This moment of change happens to coincide with a reorienting of American security priorities to the Asia-Pacific region, where China has been building military muscle during a decade of U.S. preoccupation in the greater Middle East. That suits the Marines, who see the Pacific as a home away from home.
After two turns at combat in Iraq — first as invaders in the 2003 march to Baghdad and later as occupiers of landlocked Anbar province — the Marines left the country in early 2010 to reinforce the fight in southern Afghanistan. Over that stretch the Marines became what the former Joint Chiefs chairman, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, has called their own "worst nightmare:" a second American land army, a static, ground-pounding auxiliary force.
That's scary for the Marines because for some in Congress it raises this question: Does a nation drowning in debt really need two armies?
Gen. James F. Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, says that misses the real point. He argues that the Marines, while willing and able to operate from dug-in positions on land, are uniquely equipped and trained to do much more — to get to any crisis, on land, at sea or in the air, on a moment's notice. He is eager to see the Iraq and Afghanistan missions completed so the Marines can return to their traditional role as an expeditionary force.
"We need to get back to our bread and butter," Amos told Marines Nov. 23 at Camp Lawton, a U.S. special operations base in Afghanistan's Herat province.
That begins, he said, with moves like returning to a pattern of continuous rotations of Marines to the Japanese island of Okinawa, home of the 3rd Marine Division formed in the early days of World War II. The rotation of infantry battalions to Okinawa was interrupted by the Iraq war, which after the March 2003 invasion evolved into a bigger, costlier and longer-lasting counterinsurgency campaign than the Pentagon or the Marines had anticipated.
Amos says he plans to begin lining up infantry battalion rotations for Okinawa even before the 2014 target date for ending U.S. combat in Afghanistan.
Another element of this return-to-our-roots approach is the decision announced in late November to rotate Marines to Australia for training with Australian forces from an Australian army base in Darwin, beginning in 2012. Up to 2,500 Marines — comprising not just infantry units but also aviation squadrons and combat logistic battalions — will go there from Okinawa or other Marine stations in Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific for a few months at a time.
"As we draw down (troops in Afghanistan) and we reorient the Marine Corps, it will be primarily to the Pacific," he told Marine aviators at a U.S. base in Kandahar, noting as an aside that he doubted any of them had ever deployed to the Pacific. "The main focus of effort is going to be the Pacific for the Marines." He added that Marines will remain present in the Persian Gulf area and elsewhere as required, but not in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Versatility is the key to keeping the Marines relevant to U.S. national security requirements, he says.
"We're not a one-trick pony," he said. "We're the ultimate Swiss army knife."
The decade of war following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington began for the Marines in late November 2001 with an airborne assault on al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's turf in the desert south of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
Marines of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit flew 650 kilometers (more than 400 miles) aboard helicopters launched from the USS Peleliu in the North Arabian Sea. A month later the Taliban regime, which had provided haven for bin Laden as al-Qaida plotted the 9/11 attacks, was routed and the war seemed largely over. It was not until 2010 that the Marines returned in large numbers to Afghanistan, where fighting had evolved into a stalemate.
By late 2002, the Marines and other U.S. forces were preparing for another land war, this time in Iraq. In March 2003 the Marines pushed north from Kuwait along with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, for the main assault on Baghdad. This war, too, seemed to be over within a few months. But it also took an unexpected turn even as the Marines left Iraq in September 2003. An insurgency took hold that fall and in March 2004 the Marines returned, this time to Anbar province in Iraq's western desert, where the Sunni insurgency was entrenched and the outlook appeared grim.
The Marines' death toll in Iraq was 1,022 — nearly one-quarter of the U.S. total, according to Pentagon statistics. Thus far in Afghanistan at least 376 Marines have died. For both wars combined, the Marines had the highest death rate among the four major services — 0.47 percent of all Marines who served in the two countries, according to an Associated Press analysis. That compares to 0.38 percent for the Army, which played the dominant ground combat role.
Marines also had by far the highest rate of wounded in action for both wars combined: 4.28 percent, compared to 2.75 percent for the Army.
With an eye on the postwar outlook, Amos came into his job as the commandant in 2010 intending to slim down his force and shed some of its ground-oriented capabilities. He has developed a plan to reduce the service from its current total of 202,000 Marines to 186,800 — perhaps even fewer because of additional budget pressures, he told Marines in Afghanistan in late November.
Regardless of the number, Amos says he is determined to shape a postwar force that is smaller and better equipped for the kind of flexible duty he champions. He plans to reduce the number of infantry battalions from 27 to 24, shed some artillery and armored vehicles and reduce the number of flying squadrons from 70 to 61. The idea is a force whose forte is not protracted ground combat but pop-up crises like the Libya mission, as well as "power projection," which the Marines do by keeping expeditionary forces aboard Navy ships in Asia, the Mideast and elsewhere.
It was evident on Amos's tour of Afghanistan's frontlines over Thanksgiving that ordinary Marines, too, are looking beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Who do you want us to fight next, sir?" a Marine asked Amos.