Reporting from Camp Pendleton and Washington — On a stretch of clean, white Southern California beach, thousands of young Marines this month charged forward from the sea, leaping from helicopters and landing craft, echoing the exercises conducted decades before when Marines trained for Iwo Jima and Inchon.
It was the largest and most complex amphibious exercise since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It also could be one of the last.
Soon after Marine recruits are given that distinctive, high-and-tight haircut, they are taught about the great amphibious assaults of the past. Those stories, a core part of the Marine identity, "are encoded in our DNA," said Lt. Col. Bruce Laughlin, operations officer for the exercise, dubbed Dawn Blitz.
But the Marines have not stormed a hostile beach since Inchon during the Korean War. And influential military thinkers — including, most notably, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates — have begun to question whether the Marines will ever do it again.
In a speech last month, Gates said rogue nations and nonstate movements such as Hezbollah now possessed sophisticated guided missiles that could destroy naval ships, forcing them to stay well away from shore and making any sort of beach landing by Marines extremely dangerous.
Countries including China and Iran have guided missiles and other defenses to deter a beach landing, said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who has written skeptically of traditional amphibious landings. Minor powers, meanwhile, could hardly resist the kind of landing the Marines practiced in Dawn Blitz, he said.
"Where are we going to use this? Can the effect justify the rather high cost we are paying for this?" Krepinevich said.
For more than eight years, the Marines have been fighting hundreds of miles from the sea in Iraq's Anbar and Afghanistan's Helmand provinces. They have remade themselves as experts on counter-insurgency. They have subdued and co-opted militant movements in Iraq. Now they are trying to do the same in Afghanistan.
But in that period they have not trained on a large scale to take a beach from a hostile force, moving in darkness, using a coordinated punch of firepower from ships, aircraft and infantry "grunts" with sand and seawater on their boots.
"A few older Marines had to dust off some old memories to snap back into it," said Maj. Howard Hall, the senior watch officer for Dawn Blitz.
As Lt. Col. Todd Simmons, commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment, waited for his Marines to board boats for the rush ashore, he estimated that 85% had never been on a ship. Many would experience that age-old malady of troops crowded into landing craft: vomiting on their shoes as the waves bounced up and down.
"The Marines have been doing this for more than 60 years, but it does require some practice," Simmons said.
A few miles away, Lt. Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the Pentagon's choice to be the next assistant commandant of the Corps, looked pleased as he watched the exercise. But the lack of practice, he acknowledged, showed in the complexities of the assault.
"What we're doing here is busting some rust," Dunford said.
Marines argue that amphibious operations encompass much more than Iwo Jima-style landings, referring to the U.S. assault on the Japanese island during World War II. In fact, most operations from the sea involve uncontested landings, including humanitarian relief missions and disaster response, including January's earthquake in Haiti. Others call for evacuations of Americans from war zones, as the Marines did in Lebanon in 2006.
"When visualizing amphibious operations, some people default to Iwo Jima or Inchon, and those are not the operations we are contemplating in the future," said Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn, the Marines' deputy commandant for combat development.
Still, many officers concede that Gates has a point. The development of defensive technology means the Marines must rethink how they come ashore and avoid fortified beaches or landing zones.
But many Marines believe the ability to conduct amphibious landings is what makes them different. Take away their unique characteristics, and you take away the Marines' reason for being.
"There is a paranoia, bred into every Marine, that the Marine Corps will be made to look like the Army, and then in lean times something will get cut — the 'extra' army," said Emerson "Emo" Gardner, a retired lieutenant general who served as a close advisor to Gates.
Given the unwavering support for the Marines in Congress, there is little chance the service would be eliminated. Nonetheless, when Gates observed last month that the Army was becoming more like the Marines, and the Marines more like the Army, the Corps began to worry.