Ask just about anybody on the street and they can give you a fairly succinct definition of what the US Marines are, but few can give more details other than they are a branch of the U.S. armed forces. There is much more to the story. As anybody who is a Marine can tell you, there is a rich history to this elite-fighting group. Those that number among its ranks are quick to express this and may boast that they are the ‘best of the best.’ Their involvement in all of America’s military conflicts since the country’s founding lends credence to this notion.
A Little History
The origins of the United States Marine Corps are rooted in the revolutionary period in American history. The initial Marines were established as an infantry unit that would serve aboard sailing vessels to provide support in the even of land operations and to defend the ship during enemy boardings. It may also be noted that in most cases the Marines provided protection to the vessel’s officers in the event of a mutiny.
The Marines have been officially active since November of 1775, with only a few interruptions over the last 237 years. Its mission changed and adapted to the changing times and turned it’s focused away from primary naval service to carrying out land missions. In the latter part of the 19th century and on into 20th century a Marine platoon was typically assigned aboard U.S. naval cruisers while an entire company would serve aboard the larger battleships, and carriers. By the 1990s, the Marine’s original mission to provide shipboard security ended as the Navy refocused at the close of the Cold War.
As it’s focused changed, the Marines became the main military unit to perform specific expeditionary functions, special missions, while providing support during naval missions, as well as seizing enemy naval assets. They are used in conjunction with regular Army and Air Force units in multi-layered operations. The hallmark of the Marines is their capacity for rapid deployment for mission critical operations in order facilitate the larger strategies of the entire military. This has thrust them into the forefront of amphibious warfare and has given them crucial role in the maintenance of U.S. foreign policy.
Today, the Marine Corps is comprised of over 200,000 active duty members with another 30,000 to 40,000 thousand more in the reserves. It is a significant fighting force on its own even though it is one of the smallest branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
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The Structure of the US Marines
As has been noted, the Marines were established as a naval infantry unit. Something of that has remained in the roots of the unit. Even today, Marines are trained as infantrymen and become proficient with the rifle first. It has been said that “Every Marine is a rifleman.” Each member is expected to undergo infantry training, and in most cases, they are expected to be able to lead a platoon if necessary. Additionally, you will find that most of the newer Marines are expected to exercise more personal initiative and are giving more personal leeway in decision-making than other branches of the military.
The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) is overseen by the Department of the Navy. The senior officer is the Commandant, who reports the department’s Secretary. The Commandant coordinates and develops all operations via the Combatant Commanders. There are three major divisions with in the corps, including Headquarters, Operational Forces, Supporting Establishment, and Reserves. There are further divisions and units within the Operational Forces that include Marine Corps Forces, Security Forces, and Security Guard units. The smaller working parts are comprised of smaller units that are deployed across the world.
The Marines have always tried to remain separate from the other branches of the military, maintaining their unique practices and philosophies rather than being absorbed into the Army or the Navy. There have long been traditions among them, both official and unofficial. Songs like the “Marine’s Hymn” dating from the 19th century and the Latin motto “Semper Fidelis” or Semper Fi as it is abbreviated most often and which means “Always faithful” adds to this internal identity.
The Marines’ role is still changing as the style of warfare waged is changing and more operations take the form of peacekeeping or security rather than all-out warfare.