Role of the U.S. Marines

I never thought about it before but why specifically do the Marines exist? The Army has the land, the Navy the sea and the Air Force the skies. I’m obviously not an armed forces maven but what do the Marines do that the army and various special OPs forces cannot?

Just curious.

Originally the Marines were created to defend ships, so that, if the ship were boarded, they wouldn’t be taken over. When the tactic of boarding ships became less popular, the role of the Marine changed to amphibious landings. Marines created and held beachheads. Lately, the role of the Marine has been changing again, as they’ve been used, especially in Vietnam, for insertions and forward recon. Marines would be used to sieze and hold bridges and strategic areas, for example, until the army could get there. Lately, there’s been a question about what the role of the marine should be, and, in fact, if the Marines should contine to exist, because, as you’ve mentioned, the other services have special units like the Green Berets, the Rangers, and Forward Recon, for example, that duplicates most of the current roles of the Marines. Interservice rivalry exists between the Army and Marines (it exists between all services, but the Army-Marine rivalry is probably the most vicious), with the Army stereotype of the Marine as a stupid, violent sadist who charges directly into situations, even if subtlety is needed. The Marine stereotype of the soldier in the Army, on the other hand, is that of a coward and a wimp who can’t be trusted in a dangerous situation.

Why couldn’t you have stopped there?

Um, vicious? How so? And I’d venture to guess that Army/Navy would be a bit more or a rivalry.


I never thought that, and I was in the Army. I didn’t hear any fellow soldiers express that, either.

This is another gross generalization that I don’t feel can be supported.

The services may make jokes at each other’s expense, but I don’t think the general consensus is that every other service is a raging maniac or a wuss.

Now, re: the OP…

The Marines are trained in areas where the Army is not…amphibious landings is a good example, as mentioned above. And, I feel that the Marines are more like shock troops–get there quick, overwhelm, and hang on until reinforcements arrive.

That’s my view anyway.

The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea gives the following:

“The origin of the British marine force was an Order-in-council of 1664 directing that 1,200 soldiers be raised to be ‘distributed in His Majesty’s fleete[sic] prepared for sea service’. They were originally known as the ‘Lord Admiral’s regiment’.”

“In the USA the Marine Corps was formed in 1775, the same year as the US Navy.”

“In both countries, the reputation of the marines for courage, discipline, and fighting skill is unsurpassed by any other branch of the fighting services.”

I have a vague recollection (unable to cite) that one duty of the marine force in Nelson’s Navy was to defend the officers against the possibility of mutiny.

That’s about right. The MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit, a battalion sized force 1500-2000 Marines) is pretty much the amphibious 911 service of the US military. There are generally 3 MEUs deployed on ships at any given time. One in the Atlantic, one in the Pacific and sometimes one in the Persian Gulf. Each MEU is a fully capable combined task force that includes air power and supplies and is designed to fight, without resupply, for 15-30 days. They are trained in many missions from pure amphibious assault to rescue missions. Basically, they can get there fast, kick in the door and hold on till the slower to react units can arrive.

To quote Tom Clancy in his book Marine:

“America needs the capabilites of Marines and their MEUs; they buy time and provide options that airborne divisions and heavy bombers cannot provide. Marines of the 24th MEU were able to stand by on 20 minutes notice, for over a week, to rescue USAF Capt. Scott O’Grady after he was shot down by a SAM in Bosnia. Presence is important. In the mind of a potential aggressor, the idea of 1500 Marines sitting off his coast has a calming effect. No dictator, warlord or international thug wants 1,500 heavily armed, well trained and uninvited guests suddenly dropping by to adjust his attitude. That, in the end is why we need sea based marines.”

“Since they are already deployed, they are highly mobile groups that provide US policymakers with options to threaten an enemy’s coast, take or destroy a vital target such as a port or an airfield and concuct raids and rescue operations.”

IIRC this was a role of the British marines when the British still had the nasty habit of enslaving* foreigners to serve as sailors on their ships. Since these people were somewhat hostile to the whole idea of serving the British navy, the Marines were on hand to provide the incentive to keep them in line.

  • I know there is a proper nautical term for this conscription, but it is early and I can’t remember it.

I used to be a Royal Marine. So maybe I can help you out with some of the things that the Marines do that the other forces don’t.

  1. As mentioned before amphibious landings. I think the general rule of thumb is that from the coastline to 30 miles in it’s the Marines job. After 30 miles it’s the Army’s job.
  2. In the UK RM are the only UK forces trained in extreme cold weather training, up in Norway. This involves skiing and basically surviving at 30 below. These troops, 3 Commando, will probably be the first into the mountainous areas of Afghanistan.
  3. UK RM protects the transit of nuclear warheads and the nuclear submarine bases.
  4. UK RM are the only soldiers allowed to put themselves forward for the SBS, after SAS training.
    Not extensive I know but it may help.

Just a note. The UK RM training is the longest and probably the hardest, for general troops, in the world. Basic is 32 weeks and then more months of trade training.

This was called press ganging. These gangs would have to roam the streets in England and kidnap able bodied men for service as you said. The Royal Navy was not a fun place to be back then. However, I don’t think they went after foreigners. o

<<This was called press ganging. These gangs would have to roam the streets in England and kidnap able bodied men for service as you said. The Royal Navy was not a fun place to be back then. However, I don’t think they went after foreigners.>>

Impressment or press ganging did happen to foreigners but I guess it depends on your definition of the term. Britian looked at Americans right after the Revolution as still British subjects if… they were sailors (or near enough) and they caught them out where they could grab them and put them on board ship. Usually the subject was drunk as hell in a harbor town and didn’t sober up until the ship was at sea. This practice of impressment was a contributing factor in the outbreak of hostilities called the “War of 1812”

What hasn’t been mentioned so far (well, at least not that I have noticed in my quick read of the thread) is the notion of power projection.

The United States has an interesting set of defense priorities in that is is quite likely that it will fight most, if not all, of its wars overseas, like it is now. The odds of Canada or Mexico launching a major invasion are pretty slim.

Consequently, the U.S. is in a position whereby it is rarely in a position where a large number of maneuver formations must be brought to bear to face a large enemy. Rare are the times when many mechanized and armor divisions have to hold a frontage of X kilometres, and to bring forces like that overseas and arrange them to fight is hideously expensive and time consuming; it’s impractical to do every time there’s a problem, and you can’t do it fast enough if the problem is really urgent.

Consequently, the U.S. armed forces is strongly oriented towards power projection, the ability to inflict damage anywhere in the world on short notice with a small portion of their overall force. Aside from the strategic convenience of pretty much owning the ocean, that’s why the U.S. is so bullish on aircraft carriers - they’re little mobile air forces that can whomp anyone anytime, anywhere. It’s also why long range bombers are so useful. The Marines are to a great extent the ground force version of the U.S. Navy; it’s a small but capable force that can jump into the fray while the REALLY big force is lumbering to its feet.

The Marines can either win a small fight on their own (small being relative - I’m sure the Marine Corps could singlehandedly beat up most countries) or can at least hold the situation, with the assistance of other power projection forces like carrier groups, Army special forces, and the USAF, until the bulk of the Army can be brought to bear. Okay, Tom Clancy said that. What he didn’t mention was that this serves a strategic and economic value beyond its obvious tactical efficiencies. The U.S. is very heavy on the air assets, naval forces and special forces simply because it enables them to achieve a level of force projection throughout the world without having to raise enormous numbers of ground troops to fill regular Army formations and build hundreds of Liberty ships or stationing entire armies all over the world. That’s a direct benefit of being geographically isolated from your enemies.

I’m sure it’s much more complicated than this…but a recruiter for the Marines that I spoke to when I was 17 years old told me that in times of war it is the job of the Marines to create a position and the job of the Army to secure a position. He told me that the whole “first to fight” thing was because the Marines are usually sent in intially to create a “wedge” in foreign territory that the Army can then occupy and maintain.

I always got a quick answer from a relative (who was a marine) along these lines when I asked what a marine was.

He said the marines were, “the first in and the last out”.

Of course, my uncle who was a CB (construction battalion) said that was crap because he (and his buddies) were the first in building pontoon bridges or otherwise preparing landing sites for the marines.

Just anecdotal stuff I picked-up from my family ribbing each other so take it for what it’s worth.

Does SBS mean “Special Boat Service” like it does here in the States? Sort of like the US Marine equivalent of the Navy Seals?

Yes it stands for Special Boat Service.

He’s a couple of links with a bit more info

He’s a couple of links with a bit more info

Mine is admittedly a somewhat biased view of the USMC.

The last I knew the Marines were not organized, equipped or trained for the heavy lifting that goes along with modern industrialized warfare. In Vietnam neither Army infantry or Marine infantry were confronted with the sort of conflict that was expected if, for example, the Soviets came through the Fulda Gap. When it came to defending Western Europe it was recognized that the heavy infantry and armored division were going to carry the load and were going to take the casualties. In the Vietnam situation there was no significant destination between Army battalions and Marine battalions, except for the Marines’ distressing tendency not to dig in and to take unnecessary casualties because of it. Because of their organization and equipment it was necessary to stiffen the Marines going into Kuwait with an Army Armored brigade.

Marines are equipped, trained and organized to conduct amphibious operations, that is ship to shore assaults. Man for man and company for company the Marines do this sort of thing better than anyone else. But it is worth noting that the biggest ship to shore operations were Navy-Army missions.

There is a story that may explain the common soldier’s attitude toward Marines. An Army rifle squad consists of ten soldiers. A Marine rifle squad has eleven Marines. The extra Marine is a press agent.

There is a tendency among many Marines and exMarines to puff their own importance by denigrating the skill, professionalism and dedication to duty of the other branches of the armed forces. This sort of windbag Marine does not earn the Corps many friends in the other services. It is not a good idea to try to explain to a Ranger, or a Paratrooper, or a tanker or even a line infantry soldier or cannoneer or engineer how it is that all Marines are better than any soldier.

Marines are trained, organized and equipped for offensive amphibious employment and as a force in readiness. The official mission of the USMC is to:

Provide Fleet Marine Forces with combined arms and supporting air components for service in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign. Provide detachments and organizations for service on armed vessels of the Navy and security detachments for the protection of naval property. Develop, in coordination with the Army, Navy and Air Force, the doctrines, tactics, techniques and equipment employed by landing forces in amphibious operations. Develop the doctrine,procedures and equipment for and to provide Fleet forces for airborne operations. Expand peactime components to meet wartime needs according to integrated joint mobilization plans. Perform such other duties as the President may direct.

Being a Dept. of the Navy (The Men’s Dept.) :wink: we basically have our own ships. We have our own “air force” specifically for air support of ground troops. We have our own armor. We have our own special forces. To a large extent, a Marine campaign is basically self sufficient. Earlier it was mentioned that Marines are basically shock troops, which is not far off. The Army has light infantry units, but the USMC is basically all light infantry. It is geared to work rapidly in small units. We tend not to occupy an area, just clear it for others.

As far as the press agent comment, all I can say is that everyone, including half the world knows what Rangers, Green Beanies and Seals are and do. Comparatively few know what Recon and Force Recon are and do. People compare the other services “special units” to the USMC in general. That should say something in itself. The USMC has always prided itself on getting the job done, better and faster, on next to nothing for a budget and second rate equipment. And if NOTHING else, this country has to have someone around who wears a decent looking uniform:)

The leadership of the USMC made a very smart decision back in the 1920’s. They looked at the United States armed forces as a whole and decided the best way to preserve their independence was to find something no other service was doing and become experts at doing it. The mission they chose was to become experts on amphibious assaults. Prior to this, amphibious assaults were carried out, usually in a haphazard manner, by regular infantry who were loaded in ships, waded or rowed to shore when land was sighted, and told to fight when they got on dry land if the enemy was in the area. If the enemy was in the area, the landing troops usually took overwhelming losses before they could fight back. The marines by contrast developed plans and equipment for attacking enemy bases from sea with a reasonable chance of success. Then in 1941, the marines’ planning was justified when the United States went to war with Japan. Due to the nature of the war amphibious assaults became one of the main types of battle being fought and, unlike most other branches of the American armed forces in 1941, the USMC was already prepared for action.

“A ship without Marines is like a coat without buttons.”

The USMC was founded in a tavern.

And quite good at it they indeed are (to which I can attest, as a former sailor in the gator navy). However, the United States has not seen need to conduct an amphibious assault under fire since the Inchon landing, under (Army!) General MacArthur a half-century ago.

The fact is, back during the Depression, when the military budget was so thin that servicemen’s pay was cut to $17 a month, Uncle Sam was all set to break up the USMC and fold it into the Army, like so many egg whites into waffle batter.(And there’s a funny story about how the new Garand M1 was a major bone of contention in this proposed merger) But WWII was so easily divvied up between Army in Europe/Navy in the Pacific*, that the Marines received a new lease on life.

(*Yes, I know the Navy ran convoy duty in the Atlantic, and Roosevelt gave MacArthur his own army in the South Pacific to keep him from throwing the same tantrum he finally threw in 1952, but as a general rule, our first 2-front war made so concretely seperate the 2 services, that it actually spawned a 3rd service!)

That’s facts; beyond that, there is only conjecture as to why, 1/2 century after the last amphibious assault, we still pay for a Marine Corps. I’d say it’s because the USMC lobbies congress just as much as does Ford and Archer Daniels Midland, but that would be offensive, and I’d be flamed as an anti-American left-wing stooge. But this exact same question was raised by Barry Goldwater (nobody’s anti-American left wing stooge, even though he did try LSD and have a tribal tattoo.)So I submit only the facts as they are for the benefit of this forum.

(Goldwater observed in commitee that we have an army with its own navy and air force, an air force with its own army and navy, a navy with its own army and air force, and its army in turn has its own air force! Barry asked the same question as the OP)