US Marine Corps: Semper Fi, But Why?

Photograph Source: Sgt. Mark Fayloga – Public Domain

Seventy years ago today, September 15, 1950, the U.S. Marine Corps won one of its greatest battles, landing at Inchon on the Korean coast, collapsing the North Korean lines, and enabling U.S. forces to regain the capital of Seoul, South Korea.  General Douglas MacArthur conducted the operation over the objections of the Joint Chiefs, who feared that the operation would fail and that there were no reserves to take the place of the Marines who would be lost.

Inchon belongs along side such incredible exploits as the iconic battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918 during World War One, and the massive campaign of amphibious warfare from island to island in the Pacific during World War Two.  The Marine victory at Belleau Wood was a costly one, with a casualty rate of more than 55 percent.  More than 9,000 men went into battle; more than 1,000 men were killed, and more than 4,000 were wounded or gassed.

General MacArthur took credit for the successful but costly island hopping from 1943 to 1945, which enabled him to carry out his pledge to return to the Philippines.  There were two primary benefits to this strategy: First, it could be accomplished with fewer troops. Second, it meant cut-off enemy forces couldn’t be pulled back to reinforce important objectives, like the Philippines. Bases seized by the Allies were used to launch strikes that targeted enemy supply lines.

The hallowed history of the Marine Corps began in 1775, when two battalions of Continental Marines were formed in Philadelphia. The Marine Corps mission from its inception was to conduct expeditionary and amphibious operations, but Inchon in 1950 was the last amphibious operation that the Marines conducted.  If the United States is ever going to come to grips with the national security state, perhaps it is time to examine the possibility of ending the Corps as we know it and to fold a more limited expeditionary capability into the U.S. Army.

Although the Marines haven’t conducted an amphibious operation in 70 years, the Corps has grown to more than 186,000 men and women with more planes, ships, armored vehicles, and personnel in uniform than the entire British military. There is no other nation that has such a Corps in terms of numbers and capabilities.  Nevertheless, their prestige continues to grow as President Barack Obama appointed retired Marine Corps general, James Jones, as national security adviser, and President Donald Trump appointed General James Mattis as secretary of defense, and John Kelly as director of the Department of Homeland Security and even chief of staff in the White House. The appointment of Marine general officers was without precedent.

At the very least, there needs to be significant cuts in the size of the force and the kind of weaponry that is specifically and expensively designed for a so-called amphibious force that no longer conducts amphibious operations. The V-22 Osprey, a futuristic vertical takeoff and landing hybrid aircraft, has taken up nearly a half-century of research, development, and production and still is neither reliable nor safe.  The current cost of an Osprey is more than $100 million per aircraft, which is 150 percent over its original unit cost.  Relying on the proven H-92 and CH-53 helicopters would save the nation $20 billion.  When President George H.W. Bush tried to kill the Osprey program, the Marines conducted a successful public relations campaign to save the aircraft.  The congressional fight to save the Osprey was led by Rep. William Thornberry (R-TX), whose district is home for the Osprey’s assembly lines.

The Osprey’s history is one  of significant failure.  The Osprey program began in 1981; Marine crews didn’t begin training on the Osprey until 2000; and the aircraft was finally fielded in 2007.  During this period, at least one Osprey commander was relieved of duty for falsifying maintenance records regarding reliability.  The Osprey has claimed numerous lives in flight tests, and the General Accounting Office has serious questions about its ability to operate in “high-threat operations.”

The Marine version of the F-35 joint strike fighter is outrageously expensive because of its sophisticated take-off and landing capability that resembles that of a helicopter.  Even the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said that he had “sticker shock” when he saw the price.  It makes more sense to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles or attack helicopters than to deploy a variant of the F-35.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates refused to deal with the issue, and kicked the can down the road to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.  Panetta was a budget hawk in the 1990s when he led the Office of Management and Budget, but years later he demonstrated no interest in canceling any weapons system.

Although the military prides itself as being one of the most diverse institutions in the United States, the Marine Corps is anything but.  The Marines were the last service to even accept African-American troops, and there has never been a Black four-star general.  Of the 82 Marine generals today, only seven are African-American.  Overall, over 40 percent of the 1.3 million men and women are people of color, but only two of the 42 four-star generals are Black; only one woman has reached this rank and she is White.  The Marines claim to care deeply about diversity, but the institutional racism of the Corps is well established.

In the past, the exploits and the history of the Marine Corps always saved it in the halls of Congress from any serious cuts in funding or even criticism. But the task of rebuilding the federal government after four years of Donald Trump will be an expensive and arduous task.  An initial step could involve the United States stopping the misuse of its military power by limiting its global involvement and the operational tempo of its military forces.  Reducing the Marines Corps could be the first step in recognizing John Quincy Adams’ dictum to lead by the force of example and not the example of force.

In May 2003, several weeks after President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the Marines conducted a raid on the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Baghdad without consulting any civilian official in Iraq.  An official in the Bush administration explained that “Marines don’t get paid to worry about flags, other than the Stars and Stripes, and this unit carried out its disarmament mission with relish and Semper Fi.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for