Book review: ‘Brute’ by Robert Coram
The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine
Little, Brown; 349 pps., $27.99
“Brute” examines the life and career of U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Victor H. “Brute” Krulak, the complex and controversial officer whose role in shaping the modern Marine Corps was as large as his stature — 5-foot-4 — was short.
Along with this brisk, highly readable, strongly reported biography’s other attributes, add impeccable timing.
“Brute” is being published as Marines, from Quantico, Va. to Helmand province, Afghanistan, are celebrating the 235th anniversary of the Marine Corps.
It’s also being published as Pentagon planners — at the direction of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates — are debating the very future size and role of the Marine Corps: Is there really still a need for an amphibious-assault force in the modern world? Given the presence of a much larger Army, does the U.S. really need, or can it afford, a second land-based force?
It is a fight that Krulak, who died in 2008 at age 95, would have joined with his characteristic brilliance and bravado.
“Brute Krulak was a hinge of history during the tumultuous middle-years of the twentieth century, a hard man who could make hard decisions,” Coram writes.
Krulak served with distinction in three wars. In World War II, he helped develop the landing craft that led to victory in the Pacific and received the Navy Cross for bravery in combat. In Korea, he helped shape the landing at Inchon, and in Vietnam, he tried to steer the U.S. course toward counterinsurgency rather than the “search and destroy” favored by the Army.
But it was in Washington that Krulak may have had his greatest successes. He was a behind-the-scenes leader in thwarting what Coram, a veteran journalist and military biographer, calls repeated “predation” attempts by the Army over four decades to marginalize the Marine Corps.
The Army versus Marine Corps rivalry — trivialized in the movies as barroom brawls — is real and long-standing. Coram dates it to the battle of Belleau Wood in World War I in which the Marines won both the headlines and the enmity of a generation of Army generals.
Through much of this career, Krulak had a talent for dealing with powerful figures. As a junior officer, he ingratiated himself to senior Marines who helped his career enormously. He formed friendships with key congressmen who stymied President Truman’s effort to downgrade the Marines to being the “Navy’s police force.”
He delivered addresses extolling the Marine Corps and ghosted speeches for officers of higher rank. He wrote the script for a pro-Marine documentary “Bombs Over Tokyo.” He stayed one step ahead of politicians and Army planners.
He had gotten his nickname at Annapolis when an upperclassman first saw the runty plebe from Colorado. Rather than run from such a tag, Krulak relished it. He could be withering in his scorn for officers doing sloppy staff work or an enlisted Marine with scuffed shoes or a wrinkled uniform.
Through a circuitous route that Coram details, Krulak became an aide to President Kennedy. The two had met in combat during World War II, and the young president apparently liked the candor and intellectual bearing of the Marine officer. Other politicians did not.
“It was Brute Krulak’s nature to tell his superiors how they could do their jobs better,” Coram writes. He tried that with President Johnson regarding Vietnam. LBJ was not amused and ushered him out of his office.
In the fallout from that encounter, Krulak was denied a fourth star and the job he had long coveted: commandant of the Marine Corps. He was forced into retirement in 1968. His son, Charles, became commandant in 1995.
Coram does not shrink from Krulak’s unattractive side: He grabbed credit from others. He could be cold toward his family. He was devious in inter-service wrangling and Beltway politicking. He concocted stories to enhance his already considerable reputation for brains and bravery. He hid and then denied his Jewish heritage.
Still, Coram argues for a larger evaluation of his subject. And he suggests the future of the Marine Corps in the 21st century may depend on whether a new Krulak steps forward.
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