Book Review: Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps
Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps
Aaron B. O’Connell
Harvard University Press 2012
Many times reading Underdogs I had to remind myself I was reading the work of a career Marine officer, not a sociology Professor. Underdogs is written with an insider perspective, yes, but the history of the Marine Corps is always presented through a lens of human culture, ethos and sacrifice. The Marine Corps is an insular, distrustful institution fanatically disciplined in putting its best public face forward, so author O’Connell took significant personal and professional risks in presenting all facets in the history of the Corps.
The United States Marine Corps is, of course, a worthy study of subject even without all the vastly valuable cultural elements that O’Connell presents in their history. How did this tiny obscure element of the Navy that was really around only as a vague nod to British naval traditions morph into a culturally famous and constantly implemented fighting force of frightening agility and power?
By first enveloping the Corps into a cultural and institutional weave that behaves precisely like any effective religion. The god of Marines is the ability to endure extremes of pain and sacrifice where no others dare to go, coupled with an esprit de corps of fanatical adherence to never letting another Marine down.
Then mate that with a paranoid outlook to all outsiders who sure are out to get the Corps, why aren’t those arrogant hotheads part of the Army or Navy? It creates an insular, defensive institutional posture excellent for survival in Congress, where threats to elimination of the Corps were very real in the 1950’s.
But fanatical lobbying and public relations, plus the very real military ability of agile, quick amphibious operations created a modern Marine Corps of frightening power. If USS Iwo Jima and USS Bataan decide to cruise around your neighborhood helicopters, jets, and hovercraft with some of the most fanatical sacrificial fighters on the planet can very quickly show how trillions of dollars of investment and the United States Marine Corps really fight and kill. The North Koreans know it.
This scary presence is, of course, in its primary source institutional violence, maiming and death. The Marines use it in their sacrificial mythology and in their training, a vastly disturbing and unsettling element of the Corps and Underdogs.
As a people and society Americans are very willing to watch the Marine Corps undergo horrific levels of death and maiming. Are the so-scary bad guys in Afghanistan worth all the horrible quaking pains that smash lives forever in the sacrifice of the Marine Corps? Not even fucking close, not in my book, and Underdogs takes a very good look at what that sacrifice does to our Marines and people.
The Marine Corps needs to take a very close look at how institutional violence and alcoholism effects the Corps and its families, Underdogs documents how the Corps has significantly higher alcoholism rates than the other services.
[sigh] One of the reasons I blog is that I can break almost any writing or publishing rule with impunity, whoops, sorry about that. I’m about to do it again but for once very uncomfortably, I don’t plan to make the following personal story a habit but I’m positive relevance and story value are real.
“I wish I had the money to send you away to military school, where they really kick ass,” my father told me many times. This from a guy who slapped and cuffed me hundreds of times, who kicked me, shook me and belted me in seething, scathing fits of rage. When he was sober.
I had to watch and endure this regressive alcoholic go more berserk with rage and violence in each binge as the years passed until finally I was sleeping with friends when the cops came. Needless to say this completely shattered my childhood and I entered adulthood as if a lamb to slaughter, vast horribly painful problems bloomed that took me 24 freaking years to fully resolve and cool down from. In many ways I will always be a broken person, a confused patch job who has no way of understanding what a relatively regular American life is like.
Statistically we know close variants to that horror show must be going on in hundreds of Marine families right now. Is that really what the United States Marine Corps stands for? Then I suggest altering the Corps’ destructive drinking ethos, along with vastly increasing mental and alcoholism services in a humanitarian approach, being punitive won’t work.
Finally I would ask of the Marine Corps not to display its customary paranoia and defensiveness in dealing with Mr. O’Connell, if indeed it has occurred at all. If you’re a Marine who is disturbed by the problems presented in Underdogs, respectfully work to make the United States Marine Corps a better institution and leave Mr. O’Connell alone.