Fighting for Love and the Corps

Article excerpt


The late Leon Uris had two institutional passions in his life, the state of Israel and the United States Marine Corps. The book that first made his reputation as an author was "Battle Cry" in 1953. As a Marine Corps veteran, he captured his experiences in the Pacific in a work that remains one of the great war novels of the 20th century. "Exodus" was Uris' tribute to the founding of the modern state of Israel.

I first read both books as a high school student. "Battle Cry" cemented my desire to follow my father, uncles, and a cousin into the Marine Corps. "Exodus" helped turn a Swedish-American Lutheran into a believer in the logic of Zionism.

In the last book he wrote before his death, Uris returned to the theme of the Marine Corps, this time in its infancy. Most Americans think of the Corps as an institution. They visit the Iwo Jima statue in Arlington and see Marines collecting "Toys for Tots," and probably believe the Corps to be immortal.

However, there was a time when the Marine mammal was an endangered species. In the years following the Civil War, the existence of the Corps was threatened. Marines had traditionally served two roles aboard ships in the age of sail. First and foremost, they were the ship's police in an age when many of the crew were sullen conscripts scraped from the dregs of society. They protected the captain from mutiny. Additionally, in combat, Marine Corps riflemen manned the fighting tops and formed the core of boarding and landing parties.

The Civil War and the advent of steam-powered ironclad warships ended much of the rationale for shipboard Marines. That development decreed the need for better-paid professional crews with marketable skills. The threat of mutiny evaporated. As sea battles were increasingly fought with miles, rather than feet, separating the ships, the need to board other ships declined. Many naval officers and not a few politicians viewed the Marines as a relic of the past.

The Marine Corps' fight for survival in that era is a matter of legend in the Corps, but is not well known outside it. This fight forms the setting for "O'Hara's Choice." As the book relates, the Marines found a new mission, the seizure and defense of advanced naval bases; in doing so they developed a new technique in amphibious warfare.

Deftly using some well-placed friends in Congress and a flair for public relations, the Marines resisted all odds to find a new place in the world for themselves. …