The United States Marine Corps: Background information when reading Matterhorn

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Matterhorn

A Novel of the Vietnam War

by Karl Marlantes

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2010, 592 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2011, 640 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Beyond the Book:
The United States Marine Corps

Print Review

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) serves as a force-in-readiness within the United States security structure. Among other branches of the US military, it is unique in its ability to rapidly deploy a combined-arms task force to almost anywhere in the world within days. It is capable of entry into hostile or dangerous situations from the air, land and sea.

At its core, the group has always remained grounded in its genesis as an infantry unit, and this has made it different from other branches of the military. It continues to rely on mobile personnel versus advanced weaponry. Each Marine is trained as a gunman, regardless of position or area of responsibility, and each officer is trained as an infantry platoon commander. This structure has proven invaluable over time, for example during the attack at Wake Island in 1941, when all aircraft had been shot down. Marine pilots continued to fight as ground officers, leading supply clerks and cooks into battle. The Marine Corps is also distinctive in that a large degree of initiative and autonomy is expected of junior officers.

Formed by the Continental Congress on November 10, 1775, the group predates the country it represents. It was founded to serve as an infantry unit aboard naval vessels, and its primary duty was to provide offensive and defensive combat during boarding actions and to protect the ship's officers from mutiny.

The USMC began its formal career in March 1776, when it attacked a British ammunition depot and naval port in the Bahamas (the first US amphibious raid on foreign soil). Its mission evolved over the decades that followed, but in the years before WWII it concentrated on refining its tactics for amphibious assaults on defended coastlines. The techniques they developed became crucial to the success of the US military during the war, particularly in the Pacific theater.

The Marine Corps' size and effectiveness varied after WWII, depending on Administration priorities and policies. In 1960, policies turned in their favor, allowing a five-year surge in spending and bringing it to its highest level of peacetime effectiveness on the eve of the Vietnam War. The Kennedy Administration's strategy of "flexible response" ideally suited them, stressing conventional forces, improvements in manpower, and strategic mobility. The landing of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Da Nang in 1965 marked the beginning of large-scale Marine involvement in the Vietnam War. They mostly operated in the northern sections of South Vietnam, engaging in guerrilla warfare against the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) and conventional warfare against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Although Marines made up just 15% of the 3.4 million troops deployed in Southeast Asia at the time, they accounted for over 25% (13,091) of those killed in action and over 33% (51,392) of those wounded.

The Marines continued to deploy into volatile situations in the years following the Vietnam War, seeing action during the Revolution in Iran, the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. Marines are currently participating in actions against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with approximately 203,000 on active duty and 40,000 reserves.

In addition to combat, Marines staff the Marine Band, which provides music for state functions at the White House. They also guard presidential retreats and supply helicopter transport for the President and Vice President. In addition, they guard American embassies, legations and consulates at more than 140 posts worldwide. With their flexibility and ability to respond at a moment's notice, they are often assigned to non-combat missions such as evacuations of personnel from unstable countries and humanitarian support such as the distribution of aid following the earthquake in Haiti.

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the May 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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