Iwo Jima shows extremism of Marines


"FIRE SARA Lister!" some have demanded. Oh no, that would be too good for her. Let's think of something really creative to do with the assistant secretary of the Army for staffing and reserve affairs, who resigned Friday.

Lister didn't just put her foot in her mouth Oct. 26, when she addressed a seminar here in Baltimore. She wedged her foot well down her throat. There'll be shoe polish on her breath well into the next decade.

Lister's is a classic case of how shutting up when there's a chance might actually be helpful.

"The Marines are extremists," Lister told seminar attendees. That's the United States Marines she was talking about, folks. TC You know, the Semper Fi guys and gals. The "Halls of Montezuma" people.

Had she stopped there, she could have said later -- when the grits hit the fan, after local WCBM radio got wind of her remarks and publicized them -- that she meant extremism in the Barry Goldwater definition. Some of you may remember the Arizona Republican's 1964 statement that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."

But Lister's comments were of a completely different tone. According to wire reports, Lister -- apparently afflicted with an urge to utter something stupid -- blurted out:

"I think the Army is much more connected to society than the Marines are. The Marines are extremists. Wherever you have extremists, you've got some risks of total disconnection with society. And that's a little dangerous."

What's really dangerous is the process by which a Lister becomes a high government official. Here we have an assistant secretary of one branch of our military who seriously believes another branch is dangerous. As in a threat to society. As in preparing for a coup d'etat that will topple the Clinton administration at any second.

Of course, Lister is all apologies now. Her use of the word "extremists" was "inappropriate and wrong," she wrote. Sniveling from her office in Washington, Lister felt compelled to add that her remarks were "taken out of context." Oh, there is a context in which the sentence "the Marines are extremists" is acceptable and appropriate? Kindly enlighten us, Sara dear.

Marine Corps commandant Gen. Charles Krulak was, understandably, not in a terribly conciliatory mood, writing that Lister's characterization of the Corps "would summarily dismiss 222 years of sacrifice and dedication to the nation."

Maryland 2nd District Congressman Robert Ehrlich -- the son of a Marine -- demanded that Lister be canned. So did House Speaker Newt Gingrich. I don't even want to think of what Marines -- veterans and those on active duty alike -- across the country want to see done with Lister. The subject conjures up images too brutal to be printed here.

But Lister is gone, never again to grace the halls of the Pentagon, we should all hope. Canning her would have been too easy on her. Let's give her some sensitivity training. Let's compel her to learn what it is Marines do, since she apparently doesn't know.

The Marines are a fighting force, probably the toughest we have. If they are "extremists," there are probably millions of Americans who are damn glad they are. What Marines did at Tarawa and Iwo Jima during World War II Lister might say was extremism. The rest of us call it bravery.

Recently the History Channel did a one-hour documentary on the battle for Iwo Jima titled "Iwo Jima: Hell's Volcano." Lister should be forced to watch it repeatedly. In fact, it wouldn't hurt if all Americans gave it a look-see. We don't watch documentaries much anymore. That may be the reason we have government officials going around calling the United States Marine Corps "extremist."

Marines faced 20,000 Japanese troops dug into tunnels on the 8-square-mile island of Iwo Jima. Japanese fighter planes from the island attacked American bombers heading for Japan. In February of 1945, American military leaders decided to forgo an attack on Formosa and take Iwo and its airfields.

After 36 days of fighting and 20,000 American casualties, the Marines finally took Iwo Jima. Most of the Marine dead, according to the documentary, died "in the most violent manner possible." Most had their bodies cut in two by artillery or mortar fire. Admiral Chester Nimitz of the Navy described just what kind of "extremism" the Marines who took Iwo Jima represented.

Iwo Jima was a place where, Nimitz said, "uncommon valor was a common virtue."

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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