Happy Birthday, Chesty

My wife is an artist, as some of you know, although she doesn’t really jump into the Artist category with both feet. She’ll demur and pretend her gift isn’t art, but we all know better.

My wife's Chesty portrait. Click it to view her post about it.

My wife’s Chesty portrait. Click it to view her post about it.

Just last week she was moved to create something (not at all an artistic impulse!;-)) and this amidst a pretty big workload for both home and various artistic endeavors.

She made a rendering of the classic photograph of LtGen Lewis B Puller sr, known to us Marines as Chesty. The picture will take you to it.

Today is Chesty’s birthday, and a nice day to reflect on just what the man accomplished in his life, and why we Marines seem pathologically devoted to him. I encourage you to read his autobiography and any of the many books that have been written about him or the many operations in which he played a central role.

Outside of his military exploits, there are three parts of his legacy that most attract me to his cultus. I’ll go through them, because the Corps is one of the very few subjects about which I cannot have a completely rational discussion. It holds a more personal attraction to me, and the root of that can be found in Chesty’s unique appeal to my otherwise objective detachment.

First, the way he led represented an ideal and an example that, while not of his making, was perhaps best exemplified by him. He led from the front, walking amongst his Marines, personally directing fire. As a regimental commander, his HQ would often be forward of his subordinate battalion commanders’. He valued the contribution that Marines of every rank brought to the mission, with perhaps his greatest respect going to the sergeants. To him, the saying “Sergeants are the backbone of the service” wasn’t just a throwaway. And yet he held each person in his command personally responsible for their actions, with the expectations growing exponentially with their rank and his tendency to correct vs punish in inverse proportion to the same. While he personified this style of leadership, and served as its avatar, as I indicated above, it wasn’t his alone. In retrospect, it seemed as his impossible ideal was staring over the shoulder of every poor shavetail 2nd Lt as they faced their first platoon, or even worse, the sarcastic, overeducated, independently operating teams of the unit where I spent most of my service.

The finest example of this I saw while in service was not while deployed to Desert Storm, or even in a rigorous training exercise. I was just standing on line. You see, when you’re on a big amphibious ship, most of the ports you hit are too small to take you dockside, and so it’s a matter of boats (usually the locals) taking you ashore. The navy has a rule that E-7s and up can get to the front of the line for these boats, and yet they have the longest liberty allowance, sometimes overnight. We peons had what’s called Cinderalla liberty, as in be back by midnight or else.

For my float, we didn’t have a lot of liberty because Yugoslavia was disintegrating and we had to be on call. At one of our few ports the line had wrapped around the hanger deck, and it seemed to never move. Every time one of the boats showed up, a gaggle of senior enlisted or zeros would stroll up to the front with their golf clubs and go to shore.

Then 1st Lt Dmitri Henry came up with his liberty partner (I think it was our det’s Gunny, Tony Murello) and surveyed the line. I think Bernier, one of the strongest and craziest Marines I served with, said something sarcastic, but Heavy D (as we called him) wasn’t moving to the front. He just smiled at us, told us to be careful, and headed to the back of the line. It was the way he led, and I certainly can now see Chesty’s influence in that action, and in several others he made while we were his Marines. I was proud to drag my fat, civilian butt to his promotion to full bird recently. He led from the front, unless leading from the back was what Chesty would have done.

The second thing about Chesty that I really admire was the way he dealt with being a living legend. From his house in Saluda, Va, where he retired, he was always available to his Marines. Sometimes an old shipmate or Chosin brother would show up, and he would show them respect and hospitality. When something happened that affected the Corps, he would be its champion, but in his own inimitable style. There was none of MacArthur’s hubris in seeking the 1952 GOP nomination. No, he would speak plainly and to the point, with little regard for his personal standing.

In particular, I’m reminded of the horrific training accident aboard Parris Island, and the court martial that followed in 1956. Puller testified, and was assailed for past controversies in his career. However his wife related something he said to her:

“…The important thing is the Marine Corps. If we let ’em, they’ll tear it to pieces. Headquarters won’t speak up. It’s my duty to do it.”

He truly believed in the esprit de corps and the difficult training, both physical and mental, required to instill it in Marines and their officers. Outspoken, but without the vacuous inanity of a cable news commando. He spoke with authority, but kept it short.

As some of you may know, I am politically more progressive than many of my fellow Marine veterans comrades (which isn’t really saying too much) but regardless of how I feel about any civilian related matter, the training of Marines is not something for which we, as a nation, need to consider human frailty.

If you don’t watch Full Metal Jacket and think, ‘Gee, I’m going to call a Marine recruiter!” we don’t need you. If you don’t watch Generation Kill and think, ‘That’s the life for me!” don’t bother us. And if you don’t view A Few Good Men as a Shakespearian tragedy in which a flawed but noble hero is brought down by a conniving honor-free troglodyte, consider another service.

Chesty represents in his post-service actions a true gentleman in the way he remained personally available to those who idolized him, and as the soul of the Marine Corps in his understanding that what Marines do is ugly but necessary, and to make Americans into Marines capable of filling the role, a certain standard of training had to be met.

The last ideal he represents to me is one that, as much as I like to think I could emulate his first examples, I don’t think I could handle. His son, Lewis B Puller jr served as a Marine officer in Vietnam, and was severely wounded. His autobiography is astounding (deservedly winning the Pulitzer Prize) and his grievous wounds, epic and eventually fatal struggle with alcoholism, and the impact that struggle had on Chesty and his family is chilling.

I have three children, and while I don’t do anything as foolish as forbid them from joining the Corps (the other services, yes!) I pray every day that they enjoy their time as Americans as civilians. I know what I did, and I know how lucky I am not to be dead or maimed just from what I did while I was on liberty, much less how the increased cadence of warfare since 9/11 would impact them. No, I don’t want them in the service, and it is for selfish reasons. I could not live up to Chesty’s stoic example here.

So to my wife, let me say your artistic inspiration came at the perfect time, and I really am proud of this work. You have done a great man justice on his birthday.

And to Chesty, wherever you are, Happy Birthday from me, my family, and Karlos Hathcock Mahoney, my hiking partner.

Karlos from our pilgrimage to Saluda, Va.

Karlos from our pilgrimage to Saluda, Va.