Semper Fidelis


ANOTHER “unofficial” history dealing with an important phase of World War II is The Marines’ War, by Fletcher Pratt (Sloane, $5.00). In his foreword the author states that he has been allowed access to “a great many official records” and that “where the records seemed inadequate or inaccurate, he was allowed to interview eyewitnesses to his heart’s content. . . . Officers have read the manuscript in various stages and cheeked it for accuracy as to statement of event; but no one has checked it for opinion, or has attempted to do so.” The French make a nice distinction between a document which is officieux, like a statement by “a spokesman for the White House” which might be classified as straight from the horse’s mouth, and a document which is ojficie/ or the horse’s mouth itself neighing and the horse itself signing the document with a flourish of hooves.
The device of the semiofficial history is both a proper and a convenient one. The armed services coöperate willingly enough in the assurance that the historian involved will give them at least an even break, but they are in a position to deny responsibility for statements of fact or of opinion.
A reviewer, however faithfully he reads one of these current histories, has not enjoyed the author’s access to official records and is thus unqualified to pass on the fidelity of his presentation of facts. He is limited to judging the style of the historian, the clarity with which he presents complex maneuvers to the lay world, the general readability of his work. He may also ask how far the opinions of the author are colored by his association with the forces involved, and it is not improper for him to note what may seem to him to be inadequate or summary treatment of controversial issues about which lay opinion is woefully ignorant or confused.
As to the first of these qualities, Mr. Pratt may be congratulated on a singularly lucid exposition, an easy, fluent style, and a consistent readability of narrative. He is an eminent student of his subject and he is also in the highest brackets of the historian-journalists. In fact, as a craftsmanlike narrative, few if any of the preceding unofficial volumes produced by World War II are in the same class as The Marines’ War.
Together with its virtues as an historical narrative, this book is pleasing in its modesty and its lack of sentimentality. The first person singular pronoun is conspicuously lacking. In dealing with heroic episodes — and there were so many in the Marines’ campaign — it must have been exlremely difficult to avoid fine writing, purple passages, and a play for the reader’s tears. This temptation Mr. Pratt carefully avoids. His emotion is genuine, but it is restrained. The heroism is implicit in his story, but it is not exploited. In using such reticence Mr. Pratt is perhaps less effective as a journalist, but he is certainly more impressive as an historian.
As to the structure of the book, the author devotes almost 30 per cent of his text to the story of the Guadalcanal campaign and few will question the propriety of such emphasis. That campaign was fought on a relative shoestring; it was excessively arduous; it involved heavy losses on land and sea; and its success was always in doubt. Moreover, it was the school—and a hard one for all future island operations. Later campaigns were often more costly and more dreadful in point of casualties during a given period, but such operations were undertaken by increasingly powerful forces relative to the enemy. As the book proceeds one can watch the development of the skills, the know-how, of amphibious warfare as well as the tremendous increase in striking power, particularly on the part of the Navy. In the end, we had control of the sea and almost complete domination of the air. Taking another island became a matter of counting the cost and picking the most useful field of attack from a strategic standpoint. Defeat was only a bare possibility. We had, if it was concentrated, overwhelming power.
There are some questions which arise after reading this book which, I hope, it is not unfair to put forward. Obviously Mr. Pratt is in love with the Marines, and who can blame him? The morale and esprit de corps of that body are above praise and have been insistently proclaimed by the Marines themselves time out of mind. Hut what does Mr. Pratt conceive the Marine Corps to be, how shall they be judged? At the outset, he describes their function as troops dedicated to “winning beachheads under the guns of the Navy and holding them till the arrival of the Army.” They were justified, he says, “neither as small-arms men aboard warships nor as elite storm-troop infantry, their employment in World War I.” But in this volume we find them employed first as beachhead troops and then as storm-troop infantry. In the latter capacity, Mr. Pratt consistently infers that they were superior to such Army contingents as served with them. It would seem excessive to describe a Marine Corps which had been expanded how many times? (ten for a guess) — as an infantry corps d’élite. Their training as infantrymen can hardly have been superior to that of the Army but Mr. Pratt presen Is his Marines as in every way topflight. They made few, if any, mistakes unless their intelligence was at fault. Their tactics, as infantrymen, were superior to those of the Army. They were special. They were super-duper.
It is easy for him to dismiss as a “whispering controversy” the highly controversial incident in the Saipan campaign when General “Howling Mad” Smith of the Marines relieved General Ralph Smith, commanding the 27th Army Division, from duty, because of the slow progress of his troops, and to infer that the Army court-martial proceedings dealing with this incident were inadequate and prejudiced. The Army’s reticence does not mean that it endorses General “Howling Mad” Smith’s action or that it would agree with Mr. Pratt’s account of the incident. Moreover, il is disturbing to note that Mr. Pratt hardly ever refers to General MacArthur except in a critical, derogatory, or querulous manner. In writing a history of a phase of the war in the Pacific it is very well for an author dealing only with the Marines to pay small attention even to the superb achievement of General MacArthur and his troops, but it is a mistake to ignore or belittle it.
In fact, Mr. Pratt shares a weakness which seems to be inevitable among semiofficial historians, of seeing the picture, not as a whole, but partially and with certain distortions, I do not mean that a prejudice in favor of his own side leads him into willful misrepresentation. I am sure that he has struggled manfully to lean over backward in fairness to all. But if you hear only one side, and live with only one set of opinions and point of view, you are insensibly affected and led quite gently into acquiescence.
There is, moreover, a natural impulse to treat the errors of your friends with generous kindness and to protect, the good name of your own group by preserving a discreet silence. The Navy commentators have, as a group, been notable in their use of silence or of whitewash. Even Mr. Pratt, though he refers to the “violent controversy as to where the responsibility rested for the Savo Island defeat,” in which four cruisers were sunk in a matter of minutes, as “the greatest disaster our Navy had seen,” sums the sad affair up with, “Never mind the responsibility.”
But we do mind and we object to that kind of fudging off and whitewashing. The crews, we are told, were tired and so were the captains and the admirals and they had very bad luck in all sorts of ways. That sort of thing is not in the grand tradition of the navies of old; it is evasive, it satisfies nobody. For historians to accept and acquiesce in such irresponsibility is to write history of definitely limited value. I have heard Naval officers refer to such historians with a certain wistfulness: “I wonder how much of the truth the Brass will let them tell!” I wonder too.
Having written the above for the sake of the record, I return to my first judgments. The Marines’
War is a fine story, nobly and clearly told. Every American will be proud when he reads this record of the corps whose well-earned motto is “Semper Fidelis.” Mr. Pratt’s volume, subject to the few qualifications which I have noted, and which may well be unjustified, is the best report on the island warfare in the Pacific which has appeared up to date.