QUANTICO MARINE CORPS BASE, Va. -- President Truman was a former Army captain and given to pungent expression of his prejudices, one of which was against the Marine Corps, which he derided as "the Navy's police force" with "a propaganda machine almost equal to Stalin's." He said that in August 1950. Note that date.
During the postwar dismantling of the military, other services grasped for the Marine Corps' missions and budget. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Omar Bradley, said in October 1949: "large-scale amphibious operations . . . will never occur again."
In the summer of 1950, while Truman was criticizing the Corps, Marines were rushing to Pusan to help stop the North Korean sweep, then going to Inchon in September for the great amphibious landing that reversed the tide of the war.
Today, in another military contraction, there again are voices questioning the Corps' relevance. Critics should come here, to these 60,000 acres devoted largely to a stern socialization of a few young men and women. The Corps is content to be called an island of selflessness in a sea of selfishness, and to be defined by the moral distance between it and a society that is increasingly a stranger to self-denial.
The commanding general here, Paul K. Van Riper, says Quantico begins by teaching officer candidates four things -- discipline, drill, knowledge of the service rifle and the Corps' history.
Marines tell young men and women thinking of joining one of the military services that there are three choices and one challenge -- that the Corps is a calling, not just a career. On this day, a cluster of young officers (from Harvard, the University of North Carolina, as well as the Naval Academy and other fine colleges) eating a lunch of field rations in a grove of trees agrees. Says one, other people tell you what they do, Marines tell you what they are.
A barracks poster portraying the Trojan horse proclaims that "Superior thinking has always overwhelmed superior force." "Why would the Marine Corps need a library?" asked an incredulous congressman when the Corps asked for the one it subsequently got. The answer is that this nation, with its vast human and material resources, has often waged wars of attrition, but the Marine Corps, the smallest service, must be, like Stonewall Jackson in the valley, imaginative.
Being so is a tradition. During the 1930s the Marines refined the amphibious tactics that soon were used from North Africa to the South Pacific, and after 1945 were particularly innovative regarding the use of helicopters.
True, there has not been an amphibious assault since Inchon, and Iraqi sea mines -- inexpensive leverage for second-rate nations -- prevented one during Desert Storm. However, the Marines Corps, which 50 years ago was in danger of being consigned to largely ceremonial roles and embassy protection, is the service least affected by the end of the Cold War.
It is the nation's forward deployed expeditionary force and will not want for work in a world increasingly ulcerated by small, low-intensity conflicts fueled by religious, ethnic and other cultural passions.
Speaking of cultural conflicts, what makes the Corps not only useful but also fascinating is, again, its conscious cultivation of an ethos conducive to producing hard people in a soft age. Toward the end of their 10-week program, officer candidates arrive in the predawn gloom at the Leadership Reaction Course -- a series of physical and mental problems they must try to solve under the stress of short deadlines. The candidates arrive after a two-mile run they make after they make an eight-mile march, which they make after being awakened after just two hours sleep. What is their reward for choosing this steep and rocky path in life? Life and death responsibilities at age 23.
Looking for today's counterculture? Look here.
George Will is a syndicated columnist.