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Marine Corps Museum

To understand the National Museum of the Marine Corps, think of the Corps as a cult, a clan, a faith, a religious order with its own rituals and beliefs.

Like a lot of religious orders, the Marine Corps has a conspicuous modesty, like monks with their vows of poverty.

You might not equate modesty with a 118,000-square-foot museum topped by a 210-foot spire slanting like the flagpole in the famous Iwo Jima photograph, and designed to snag the attention of those driving past on Interstate 95. Beneath that spire, in Triangle, Va., the museum is massive and plain from the outside, like a bunker dug into the side of a hill.

Where are the flags, the plaques, the eagles, the wreaths, the mock-Roman pillars, the triumphal arches, the reflecting pools, the kind of glory gear you see on the Mall in Washington?

“No grandiosity, no heroic garbage,” Staff Sgt. Steven Sullivan explained as we stood inside a hall that held the fighter planes and displays he helped design and install: a helicopter unloading troops in the bleakness of Korea, and Marines hitting the lethal beaches of Tarawa.

The Marine Corps has never been shy about flacking its glamour—those TV ads with knights, dragons and swords, and the bumper-sticker bragging: MARINES— WHEN IT ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY HAS TO BE DESTROYED OVERNIGHT. But there’s not much glamour at the museum, which instead is a shrine to the secret heart of the Marine mystique—an arrogance of modesty, a hard-eyed, dirt-farm, poor-but-proud ethic.

The Marines feel superior to the other services because they fight with shabby equipment and too few troops, they’ll tell you. They tend to take higher casualties per man than the Army, and they hand out fewer medals for heroism. An ironic brag, an inside joke: The Marine Corps is the finest machine ever devised for the killing of young American men.

The museum tour begins, of course, with boot camp—voices of drill instructors shouting both LOUDER, LOUDER and SHUT YOUR MOUTH in the no-win bind that puts recruits into a hell from which only the same drill instructors can save them.

You graduate into dark and noisy displays that put you on a frozen hillside in Korea, on Hill 881 South near Khe Sanh in Vietnam, with rats prowling behind the sandbags while a 105mm howitzer booms, or in a landing craft beaching on Iwo Jima: mannequins, artillery pieces, ammo boxes, dog tags, the crack of helicopter blades and the grinding, probing dentist-drill insistence of machine gun fire, with interludes of rifles, pistols, uniforms, medals, souvenirs and photographs mounted on walls. At the end of each war diorama there is no jubilation in triumph or celebration of heroism, just a list of casualties: the dead, wounded and missing. No grandiosity, no heroic garbage.

Carved into the entrance hall wall are the words of Sgt. Maj. Dan Daly: “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” This is the joke, the tragedy, the honor and the truth of the Marine Corps mystique in one sentence. Marines start learning it in boot camp, and they never stop. If they need a brush-up course, years or decades (like me) after their discharge, the museum will provide it.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here