Venable, Heather. How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918. US Naval Institute, 2019. Hardcover $39.95USD. 352 pages. ISBN-13: 9781682474686.
By Meaghan Walker
In American Ninja II: The Confrontation  a marine officer orders US Army Rangers Michael Dudikoff and Steve James to go undercover in US Marine Corps [USMC] dress uniform. They share a look of derision and then the film hard cuts to Dudikoff and James in the immaculate and stiff pageantry. Their officer derisively points out that they “look as much like a marine as a bridesmaid.” Later, their scrappy fighting to rescue the film’s damsel overwhelms the uniforms; too prim to contain their muscles and their identities as elite Army Rangers, the false skin shreds off like a useless husk.
The film uses the established elite status of the marines, which the main characters denigrate, to underscore the even more elite military masculinity of the protagonists. Heather Venable’s book How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918 traces the creation of the marine identity and iconography that was so pervasive by the 1980s that it could be used as shorthand in this way. She shows how a small service stuck between two larger corps with distinct missions—the army, who are soldiers on land and the navy who are sailors at sea—harnessed diversified advertising to create a marine mythos which sold the corps to the American public and, importantly, to incoming marines. This mythos valued tradition, longevity, battle-ready masculinity, and a can-do attitude promoting that marines could do anything and did it better than sailors or soldiers.
This, shows Venable, was built on the foundations of the nineteenth century, which was a period far less kind to the marines. Both sailors, soldiers, and neither, marines had trouble convincing the navy that they had a place on board vessels. Without that important naval posting, however, marines would be reduced to just soldiers and military police. The American aspect of marine policing was further complicated by ideas of democracy which extended into the armed forces. It was thought that sailors should be policed by their peers and not an external force, like the marines.
The marines’ imperial service in Cuba, Philippines, and China, however, gave the service a new purpose. They began to frame themselves as the US military’s vanguard and as “jacks of all trades” who could perform any army or navy tasks and better than either service. Imperial postings also gave them the opportunity to position themselves against other militaries. They fought with Europeans as allies like the British at Peking and as enemies like the Spaniards at Guantanamo Bay. They were also able to test their white military masculinity in these stations by showing the respect they received by the Chinese Boxers and the treachery they experienced at Samar.
Still, between 1900 and 1917, the marine corps faced little military action. Therefore, the belief that they were “idlers,” neither good enough to be sailors but not distinctive enough to remain a corps outside the army, remained. This existential crisis drew to a climax with Theodore Roosevelt’s 1908 Executive Order 969 (reversed in 1909), which removed marines completely from naval ships. Venable establishes how, to counter this lack of confidence by military and political leaders, marines instead advertised their usefulness to the American public, emphasizing the corps as “first to fight.” This statement encompassed both the belief that marines were the oldest branch of US military service, which Venable shows is a questionable premise, and also the type battle-ready masculinity that marines had built up as part of landing parties and imperial expeditionary forces. Venable also shows that the USMC cultivated a dual reputation as an elite military branch—the “nobility” of the US Military—while at the same time presenting the in-group dynamics to be more democratic than other services. Enlisted men were encouraged to aspire to career advancement to non-commissioned and commissioned officers. The marines’ advertising and recruitment prowess allowed them to easily expand as needed when the United States entered World War I by presenting the corps as the most elite US military service and the fasted way to see “real” combat.
Finally, the book concludes with the important consideration of women’s enlistment into the marines during World War I. The marines used women to underscore their earlier work, positioning them as non-military clerical personnel only, who freed men eager to fight overseas from office work. Again, Venable suggests that this fudged the truth—men working at desk jobs in the marines, for the most part, had already been declared unfit for combat. Instead of women’s enlistment being a mark of progress, Venable writes that female marines were patronized as more frivolous and less serious than their male counterparts and were for the most part forced out of the service by 1919.
How the Few Became the Proud is a welcome addition to the historiography of marines and, more widely, the US military. Though marines receive far less consideration than naval sailors because of their small numbers before 1914, the rhetorical arguments about the work, presence, and usefulness of marines are important. They say a lot about how outsiders saw their own military or occupational roles, and especially informs the dynamics of ship life in the nineteenth century. Further, historians considering the US Military’s pivot to social-media and streaming platforms as new frontiers of recruitment will also find a good deal to consider in Venable’s look at the marines’ use of diversified advertisements. Her focus on recruitment, both the USMC’s pioneering use of advertising and their hesitant and limited use of women marines, shows how institutional rhetoric and the work of men and women in America is pivotal for understanding the success of marines in the field.