Monday, March 06, 2017

World Class and Free: The National Museum of the Marine Corps

This past weekend we took my Mother-in-Law to the National Museum of the Marine Corps . It's not our first time there, but I was once again struck at what a remarkable museum it is. There's simply so much history to process, one visit (or two, or ten) isn't enough.

The museum is located in Quantico Virginia, and construction was started in 2004. These facts make for a museum that contrasts well will the Smithsonians. Because the museum is out in the boonies, they've got far more space to work with. And because it was built so recently, the latest techniques in museum design are present, making for an immersive experience. You're not just staring at artifacts and reading plaques, but walking through helicopters, hearing and feeling artillery explode and watching plenty of short movies. This all makes for a word class museum and historic experience, which just happens to be free.

Because it was so chilly out, we didn't have a chance to explore the new (to us) trail and monuments built on the grounds of the museum. That will have to wait for next time.

Rather than try to take in the entire museum, I tried to focus and appreciate a few particular incidents I'd never heard of. One striking presentation was on the amphibious invasion of Inchon during the Korean War. I watched skeptically, as an apparently cocky Douglas MacArthur ignored senior military officials who condemned his strategy:

MacArthur later wrote: “A naval briefing staff argued that two elements—tide and terrain—made a landing at Inchon extremely hazardous. They referred to Navy hydrographic studies which listed the average rise and fall of tides at Inchon at 20.7 feet—one of ‘the greatest in the world.’ On the tentative target date for the invasion, the rise and fall would be more than 30 feet because of the position of the moon.
And then there came the icing on the cake. “Beyond all this,” MacArthur recalled, “the Navy summed up [that] the assault landings would have to be made right in the heart of the city itself, where every structure provided a potential strong point of enemy resistance. Reviewing the Navy’s presentation, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Sherman concluded by saying, ‘If every possible geographical and naval handicap were listed—Inchon has ’em all!’”

MacArthur noted these difficulties worked to his advantage, continuing:

“The bulk of the Reds,” he recalled saying, “are committed around Walker’s defense perimeter. The enemy, I am convinced, has failed to prepare Inchon properly for defense. The very arguments you have made as to the impracticabilities involved will tend to ensure for me the element of surprise, for the enemy commander will reason that no one would be so brash as to make such an attempt.

I'm not sure what the military planners thought, but I know I was less than convinced. He ultimately responded to the critiques of his plan with this response:

“The Navy’s objections as to tides, hydrography, terrain and physical handicaps are indeed substantial and pertinent, but they are not insuperable. My confidence in the Navy is complete, and in fact I seem to have more confidence in the Navy than the Navy has in itself! The Navy’s rich experience in staging the numerous amphibious landings under my command in the Pacific during the late war, frequently under somewhat similar difficulties, leaves me with little doubt on that score.”

Again, in my mind's eye I saw a general willing to risk the lives of his men to prove he could make a bold attack and relive his glory days. That all changed in an instant when I heard this last quote from the general:

“The only alternative to a stroke such as I propose will be the continuation of the savage sacrifice we are making at Pusan, with no hope of relief in sight. Are you content to let our troops stay in that bloody perimeter like beef cattle in the slaughterhouse? Who will take the responsibility for such a tragedy? Certainly, I will not.”

Wow. How wrong I had been. What a powerful reminder that war isn't a game of chess or the trials and tribulations of a web startup. It's hell. It requires making impossible decisions with heart-rending consequences. A museum that can help teach that, along with pride for a remarkable American institution, is doing something right.

Incidentally, the battle of Inchon, thanks to the heroism of Marines, was a success.

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