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Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak

spinner image Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine

Robert Coram's Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine is the compelling story of a complex man — an enlightened warrior who succeeded in a 20th-century America infected with the dehumanizing virus of bigotry. In the bargain, the book also manages to be an insightful and accessible history of the Marine Corps.

Coram kicks off Krulak's tale in typically stark terms: "He was never a promising young man. From a selfish and headstrong boy who lied, falsified documents, and was guilty of moral turpitude, he grew to become the most important officer in the history of the United States Marine Corps … a man whose contributions to his country are almost impossible to measure."

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Brute, of course, is not the man's given name. "On Krulak's first day at the Naval Academy," Coram recounts, "a towering midshipman looked down at him, smirked, and said, 'Well, Brute...' Krulak was taken with the name and henceforth introduced himself as Brute Krulak." Indeed, Krulak was the shortest and lightest man ever to graduate from the Naval Academy (in 1934) and win a commission in the Marine Corps (a certain percentage of every Academy graduating class is allowed to opt for Marine service).

Krulak bore a secret unknown even to his wife and children. Born in Denver to Jewish immigrant parents on Jan. 7, 1913, he suspected — with good reason — that his heritage might derail his career. "From the time he walked through the gate at Annapolis," Coram writes, "Krulak no doubt frequently, perhaps daily, heard derogatory comments about blacks and Jews. It was a good time to be an Episcopalian." And that's just what Krulak became during his time at the Naval Academy.

Assigned to Shanghai in 1937 during the second Sino-Japanese War, Krulak observed a Japanese amphibious operation using a landing craft equipped with a drop bow that became a ramp for the assault troops. This inspired him to spearhead the adoption of the Higgins  boat, which Allied forces would use to devastating effect in both the Pacific and European theaters of operations — particularly during the D-Day invasion. The Higgins boat may have been the only aspect of the war on which Eisenhower and Hitler saw eye-to-eye: The two leaders both deemed it the most important piece of tactical equipment in World War II.

Having risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel by 1945, Krulak planned the April 1 invasion of Okinawa. After the war, he pushed for a helicopter that could carry Marines into battle, and he co-authored the first textbook for Marine helicopter pilots and war planners, ushering in the concept of "vertical envelopment." With the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in 1950, Krulak advised Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the amphibious landing at Inchon that would retake Seoul from the North Korean army.

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These and other visionary coups propelled Krulak through the ranks. Coram punctuates the trajectory of Krulak's career with excerpts from his fitness reports (known to civilians as performance evaluations): By 1955, for example, USMC Commandant Randolph M. Pate was describing Krulak as "by far the best-qualified Marine officer I have ever served with in any rank" and strongly urging that Krulak be promoted to general. In June of that year, at age 42, Krulak received his first star, becoming one of the youngest generals in the history of the Corps.

In August 1950, mounting Marine successes in Korea prompted a freshman congressman named Gordon McDonough to suggest to President Harry S Truman that the post of Marine Corps commandant be included in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Truman made the mistake of capturing his reaction to this idea in writing: "For your information the Marine Corps is the Navy's police force and as long as I am President that is what they will remain. They have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin's." When McDonough then released Truman's letter to the press, the outcry forced the president to apologize to the Marine Corps.

Galvanized by Truman's rancor, Sen. Paul Douglas and Rep. Mike Mansfield, both former Marines, introduced "the Marine Corps bill," which vouchsafed that the USMC would always have a minimum of three combat divisions and three aircraft wings. The Joint Chiefs so strongly opposed the bill, writes Coram, "that it would be more than a year — not until after Krulak returned from Korea and became personally involved in the fight — before the legislation passed." Krulak crafted the language for the bill, which was signed into law in June 1952. Krulak and the two legislators would forever be credited as saviors of the USMC's independence.

By 1963, Krulak was a three-star general commanding the Marines in Vietnam. Ever the visionary, he defined that war as a counterinsurgency — a stance that put him at odds with the Army's more traditional doctrine of "search and destroy." Krulak instead advocated the Combined Action Program in which Marines, accompanying South Vietnamese troops, would protect villages from the Vietcong. "You cannot defeat an idea with a bullet," Krulak was fond of saying. "You can defeat an idea only with a better idea."

In 1967, LBJ sought out Brute to ask how the war was going. As Krulak recalls his response here, "I told him the blame for the excessive casualties and the meddling went to the top of the government, 'including you, Mr. President,' … And I told him if he did not change, he would lose the war and he would lose the next election." Johnson placed a reassuring hand on Krulak's shoulder — then shoved him out of his office. He would never become Marine Corps commandant. He would never earn a fourth star.

Brute is a well-told tale — a gritty but fair reflection of a hard, cerebral man heeding his own code of honor while managing to thrive in the hardball arenas of war and politics.

Mel Baughman, the quality manager for AARP’s print publications, served a three-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps.

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