Election Day was a week ago, but it seems like a month, doesn’t it? In yesterday’s newsletter, I wrote about Rick Perry’s infamous “Oops” moment. On this date in 2011, Perry’s damage control efforts began in earnest, starting with an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show, where co-anchor Ann Curry asked if he planned to stop debating -- or get out of the GOP presidential race altogether.
Texas’ governor responded by dismissing the very thought of quitting. Invoking the spirit of the United States Marine Corps, which was celebrating its 236th birthday that day, Perry said, “If there's a day to stay in the fight,” he added, “this is it.”
In this case, Gov. Perry had his facts right. The U.S. Marines were indeed commissioned on this date by the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, in an order drafted by John Adams. “Resolved, that two battalions of marines be raised,” the Nov. 10, 1775 order began. The officers and enlisted men must be “good seamen,” it continued, and would be “distinguished by the names of the first and second battalions of American Marines.”
Ronald Reagan served stateside during the Second Word War -- and in the U.S. Army, not the Marine Corps -- so he seems an unlikely source for a famous line attributed to him. “Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they’ve made a difference,” it begins. “The Marines don’t have that problem.” It’s an evocative sentiment, despite being an old saw, not an actual Reagan quotation. Nonetheless, one finds it online (the Internet is like that), in an old Donald Trump tweet, and even in pro-military curio shops.
As president, Reagan did not stint in his praise of the U.S. Marines, as evidenced by a Rose Garden ceremony on this date in 1986.
“Whenever America has called, the ‘Few and the Proud’ have been there, in places with names like Belleau Wood and the Argonne Forest, Guadalcanal, Saipan, Okinawa, the Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sanh, and Grenada,” Reagan said that day. “So, yes, whether raising the flag over Iwo Jima or in the daily duty of guarding our embassies around the world, the Marine Corps spirit has been an inspiration to generations of Americans.”
If you listened closely to the commander-in-chief that day, however, one couldn’t help but think about the devastating 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. President Reagan mentioned Grenada, a small Caribbean island liberated from communists (who were being aided by Cuban infiltrators) in 1983, at Reagan’s direction. But he didn’t mention Lebanon, where 241 U.S. servicemen, almost all of them Marines, had been killed on his watch only one day after the Grenada invasion. Reagan certainly hadn’t forgotten it. In his autobiography, he referred to it as “the saddest day of my presidency, perhaps the saddest day of my life.”
My point here is that all of us, even Marines, look back and ponder if the path we’ve chosen “has made a difference.” It’s not a sign of weakness to weigh our choices. It’s human nature. It’s also a lifelong process. The U.S. Marines were among the first sent to Vietnam, and were the last out. Many of them wondered whether it had been worth it; certainly, the families who have loved ones’ names on the wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial ask themselves the same thing.
Speaking of that monument, Nov. 10 is also the anniversary of the day in 1982 when it was first opened to the public. The design by 21-year-old Maya Lin was highly contentious at first. Vietnam veteran James H. Webb Jr., a decorated combat Marine, took one look at it and pronounced it “a nihilist slab of stone.” It was, said the future Virginia senator and secretary of the Navy, an anti-war statement -- “Jane Fonda’s wall.” Ultimately Webb and others were mollified by the inclusion of three traditional statues of fighting men at the site. What really won critics over, however, was the overwhelming public response to the place, which vets themselves respectfully took to calling “the Wall.” Etched upon the polished black granite are the names of more than 58,000 members of the armed forces killed in Vietnam, or who died later from wounds inflicted there. It is simultaneously a tribute to patriotic sacrifice and a powerful statement in opposition to nation-states solving their differences by going to war.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.