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The View from Parris Island

I just spent several days on a tour arranged by the Marine Corps Association, speaking to various groups of Marines at Parris Island, South Carolina, their East Coast recruitment depot, and at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, their main East Coast operating base. It was inspiring and educational in equal measure.

The educational part came from a meeting with the Marines’ newly formed Foreign Military Training Unit, part of the recently established Marine Special Operations Command. The Marines are, in essence, emulating the Army Special Forces by creating groups of eleven Marines (akin to the Green Beret A-Teams) who receive language and educational training and then journey to various parts of the world to train friendly military forces. The goal is to keep sending the same groups of Marines back to one country or region so that they can establish the personal relationships which are all important in this type of work. This initiative doesn’t get the headlines that the Marines receive for their heroic fighting in Iraq’s Anbar province, but, over the long term, it could make just as important a contribution to winning the struggle against radical Islam.

The inspirational part of my trip came simply from having the opportunity to chat with so many outstanding warriors, current and retired. I never get tired of spending time with men and women in uniform, and Marines are, on average, some of the best. They are so dedicated, so selfless, so gallant—and yet they wear their accomplishments and sacrifices so lightly, in keeping with a military code that is supposed to give credit to the team, not the individual. Drill instructors at Parris Island work 80 even 100 hours a week for less than $20,000 a year. (At least their housing isn’t as bad as it used to be. The Corps has brought in a private developer to create nice, tract-style homes on the base.) Other Marines are in Iraq and Afghanistan risking life and limb for equally meager salaries.

And, however much civilian society may grow disaffected with the war in Iraq, the Marines stand ready to fight on—and on and on. I was chatting with one Marine captain, who has done a tour there (many other Marines have two, three, even four tours under their belts), and he told me that he and his peers have no desire to leave Iraq. Morale remains high, he said—a fact borne out by high reenlistment rates.

Marine recruiting is also running strong, even though all who sign up know that they will be heading “downrange” before long. This captain explained that the motivation for Marines isn’t so much that they support this particular war, although most do. It’s that a war is going on, and they feel the call to serve the nation. They don’t have to inquire too closely into the rights or wrongs of the conflict; they have been called upon to fight, and that’s all they need to know. The prospect of being killed or maimed isn’t a big deterrent. They know the risks they’re running, and many Marines I spoke to expressed amazement and disgust with the casualty-preoccupation of civilian society.

I admit to a bit of disenchantment when I traveled through Charlotte airport on my way home. Here I overheard the usual conversations of business travelers talking about market share and stock options and product rollouts. Somehow it seemed unworthy, even sordid, compared to the lives of duty, honor, country that the Marines lead.


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