Reviews > Books

Books: The virtues of soldiers

Books | Books show extremism in the defense of freedom is no vice

Issue: "Palau: Renaissance Man," Jan. 24, 1998

Just weeks after former Assistant Secretary of the Army Sara Lister resigned after calling the U.S. Marines "extremists," a book scaling the best-seller list like an obstacle-course wall proves her point. The U.S. Marine Corps is extreme, Wall Street Journal reporter Thomas E. Ricks shows, in that it holds to outdated concepts such as honor, loyalty, and discipline. And thank God that it does. Making the Corps grew out of a Journal piece Mr. Ricks researched and wrote in 1995. He spent 11 weeks on Parris Island, watching as drill instructors turned recruits of Platoon 3086 into Marines. "In a society that seems to have trouble transmitting values, the Marines stand out as a successful and healthy institution that unabashedly teaches values to the Beavises and Buttheads of America.... With their incessant emphasis on honor, courage, and commitment, they offer an alternative to the loneliness and distrust that today seems so widespread, especially among American youth." This isn't an under-represented genre; Leon Uris's Battle Cry tells the story from a recruit's perspective, as does Neil Simon's play (and movie) Biloxi Blues. Then there's Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. But Mr. Ricks's book differs in that it gives a broader, less subjective picture; he went in as a journalist, not a frightened adolescent. He focuses his lens on individual recruits, but draws in helpful history and political details. His writing is tight and descriptive, and often humorous. (He tells of one recruit whose brother's letters from home contained insulting messages about the drill instructors on the outside of his envelopes, which led to plenty of extra exercises for the recruit.) In general the book is laudatory of the Corps, although in Chapter 9 Mr. Ricks tips his civilian hat to the academics and theoreticians who think like Ms. Lister. Marine officers are becoming more and more conservative, he notes, "which is troubling both for the military and the nation it serves." That kind of silly statement is confined to one chapter; the rest of the book is well worth reading, if for nothing more than to remind us that when Americans are trapped in an embassy in some hard-to-pronounce country, or U.S. interests are threatened by unconventional warriors, we're blessed to have a group of extremists willing and ready to go in there and do what needs to be done. Stephen E. Ambrose's newest book, Citizen Soldiers, is a fine reminder of the sacrifices that have already been made. Mr. Ambrose (Undaunted Courage) follows the U.S. Army from D-Day-Plus-One (June 7, 1944) to the surrender of Germany 11 months later. Mr. Ambrose very clearly sees these men as heroes. Of fighter/bomber pilots, he writes, "They were daredevil youngsters, some of them only 19 years of age (it was generally felt that by the time he reached his mid-20s, a man was too sensible to take the chances routinely required of a P-47 pilot). They lived in tents in the Norman mud. They made up to five sorties a day, some of them only 20 minutes in duration. They dominated the sky and brought destruction to the Germans below." He doesn't leave out the German perspective, although he focuses mainly on the American GIs. Mr. Ambrose is as good a storyteller as he is a historian. And an extremist-sympathizer, as well.

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