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Old 11-26-2006, 02:45 PM
GyBill GyBill is offline
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Gallery of Grunts: At the New National Museum of the Marine Corps

Gallery of Grunts
At the New National Museum of the Marine Corps, Heroes but No Heroics

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 19, 2006; D01

The new National Museum of the Marine Corps shows you the Marine Corps as it
is, which is mostly enlisted men, anonymous grunts, and war as it is, which
is dirty, crazy and endless.

No victory parades up the Champs-Elysees or down Fifth Avenue through the
tickertape, no full-dress surrenders, no girls kissing Marines at war's end,
no wreaths, triumphal arches, reflecting pools or any of the World War II
Memorial stuff on the Mall, no generals holding binoculars with one hand and
pointing over the battlefield with the other, not that many officers at all,
really. And just about no ideology about freedom, America the beautiful or
making the world safe for democracy.

A staff sergeant named Steven Sullivan, one of the builders of the exhibits,
last week stood inside the big circular hall that holds fighter planes and
displays, which include a helicopter disgorging troops in Korea and Marines
hitting the beach at Tarawa. He summed up the ethos of the whole 118,000
square feet of the place: "No grandiosity, no heroic garbage."

One doesn't think of the Marine Corps shrinking from advertising its
glamour: the Iwo Jima flag-raising monument, those grandiose TV ads with
knights, dragons and swords, and the bumper sticker braggadocio: "Marines --
When It Absolutely, Positively Has to Be Destroyed Overnight." And there's
the 210-foot spire that slants over the museum in unavoidable line-of-sight
of travelers driving on Interstate 95 past the Marine base at Quantico.

The museum itself, however, is not about glamour; it's about the Marine
mystique. And despite the glamour created by supremely adroit Marine public
relations, the mystique is founded on -- of all things -- a willful and even
perverse modesty.

Not the modesty of Spartans or kamikazes, or the French Foreign Legion
parading at a half-time funeral step with leather aprons and axes, but a
pristine and hard-eyed dirt-farm stinginess, a nearly lost American
poor-but-proud aesthetic that makes Marines enjoy their belief that they're
always fighting with hand-me-down equipment and not enough troops (because
one Marine is as good as 10 of any enemy, a belief that was just as wrong
when the Confederate army believed it, too). There are also the casualties
that provoke the perverse Marine boast that the corps is the finest machine
ever developed for the killing of young American men. A friend of mine once
heard a Marine colonel say to an Army colonel: "The Army uses tanks to
protect men. The Marines use men to protect tanks."

Hence, at the end of the museum's three most powerful displays -- World War
II, Korea and Vietnam -- you see not jubilation in triumph but merely a
list of Marine casualties, dead, wounded and missing. And carved into the
stone of the entrance hall are the words of Sgt. Maj. Dan Daly, twice a
Medal of Honor winner: "Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live

If you cannot savor this sort of irony and understand that it is irony, the
Marine mystique will elude you. But like a beautiful woman, the Marine Corps
is secretly delighted to think that you don't understand it. Beyond that, it
doesn't give a damn.

A museum video screen shows a reporter in Vietnam talking to a Marine who
just put himself under enemy fire, risked his life, to retrieve a dead man.

"What possessed you to go out and get that body?"

"He's a Marine."

"What do you mean?"

"He's a Marine. I'll take care of him."

Semper Fi, as we Marines say to each other for the rest of our lives. It's
short for Semper Fidelis, the Marine motto: Always faithful. Fighting their
way back from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea -- exhausted, under fire, sick,
wounded and frostbitten -- Marines walked so that their trucks could carry
the dead, as if they believed that men die but Marines live forever, a bleak
immortality akin to the Greeks' underworld; self-sacrifice but with none of
the transcendence of martyrdom.

The point here is the admirable or at least intractable modesty -- an
arrogance of modesty -- that creates the Marine mystique as Marines know it
and the museum shows it.

The mystique drives the Marine Corps and preserves its rituals, most
important among them being boot camp, which has not changed much in living
memory, an initiation rite that begins with chaos and terror fomented by the
rabid indignation of drill instructors at your trespass. It ends, months
later, with a graduating platoon gliding across the drill field with the
oblivious elegance of a ship sailing along a horizon.

The museum conveys the terror of the first days in boot camp by
understatement. It plays the drill instructors' shouts ( Louder! Louder!
Look at the weapon! Shut your mouth!) at room-conversation volume and lets
you amplify them in your mind.

You wander through the museum's dark and noisy labyrinths -- the popping of
helicopter blades, the artillery and machine-gun fire, bomb bursts, MOVE
OUT! MOVE OUT!, landing craft engines grinding toward the beach of Iwo Jima,
Bugs Bunny singing "Any bonds today?" in a WWII cartoon, and phrases
floating through the air from a thousand recorded recollections: Now the
Marines would get their chance . . . like cattle in a slaughterhouse . . .
we shall land . . . stench of rot . . .

You see medals and weapons collections and mannequins (molded and placed by
Staff Sgt. Sullivan) of Marines killing and being killed, and all the
idiosyncratic relics, the old dog tags, a letter opener made from shrapnel,
ammo boxes, a canteen with a bullet hole in it, a pinup girl, a straight
razor, all with the banality of someone else's souvenirs.

There's no glory when you walk off a trembling CH-46 helicopter to find
yourself marooned on Hill 881 South, which was a very hot landing zone for
months near Khe Sanh, Vietnam, live bodies flying in on helicopters and dead
ones flying out while mortar shells exploded, rats prowled behind the
sandbags, and the Marines fired back at the mortars with 105mm howitzers
like the one you see here with tires flattened by incoming shrapnel.

The mystique goes deep. It provokes the fists thrown at or by sailors and
soldiers in waterfront bars. It may instill the knack to be found in the
lowest private for talking smack to the media, "telling sea stories," as
Marines themselves say, and making civilians believe them. The Marine Corps
is a cult, a tribe, a religious order.

The mystique even prompts the occasional American male to lie about having
been in the Marine Corps (as in the new novel by Jim Lehrer, a former Marine
lieutenant, called "The Phony Marine"). If you were a Marine, those men make
your flesh crawl with pity. You say: My God, if I could be a Marine, they
could have been Marines; don't they know that?

Perhaps they couldn't have. But so what?

You were a Marine and they weren't, and that is all the difference.

Listen up, people! That is all the difference.

And that difference is what the museum is all about.

The National Museum of the Marine Corps, 18900 Jefferson Davis Hwy.,
Triangle, Va., is open daily except Christmas, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is free. For information, go to
<> or call

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