- Commandants of the Marine Corps
This is military history at its best. For anyone with even a slight interest in the U.S. Marine Corps it is not just an invaluable reference, it is wonderfully readable, as well. Dipping into it almost anywhere is a pleasure, with new insights about Marines you thought you knew.
Twenty-seven essays, each by a different author (a few do double duty) describe each Commandant's tenure. Readers will appreciate the writing of Allan Millett, Ed Simmons, Brian Linn, Ron Spector, Jack Shulimson, Jon Hoffman, Joe Alexander, Merrill Bartlett, and Don Bittner, among others—a Who's Who of military writers at the top of their form. Each essay is intended to be a brief critical discussion focusing on the individual's years as Commandant. In some cases, one wishes for more pre-CMC biography, but virtually every piece is insightful and highly informed, as one would expect of writers of such high ability and involvement with the subject matter. There is surprisingly much that is new regarding the early Commandants, despite their being written of so often in the past. Nor are punches pulled: the notable shortcomings of Commandants Lemuel Shepherd and Robert Cushman, for example, are squarely faced.
General Robert Barrow's Commandancy, 1979-83, is the book's final essay, leaving readers wishing for accounts of later CMCs, too. Co-editor Millett explains that the historical dust takes time to settle and he is probably correct. It would be difficult to today write a balanced account of the leadership of Generals P. X. Kelly or Al Gray, with their controversial styles, political highs and lows, and shifts in Marine Corps philosophy. That lacuna is partially filled by Millett's excellent preface and introduction, in which he [End Page 283] briefly limns the Commandants following Barrow, and traces the evolution of Headquarters Marine Corps, the latter an historical pleasure in itself.
As expected in a book by twenty authors, there is an occasional unevenness in the over-all high standard of historical evaluation. Millett's assessment of Wallace Greene, a still-underrated officer, and Simmons's study of Robert Barrow, are highlights, written with an authority and style that bring those twentieth-century Marine Corps giants to life. A weak link is the far too brief coverage of General Lou Wilson, another Marine icon whose contributions to the post-Vietnam Corps were immeasurable. The account of Wilson's tenure smacks of a late replacement for an essay that never materialized. Ron Spector's fine review of the Chapman years largely avoids the fascinating intramural in-fighting that led to his selection. The entry on General David Shoup, a notoriously difficult personality, is evenly- and well-done by Howard Jablon. Lieutenant General Victor Krulak's review of Lemuel Shepherd's Commandancy is jewel-like, reminding us that Brute, himself so close to being Commandant (see Chapman), has always been skillful with pen, as well as sword. That he was a player in the events he describes, an unmentioned point, adds verisimilitude and color to his account.
The generally outstanding writing is complemented by good notes and an excellent index. The tired reviewer's phrase, "an essential volume that should be on every serious historian's bookshelf" actually applies here. I have read the book twice and still return to savor this or that account. I suspect you will, too.
West Point, New York