Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps

Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps

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by Aaron B. O'Connell
     
 

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The Marine Corps has always considered itself a breed apart. Since 1775, America’s smallest armed service has been suspicious of outsiders and deeply loyal to its traditions. Marines believe in nothing more strongly than the Corps’ uniqueness and superiority, and this undying faith in its own exceptionalism is what has made the Marines one of the

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Overview

The Marine Corps has always considered itself a breed apart. Since 1775, America’s smallest armed service has been suspicious of outsiders and deeply loyal to its traditions. Marines believe in nothing more strongly than the Corps’ uniqueness and superiority, and this undying faith in its own exceptionalism is what has made the Marines one of the sharpest, swiftest tools of American military power. Along with unapologetic self-promotion, a strong sense of identity has enabled the Corps to exert a powerful influence on American politics and culture.

Aaron O’Connell focuses on the period from World War II to Vietnam, when the Marine Corps transformed itself from America’s least respected to its most elite armed force. He describes how the distinctive Marine culture played a role in this ascendancy. Venerating sacrifice and suffering, privileging the collective over the individual, Corps culture was saturated with romantic and religious overtones that had enormous marketing potential in a postwar America energized by new global responsibilities. Capitalizing on this, the Marines curried the favor of the nation’s best reporters, befriended publishers, courted Hollywood and Congress, and built a public relations infrastructure that would eventually brand it as the most prestigious military service in America.

But the Corps’ triumphs did not come without costs, and O’Connell writes of those, too, including a culture of violence that sometimes spread beyond the battlefield. And as he considers how the Corps’ interventions in American politics have ushered in a more militarized approach to national security, O’Connell questions its sustainability.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Exploring the U.S. Marine Corps’s “stories, assumptions, and habits of mind,” O’ Connell, professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy and a Marine reserve officer focuses on the period from WWII, when the corps was viewed as “the least attractive military service,” to Vietnam, when the corps emerged as the elite American armed force. His thesis is that the Marines synergized their distinguished combat performance in the Pacific and Korea with an active, interventionist role in American society. The corps cultivated relationships with journalists and members of Congress, and combined sophisticated marketing with hard-core politics, forming alliances yielding benefits to all participants. Structuring the process was a Marine sense of superiority that facilitated redefinition as “an elite force of military first responders with a global reach” and “a wariness of outsiders that bordered on paranoia.” This sense of separateness allowed the Marines to de-emphasize bureaucracy and view war “through the language and logic of art.” They privileged sacrifice and suffering in the context of a blood-sworn community. The resulting cultural capital has defined Marine performance from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan as central players in national defense. O’Connell offers an excellent analysis of how the marines became the Marines. 24 b&w illus. (Oct.)
Leatherneck

O'Connell's depth offers military professionals, serious history enthusiasts and ordinary armchair buffs enlightening insights via easy-to-understand explanations of why the Corps always has considered itself unique and superior to the other U.S. Armed Forces...O'Connell patiently cuts through the origins of the USMC's cultural power, delineating its maneuvers, contradictions and effects on mid-20th-century American life...[Underdogs] deserves high honor and distinction.
— Don DeNevi

Beth Bailey
A superb cultural history of the modern U.S. Marine Corps. This book makes a significant and original contribution to both the military history of the Cold War and the ongoing conversation about the militarization of American culture.
Ronald H. Spector
A brilliant synthesis of military and cultural history. Underdogs will do for Marine Corps history what Peter Karsten's The Naval Aristocracy did for naval history.
Nathaniel Fick
Underdogs is a probing history of one of the most storied institutions in American life: the United States Marine Corps. Aaron O'Connell takes readers inside the culture of the Corps to explore its strengths, its weaknesses, and the lessons it can teach to us all.
Michael S. Sherry
This fascinating and sometimes frightening cultural history highlights the Marines' exceptional agility in catering to and cultivating the changing needs of American power, and the costs of doing so.
Leatherneck - Don Denevi
O'Connell's depth offers military professionals, serious history enthusiasts and ordinary armchair buffs enlightening insights via easy-to-understand explanations of why the Corps always has considered itself unique and superior to the other U.S. Armed Forces...O'Connell patiently cuts through the origins of the USMC's cultural power, delineating its maneuvers, contradictions and effects on mid-20th-century American life...[Underdogs] deserves high honor and distinction.
Wall Street Journal - Max Boot
O'Connell [separates myth from reality] with brio in his absorbing account of the Marines between 1941 and 1965.
Washington Times - John R. Coyne
[A] thoroughly researched and splendidly written book.
Foreign Affairs - Lawrence D. Freedman
O'Connell, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, analyzes the development of the corps' culture from World War II to the Vietnam era. The Marine ethos was defined by a commitment to toughness ingrained at boot camp and a willingness to suffer reinforced by the high casualties the corps experienced in World War II and the Korean War. O'Connell does not shrink from describing the physical and mental toll this culture takes on individual marines and the violent behavior, drunkenness, and domestic abuse that represent its dark side. He also details the organization's relentless self-promotion, which helped turn it from the least to the most admired of the services and guaranteed its independence. The corps has a deserved reputation for assiduously cultivating politicians, journalists, and filmmakers to help burnish its public image and win bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. This is an honest, but not unsympathetic, take on the Marines and a fine contribution to the study of military culture.
Sacramento Book Review - C. D. Quyn
As well as detailing the inner psychological effects of front-line fighting on Marines, O'Connell describes how war turns public opinion, and how the Corps employed the media, movies, and Congressional support to build a positive public relations network.
Choice - J. Stanley
O'Connell has penned an important, extraordinary volume--wonderfully descriptive, copiously referenced, and richly punctuated by anecdotal presentations...A wonderful book, but more importantly, a significant addition to military historical literature.
Leatherneck - Don DeNevi
O'Connell's depth offers military professionals, serious history enthusiasts and ordinary armchair buffs enlightening insights via easy-to-understand explanations of why the Corps always has considered itself unique and superior to the other U.S. Armed Forces...O'Connell patiently cuts through the origins of the USMC's cultural power, delineating its maneuvers, contradictions and effects on mid-20th-century American life...[Underdogs] deserves high honor and distinction.
Library Journal
A Marine reservist, O'Connell (history, U.S. Naval Academy) argues that the Marines waged a culture war from World War II through the mid-1960s. He attributes the rise of the Marines from a tiny, unpopular 1941 corps to preeminent armed service in 1965 to the success of the Marine Corps' public relations campaign. Marines perceived themselves as unique and better but felt threatened by the other services. The Marines' famous PR machine, says O'Connell, was its response to its perception of being besieged, and made them seek alliances with politicians, journalists, and the public. The threat of obsolescence in the age of nuclear war also drove the Marines to transform their mission from amphibious troops that only seized beachheads to a seaborne multi-purpose, global quick-reaction force. But the corps sometimes violated the law and norms in its political activities. And in the ranks there was a price for this success: propensity to use violence outside military norms, and stress on family. VERDICT This insightful cultural history is recommended for those interested in U.S. military history and modern U.S. history.—MJ
Kirkus Reviews
How the Marine Corps became the country's preferred globe-spanning intervention force during the early years of the Cold War. Unlike the other branches of the armed forces, writes O'Connell (History/U.S. Naval Academy), the Marines did not rush into nuclear technology after World War II. Instead, he argues, the Corps built on its combat record, especially in the Pacific island-hopping campaign, to re-orient itself as an elite, naval or helicopter-borne, quick-reaction force, able to provide various combinations of unit strength on very short notice. Using an equipment and technology budget line from the Navy, the Marines expanded in size and technical capability to meet this adopted objective. The real eye-opener here is O'Connell's account of the behind-the-scenes lobbying and PR work conducted by the Chowder Society, "an unofficial organization of…well-connected officers" dedicated to protecting the Corps from postwar defense reorganizations. According to the author, this went beyond lobbying and included spying, leaking classified documents and smearing opponents. The group made full use of the Marine's press networks, building especially on the wartime centralization of news distribution. Headquarters had developed tactics for dealing with the press, such as preparing "Joe Blow" stories of hometown combat troops. O'Connell shows how Hollywood transformed the image of the Marines, who sustained a casualty rate double that of the Army, by crafting stories that depicted them as military heroes. Then, to support peacetime political combat, those stories were tweaked to portray them as gentle protectors of families and motherhood. The author contrasts the stories with the reality. A powerful account of the relationship between fighting war and preserving peace, viewed through the lens of the stories that built support for both.
From the Publisher
"O'Connell offers an excellent analysis of how the marines became the Marines." —Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674058279
Publisher:
Harvard
Publication date:
10/31/2012
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
1,090,614
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 3.50(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 2: The Privates’ War and the Homefront in the 1940s


There is something about the Marines—I don’t know what it is—that draws them together and makes them one.

—Frances Newman, age eighteen, June 22, 1945

The eighteen candles on Frances Newman’s birthday cake had to be lit twice. The first time she blew them out too quickly and the photographers crowding around her missed the shot. Perhaps she was unaware of the time needed to frame a good photograph, or maybe she was nervous about all the attention and the guests. The handsome Marine in dress blues standing next to her—her “substitute brother” the newspapers would call him—probably increased her anxiety, for she had met him just hours before. She may even have rushed through the ceremony on purpose. All the parties, gifts, radio interviews, and celebrity trips to New York would not bring her real brother back; Bob had been killed four months earlier on the island of Iwo Jima. Nevertheless, she smiled through the entire party the Marines had organized for her. “There was a lump in my throat for a long time,” Frances wrote later, “but I just swallowed it, closed my eyes, and in dreams, Bob and I danced just as we used to do.”

The next morning, Frances, a farmer’s daughter from outside Lumpkin, Georgia, made the front page of The Atlanta Constitution. The Associated Press picked up the story and it appeared around the country, from Los Angeles, California to Lowell, Massachusetts. The papers and radio shows told a story of a courageous young girl’s letter to a Marine general, his response, and a promise fulfilled. They explained the one hundred dollar dress and the flowers the Marines sent Frances from the Pacific, as well as the handsome Marine escort sent down from Atlanta, who, for one night, “will be Bob, come back to fill his promise.” Fan mail flooded the general’s division in the Pacific, as well as the Marine Corps Division of Public Relations in Washington, which had orchestrated the spectacle. Some of the nation’s biggest newspapers ran editorials. “Few incidents of this war have so struck home with Americans. It is not the mere pathos of it—there have been many other equally touching,” wrote The Christian Science Monitor. Rather, what made Frances’ birthday party so special was that “it talks so clearly and genuinely the language of American family life.”

Frances would agree. Though she had always admired her brother’s branch of service, the party and her brother’s death brought her closer to the Marine Corps, making it a second family. She began to call the Marines her “brothers” and herself “their kid sister.” In a thank you note to her brother’s commanding general, written just a week after the party, she remarked: “In the past week and a half, I’ve become more and more acquainted with the United States Marines and the great work they are doing. There is something about the Marines—I don’t know what it is—that draws them together and makes them one. I don’t what that is about the Corps, but there is something and I’ve gotten it too. I’m proud that I have been associated with them, and I have elected myself an honorary member. I’ll be good and I’ll be content to stay a private. I won’t ask for any rank but I’ll do the best job I can in the army and proudly say that I am a Marine.”

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Meet the Author

Aaron B. O’Connell is Assistant Professor of History at the United States Naval Academy and a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.

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Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Carla Kellogg More than 1 year ago
Marine - that says it all. A well told narrative on why Marines are so well respected.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a well documented history of Marine public relations campaigns which were necessary to keep two Presidents from abolishing the Marine Corps.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The History of the United States Marine Corps does not need to be rewritten, every few months or years, a new chapter is added. The 237 plus years of Marine Corps history is very rich in tradition, sometimes colorful, unapologetic for their efforts on the battlefield, form victory to victory with less resources than other branches of the Military. Semper Fi ! Vietnam Combat Marine
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My dad was a veitnam combat marine sniper saw 2 tours he was a part of the walking dead