Making the Corps is not really about the Marine Corps. The author's central theme is the estrangement of the Marines-and the U.S. military as a whole-from American society. Thomas Ricks worries about where this trend might take us, and where the prevalent attitudes of the U.S. military and its growing autonomous behavior might lead.
Tom Ricks is a widely respected correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, and is known for keen observation and incisive analysis. Making the Corps only will add luster to that reputation. He was given unfettered access to follow Recruit Platoon 3086 as it made its way through the 12-week long rite of passage conducted at each Marine Corps Recruit Depot-from the muggy bus ride through South Carolina, to its initial formation on the infamous yellow footprints-through the daily tribulations under the glare of the ubiquitous drill instructors, to the chest-swelling graduation parade. Ricks acknowledges that the Corps has ably faced an uphill battle turning today's indifferent teenagers into disciplined and effective fighting material. "In a society that seems to have trouble transmitting values," he notes, "the Marines stand out as a successful and healthy institution that teaches values to the Beavises and Buttheads of America." Ricks saw ample evidence of the craving that young Americans have for self-discipline, for order, and for a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Without this inherent need, the transformation that occurs at boot camp would never take place.
The author is candid about his feelings about the Corps as an institution. He recognizes it as a distinct culture-"a culture apart." Moreover, he likes this culture; its formalism, its history, its hallowed rituals, its insular nature, and is mythology. It strikes him that the Corps "is the most well-adjusted of the U.S. military services today, at ease with its post-Cold War situation," the only service not "on the verge of an identity crisis." He appreciates the candor of the Marine Corps, from the upper echelons of its leadership down to the lowest private.
He also likes how the Marine's unique culture-and its inbred insecurity-translates into an adaptive force ideally postured for the post-Cold War security environment. Ricks notes that the Marines' "abiding sense of vulnerability, and the consequent requirement to excel to ensure the survival of the institution, is the central fact of Marine culture." He aptly perceives that the Corps' internal tolerance for diversity, debate, and self-criticism stems from this survival instinct. This instinct, frequently manifested in sharp commentary in the Marine professional journal, The Marine Corps Gazette, ensures that performance remains the central criterion of individual and organizational success. It also accounts for its steady focus on the future and its uncanny ability to anticipate the need for change and innovation.
Tom Ricks also portrays favorably the Corps' readiness for the murky, chaotic security environs of today's post-Cold War world. He applauds its maneuver warfare doctrine and its insightful Small Wars Manual published more than half a century ago-but which retains great salience in a world where clarity of purpose, clean lines of communication, and predetermined exit strategies are rare.
But Ricks aims to do more than merely recount the rich heritage of today's Marine Corps. Parris Island and the recruits merely are a framework to get to a larger picture-the growing gulf that divides the military from the rest of America. This aspect of the book will be deemed highly controversial by military officers, both active and retired. Yet it is time for the nation to face this issue. Nearly a decade into the post-Cold War era, America has little appreciation for the magnitude or costs of its hard-won victory, or how much work remains in refashioning its military establishment.
In apparent contradiction to his heartfelt admiration for today's Marine Corps, Tom Ricks has serious concerns about the direction the Marines are heading, "particularly their remoteness from American society." Even more controversial will be Ricks' conclusion that today's Marine Corps "feels increasingly besieged by a new kind of enemy; the vast social and political forces that threaten to destroy its values." Citing a few articles from such high-profile former Marines as James Webb, Ricks concludes that the Corps perceives itself at war with the society it defends. Painting with an extremely wide brush, the author finds that "the Marines are rebels with a cause, articulately rejecting the vague nihilism that pervades American popular culture."
In the background of this pessimistic assessment is an underlying sense that civil-military relations in the United States are deeply troubled-if not out of control. Underlying this concern is a belief that today's officer corps is increasingly politicized, more Republicanized and conservative than in years past, more active in political activities and in the media, and as interested in representing itself as in defending America.
Ricks acknowledges other societal shortfalls that exacerbate this situation. As more veterans of the great wars of the 20th century pass on, ignorance of the military-its traditions and values-increases. As our military shrinks, and as its economic and social structure becomes increasingly removed from towns and cities around the country, its own level of empathy with U.S. ideals supposedly fades. The number of veterans in Congress has dropped dramatically, and finding an appointed official in the current administration with any military experience is a fool's errand. The ruling elites of civilian society share little common ground with military leaders-and in fact, their view of the world and America is at odds with the classic values of cohesion, discipline, sacrifice, and duty. We have elected leaders who-as a class-are both very uncomfortable with military people and increasingly unfamiliar with the nuances of military organizations and their use as instruments of national power.
Tom Ricks acknowledges that problems exist on both sides of this equation-the onus is not laid at the feet of the military. But he underestimates the U.S. public and the Marine Corps in their appreciation for each other.
Despite his disturbing concerns about the direction of the Corps and the U.S. military in general, Ricks offers only a limited number of solutions, ranging from an unrealistic call for a return to conscription to some minor reforms in the military educational system. His main point-that the Pentagon should place less reliance on formal military schools and make greater use of existing civilian courses at leading universities-is sound. Both sides of this "growing estrangement" would be better served by having greater opportunities to exchange viewpoints throughout an officer's career.
Ricks could have gone much further. The National Defense University could be transformed into a premier National Security University (NSU) that serves both civilian and military leaders, focused more broadly on the integration of all three instruments of national power. The NSU would offer the highest quality education possible for future leaders from both the Defense and State Departments, as well as the legislative branch. Even more necessary is a critical Capstone course for senior civilians, before they head into higher levels of the Pentagon. Finally, all the military's educational institutions should scrap their stale military-media confabs and replace them with serious conferences on civil-military relations. This issue has been tearing at the edges of the professional military ethic since the end of the Vietnam War and has been studiously ignored in the very places where it can be constructively debated and assessed. Perhaps Making the Corps will stimulate such an assessment.
Dr. Samuel Huntington once characterized civil-military relations as the supreme issue in national security policy. If so, this is a critical book, and one that should receive the closest scrutiny. More than roles and missions, more than asking how many B-2s we need or how we can exploit the Revolution in Military Affairs, we need honest discourse about the relationship between the United States and the armed forces that preserve its interests. Given the evidence presented in this book-the sooner, the better.
Patrick Robinson. New York: Harper Collins, 1997. 411 pp. $25.00 ($22.50).
Reviewed by John Lehman
Like all of Tom Clancy's novels, Patrick Robinson's new techno-thriller Nimitz Class will frustrate a couple of purists by getting a few technicalities wrong. In a real emergency on board ship, for example, a sailor hears, "This is not a drill!"-not "No shit!" And like Clancy's, all of Robinson's naval officers and their wives speak like cornball suburbanites. But for the rest of us, the action and the technical details ring true and the plot is both exciting and plausible. The Thomas Jefferson, a Nimitz-class carrier, suddenly disappears while deployed in the Arabian Sea, and evidence soon points toward a nuclear accident. But it is in fact a devilish plot planned and executed with great skill by a terrorist state.
Finding out whodunit and how takes the reader on an intriguing hunt through the Mossad, the MI-6, Northwood, Russia, Iran, and Iraq, and illuminates much technical and tactical wizardry. Even the most dedicated military groupie will keep turning the pages as each chapter raises more vexing questions. Robinson is a yarn-spinner of the first chop.
But within the heart of every author of a techno-thriller secretly dwells a policy wonk. Because Robinson has such a convincing grasp, and obvious empathy with his military subjects, the reader is more than usually ready to listen to the sermon.
From the Thomas Jefferson's final combustion. Robinson's characters conclude that in today's world of state terrorism, availability of nuclear weapons, and proliferation of coastal submarines and cruise missiles, it is perhaps the time to pull back the carriers from vulnerable forward deployments to trouble spots, and in future risk only smaller surface ships and submarines. As the book draws to a close: "The President's face lit up as he cottoned on to the political advantages of such a strategy." In the sequel, perhaps, the President will stumble upon his Secretary of the Navy (mysteriously absent from the present adventure) who will be sure to help him cotton on to the overwhelming disadvantages of such a retreat. He will point out that while a nuke will certainly vaporize a Nimitz, it will do the same to New York or Rhein Main Air Force Base. Of the three, a containership into New York or a truck into Rhein Main is far easier than a warhead into a Nimitz-unless of course the Nimitz is pulled back to home waters as Robinson's muddled admiral recommends. If a choice must be made, however, as a New Yorker, I view the loss of a carrier as the lesser evil, though not all would agree.
The fictional secretary also would point out that as a result of the Pentagon having canceled the A-6 and A-12 longrange strike bombers, his carriers now are equipped solely with short-legged aircraft, so they are of no use except when deployed forward and close to the action. He would admit they are indeed more vulnerable to diesel subs in coastal waters, but point out that the conventional torpedoes of such boats cannot sink the triple-hulled Nimitz class, but make short work of thin-skinned Aegis ships and V/STOL carriers. And placing the battle group commander forward in such a tripwire ship could make the temptation to sink "the great Satan" irresistible to a crazed despot-a kind of anti-deterrence.
"But wait a minute," huffs the average reader. "If any U.S. President loses a capital ship to an act of war by a rogue state, he would pulverize the miscreant." But in Nimitz Class he does nothing of the kind; the book is very realistic. After all, President Ronald Reagan did nothing to Syria and Iran after they murdered 241 Marines; and Saddam Hussein still gives raspberries from his seat of power to exPresident Bush. Both Presidents' righteous hands were stayed by the infinite capacity of the Pentagon bureaucracy to delay and temporize. The fictional president will be told the sad fact that U.S. soldiers and sailors deployed in troubled lands and waters will continue to be tempting targets of state terrorism because recent history has shown that killing them often achieves the terrorist's objectives, as it did in Lebanon and Somalia. Robinson clearly has shown that well-crafted fiction is a far better stimulation of policy debate than turgid monographs and white papers. But here we must lament that all too often life does imitate art.
The Perfect Storm
Sebastian Junger. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. 227 pp. $23.95 ($21.55).
Reviewed by Captain John Bonds, U.S. Navy (Retired)
This is a detailed examination by a talented journalist of an impressive natural phenomenon, and in particular, of its effect on the people who were caught up in it. Junger's extraordinary skill in research, assembly, and presentation transforms the tale into an epic story of the sea-chilling in its harsh reality.
The Perfect Storm refers to the technical state of development of this storm, which attained its full capability of intensity, undiminished by any factor normally present in such events. Beginning as an autumnal low pressure system, it bumped up against an intense high to the northeast and was pushed southwest into the path of a late-season hurricane. With this combination of forces, the storm exploded into a once-in-a-century storm.
But this is much more than the story of a storm's life cycle. The essential core of the book are the lives of the seamen (and women) who met this storm. The central characters are commercial sword fishermen, stringing long lines of hooks on the Grand Banks just south of the Hague Line. In these shallow waters, the storm-driven waves rose to incredible heights more than 30 meters, breaking as they hit the shallow water.
Junger begins his account ashore in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where the lifestyle of the fisherman is portrayed with the skill of a sociologist. Characters emerge from his descriptions, providing the humanity that gives the book such impact. Some fishermen find times ashore to be brief interludes in a lifetime at sea; others go to sea mainly to sustain a more significant life ashore. Both types embark in the doomed Andrea Gail, bound for the Grand Banks in September 1991.
The Andrea Gail was a modern longliner, with a 365-horsepower diesel engine powering her single screw. Her stability had been compromised to some degree by a deck extension and fuel drums stored topside. Nevertheless, she was not unusual in this regard. Her fate resulted from her being in the path of the "perfect storm." Her struggle is the central focus of the book.
The last moments of a ship involve writing beyond reporting, well into the realm of the novelist-no one survives a Grand Banks sinking. Junger succeeds brilliantly, using medical research and data from near-death drowning events to portray a morbidly fascinating chronicle of a sailor's last moments.
Junger's scope, like that of the storm, is wider than the fishing fleet. It includes the crew of a Westsail 32 bound for Bermuda from Maine, a Coast Guard Cutter assigned to rescue them, and the crews of two rescue helicopters who sortie in near-hurricane conditions in the hope of saving lives. One of these helicopters goes down, its crew unable to effect an inflight refueling under such turbulent conditions. They, too, become survivors-and victims-of the storm.
Throughout this intense narrative, Junger remains clinically detached, conducting his postmortem examination clearly and concisely, while weaving statistical and climatological data skillfully into the narrative. The result captures readers' attention almost immediately, and holds their interest until the very end. At that point, readers feel that they have known those involved in the storm's fury and that they also have experienced the fury of the sea. For this reviewer, the power of Junger's prose was enhanced continually by the personal memory of salt-crusted eyes straining to see the next wave; a mouth salty from spray, cottony from fear; and the ultimate realization of man's tininess on the sea, when it is churned into a malevolent theater.
If you're a true seaman, you must read this book. You'll never forget it.