BRUTE: THE LIFE OF VICTOR KRULAK, U.S. MARINE
By Robert Coram
Little, Brown, $27.99 384 pages
This is the story of a man ill-suited to the stellar military career he achieved in a branch of the U.S. armed services that at the time was probably going to be put out of business. It also is a cautionary tale of the dangers of telling too much truth to power.
Robert Coram, one of our better military historians, clearly has a fascination with men who march to their own war drums. Against that measure, Brute Krulak, as he was universally known, at first appears hardly the stuff of legend.
As Mr. Coram concedes at the outset, “Brute Krulak was never a promising young man. From a selfish and headstrong boy who liked falsified documents, and was guilty of moral turpitude, he grew to became the most important officer in the history of the United States Marine Corps, a man of dazzling intellect and extraordinary vision who was at the center of or deeply involved in some of the most important issues facing America during the tumultuous middle years of the twentieth century. He became a man whose contributions to his country are almost impossible to measure.”
There is only one way to test such an expansive claim to history’s mantle. It is to ask oneself at each crucial stage in the subject’s life, how would history have changed if this person had never existed? How did this person’s presence bring about important change? Put most simply, Mr. Coram concludes that if Krulak had never existed, there probably would be no U.S. Marine Corps today.
Victor Harold Krulak was not a particularly nice guy. He also was physically ill-suited for the career he embraced. At 5 feet 4 inches tall and 116 pounds, he was 2 inches too short and 4 pounds too light for the Naval Academy commission he sought. The nickname Brute that stayed with him all his life was a bit of upper-class sarcasm.
But what Krulak did have was a burning determination to succeed. He also was extremely intelligent and had the gift of future sight. Most importantly, Krulak skillfully attached himself to a series of more senior Marine officers who happily lifted him higher because of his ability to help them advance themselves as well.
Another force that bound Krulak to the fortunes of his general-mentors was their common cause during the interwar years of finding a unique mission for the Marine Corps that would ensure its survival. For most of its history, the Marine Corps served as the Navy’s police force, something hardly to be admired by the Navy hierarchy.
But World War I was something of a disappointment for the Navy. It saw no crucial action, no giant sea battles such as it encountered in the Spanish-American War a generation earlier. But the Marines had scored military and reputation triumph at the battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918 when they stopped the German spring offensive and hastened the end of the war. As hard-won as the triumph was, the resulting public adoration soured the Navy’s hierarchy and embittered a generation of Army officers - including Gens. MacArthur and Eisenhower - and skewed military strategic thinking well into the Vietnam era.
In the mid-1930s, the Corps had to find its unique mission in order to survive. By luck and by pluck, as they say, Krulak was befriended by Gen. Holland (“Howlin’ Mad’) Smith, who is credited with the idea of using the Marines as an amphibious assault force to clear enemy-held positions ashore. The idea had been generally discredited after the British disaster at Gallipoli. And, indeed, the Navy’s only stocks of landing craft at hand were relics from the war with Spain.
But in 1937, Krulak was a neutral military observer when the Japanese attacked China in what would be the opening rounds of World War II. Observing one amphibious assault, Krulak photographed the unique design of the Japanese landing craft that could push up onto the beach, drop a ramp onto the ground, disgorge troops or equipment and then back itself off to go for another load. Krulak’s later report, sponsored by Smith, became a crucial factor in the development, and grudging acceptance by the Army and Navy brass, of the famed Higgins Boat, which such diverse military experts as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adolf Hitler named as the single most effective weapon of World War II.
Krulak had what the British call “a good war” in the Pacific, alternating with key staff posts and combat commands that earned him medals and a reputation for toughness. At the end of the war, he was struck with another crucial notion: to adapt the fragile helicopter for command and control and as a force extender of troops and equipment. That would be proved in the Korean War and again in Vietnam. But before that, Krulak would earn his greatest praise and censure in the postwar reorganization of the U.S. military where, once again, the Corps found its existence at risk.
Throughout his career, Krulak managed to acquire an equal number of enemies and fans with each triumph. As the Marine commander in Vietnam, he used counterinsurgency tactics that made his troops successful more often than the Army command liked. Finally, he lost his bid to become commandant of the Marine Corps because his criticism of the war angered President Johnson. By then, the legend of the Brute was fixed and perhaps that was good enough for him. This is a well-written tale about a complicated yet admirable man.
James Srodes‘ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.” His e-mail address is srodesnews @msn.com.
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