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When the Corps goes to war

The March Up: Taking Baghdad With the 1st Marine Division; Bing West and Maj. Gen. Ray L. Smith (retired); Bantam Books: 292 pp., $24.95

October 05, 2003|Tony Perry | Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for The Times, was an embedded reporter with the 1st Marine Division in Iraq.

In his classic study of the U.S. Marine Corps, "First to Fight," retired Lt. Gen. Victor H. "Brute" Krulak notes that one defining characteristic of his beloved Corps is an institutional paranoia ("sometimes justified, sometimes not") that political forces are forever conspiring to disband the Corps or, worse, put it under the control of the much larger Army. For the Marines, he wrote, "fighting for the right to fight [has] often presented greater challenges than fighting their country's enemies."

In their struggle to survive, the Marines have learned the importance of getting their story to the public and thence to the politicians. Jealous rivals in other services often grump that a Marine combat squad has 13 members: 12 riflemen and a public relations man.

While the Army special forces and Navy SEALs operated in secret in Afghanistan, Marines brought reporters as they pushed "in-country" from ships in the Arabian Sea. (That's not to say the Marines were always forthcoming. Reporters later had T-shirts emblazoned with the Corps' famous no-comment on sensitive issues: "I have nothing for you on that at this time.")

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Corps prepared to take reporters to Baghdad and beyond well before the Pentagon developed its program of embedding reporters. In tandem with the Navy, the Marines also sent their own photographers into Iraq to produce a mini-documentary set to debut in theaters later this year. And retired Marine Maj. Gen. Ray L. Smith and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West were accorded extraordinary access to the 1st Marine Division as supra-embeds, able to go anywhere and talk to anyone. The result is "The March Up: Taking Baghdad With the 1st Marine Division," a detailed and compelling look at the Marines' furious rush across the desert to topple Saddam Hussein as quickly and with as few casualties -- American or Iraqi -- as possible.

It was the longest, fastest push by a division-size group in the Marines' 228-year history. Smith and West saw it all, traveling with 18 units and observing 16 days of combat.

For anyone interested in how modern wars are fought and those who fight them, "The March Up" is a must. There'll be other books on the Iraqi war, but the Marines got their story out first.

The book's authoritative voice belongs to West, a former Marine infantry officer and author of "The Village," an account of a platoon in Vietnam, and "The Pepperdogs," a novel. Smith, who commanded Marines in Grenada and Beirut, appears mostly as West's boon companion, growling when he sees things not being done to his liking. Once a general, always a general.

Some punches are pulled, including why a regimental commander was relieved of command just days from Baghdad. And the point of view is definitely top down. Although West, who served in the Reagan administration, provides vignettes of enlistees, it's doubtful that two gray-haired authority figures could get much candor from young Marines.

But these are quibbles. Smith and West have captured the chaos and complexity of the campaign: the on-the-run improvising, the disagreements between the Army and the Marine Corps, the mixture of exhilaration and fear felt by the troops, the bravery and the confusion. For the Iraqi military, the Marines had a measure of respect; for mercenaries from Syria and elsewhere, there was only contempt: "They were vermin ... sneaking onto battlefields in civilian buses, hiding behind women."

The Marine Corps of "The March Up" is a world away from that of "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles" by ex-Marine Anthony Swofford. Published on the eve of the war with Iraq, it is, by turns, raunchy, doubting, anti-authoritarian and angry.

West and Smith will have none of this; theirs is the anti-"Jarhead." Their Corps is a place where Marines are dedicated to noble goals and self-sacrifice: "In many ways the Marines are like the Jesuits, a closed society that insists upon monkish rules that seem to an outsider to be rather rigid and to an insider to be quite rigid."

Although the Marine Corps' brass would doubtless deny it ("I have nothing for you"), "The March Up" is a good venue for airing quintessential Marine opinions: that the Pentagon is too enamored of the Air Force; that the Army is slow and riven with indecision; that civilians and rear-echelon officers meddle too much in tactics and that retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who remains the public's ideal of a military leader, has an ego and volcanic temper that hindered prosecution of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The Marine Corps abhors the idea of its generals becoming Schwarzkopf-like media celebrities who seem more important than their troops. Marine generals in Iraq tried to stay invisible.

West and Smith correct that impression with their portrayal of Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, who led Marines into Afghanistan and the 1st Marine Division into Iraq. Tough, demanding and restless, Mattis believes in leading from the front. "A division may be large, but it is not beyond the influence of a good leader," they write. "During the campaign practically every Marine in the division had seen and heard the commander."

The book's dominant theme is that fortitude, not technology, wins wars, and in that regard, nobody beats the Marines: "The engine driving the campaign was not mechanical. ... It was a spirit, an unspoken code, a shared recognition by all that they were in this together ... that all had volunteered for this life. Each ... had his little family in the camps, on the move, and in battle, and those with sturdy legs would stand side by side, regardless of age or rank."

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