Military & Veterans
Can The Marines Come Back?
July 5, 1987
By Al Santoli
On July 10, 1969, in a blood-soaked valley in the shadow of Vietnam’s Que Son Mountains, a company of American Marines fought its way through an exploding labyrinth of Viet Cong bunkers and tunnels. During the battle, a young platoon commander sacrificed his career as a military officer when, with his own body, he shielded another Marine from the explosion of a Viet Cong grenade.
Today, that same former lieutenant, James Webb, is Secretary of the Navy. In the years since his wartime experience, Webb, still youthful at 41, has established himself as a lawyer and served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. He also has written three books: Fields of Fire, A sense of Honor and A Country Such As This.
He now faces an extraordinary challenge – sustaining the strength of America’s naval forces. On top of that, he inherits a Marine Corps undergoing a crisis of confidence and public trust as a result of recent scandals. Can the new Secretary of the Navy, known for his tenacity and innovative skills, keep up our naval strength and bring the Marine Corps back?
On his second day in office, Secretary Webb called for a meeting with 500 officials – senior Navy admirals, Marine Corps generals and civilian executives. Later, back in his Pentagon Office, shirt-sleeves rolled up, Webb detailed his program:
“I’ve ordered the admirals and generals to report back to me in 60 days their assessments of where the services now stand and where they should be in 10 years. I asked them to examine the balance of their programs – medical care, weapons systems – to see whether we’re on track or if adjustments need to be done. Every now and then, you have to force the system to stop and look at itself. If not, you will be continuously victimized by the budget process and bureaucracy. By rearticulating our strategy, we can meet our budget by defining priorities and making every dollar count.
“At the meeting, I said that if I had to take one lesson from the battlefield, it is that any decisions I make will be made first on the basis of principle. We too often see people making decisions based on political or special-interest pressures, or for short-sighted financial reasons. They are afraid of criticism, or how decisions will affect their reputation.
“Since I’ve been here at the Pentagon, there’s one thing that drives me: When I was on the bottom end of the ladder, in a rifle platoon, one of the strongest feelings I had was that I was a pawn. The control that I had over what happened to me or the people under me was pretty damn narrow. We had to hope and pray that the people above us making decisions knew what they were doing to us. And as a father with four kids, I’ve learned that, for their future’s sake, you can’t grab for short-range solutions. They inherit whatever decisions we make today.”
Today Webb’s range of responsibilities has expanded tremendously. The Middle East, especially the oil routes in the Persian Gulf, remains an unpredictable killing zone for American servicemen. Reflecting on the recent deaths of 37 sailors on the frigate Stark, Webb said: “Our servicemen on patrol in the Gulf are the quiet heroes of their generation. They risk their lives every day to maintain the cutting edge of our security. The Stark was nearing the end of a six-month deployment as part of continuous naval presence in that region, which began in 1979 during the Iran crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The public realized they were out there only when a tragedy happened.”
“But we have to live up to our international obligations,” he added. “That inevitably means that our people in uniform are going to be at risk. So it has to be done in a way that allows them to defend themselves. Until now, the military has been plagued by the ‘rules of engagement’ mentality, as a result of Vietnam. Commanders have been reluctant to use force, even in their own defense, for fear of starting an international incident. A positive result of the Stark tragedy is that the President has made it clear that commanders no longer have to procrastinate before firing when their people are at risk. I definitely will back up any decision necessary to save American lives.”
A measure of Webb’s character is the strong bond of friendship and loyalty that he still maintains with the men who served under him in combat. For his heroics on July 10, 1969, Webb was recommended for the Navy Cross – not by his superior officers, but by his own men.
In Dallas, Michael McGarvey, a former member of Webb’s platoon, said: “I met Jim when he first arrived in the field. He had people’s respect almost immediately because he would be up front leading, rather than ordering from behind. And people believed that he genuinely was concerned about their well-being. I’m talking about a guy that, after I got his with a land mine, sat down beside me and cried.”
“We had 56 people hit in an eight-week period,” McGarvey added, “so you knew things were rough. But we won virtually every firefight we were in. Jim was in action in Vietnam, where he deservedly received the Navy Cross, a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars. I guarantee that when you face the Tiger, Jim’s going to be there with you. He hasn’t changed much in the last 17 years.”
Webb believes that spirit and cohesion in the military are built on the willingness of its members to sacrifice for their country and fellow servicemen. As one of his first acts, the new Navy Secretary made headlines by reversing the special privileges that had been given to athletes. He ruled that Naval Academy graduates – like the basketball star David Robinson and Napoleon McCallum, who played football for the Los Angeles Raiders – had agreed to a commitment to serve the nation in exchange for a free education that cost taxpayers a lot of money. And the duties of a commissioned officer, Webb reflects, “are a full-time responsibility.”
Marines have always been a proud, close-knit fraternity with a hard-earned reputation for personal and collective honor. A much-publicized series of incidents – from the Beirut bombing, to Oliver North’s Fifth Amendment testimony, to the Moscow spy scandal – has shaken the Corps to its roots. Some experts have criticized the Marines as being too preoccupied with image-polishing rather than traditional hard-nosed character-building. They question whether emphasis on recruiting exclusively high school graduates guarantees the heard and dedication expected of Marines.
Marine drill instructors now are prohibited from using their legendary profanity, or mentally harassing or physically challenging new recruits. Ambulances must be present at confidence-building activities. Old Marines say it’s mall wonder that some new Marines have discipline and morale problems.
Webb believes that the attitudes it develops have kept the Marine Corps, which is a self-contained force within the Department of the Navy, a strong institution. He reflects that small-unit leadership always has been the strength of the Corps. He feels it is need more than ever today to keep young Marines from wallowing in self-doubt because of recent events.
On a balmy spring afternoon, I accompanied Secretary Webb on a visit to the Marine training base in Quantico, Va. An auditorium was packed with newly commissioned lieutenants. With closed-cropped haircuts and wearing pressed camouflage uniforms, they listened silently as Webb addressed them. Clad in a beige suit and red tie, as solidly built as the instructors at Quantico, Webb reminded the young Marine leaders of their responsibilities.
“There are few honors that this country can bestow that are higher than the trust we place in military officers. A Marine officer should never forget the balance between the authority you command and the humility necessary to take care of your people. It doesn’t mean cutting your men slack when they need to do a good job.
“Marine Corps history has always been the same – it’s personal courage, both physical and moral. It’s a sense of duty and accountability to your comrades, to the Marines who have gone before us and to your country. And if a small number have failed in this area, it should only make the rest of us more determined to live by those standards.”
Bringing the Marine Corps back is an immediate challenge. But Secretary Webb has a much larger responsibility: to oversee and sustain the readiness of our navy. The obstacles that must be overcome to staff the revitalized fleet include Congressional budge restrictions and a potential manpower shortage.
“In the last six years,” Webb said, “our navy has build back up to nearly 600 ships, from a low point of 479 in the late 1970s. The health of the navy is a direct indicator of the vigor of our nation. The United States has always been a maritime nation. We communicate, trade with and defend our allies along sea-lanes. Our credibility derives from our naval ability to react quickly to global emergencies and, if necessary, to direct our power to any shore.
“Since the mid-1970s, when our 1000-ship fleet was cut in half, the Soviet navy has made quantum leaps in their number of surface combatant ships. Their submarines now outnumber ours by a ration of 3 to 1. Their main objective is to interdict our trade and transport in times of conflict and to intimidate our allies during peacetime.
“In the last 10 years, the Soviets have gained port facilities in the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, around the Horn of Africa and in southern Africa, and especially in the Pacific through their bases in Vietnam and Cambodia. And more than at any time in history, they are doing maneuvers just a few hundred mils off our Atlantic Coast and in the Caribbean, where two-thirds of our trade and natural resources must pass through.”
Among the navy’s immediate priorities are: building two new aircraft carriers to replace outdated World War II-era models; developing a new class of submarines to help counter the Soviets’ numerical advantage and espionage-acquired technological gains; sustaining manpower, especially in the ranks of ship officers and aviators; and improving medical care for servicemen and their family members.
The major Soviet naval emphasis is on submarine warfare, with 280 submarines to America’s 96. Soviet attack subs now operate regularly off our coastline and along the major naval choke-points around the world. Although they are noisier, the newest Soviet subs are faster, dive deeper and can outshoot American submarines, according to the Department of the Navy. To meet the Soviet challenge, Webb favors immediate construction of a new class of American sub, the SSN 21, or Sea Wolf.
Besides his combat experience, Webb comes into his new office with a unique respect and understanding of the political process. He has been a legal counsel in the House of Representatives and spent three years as Assistant Secretary of Defense, for which he received the Distinguished Public Service Medal.
In Contrast to recent events, where gung-ho Marines in political offices overstepped their bounds, Webb understands the need for a well-coordinated relationship between military and political leaders. He believes that a breakdown in planning and a lack of definition of the Marine Corps’ roles and mission lead to the recent debacles. In 1983, Webb did live television reporting from Lebanon after the bombing of the Marines barracks, which took 241 lives.
“Many times in its history, the Marines have been sent on missions with political overtones,” he reflected. “But we should never again send them into a war zone as a military show of force without a clearly defined mission.
“One afternoon in Beirut, I was under fire with a Marine platoon. Their restraint and discipline were excellent. But they weren’t even allowed to dig in to protect themselves from the violence all around them. The State Department kept saying, ‘Don’t provoke – this is not a military mission. You’re here to calm the Lebanese people. Just show the flag.’ The irony was that the average Marine I talked with on the ground understood the complexity of his environment better than the average Congressman. But they were powerless because their orders did not allow them to defend themselves.”
Webb said the Marines, traditionally plagued by a limited budget, must make wise decisions on the types of equipment they purchase. For example, he has ordered a review of the expensive V22 Osprey aircraft, which hover like a helicopter and can fly at 350 mph but which may not be appropriate for troop transport or medical evacuation. He said that for the price of one V22, $23 million, the Marines could buy 10 durable Huey helicopters, which already are proven lifesavers in combat.
Even though technology has become a larger part of every branch of the military, Webb still believes that there is no substitute in the Marine Corps for guts and self-reliance.
In his spacious Pentagon office, Webb is surrounded by relics that reflect American military history and Marine Corps tradition: his grandfather’s Civil War diary, metal shards from the World War I battlefield of Verdun, defused grenades from the Pacific beachheads of Tinian and Saipan, a bowl of sand from Iwo Jima. Leaning against a side table is a framed, 3-foot-square, tattered Viet Cong flag that he captured in the battle where he was wounded in 1969. Near the flag is a miniature bronze replica of the infantry statue that overlooks the Vietnam Memorial.
Comparing today’s high-tech Corps with the “old Corps” that he served in, Webb poignantly said: “All of this sophisticated gear is tremendous stuff. But troops shouldn’t become dependent on it. A conflict will be a different ball game at first, with all this new technology. But after a few weeks, it will be the same as it has always been. A lot of this high-tech gear will be down for maintenance or jammed up with sand or mud. A rifle battalion is going to keep on plugging along.”
“That’s why we have to keep teaching basics,” he added. “Attitudes developed in the training environment have always made the Marine Corps strong. And if you’ve got guys with enough guts and pride to pick up savvy on the battlefield and use it, you’re going to win.”
WHAT THE MARINES NEED
This is what Secretary Webb says are the basic needs of the Marine Corps:
Define its role. “On paper, the Marines are defined as an amphibious force. In reality, they’re a complete tactical package, including fixed-wing air support. They must be able to go anywhere on 24 hours’ notice.”
Define its mission. “On deployments with political overtones, Marines must be given a clearly stated military mission. We should never again put them in as a military show of force, like Beirut, and not allow them to adequately protect themselves.”
Mobility. “The Marines have bought heavy equipment like the M198 howitzer and M1 tanks, which are difficult to transport. Mobility should be the determining factors in the types of equipment the Marine Corps purchases.
Training. “Attitude, which is a developed in training, has historically sustained the Marines. Small-unit leadership has always been their great strength. Today, instructors turning out young Marines should pump them up about the responsibilities, not wallow in self-doubt because of what a few people did at some embassy.”
Embassy guards. “The guards responsible for the problems in Moscow should be held accountable for their acts. However, there was an obvious lack of oversight by their superiors, including the ambassador. It is very clear that they did not take the sophistication of the KGB very seriously. Guards need to be better educated about the cultures and dangers they face, whether military or espionage.”