Guest Post: U.S. Marines, the Forever Tribe by Stan Coerr
[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
We at ZP would like to thank Colonel Stan Coerr for his permission to reprint this essay, written on the eve of his retirement last July, after a quarter century of of military service in the Marine Corps Reserve and on active duty.
Stan Coerr is the author of Rubicon: the Poetry of War and is a retired Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and works in the federal civil service. He holds degrees from Duke, Harvard and the Naval War College, has been a fellow at MIT and Stanford, and was recently accepted to begin work on a doctorate at Oxford. He is finishing a book on his time in Iraq, and his next book will be on the life and work of Dr. Bernard Fall.
The U.S. Marines, America’s Forever Tribe
by Stan Coerr
Today is my last day in the uniform of the United States Marines.
I write this not as a farewell. Rather, this is a reflection on this tribe of which I am a part, and which is inside me forever.
What I remember of twenty- five years inside this brotherhood are vignettes: stories that indicate who we are and why we devote our lives to an organization such as this.
Some happened to me; others I read or saw. All describe who we are as Marines.
What everyone looking in from the outside must realize is that Marines are instant brothers, no matter the situation, no matter whether they have met before that moment.
The Marines are a tribe.
We have our own language, culture, mores and idiomatic shorthand communication.
We have our own distinctive clothing. We cut our hair in a distinctive way.
We paint our bodies with unique tribal markings.
We undergo rites of passage to turn boys into men, the men we need to further the greater good of us all.
We hand down legends of those who went before, who fell in battle, who did great and heroic things.
We sing songs to celebrate them; we memorize what they did.
We listen to the wisdom of the tribal elders, and we turn to them for decisions and guidance.
Ken Schwenke and Mike Dossett are 180 degrees out from one another in style, but those of us fortunate enough to be Marine Options at NROTC Duke, a team forty strong in the mid to late 1980s, to this day benefit from the nurturing and guidance and demanding perfection of those two men.
Bob Dobson was an exceptional battalion commander, a very deep thinker and a man who knew how to train Marines.
I was fortunate to work beneath the finest general officers the Marine Corps can produce. I worked for George Trautman when he was both a Lieutenant Colonel and a Lieutenant General, and his relentless, driving intellect and fearsome demand for detail, analysis and good decisions sharpened me in ways I am still discovering.
I was lucky enough to serve beneath Generals Mattis, Conway and Dunford, in both peace and war, and from when they were Colonels to their positions as four-star generals.
The nation is fortunate that men such as these have set us on the course we follow today.
The Marine Corps is people, and it is stories.
I am marching a platoon down the streets of New Orleans during the Mardi Gras parades in 1989, as leader of the drill team.
I was to the side of the team as they marched, so I was right next to the screaming crowds. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets, screaming and shrieking and cheering.
Marine options in college wear navy uniforms but Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor insignia.
As we marched through the throngs, one man in the crowd, right next to me, saw my EGA and said simply, in a conversational voice and just to me:
“Get it, Marines.”
Never saw him, never spoke to him.
I check in to Bob Dobson’s rifle battalion in Twentynine Palms, California in 1994.
Then-Colonel Jim Mattis, the Seventh Marines regimental commander, called for me to come see him. I was not only just a brand-new Captain, but I was an aviator in an infantry regiment: I was not a key player.
Colonel Mattis took his phone off the hook, closed his office door and spent over an hour, just with me, telling me his warfighting philosophy, vision, goals and expectations. He told me how he saw us fighting – and where – and how he was getting us ready to do just that.
America knows him as the caricature: Mad Dog Mattis. Those of us who served with him know that he is a gifted, caring, warfighting general, and the finest of tribal elders.
I am watching a film clip from Vietnam.
Jack Laurence of CBS News, a very talented TV reporter and author of the magnificent memoir The Cat From Hue, was out in the jungle with a Marine rifle company.
Somehow a Marine from another unit was separated from his brothers, and this company had found him.
Laurence rolls tape, and approaches the company commander. This man is wearing filthy utilities. He is exhausted and thirty pounds underweight, with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. A man with things to do and the weight of hundreds of lives on his shoulders. A hard, intense man.
Laurence talks about the lost Marine, and asks: “Will you take care of this man?”
The Captain stares at Laurence as if he is insane, and says, as if it should be obvious: “He’s a Marine.”
Captain: “He’s a Marine. I’ll take care of him.”
I am with Paddy Gough in a Cobra over 29 Palms in December 1992.
We are at one hundred feet, flying back from a mission. It is bitter cold on the desert floor, below freezing, and a dark, ugly cloud layer sits low on the sand.
A line of exhausted Marines below us is marching back to their camp after a week of training. They string out like ants, hundreds of them in the cold. They are bent under their equipment: heavy weapons, mortar tubes, ammunition, packs, helmets, flak jackets.
We fly in silence, watching them, until Paddy comes up on the intercom with me, and says quietly:
“This country does not know how lucky we are to have such men.”
I am a seven-year-old boy, and my father is putting me to sleep.
I am sleeping in a Marine Corps-issue jungle hammock, which of course to a boy is the coolest thing ever.
I need something to read, so he disappears into the study and returns.
He hands me a book I read cover to cover and which I am holding right now: the 1962 Guidebook for Marines.
I am giving a speech in El Cajon, California in July 2003.
I was one of the first people back from the invasion of Iraq, and I was therefore much in demand from local groups who wanted to hear about this campaign in Mesopotamia.
I was outdoors at a Fourth of July street festival, speaking to a crowd of several hundred people and telling them how magnificent our fighting force was, and what I had seen.
I told these people that their Marines were in the fight in the desert, winning, doing it right for the people back home, representing the best of who we are as a nation.
Standing far to the back of the crowd was a motorcycle gang. Huge, hairy guys, dozens of them, in beards and bandannas and wraparound sunglasses and leather and boots, leaning on their Harleys.
As I came off the stage, they came to me as a group. The first of them grabbed me and I now saw the EGA sewn onto his vest, right next to his Vietnam campaign patch.
He embraced me, tight, and said:
“Right on, brother. Right on.”
Karl Marlantes was in the best position imaginable in 1967.
He was on a Rhodes Scholarship, comfortable in Oxford, immune from the Vietnam War and the vagaries of the draft. He was immersed in the world’s premier academic institution on a full ride, the goal of every serious college student.
But Marlantes had been to Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in 1964. He had been inducted into the tribe. And his brothers were at war. He says:
“I couldn’t go to a party without thinking of my Marine friends, terrified in the jungle while I was hanging onto my girlfriend’s warm body with one arm and holding a pint of bitter in the other. The one choice my conscience would not allow was to sit it out in college.
I pulled all my scholarship money from the bank…and Second Lieutenant Karl Marlantes USMCR reported for active duty. “
Or from Phillip Caputo in 1961:
“I wanted to find in a commonplace world a chance to live heroically.
Having known nothing but security, comfort and peace, I hungered for danger, challenges and violence.
The Marine Corps was more than a branch of the armed services. It was a society unto itself, demanding total commitment to its doctrines and values. We were novitiates, and the rigorous training , administered by the high priests called drill instructors, was to be our ordeal of initiation.
At the end of the course, the DIs honored our survival by informing us that we had earned the right to be called Marines.”
I earned that right, as did many of you. As did millions before us, and the millions to follow.
I feel no sadness about taking off the uniform for the last time. The Marine Corps does not care about me….nor should it. The organization will always be there, and it will always hone and harden the finest our country has to offer.
I was only one of many…but at the same time, I was one of the few.
The Marine Corps serves the nation, and those of us who are called serve the Marine Corps.
We serve the unit.
We serve the tribe.
Most of all, we serve our brothers.
January 30th, 2015 at 3:48 pm
This is splendid! Thanks for giving Stan’s Facebook post a bigger perch!
January 30th, 2015 at 10:10 pm
Mark- Thanks for the shout-out! I am proud to be part of this group….
P.S. I cannot look at that photo without laughing at Sergeant Walsh….he is the one right behind me, with his arms across his knees.
I can hear him now: “Sir, are we really going to do this? Geeeeezzzzzzz….”
January 31st, 2015 at 12:46 am
as one who wrote years ago about “tribes — the first and forever form”, i am heartened to read this. the marines are a shining modern example, blending institutional and tribal principles in positive balanced ways.
elsewhere, however, i was disheartened to see new york city police unionists opt to engage in public displays of a negative tribalism, showing institutional and tribal impulses spiraling out of balance. not to mention other city police.
one of our country’s key challenges at home and abroad, including for grand strategy, is dealing with the continued rise and spread of so many dark varieties of preternatural tribalism.
January 31st, 2015 at 4:57 am
Glad you enjoyed it Scott!
Stan, very glad to have you here – top notch post!
David – Agree with you. Tribalism is such a powerful force because it builds resilience along with other capabilities. How would you characterize ISIS in your TIMN framework?
January 31st, 2015 at 6:39 am
I can relate:
One of my last memories of my father, a Captain RN, is sleeping overnight in a hammock on his ship, HMS Protector — and yes, to this boy it was the coolest thing ever. I’d fired the Oerlikon and Bofors guns earlier in the day, while we were out on exercise, and those names remain with me still. My father died soon after: I was nine.
February 4th, 2015 at 8:47 pm
I’m a little late replying, Zen, but I do have tentative partial answers. And they are essentially TIMN-framework answers:
Much as I appreciate seeing so many efforts to analyze ISIS (and earlier, Al Qaeda) as a network and/or a hierarchy of some new kind, I continue to believe (as I did with Al Qaeda) that the tribal form is relentlessly at work as well, if not more so. Thus, I’d propose (as I tried with Al Qaeda) that ISIS and affiliates are operating much like a global tribe waging segmental warfare. ISIS and ilk seem classically tribal in terms of what drives them, how they organize, how they fight. Viewing ISIS mainly as a cutting-edge, post-modern network phenomenon of the information age, while not inaccurate, misses a crucial point: Al Qaeda and affiliates are using the information age to reiterate ancient patterns of tribalism on a global scale. The war they are waging is more about virulent tribalism than religion. As I’ve said before, the tribal paradigm should be added to the network and other prevailing paradigms to help figure out the best policies and strategies for countering these violent actors, organizationally and ideologically.
But this is a trying and troublesome point to make effectively, because network and religion paradigms have powerful holds around analysis, strategy, and the media. Heads may nod when I bring up the tribal form and its implications for analysis and strategy, but not many analysts are suited to working on it (anthropology has basically ostracized the concept, and anthropologists would rather argue about it than help out). Moreover, bringing up the tribal paradigm means recognizing the significance of all sorts of negative modern expressions that may make some people averse and uncomfortable (e.g., Fox News broadcasts more tribalists intent on tribalizing than any other network, in my view).
In contrast, a vast apparatus, indeed a veritable industry, has grown around discussing jihadi extremism and counter-extremism from the standpoint of religion. The religious aspects are undeniably important, but after watching the back and forth among various religious scholars and pundits over many years, I still think that what’s going on is more about tribalism than religion, and that dwelling on religion is not the best way to counter the jihadi movement. Maybe a way to bridge from religion to tribalism in order to root out extremism is to ask: Are you fostering Islam, or are you fostering tribalism? And what do you think your answer means?
Since this movement has arisen in a part of the world that, in my view, can’t seem to get any of the TIMN forms right in order to construct modern societies — it’s fraught with failed tribes as well as failed states, etc. — I expect that, if ISIS takes hold over territory and consolidates a caliphate-type state, the outcome will be a vicious fascism. Moreover, its options for future expansion may include something new: a global “panarchy” (see Wikipedia article on its original meaning, which is different from recent modern network usage) consisting of semi-autonomous zones and nested enclaves that abide more-or-less the surrounding state/country, but obey the caliphate — an ummah-state quite distinct from a nation-state. But maybe I’m being too speculative? (But maybe it’s been tried before — e.g., by the Papacy?)
Elsewhere here at your blog, I applaud Charles’ post about “unholy war”. He too is trying to come up with a way to get beyond the hold of established religious terminology. I have a similar problem with terminology about the tribal form. Since “extreme tribalism” hasn’t quite worked for me, I’m currently trying out “preternatural tribalism” as a focus. Who knows?
February 4th, 2015 at 11:23 pm
While we’re on the topic of tribalism, I noticed your use of the term “honoritarian” in Tribes — The First and Forever Form.
I have the impression that “honor / shame” is another issue that anthropology has tended to ostracize — not quite identical to tribalism, but certainly showing a strong overlap? — and I wondered whether you have written that axis up in detail elsewhere, or could point me to a resource or resources on the topic you consider particularly useful.
I am pretty sure I saw a paper once, written for the US military, describing in a couple of paragraphs how a herding society would tend to develop honor / shame dynamics — as I recall, the gist was that the herdsman, being way off up some mountainside with his herd, would be risking his family’s entire capital in the form of that herd, and his family in the form of his wife, if he did not threaten massive retaliation on any brigand or kidnapper audacious enough to take either from him, with extended clan-loyalty being the guarantee of that retaliation. If I could ever find it again, I’d quote it quite a bit.
I noticed your use of “preternatural tribalism” too — a very interesting usage that I’ll be keeping an eye out for in your own and others’ writings.
February 5th, 2015 at 2:35 am
I didn’t follow up with “honoritarian”. But as for a paper once written for US mil, a quick search of some of my holdings indicates you should check past writings by William McCallister and Ralph Peters about tribes. Also a Leavenworth HTS Army study “My Cousin’s Enemy is My Friend: A Study of Pashtun “Tribes”. I didn’t like it much, as I once blogged. And especially go look at a DoD study “Iraq Tribal Study – Al-Anbar Governorate: The Albu Fahd Tribe, The Albu Mahal Tribe and the Albu Issa Tribe”. The last has quite a lot about herders.
February 5th, 2015 at 5:53 am
That’s extremely helpful, David — thank you so much.
Maj. Gant’s paper I was familiar with, and the Al Anbar Tribal Governate piece, since I’ve been redaing Col. Lang for a while and he was one of the contributors. My Cousin’s Enemy is My Friend looks familiar, too, as does McCallister’s COIN and Irregular Warfare. I’ll have to go through them all, and a dozen more, with a fine tooth comb now, and see whether the two or three paragraphs that I so vividly remember turn up in one of them.
Many thanks again.
And I really liked “honoritarian”.
February 5th, 2015 at 10:48 pm
thanks for highlighting “honoritarian”. as i recall, i kept seeing a common set of adjectives used to characterize tribes: e.g., acephalous, egalitarian, segmental. but no adjective that captured the respect, pride, honor, dignity bundle that is so important in/to tribes. and i couldn’t locate one. so i came up with honoritarian. i don’t recall whether it had already been coined somewhere, but i think not. so i’m doubly delighted it sticks around usefully.