WASHINGTON -- With the Iraq War ending and an Afghanistan exit in sight, the Marine Corps is beginning a historic shift, returning to its roots as a seafaring force that will be smaller, lighter and, it hopes, less bogged down in land wars.
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 of Staff 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, are uniquely equipped and trained to do much more: They can 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 on Nov. 23 at Camp Lawton, a U.S. special operations base in Herat province in Afghanistan.
That begins, he said, with moves such as returning to a pattern of continuous rotations to Okinawa, home of the 3rd Marine Division. The rotation was interrupted by the Iraq War.