Brute Force

Mackubin T. Owens

January 1, 2009

The country lost a storied Marine on December 29, 2008. Retired Marine Lieutenant General Victor “Brute” Krulak died in his sleep in San Diego at the age of 95. Gen. Krulak was a thinker as well as a fighter. He is one of those legendary Marines without whom the Marine Corps might not exist today, and if it did, would be a far different organization. Gen. Krulak epitomized the qualities that Marines like to believe characterize our Service: not only the “uncommon valor” that Marines have demonstrated in such places as Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Inchon, the Chosin Reservoir, Hue City, Khe Sanh, and Fallujah, but also adaptability and innovativeness in response to changing circumstances.

I got to know Gen. Krulak when I edited Strategic Review from 1990 to 1997. The journal was published by the United States Strategic Institute, which was founded by the late Arthur Metcalf of Boston. Gen. Krulak was a vice president of USSI and when I was recommended to Dr. Metcalf as editor of Strategic Review, he ran my name past Gen. Krulak since I had a Marine Corps background. Apparently I passed muster and I can say that no other “background investigation” has ever meant more to me than that one.

When we first met, he introduced himself as “Brute.” I replied, “Well, Sir, if we’re going to be on a first-name basis, you should call me Mac and I’ll call you ’General.’” At one point I was going to write a biography of Gen. Krulak, but for a variety of reasons, I was never able to do so. Nonetheless, I spent many hours formally interviewing him, in addition to engaging in many informal chats during which he recounted anecdotes about his life and times. In addition, he gave me permission to examine his official record, including his fitness reports. It is interesting to note that his superiors recognized that, even as a junior officer, he was destined for greatness.

Despite his contributions to the Corps, he was not universally loved throughout the service. He drove his subordinates hard—although no harder than he drove himself—and he had no patience with even the hint of incompetence. When I asked him about his style of leadership, he replied that cultivating a reputation for being “a son of a bitch” had its advantages.

Many Marines were surprised when President Lyndon Johnson did not select Gen. Krulak to be Commandant of the Marine Corps in 1968. Perhaps it had to do with his persistent criticism of the strategy the United States was pursuing in Vietnam. He was, of course, immensely pleased when his son, Charles Krulak, became the 31st CMC in July of 1995.

Gen. Krulak graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1934, where he first received the sobriquet “Brute,” which mocked his diminutive stature: indeed, at 5’4″ he had to petition for special dispensation to receive a Marine Corps commission. He served aboard the battleship USS Arizona and from 1937-39, with the 4th Marine Regiment in China. During latter assignment, then-1st Lieutenant Krulak, the regiment’s assistant intelligence officer, made one of his first and most important contributions to the Marine Corps, observing and clandestinely photographing a Japanese amphibious operation against Chinese positions around the Liuho area at the mouth of the Yangtze River.

At this time, the Marine Corps was developing doctrine for amphibious operations to seize advance naval bases in support of War Plan Orange, the blueprint for a war in the Pacific against Japan. However, many believed that an amphibious assault was folly, pointing to the failure of the amphibious landing at Gallipoli in 1915. Logistics and combat loading of ships were challenges to be overcome, but the most critical of these was the problem of ship-to-shore movement: how to rapidly transport troops under fire to the beach in order to build up enough combat power ashore to prevent the enemy from driving the assault troops back into the sea.

Based on his observations, Lt. Krulak prepared a report, which included photographs of the shallow draft Japanese landing craft with retractable ramps, capable of transporting men and even heavy equipment directly onto the beach. He forwarded one copy of his report to the Navy Department in Washington. When he returned to the Unites States in 1939, he spent a day at the Navy’s Bureau of Ships, searching for his report. He found it, gathering dust in a file, described as the “work of some nut in China.” But Lt. Krulak persevered, and with the help of another legendary Marine, Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, got a model of what he had seen in China to the Commandant. The result was that the Department of the Navy eventually bought a landing craft similar to that observed by Lt. Krulak: the venerable “Higgins Boat,” which delivered soldiers and Marines to beaches across the globe during World War II.

During the years before World War II, Gen. Krulak suffered some setbacks that might have been career ending. One of the duties of the Marine detachment aboard a battleship was to raise and lower the anchor. During the lowering of the anchor of the USS Arizona, the chain came loose and the anchor was lost.

In 1940, now-Captain Krulak was working to develop an amphibious tractor. Taking advantage of a visit by the commander of the US Atlantic Fleet, Adm. Ernest King (later Commander, US Pacific Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations), Captain Krulak persuaded him come take a look at a pilot model of the amphibious tractor. Admiral King, in his starched white uniform with high collar and ribbons, agreed but told Krulak that he could only spare five minutes, since he had an important meeting with the under secretary of the Navy.

Unfortunately, the tractor’s engine stalled and could not be restarted, stranding Krulak and King on a coral reef some distance from shore in 3 1/2 feet of water. The two had to wade ashore, and King was livid. As he left, he said to Krulak, “Captain, have you ever considered a career as a civilian?” Fortunately, Krulak survived both incidents.

During the Second World War, Krulak commanded the 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion, and in November 1943, led the unit in a diversionary action on the island of Choiseul in support of the main landing on Bougainville. During the week-long action, Lt. Col. Krulak was wounded but refused to relinquish command of his battalion to be evacuated.

After the diversion had had its intended effect, the Marines were pulled off the island by PT boat, and Krulak ended up on one skippered by a young navy lieutenant named John F. Kennedy. In gratitude, Krulak gave Kennedy, as I recall, a bottle of Scotch. Their wartime acquaintance would have an impact some two decades later. Krulak was awarded a Navy Cross for his actions on Choiseul. Krulak later served on the division staff of the Sixth Marine Division during the battle of Okinawa.

After the war, Krulak played a major role in the interservice battles that characterized the period. Although the services may still often disagree about roles, missions, and the resulting budgets, people today may not realize just how vicious these fights were. The Marine Corps was especially vulnerable. Despite its performance during the war, many players wished to abolish the service. This included President Harry Truman, who saw the Marines as duplicating the capabilities of the Army, calling them the Navy’s “own little Army that talks Navy.…”

Because many Marines believed that their World War II record would ensure the survival of the Corps, the actual struggle for it future was waged by a small group that came to be known as “The Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society.” Krulak was an integral member of this effort.

A turning point in the battle came in the spring of 1946 when then Commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Alexander Vandergrift, delivered his famous “bended knee” testimony—drafted by The Society—before the Senate Naval Affairs Committee:

The Marine Corps, then, believes that it has earned this right—to have its future decided by the legislative body which created it—nothing more. Sentiment is not a valid consideration in determining questions of national security. We have pride in ourselves and in our past, but we do not rest our case on any presumed ground of gratitude owing us from the Nation. The bended knee is not a tradition of our Corps. If the Marine as a fighting man has not made a case for himself after 170 years of service, he must go. But I think you will agree with me that he has earned the right to depart with dignity and honor, not by subjugation to the status of uselessness and servility planned for him by the War Department.

As a result of the tireless efforts of Krulak and the rest of The Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society, the Marine Corps survived a serious threat to its existence.

Gen. Krulak served in Korea as chief of staff of the 1st Marine Division. During the 1950s, he played a role in the development of the use of helicopters to transport Marines from ship to shore as part of an amphibious operation. During this period, he also contributed to the Marine Corps’s reinvention of itself as a “force in readiness.” In 1953, this role, as well as the size of the Corps, was cemented by Congressional legislation.

In 1962, Krulak’s old comrade in arms, John Kennedy, now the president, directed the services to emphasize counterinsurgency training. As Special Assistant for Counter Insurgency Activities on the Organization of Joint Chiefs Staff from 1962 until 1964, now-Major General Krulak played a central role in implementing the President’s directive.

During this time, Krulak met several times with Sir Robert Thompson, the architect of the British victory over the guerrillas in Malaya. From Thomson, he absorbed a set of basic counterinsurgency principles that the Marines subsequently sought to apply in Vietnam. As Krulak observed, “The more [aware I became] of the situation facing the Vietnamese government and the Vietnamese Army, the more convinced I became, along with many other Americans, that our success in the counterinsurgency conflict would depend on a complete and intimate understanding by all ranks from top to bottom of the principles Thompson had articulated.”

In 1963, Krulak became involved in a controversy that persists to the present day. In the late summer of that year, President Kennedy dispatched Krulak and Joseph Mendenhall of the State Department to Vietnam. Their mission was to provide the President with an assessment of the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of the Republic of Vietnam. Both Krulak and Mendenhall briefed President Kennedy on September 10. Krulak concluded that the war was going well while Mendenhall claimed that the Diem government was certain to fall to the Viet Cong or the country would descend into a religious civil war. So diametrically opposed were their conclusions that the President quipped, “The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?”

But in fact, the differences were determined by those to whom each had spoken during their time in Vietnam. Krulak visited some ten locations in all four corps areas of Vietnam and extensively interviewed US advisers to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Mendenhall, who had been recommended to the President by Averill Harriman and Roger Hillsman, long-time advocates of replacing Diem, visited three South Vietnamese cities, where he spoke primarily to opponents of the South Vietnamese president.

On March 1, 1964, Lt. Gen. Krulak became Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. By this time, the State Department view had prevailed and the United States had acquiesced in a coup against Diem. The deteriorating situation in the country led the United States to commit ground troops.

The Marine Corps approach in Vietnam had three elements, according to Krulak: emphasis on pacification of the coastal areas in which 80 percent of the people lived; degradation of the ability of the North Vietnamese to fight by cutting off supplies before they left Northern ports of entry; and finally engagement of Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and Viet Cong (VC) main force units on terms favorable to American forces.

As CG FMFPac, Gen. Krulak was responsible for the readiness, training, equipping, and supplying of all the Marines in the Pacific, but he had no authority over their operational employment in Vietnam. That was the purview of General William Westmoreland, Commander, US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV). Gen. Westmoreland’s approach to the war differed considerably from the counterinsurgency-oriented approach favored by the Marines and as a result, the Marines soon came into conflict with Westmoreland over how to fight the war.

In his memoir, A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland writes:

During those early months [1965], I was concerned with the tactical methods that General Walt and the Marines employed. They had established beachheads at Chu Lai and Da Nang and were reluctant to go outside them, not through any lack of courage but through a different conception of how to fight an anti-insurgency war. They were assiduously [sic] combing the countryside within the beachhead, trying to establish firm control in hamlets and villages, and planning to expand the beachhead up and down the coast.

Westmoreland believed that the Marines “should have been trying to find the enemy’s main forces and bring them to battle, thereby putting them on the run and reducing the threat they posed to the population.” In Krulak’s view, Westmoreland committed the error of making the “third point the primary undertaking, even while deemphasizing the need for clearly favorable conditions before engaging the enemy.”

Westmoreland’s concept was illustrated by the battle of Ia Drang in November 1965, which convinced Westmoreland that the Army Concept was correct. In a head-to-head clash, an outnumbered U.S. force had spoiled an enemy operation and sent a major PAVN force reeling back in defeat. But Krulak believed that Ia Drang represented an example of fighting the enemy’s war, one that North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap predicted would be “a protracted war of attrition.” As Gen. Krulak observed, Giap was right: a “war of attrition it turned out to be … [by] 1972, we had managed to reduce the enemy’s manpower pool by perhaps 25 percent at a cost of over 220,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese dead. Of these, 59,000 were Americans.…”

Interestingly, Westmoreland’s successor as COMUSMACV, Gen. Creighton Abrams, abandoned the former’s operational strategy, which emphasized the attrition of PAVN forces in a “war of the big battalions” and adopted an approach akin to the one that Gen. Krulak and the Marines preferred. This approach emphasized the protection of the South Vietnamese population by controlling key areas rather than the destruction of enemy forces per se. In addition, rather than ignoring the insurgency and pushing the South Vietnamese aside as Gen. Westmoreland had done, Gen. Abrams followed a policy of “one war,” integrating all aspects of the struggle against the communists. This achieved the military and political conditions necessary for South Vietnam’s survival as a viable political entity.

The Marines’ expeditionary mindset and adaptability—and Gen. Krulak’s willingness to roll the dice—is illustrated by an event that occurred in April of 1966. At a meeting in Honolulu attended by the secretaries of defense and state, the US ambassador to Vietnam, and the principal US military commanders, a topic of discussion was the time it would take to build an airfield at Chu Lai to supplement the overworked field at Da Nang. The conservative estimate was eleven months.

The Marines had developed the capability to deploy an expeditionary airfield called “Short Airfield for Tactical support” (SATS), which consisted of aluminum planking and mobile bulk fuel systems and arresting gear. Gen. Krulak told the skeptical attendees at the Honolulu meeting that the Marines could have an 8,000 foot runway in operation within 25 days. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara gave the go-ahead, but he was not convinced that it could be done. The overall commander of US forces in the Pacific, which included those in Vietnam, Admiral U.S. Sharp, said to Gen. Krulak, “you know your neck is out a mile.”

Indeed. But by the 25th day, planes from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing were flying sorties from a 4,000 foot field. Shortly thereafter, Gen. Krulak received a handwritten note from McNamara: “Brute. I thought you were dreaming. Nice going.”

When he was not selected as Commandant, Gen. Krulak retired, but he continued to devote himself to the nation’s defense, now as a journalist. In this capacity, he served as a vice president of the Copley Newspaper Corporation and president of its news service, as well as writing regular column for many years.

Gen. Krulak was a true visionary. Fortunately, he inspired many who followed him. Nonetheless, he will be missed.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, RI, and editor of Orbis, the national security journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is writing a history of US civil-military relations.