Army and Marines - Define "Elite"

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I love fairyangels
Sep 4, 2008
I thought this might be interesting read, written by an army guy. No question about Marines being an elite force.

Army and Marines - Define "Elite"

I received this question from a reader and meant to give him a great answer. Unfortunately, it kind of rambles. So uhh… deal with it I guess lol...I don't have time to make it as perfect as I want it to be.

Hopefully this answers the question clearly enough though.

We graduate this week, so I will be a little busy. I have a second, and even better, question to answer from the same email as soon as I get some time

Question: If the Marine Infantry and Army Infantry are basically
the same, why are the Marines considered (either by themselves or by
civilians) "elite"?

The comparison is usually between Army and Marines rather than Infantry to Infantry. The Army has a very different function than the Marines, and a wider mission during wartime.

The first difference is between the missions of the respective forces. The Marines are a relatively small branch of the Navy. Their mission as I understand it is primarily to conduct initial combat operations from a forward deployed platform (such as a big ass boat) and establish a beachhead from which they can operate until follow on forces arrive. I am not a Marine so if I make any mistakes here, someone let me know.

The Army’s mission is a little bigger. Along with establishing a foothold, they also expand the foothold into entire theaters of operations. The Marines fight battles. The Army fights the war.

The Marines are not really a self sustaining force. They take the beach (or whatever) and hold it until support arrives. It might sound like this is a bad thing, but in reality this is part of what makes them such a proud and ass-kicking force. There is a lot of pride in knowing that you are at the tip of the spear.

The Army has the same capability in its Light Infantry units. They do not specialize in amphibious operations, but rather in Airborne, Air Assault and Land based assaults. The Army’s Light Infantry units, such as the 101st ABN (AASLT), 82nd ABN Div, 173rd ABN BDE, 10th Mountain Div and 25th INF Div (L), are used as rapid deployment units capable of taking and holding ground until the rest of the Army can establish themselves. It goes without saying that one of the premier Light Infantry units in the world is the 75th Ranger Regiment, consisting of three Ranger Battalions that are ALWAYS on call for any contingency.

When you get right down to it, the Light Infantry and the Marines both take a lot of pride in a tough job. They both also have generally higher Discipline and Esprit de Corps than your average Combat Support or Combat Service Support unit.

Then we have the Mechanized Infantry. Units like the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions are heavy, powerful and slow to deploy. They pack a lot of punch, but moving all those M2 Bradley IFVs and M1 Abrams tanks along with all their logistics and support, is a major undertaking in itself. The Mechanized units have plenty of pride in what they do, but usually aren’t considered “elite”. This could be because of the perception that they spend all their time inside huge armored vehicles and don’t face the same kind of danger as a grunt. There is some truth to this in a large scale, high intensity conflict. However, today’s mechanized Infantry soldiers are operating “boots on the ground” just like everyone else in Iraq.

One reason the entire Marine Corps is considered “elite” is because, as you said earlier, their entire organization is predominantly combat oriented. Even the support units they do have are inculcated with the idea that “every Marine is a rifleman first”. This has always been a necessity for the Marines, who often operated with limited support for extended periods of time.

By contrast, in the past, Army support units have mostly operated in relatively safe areas, setting up well behind friendly lines. This was a fairly viable option in the past, when “lines” actually existed. In today’s fluid combat environment however, there are no “lines”. Every soldier must be a soldier first, and a personnel clerk/mechanic/cook/technician second. When GEN Pete Schoomaker took over as the new Army Chief of Staff, he immediately made this a matter of Army Policy in his vision for the future.

This is already being implemented in BCT here at Fort Jackson, and presumably at the other training facilities throughout the Army. The training has changed a little already, but major changes are underway for the coming classes of soldiers. Anyway, before I get too far off topic…

A second reason that Marines are considered “elite” is because they consider themselves “elite”. This is a self fulfilling prophesy in a way. In many ways what makes you special is the way you picture yourself. If you think you belong to an elite organization, you will automatically train a little longer, fight a little harder, expect a little more from your comrades, etc. The Marines have a mystique that makes them irresistible to some of the best young recruits in our nation. The same ideals that make a good Marine make a good Paratrooper in the 82nd or good Air Assault soldier in the 101st.

On the other hand, it is a fact that many people join the Army as a way to improve themselves, get an education, have a stable career, and for many other reasons that don’t have anything to do with a desire to truly challenge themselves or push themselves to the limit. For these people, being a part of an elite organization is not really a high priority. Therefore the opposite of what I said earlier is true here. If you aren’t interested in being “elite”…you will most likely do your job adequately, go the extra inch rather than the extra mile, and generally put more effort into getting away from hard work and training than getting to it.

These people serve their country just as much as anybody else, but they usually don’t take the same pride in their organizations and want to do a good job, but don’t associate it as much with who they are.

The thing I admire most about Marines is the fierce pride they have in the entire corps. If the whole Army felt the same way, it could only make it a better force, and that’s one thing I do my best to instill in the CS/CSS soldiers I train here at Jackson.

Another reason for the elite image of the Corps is their history. A second thing I like about Marines is that every one of them can tell you in great detail about Chesty Puller, Carlos Hathcock and all the other heroes who fought their hearts out in past wars. The battles in the Pacific Theater of WW2 especially were some of the toughest fighting ever experienced by human beings, and the Marines kicked ass and took initials. It’s sad how many of the soldiers I train have no idea who Audie Murphy, Roy Benavidez, Randall Shughart and Gary Gordon were (until I get through with em anyway). The Infantry does the same thing though. Ask any soldier in the 101st , for example, about Bastogne, or Normandy, or the A Shau Valley, and you will often (not always though) see the same pride and connection with their past.

What makes a Warrior? If you ask me, the answer would be the willingness…eagerness even…to close with and destroy the enemy. Face to face, hand to hand, metal to meat…most people can’t understand this. Even in the Army, when you talk to a lot of people who are not in Combat Arms branches, you don’t find a lot who want to put themselves on the line like that. The Marines as an entire service have an image of being ass kickers. People who want to serve their country adequately, but not by spitting in the face of the enemy while they twist a bayonet in their guts, don’t usually join the Marines…or the Army Infantry.

So basically…

The Marines are an elite force because they are used as an assault force in tough situations with little support, they recruit people who already have a desire to be the best, they take a fierce pride in themselves and their history, and they are the least politically correct of the services.

The Light Infantry, even outside the Ranger and Airborne units, is roughly equivalent to the Marines, but they are not perceived as elite quite as much because their reputation is tied up with the rest of the Army. The only thing I would say they lack compared to the Marines is some of the pride and knowledge of history as an entire branch of service. For example, a paratrooper may take more pride in being part of the 82nd Airborne than in the Army as a whole…whereas Marines seem to take more pride in the simple fact that they are Marines.

The rest of the Army, on the other hand, have in the past not always been held to the same standards of discipline and combat skills as the Marines. I am not saying that this is true everywhere, just in my experience as I saw it. In general, the farther away from the bayonet your job was in the Army, the less was expected of you. This is and was a stupid way to look at things, but is especially unacceptable in today’s combat environment. This situation is being rectified as we speak and I’m the one rectifying it lol.

All in all, the idea of "elite" troops is fine...and important even...but never forget that all those Marines, Paratroopers, Rangers and Green Berets COULD NOT do their job if not for all the soldiers behind the scenes doing theirs. Marines can't go anywhere without the Navy. Paratroopers can't go anywhere without the Air Force. Gun Trucks can't go anywhere without mechanics and fuel. Helicopters don't fly wihtout maintenance. And nobody gets paid without Personnel and Finance clerks lol. Every team needs Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers...but they get killed without the Linemen.
I love when the Marines get good press, but in reality, "elite" is a mindset, not a service. I know some pretty elite "regular soldiers" and I've met some not-too-elite SOF guys.
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