boarding airplanes and are so routinely thanked for their service that the expression has become rote.  Each new season brings a crop of movies and glossy TV serials dramatizing the heroics of our Special Operations.”

“[Matt] Young see’s hollowness and potential harm in this.”

“Enforcing the idea that every service member is a hero is dangerous; like creating of generation of veterans who believe everything they did was good,” wrote Young.

Bowden tells us that Matt Young wants to warn us of the dangers in creating an army of fanatics.  “[Military] service deserves respect, of course, but it does not in itself guarantee stirring and selfless acts of bravery.”

24th Marine Expeditionary Unit table 3 rifle range shootI’m quite sure that I won’t read Matt Young’s book.  I already know about military service and I might even suggest that I completed my career long before Mr. Young enlisted.  Still, some things go without saying.  Given the nature of our Armed Forces, and the fact that the military services host hundreds of occupational specialties —all of which support the efforts of front-line forces— only about one-third of our 1.4 million military service members serve in the combat arms … which is the place where we’ll find most heroes if we happened to be looking for them.  Nevertheless, courageous acts aside, very few of these selfless individuals are without sin.  A split second of bravery doesn’t make a soldier a good husband, a good father, or even a trustworthy friend.

Now about those fanatics Mr. Young is worried about.  I am unable to speak about the other services, but I can say that it is the purpose of Marine Corps training to turn every Marine into a lethal killing machine.  This is how battles are won.  If it is fanaticism, it is necessary to the success of combat units (and their combat/service support attachments).  If at some future time, as a matter of national policy, we intend to arm milquetoast youngsters with weapons and send them into harm’s way, then our nation will no longer deserve an elite combat force.

Nevertheless, the Marine Corps isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  Roughly 40% of Marines reenlist after their first enlistment, which means that around 60% of everyone who joins the Marine Corps end up leaving at the end of their term of service.  Of those who end up getting out of the Corps, probably less than 20% later whine about their service as American Marines.  Once a first term Marine decides to leave the Corps, it almost isn’t relevant what it was that he or she did while wearing the uniform.  One thing does remain, however: this individual became a United States Marine —and he or she will always be a United States Marine— even if a chronic complainer.  If there is one thing that every Marine has in common, whether an officer or an enlisted man, it is the amount of complaining they do.  If you find a Marine who isn’t complaining about something, keep an eye on him —he’s probably stealing from the supply section.

Still, no matter what Matt Young says in his book, it isn’t enough to join the Corps.  Almost anyone can do that.  Moreover, almost anyone can end up in a combat unit.  What matters to me is an honest answer to these questions: Have you served honorably and faithfully in an extremely chaotic environment over an extended period of time?  During your service as a Marine, did you keep faith with your fellow Marines, past and present?

One will note that I didn’t say it was necessary that the Corps keep faith with us … only that we Marines keep faith with each other because this is the foundation of our brotherhood; this is what the Marine Corps has always been about.

MILLER JBI do have a bother, however —it is this: young Marines returning from combat, where they formed intense bonds with their fellow Marines, who suddenly find themselves isolated in a completely different environment.  Many of these young men are soon released from active duty and find themselves in the midst of a society that does not understand what they’ve just been through or the things they did for their country.  They are at a place where there is no safety net, and where no one is watching their six —a place where many young men and women struggle to maintain a sense of who they once were only a short time before.  We seem to have plenty of time for classes on gender and civility, but there appears to be no time at all for combat decompression.  Ours is not (and never has been) a good transition.  We (the Marines) could do a lot better in this regard.  Personally, I see this as a monumental failure of senior leadership.

Notes:

  1. The photograph that appears within my last paragraph is that of the iconic James Blake Miller, a Marine who fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah.  The photograph was widely published in the American press; he was tagged “Marlboro Marine.”  Jim Miller suffers from PTSD and is now in recovery.  In my opinion, senior leaders in the Marine Corps deserted this young Marine when what he needed from them was the kind of leadership espoused by Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune, our 13th Commandant.  We talk about this leadership annually as part of our celebration of the Marine Corps Birthday.  Apparently, modern leaders of the Corps would rather talk about it than to act on it.  In my opinion, Jim Miller and thousands of men just like him qualify as being among our nation’s greatest of young patriots.
  2. This post was previously published at my other blog, which I have since re-titled Old West Tales. Since this particular post no longer fits that profile, I’ve re-posted it here.

In the history of our Corps

Marine Corps SealI have been somewhat remiss in publishing “In the History of our Corps,” but I will try to do better in the future. Here is the scoop for the month of May, courtesy as always from the Marine Corps Historical Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps.

2 May 1946: Marines from Treasure Island Marine Barracks, under the command of Warrant Officer Charles L. Buckner, aided in suppressing the three-day prison riot at Alcatraz Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay. WO Buckner, a veteran of the Bougainville and Guam campaigns, ably led his force of Marines without suffering a single casualty.

5 May 1983: In Beirut, Lebanon, a UH-1N helicopter carrying the commander of the American peace-keeping force, Colonel James Mead, was hit by machine gun fire. The six Marines aboard escaped injury. Colonel Mead and his crew had taken off in the helicopter to investigate artillery and rocket duels between rival Syrian-backed Druze Moslem militiamen and Christian Phalangists that endangered French members of the multinational force.

8 May 1995: In the wake of the most devastating storm to hit the New Orleans area in more than 200 years, a group of Marines and sailors from Marine Forces Reserve demonstrated the quick response synonymous with the Navy/Marine Corps team. Within 24 hours of being called, Marines assisted in the evacuation of 2,500 civilians, and Navy corpsmen treated scores of flood victims.

10 May 1945: The 22d Marines, 6th Marine Division, executed a pre-dawn attack south across the Asa River Estuary and seized a bridgehead from which to continue the attack toward Naha, the capital of Okinawa.

15 May 1862: Corporal John Mackie, the first Marine to earn the Medal of Honor, was commended for service in the USS Galena during action against Confederate shore batteries at Drewry’s Bluff which blocked the James River approaches to Richmond.

16 May 1945: The 22d and 29th Marines continued the attack against Half Moon Hill, a day characterized by the 6th Marine Division as the “bitterest” of the Okinawa campaign. By the 18th, the famed “Shuri line” had been broached.

22 May 1912: First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham, the first Marine officer to be assigned to “duty in connection with aviation” by Major General Commandant William P. Biddle, reported for aviation training at the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland, and Marine aviation had its official beginning.

23 May 1988: The V-22 Osprey, the world’s first production tilt-rotor aircraft, made its debut during rollout ceremonies at Bell Helicopter Textron’s Arlington, Texas, facility. More than 1,000 representatives from the military, industry, and media, gathered to hear various speakers, including Gen Alfred Gray, Commandant of the Marine Corps, praise the versatile rotor craft designed to meet the needs of 21st Century battlefields.

26 May 1969: Operation Pipestone Canyon began when the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines and 3d Battalion, 5th Marines began sweeps in the Dodge City/Go Noi areas southwest of Da Nang. It terminated at the end of June with 610 enemy killed in action at a cost of 34 Marines killed.

29 May 1991: Elements of a joint task force that included the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade departed the Bay of Bengal off the coast of Bangladesh after nearly two weeks of disaster relief operations following a devastating cyclone. The joint task force delivered tons of relief supplies using helicopters, C-130s, and landing craft in Operation Sea Angel.