Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Why the Marines are the Marines

Every great organization has its legends. These stories define the mission and the traditions of the group, and set a standard of performance that current members can strive for. They also encourage others to want to join.

Few groups take more care with their legends than the U.S. Marine Corps. Every Marine knows the stories of the Marines who came before, and no Marine wants to be the one who fails to meet the standard of performance as defined by these legends. Every Marine aspires to be a worthy successor to the Marines who came before.

I’m reminded of this because today marks 63 years since the Marines landed on Iwo Jima in the Pacific during World War II. When the Marines tell their story to new recruits (like me 25 years ago) the story of Iwo Jima is right at the beginning. (The Marines even use video of the famous flag raising on the island in their advertising.)

Telling the Iwo Jima story makes sense for the Marines. It’s a story of great courage. Of the 81 Congressional Medals of Honor (the nation’s highest honor) awarded to Marines in WWII, 22 were awarded for action on Iwo Jima. This is more than for any other battle in American history. The Naval commander Admiral Chester Nimitz said of the Marines on Iwo “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” When you read the citations for the Marines (and five sailors) who received the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima you will see what he meant.

It also makes it clear that the Marines’ central mission is dangerous, sometimes brutal. During the six week battle for the eight square mile island (about the size of Pawtucket, R.I.) 6,800 Americans were killed. One out of three Americans who landed on the island was killed or wounded. All but a couple hundred of the 22,000 Japanese defenders fought to the death.

When I consider Iwo Jima it’s not long before I get to a sense of gratitude and pride. Gratitude towards the men who fought the battle – combined with the pride of knowing that despite all the distractions a prosperous democracy can create, thisnation still produces men and women who are worthy successors of the Marines on Iwo Jima.

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