USMC vs US Army - Which is better

Okay, this could be an incendiary topic, but I’m looking at it from the proved events in war and occupations.

WWII: US Army tended to follow the Marines after assaults on the Pacific Islands, and generally didn’t do as well as the Marines. Europe etc is irrelevant as the Marines never fought there, but I’d be inclined to think that on the basis of Marine performance in the Pacific the Marines would have done better than the US Army (and any other Allied army) in large scale seaborne landings in the Mediterranean and D Day.

Korea: Chosin Reservoir. Marines fought out in good order. US Army sometimes didn’t, and sometimes deplorably so.

Vietnam: Marine held areas performed better on counter-insurgency and other criteria than blunt and aggressive Army operations.

Iraq: Ditto

I’m happy to be corrected, but during WWII and I think at least until Vietnam, and possibly Iraq, we’re not comparing apples with apples as the Marines didn’t deploy reserve units while the Army did, with disastrous results involving ill-trained and poorly led troops from Buna in WWII right through to Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

I’d be inclined to the view that the Marines imbue their troops with a greater espirit de corps than the Army and from grunt to general have a more innovative approach to war and occupation than their somewhat more bureaucratic and less inspired Army counterparts.

This is just something a man I used to work with related to me, he had been a Marine in WWII, and was involved in the Island hopping Campaigns. Just think of it as color commentary. He complained that the Marines would be sent in first, secure things, then Army forces would show up, and take over. His gripe was that on a few occasions, the Marines would have to return to those same places to secure them again, as the Army forces didn’t do an effective job of holding the Island. After all those years, that was the single most relevant thing he remembered, it was close to the surface for him. He shook a lot, and on occasion smelled of alcohol. He had probably been in the Islands campaigns a long time.

Hi RS* I’m looking up some stuff and will be back to you on this…I’ll write after I have a few drinks in me later :slight_smile:

Maybe on D-Day. If the U.S. had done something similar to the British and had marines lead the charge on the beaches, then yes, perhaps there might have been a marginal improvement at say Omaha Beach. The invasion of Utah Beach erstwhile could not have gone better irregardless of who did the landing as they went in virtually unopposed. After that? Would the marines have done much better in the hedgerows? I doubt it but maybe. But they still would have faced the same problems of fighting an intractable, skilled enemy using the cover of thickly walled berms turned inherent to French-agriculture that were turned into fortresses that funneled men and AFV’s into kill zones, effectively. I think that while generally you are correct that the marines tended to outdo soldiers in the PTO, the marines also had their fair share of debacles and intelligence failures. Tarawa springs to mind…

Korea: Chosin Reservoir. Marines fought out in good order. US Army sometimes didn’t, and sometimes deplorably so.

Well yes, to an extent. Max Hastings goes into this a bit in his The Korean War I think the saying is that “we” (Americans) “went into Korea with a bad army and came out with a good one but went into Vietnam with a good army and came out with a poor one”. At the beginning of the conflict, the U.S. Army was a demoralized gaggle that effectively was told they were nothing but a ‘trip-wire’ force until things went nuclear in Europe. Budget cuts, or rather shifts to the unexpectedly expensive nuclear triad, starved the Army of funds and my impression is things sort of became a rudderless ship where armor tactics and basic infantry defense were ignored and the Army simply thought that in future wars they would replay the last six months of their drive into Germany circa 1944-45. The U.S. Army no longer even had a coherent doctrine for using tanks, and after Korea started, Pershing/Patton tanks were pulled off of monument displays and refurbished and sent to the far east because apparently using a light (but easily transportable) tank like the Chaffee was an awful idea and they were swept aside by North Korean T-34’s.

Suffice to say, the U.S. Army was rapidly demobilized after WWII with little thought given to what was next as far as operationally, strategically, and even tactically. This is primarily what led to the problems early on in Korea. These problems were very rapidly addressed and fixed with a few weeks of retraining under the able leadership of Gen. Matthew Ridgway and the Army’s combat effectiveness increased exponentially in the early months of 1951.

And while it is generally recognized that the U.S. Marines were generally a more disciplined force with greater esprit de corp early in the war, U.S. Army commanders would later become critical of the marines being wasted in tactically deficient “hey-diddle-diddle-straight-up-the-middle” style assaults suffering needless casualties out of a macho predilection for full frontal attacks. This was especially insane in a war where the enemy had far greater manpower resources…

Vietnam: Marine held areas performed better on counter-insurgency and other criteria than blunt and aggressive Army operations.

Yes. That wasn’t necessarily institutional, but the result of very bad commanders in Gen. Harding and the choice of LBJ to put Westmorland in overall command, a dud that looked good in uniform but was intellectually deficient and trying to fight the last war by using attrition to wear down the NVA and VC, something that was statistically impossible because we couldn’t kill them nearly enough because more would come. Overall, Marine commanders had a better institutional grasp of counterinsurgency and training locals for a gendarme because of their vast experiences in places like Haiti and Nicaragua, and overall more Marine commanders and NCO’s understood that the war was essentially a political one where the hills you took didn’t matter and controlling and securing the population should have been the primary focus.

Neil Sheehan goes into this extensively in The Bright Shining Lie where in his profile of a dissident Army officer leaking information about how poorly the war was turning, he talks about Lt. Gen. Krulak, who early one favored the firepower approach that Harding and Westmorland pursued, but later would push for a campaign of pacification rather than attrition, while bludgeoning the North Vietnamese only when the situation was favorable to U.S. forces, rather than chasing them wherever they were. For instance, the infamous Khe Sanh perimeter was never wanted by the Corp commanders, they preferred to disperse forces in populated areas that would be backed by firepower and an Army reaction force. Khe Sanh was in the middle of nowhere with no population center nearby. The marines would have been happy to let the NVA have the area as they rotted in the sparsely populated hills as the marines and soldiers controlled the people and blockaded enemy forces - hoping and waiting for them to launch conventional assaults on American terms where they would be blooded…

Here’s a pretty good overview:

Fair point. I now realise I was thinking only of Omaha.

Fair point, again.

In the Army’s favour, it’s worth noting that the bocage country was extremely hostile to both US infantry and armour and that without armoured support the infantry generally was at the defender’s mercy trying to cross open fields even it broke through the hedgerows without armoured support. A large part of the solution was the inventive approach at low levels of modifying US tanks in the field to breach the hedgerows so that the tanks, and infantry, weren’t confined to German pre-sighted / pre-registered killing ground tunnels between the hedgerows.

I’m not familiar with the ratio of tanks to infantry in the Marines during WWII, but I’d guess that it was pretty light in the PTO given the terrain compared with the ETO US Army ratio. If so, the Marines would have been at a significant disadvantage in the ETO unless they had the same ratio as the Army. Plus they’d need heavier tanks than they had in the PTO. I don’t know if their tank training and tactics used in the PTO would have been adequate in the ETO against German tanks in very different terrain and against a very different armoured enemy.

Also in the Army’s favour, it was often noted by Germans from battalion commanders upwards (probably starting with Rommel after the Kasserine Pass and in countless comments by others after D Day) that the US army at all field levels was inexperienced and made many basic mistakes, but that it was also surprisingly quick to learn from its mistakes and correct its tactics successfully.

That might be contrasted with the Marines’ recognition in the PTO of the need to beef up squads with extra BARs, while the Army didn’t. Extra BARs gives the platoon a significant advantage in all standard fire and movement tactics and especially suppressing fire, although you probably could have given every second US soldier a BAR in the bocage country without enabling them to cross open country between the hedgerows with much lighter casualties than they actually suffered.

It could be argued that the terrain in the PTO favoured extra BARs and that it didn’t in the ETO, but whether a platoon is attacking a Japanese bunker system made of logs and earth with communication trenches and interlocking fields of fire or a German system made of concrete pill boxes with the same effect, the attacking infantry’s tactics are going to be much the same. The more suppressing fire the attacker can put in, the better for the attacker.

The BAR issue suggests that the Marines might have been better at working out how to improve tactics and weapons at the platoon level, which is where all battles are fought, than the Army. That would conform with my inclination that the Marines might have been more flexible in dealing with practical issues than the Army.

It was also the case that ruthlessly relieving ineffective or incompetent US commanders by the US Army had a significant impact on improvement, as outlined at by Thomas E Ricks, who in his book The Generals: American Military Command from WWII to Today expanded on this theme and the failure of the US in subsequent wars to implement the same policies. I read his book a while back and it’s definitely worth reading for insight into WWII leadership and subsequent failure of that leadership in what I would call part of the creeping cancer of bureaucracy and bullshit across the Western World.

Tarawa can been seen as a SNAFUBB or a reinforcement of the ability of the USMC to carry on in the face of severe adversity.

I’d take the view that the decision to attempt a landing when it was highly possible, maybe probable, that the tide wouldn’t clear the reefs was a serious failure at the most senior command level, although that’s with the benefit of hindsight and if the tides had been favourable the initial landing on Tarawa would have been much less costly and more immediately successful and that landing wouldn’t be remembered as a disaster. Conversely, the Marines’ determination in pressing the assault even when stranded on the reefs under heavy enemy fire was an outstanding display of pressing on in extraordinarily adverse circumstances.

Regardless of subsequent debates about whether Tarawa was worth assaulting and the tide issue, the courageous and determined actions of the Marines who assaulted Tarawa deserve the highest praise.

It’s in the same category as the US Army and the Hurtgen Forest battle, which was a stunningly poor higher command decision but one in which those who actually fought there distinguished themselves by their courage and determination in appalling weather conditions and hostile terrain which, among other things, favoured the German artillery with air bursts in the trees above any entrenched US troops and thus increased the effectiveness of the German artillery.

More later.