Most of the Marine troop leaders knew what war was like

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020

When the Korean War broke out, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), somewhat less than 10 percent of the small United States Marine Corps had seen combat:

But fortunately for the Corps, the percentage was highly concentrated within officer and key NCO grades; most of the Marine troop leaders knew what war was like.

And the Marines, who had always been largely a volunteer organization, had escaped the damaging reforms instituted within the United States Army at the end of World War II. The public clamor rose against the Army, during the war twenty times the small, parochial Corps’ size, and ignored the Marines.

In 1950 a Marine Corps officer was still an officer, and a sergeant behaved the way good sergeants had behaved since the time of Caesar, expecting no nonsense, allowing none. And Marine leaders had never lost sight of their primary — their only — mission, which was to fight.

The Marine Corps was not made pleasant for men who served in it. It remained the same hard, dirty, brutal way of life it had always been.

The Marines may take little credit, either for courage or foresight, in remaining the way they were. The public pressure simply never developed against them in the years after the war, pushing their commanders into acquiescence with the ideals of society. Not long after the end of the Korean conflict, after an unfortunate incident one night at a place called Ribbon Creek, the commandant of the Corps showed no more ability to stand up for his rights in front of a congressional committee than had the generals of the Army.

It is admittedly terrible to force men to suffer during training, or even sometimes, through accident, to kill them. But there is no other way to prepare them for the immensely greater horror of combat.

In 1950 the Marines, both active and reserve, were better prepared to die on the field of battle than the Army.


Except in holy wars, or in defense of their native soil, men fight well only because of pride and training—pride in themselves and their service, enough training to absorb the rough blows of war and to know what to do. Few men, of any breed, really prefer to kill or be killed. These Marines had pride in their service, which had been carefully instilled in them, and they had pride in themselves, because each man had made the grade in a hard occupation. They would not lightly let their comrades down. And they had discipline, which in essence is the ability not to question orders but to carry them out as intelligently as possible.

Marine human material was not one whit better than that of the human society from which it came. But it had been hammered into form in a different forge, hardened with a different fire. The Marines were the closest thing to legions the nation had. They would follow their colors from the shores of home to the seacoast of Bohemia, and fight well either place.


  1. Ezra says:

    Fifty percent of Marine reservists activated for the Korean War had not even seen basic training. Training was administered at the reserve unit level. The Marines from my perspective too do attract a higher level of volunteer. The fact that the Marines mystique is that they are tough does appeal to some.

  2. Kirk says:

    Ezra, we’ve been over that lie before. Activated Marines who had not gone through Basic did not go overseas–When the Marine Reservists arrived at Camp Pendleton or other deployment bases, the units were broken down and used to fill out other units. Marines who had not been trained were sent off to the training pipeline, not Korea.

    Somewhere in the last few months, another poster put up the study outlining all this. It’s worth reading, because it has actual historical data in it, rather than specious bullshit.

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