Iwo Jima and the Future of the Marine Corps

Mackubin T. Owens

February 1, 2005

Sixty years ago—February 23, 1945—a Marine patrol from Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment reached the summit of Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima. It was the fifth day of the savage battle for the island, which would last another month and kill nearly all of the 22,000 Japanese defenders and 6,825 Marines and sailors. Another 19,000 Americans were wounded during the 36-day operation. One out of every three Marines was either killed or wounded, including 19 of 24 battalion commanders. Twenty-seven Marines and naval medical corpsmen were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions on Iwo, 13 posthumously. In the words of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

After reaching the summit of Mt. Suribachi, members of the patrol raised a small American flag that one of the Marines had brought with him. It was too small to be seen from the beach, so the Marines raised a second, larger flag. The second flag-raising was captured on film by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal. The result was the most famous image of World War II.

Rosenthal’s photo also has come to symbolize the Marine Corps as a fighting force. The sculptor Felix de Weldon rendered the photo into three dimensions, creating the Marine Corps Memorial that stands near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

As subsequent events in such places as Inchon, the Chosin Reservoir, Hue City, Khe Sanh, and Fallujah prove, uncommon valor continues to characterize the Marine Corps. But while soldierly virtue is important, there are two other virtues that have contributed to the success of the Marines, making the Marine Corps one of the world’s premier fighting forces: adaptability and innovativeness in response to changing circumstances.

The Marines who landed on Iwo Jima sixty years ago were part of a force that was built in accordance with what the eminent political scientist Samuel Huntington called a “strategic concept,” which he defined as “the fundamental element of [a] service—its role or purpose in implementing national policy.” A service’s strategic concept answers the “ultimate question: What function do you perform which obligates society to assume responsibility for your maintenance?”

The centerpiece of the World War II Marine Corps’ strategic concept was the conduct of amphibious assaults against a defended beach in order to seize advanced naval bases in support of a naval campaign. This strategic concept was part of an attempt to solve a particular strategic problem: how to project US naval and air power over the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean to bring the home islands of Japan under attack.

During the interwar period, if not before, Navy planners were convinced that the United States eventually would go to war with Japan. In support of War Plan ORANGE, the Navy’s plan for such an eventuality, Marines such as the brilliant Major Pete Ellis developed the doctrine for the sort of amphibious operations-bombardment, ship-to-shore movement, assault of a defended beach, consolidation of the beach head, and further operations ashore to secure the island that would be required to seize the necessary bases. This doctrine evolved in practice from the amphibious operation for Guadalcanal to the Gilberts and the Marianas and finally to Iwo and Okinawa, as circumstances changed.

The development of amphibious doctrine during the inter-war period and its successful application in the war with Japan represents just one example of the ability of the Marine Corps to adapt its strategic concept to security environment. During the Cold War, the Marine Corps reinvented itself as an expeditionary “force in readiness,” capable of responding with tailored, task-organized forces to any crisis across the spectrum of conflict including short-fuse contingencies that could arise any time or any place. The new strategic concept of the Marine Corps complemented that of the United States Army, which centered on the requirement to fight and win the nation’s land wars. In accordance with this strategic concept, the Army helped to deter major war by stationing units in or near the most likely theater of war.

During this time, the Marines also shifted from a narrow focus on amphibious assault to a broader conception of amphibious operations that included such capabilities as maritime pre-positioning and “operational maneuver from the sea” (OMFTS). Marines never claimed to be the only land force necessary, but they did organize and plan to deploy rapidly with a force capable of holding the line until heavier forces could arrive.

As part of this role, the Marines developed an “operational concept” that exploited a flexible Marine organization, the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). A MAGTF combines a command element, a ground combat element, an air combat element, and a logistics support element that can provide a task organized force ranging in size from a few hundred Marines to a multi-division, multi-air wing force of over 100,000.

While the Marines maintained their amphibious and expeditionary character, their use alongside the Army in Vietnam and in the Gulf in 1991 led commentators to ask whether the Marines were redundant. In a watershed speech in July 1991, then-Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) asked why the United States needed two land armies. That is a fair question. Does the United States need a Marine Corps that is larger than the armies of most other countries? The answer depends a great deal on whether the strategic concept of the Marine Corps can be justified.

How do we differentiate between the Marine Corps and the Army? The Army’s strategic concept has been reasonably stable for about 60 years, focusing as mentioned previously, on the requirement to fight and win the nation’s land wars.

But now the whole US military is seeking to acquire an expeditionary capability. In particular, the Army is moving toward a lighter, more deployable force structure that, some have observed, looks a great deal like a MAGTF. Where does that leave the Marine Corps?

The key to understanding the difference between the strategic concepts of the Marine Corps and the Army is to return to the original meaning of the word “amphibious.” In 1960, the British military writer B.H. Liddell Hart argued that “Amphibious flexibility is the greatest strategic asset that a sea power possesses.” But over the past 30 years, the term often has been used in roles and missions debates to “box” the Marine Corps into “amphibious assault.”

But the meaning of amphibious is much broader. It is derived from a classical Greek word meaning to live “all around” or “on both sides,” i.e. in two worlds—land and water. In this sense, the strategic concept of the Marines means literally to come from the sea in order to conduct operations on land, and then return to the sea. But given the evolution of the word and its current narrow connotation, it might be best to employ the splendid British term, “amphibiosity.” This captures the broader meaning of “amphibious:” the strategic leverage achieved when a sea power dominates the “commons” of the sea and can use it as maneuver space in order to project land power at a place and time of its choosing.

The traditional focus of the Marines, along with its sister service, the United States Navy, has been on the world’s littorals. But the employment of Marines in Afghanistan in late 2001 and in Iraq from 2003 to the present demonstrates that amphibiosity extends well beyond the littorals. In the first case, Marines seized an airfield in a theater of operations far from any shoreline. In the second, they provided the forces for one of the two main axes of advance on Baghdad. Since the fall of that city, Marines as well as soldiers have been in the thick of fight against Iraqi “insurgents and foreign jihadis.” The use of the Marines in both cases illustrates the degree to which the security environment has evolved over the past decade, and the fact that responsiveness, flexibility, and adaptability are the characteristics most necessary in military forces of the future.

The Marine Corps helps to address the geopolitical problem that the United States faces. To protect its worldwide interests, the United States must be able to project power globally. But given its geographical position, the United States can project power only by overcoming what a former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Charles Krulak, has called the “tyranny of distance.”

The tyranny of distance creates a dilemma for ground forces—the tradeoff between rapid strategic deployability on the one hand, and lethality, sustainability, and self-protection on the other. Thus an airborne unit can deploy more quickly than any other ground force, but it lacks the killing power and sustainability necessary to win once it gets on the ground. On the other hand, an armored unit possesses the latter characteristics, but takes a long time to get into the theater of war.

During the Cold War, the United States handled the tyranny of distance problem by identifying the most likely theaters of war and stationing Army and tactical Air Forces there during peacetime as a deterrent. Of course, the defense of Europe required more forces than the ones already there, so equipment for reinforcing forces was pre-positioned in theater. In the event of an emergency, troops would be flown into theater from the continental United States (CONUS) where they would “marry up” with their equipment. This approach worked as long as we were planning against an identifiable adversary, the Soviet Union, but became less relevant as the security environment became less certain. The tyranny of distance problem manifest itself during the Gulf War of 1990-91, when it took the United States nearly six months to deploy the ground combat power thought necessary to defeat Iraq. It has only become more acute as time has passed.

One response to the tyranny of distance problem is to increase the nation’s reliance on airpower. Indeed, airpower advocates seized upon the Gulf War to argue that force planning models were biased in favor of land power. They claimed that the actual conduct of the war demonstrated that land power was now less important than it once had been, and that thus, the balance of US forces should be shifted to emphasize airpower.

The campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to have refocused attention on land forces. As both cases illustrate, “boots on the ground” are necessary for successful “war termination”—the translation of military success into a favorable peace.

Military planners have concluded that the missions that will required land forces in the future will be expeditionary in nature. As former Marine Commandant Gen. Carl Mundy was fond of saying, “’expeditionary’ is not a mission. It’s a mindset.” The Marines have developed this expeditionary mindset over decades, while the Army is only now coming to grips with it. As Tom Ricks wrote in his excellent book, Making the Corps, “The Marines tend to display a kind of funky joie de vivre, especially in the field. In their own parlance, they know how to ’pack their trash,’ something the Army is learning slowly and painfully as it too becomes ’expeditionary’ in hellholes like Somalia and Haiti.”

The strategic concept of today’s Marine Corps is called “Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare” (EMW). EMW subsumes OMFTS and such operational concepts as “ship-to-objective maneuver” (STOM) and increases the ability of naval forces—Navy and Marines—to use the sea as both a base and a maneuver space. A key element of today’s amphibious doctrine is “seabasing” the naval concept that envisions projecting maneuver forces ashore to conduct combat operations while keeping logistics, command and control, and fire support at sea. This is the essence of amphibiosity.

Amphibiosity is broad enough to accommodate the strategic and operational concepts of both the Marine Corps and the Army. But the strategic concept of the service that comes from the sea offers a particularly attractive alternative. As long as the Marine Corps maintains its commitment not only to the inculcation of soldierly virtue in individual Marines and cohesion in its units, but also to innovativeness and adaptability, this naval service will always have a role in securing the national interests of the United States.

Mackubin T. Owens is an associate dean of academics and professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.