Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine by Robert Coram
Robert Coram has taken a different tack with BRUTE, the story of USMC Lt. Gen. Victor H. “Brute” Krulak, the diminutive legendary Marine general with the outsized personality, relentless ambition and far-reaching vision. It is an edgier, more sharply judgmental, more concise Coram who has made a biography of a challenging and not entirely sympathetic subject into a page-turner.
There are two stories in BRUTE. The first is of the life of the book’s namesake and his rise through the ranks of the Marine Corps, a career path that helped determine a critical element of American warfighting in WWII and saw the darkest sides of the wars in Korea and Vietnam before Krulak was denied promotion to Commandant because of the last war. The second story is that of the Marine Corps itself and it’s 20th century struggle for survival as a military branch of service against the bureaucratic machinations of the Army, the Navy and the ill-will of several presidents, a struggle in which Brute Krulak played a key part.
Reading between the lines, I sense that Coram, who delights in chronicling military mavericks, struggled with Krulak as a subject in a way he may not have with previous biographies like Boyd. Brute Krulak was a contradictory and controversial figure. Brilliantly innovative, absolutely dedicated, courageously outspoken, fiercely loyal, intensely driven and a physically brave Marine officer who led by example, Brute Krulak was also extremely and persistently deceptive, given to sins of omission as well as a relish to embellish and a machiavellian capacity to manipulate. The biography makes clear that Coram could not easily rely on the veracity of the anecdotes that an elderly but still mentally keen Brute Krulak grudgingly related to him.
Krulak could also be cold and emotionally abusive in his private life. It is clear that Krulak’s eldest son, Victor bore significant scars from treatment at his hands and Krulak , as much as he was able, effectively banished his extended family, including his parents, from his adult life in order to conceal his Jewish origins from a Marine and Navy hierarchy rife with anti-semitism. Like many young men on the make in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Krulak shed his religious traditions for the enhanced social mobility of the Episcopalian Church, the prestigious Protestant denomination of the Eastern Establishment elite, marrying into a wealthy, socially prominent family. Krulak so thoroughly reinvented himself and obscured his humble origins that late in life, his sons, who included two protestant ministers, were shocked to discover that their paternal grandparents and father were actually Jewish and not “Moravian” as they had been told.
In terms of operational art, Brute Krulak figures prominently in the history of two areas for which the United States Marines are best known: amphibious landings and counterinsurgency ( making this biography exceptionally timely). In both cases, Krulajk’s story intertwines with Coram’s theme of the Marine Corps at war with a predatory Army and Navy, each looking for their own reasons to demote the Marines to the “police force of the Navy” and end forever the role of the Marine Corps as a combat arm of the United States military. It is here that Coram’s pen acquires the sharpest edge.
Criticism of General William Westmoreland is common enough, and he comes in for his share of it in BRUTE, as are negative assessments of General Douglas MacArthur. That breaks little new ground as most historians see both men as flawed military leaders, albeit in different ways. What is highly unusual is the willingness of Robert Coram as a historian to boldly level audacious charges of undermining civilian control of the military against hallowed figures of the US Army such as General George Marshall, that Marshall and other senior generals of the Army conspired during the postwar creation of the Department of Defense to usurp power over the armed forces properly belonging to Congress and to concentrate it in the hands of a Prussian-style “general staff”; that General Dwight Eisenhower attempted to lie to Congress about his role in the JCS 1478 papers. Unlike in Boyd, where Coram found some key high-ranking Air Force generals who acted as protectors of Colonel John Boyd against a hostile hierarchy, in BRUTE Coram emerges as a squared away partisan for Marines in their battle with “Big Army”.
Robert Coram has written a fast-moving, often sympathetic, at times troubling portrait of Victor “Brute” Krulak, one of the legendary Marine generals who never made Commandant because he told his Commander-in-Chief unwelcome truths about the president’s war and suffered the natural consequences.