Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Evans Carlson, Marine Innovator

BGen Evans Carlson
I wanted to highlight one of my favorite Marine innovators in the hope of getting a discussion going. Few Marines know who he was, but every Marine has utilized his ideas at some point in their careers. That innovator is Brigadier General Evans Carlson, one of the founders of the Marine Raiders. The Marine Raider Battalions were the first official American military organizations to be structured and designed purely for raiding and guerilla operations. Carlson put both his career and his life on the line to get his ideas implemented.

Although he had served in the Army from 1912-1919, reaching the rank of Captain, Evans Carlson enlisted in the Marines in 1922 as a Private. He was commissioned as a second Lieutenant less than a year later. Two experiences formed the ideas that Carlson would later instill in the Marine Corps through the Raiders.

The first was his service in Nicaragua where he was exposed to the guerilla warfare tactics of the Sandinistas. In one action, he gathered sixteen men and attacked a force of one hundred rebels, forcing them to disperse and retreat and earning a Navy Cross. In 1937, Carlson wrote an article detailing five critical lessons he had learned from fighting the rebels. First, good small unit actions were more effective than large scale operations. Second, concentrate as much firepower on the enemy as soon as possible. Third, adaptation and initiative on the part of small unit leaders was necessary to succeed. Fourth, mobility and flanking attacks were more effective than fighting from fixed positions. Fifth, success depends on an understanding of the cultural environment within which units will fight. The other experience was his contact with Communist guerillas in China. In 1937, President Roosevelt sent Carlson to China with orders to keep him informed about the Chinese fight against Imperial Japan. In China, Carlson became deeply interested in the guerilla tactics of Mao Tse Tung, leader of the Chinese Communists. Carlson had extensive conversations with Mao himself and accompanied Mao’s Eighth Route Army on a 1,000 mile fighting retreat through the wilds of China. In his letters to the President, Carlson remarked on the Chinese leaders that were effective not through their rank, but through their success in combat and willingness to share the hardships of their men. He attributed the Chinese success to their guerilla tactics and initiative while their Japanese opponents were brave but executed orders without regard for the changing circumstances of battle. Despite his relationship with the President, Carlson’s respect for the Chinese Communists’ abilities marked him as a maverick and military officials put pressure on him to cease writing about his experiences. This led to his resignation in 1939. Much like Pete Ellis, Carlson would continue to warn the nation about the dangers of Imperial Japan during a speaking tour and by appearing on radio programs. In April of 1941, realizing that war with Japan was imminent, Carlson reapplied to the Marine Corps and was accepted as a Major.

After Pearl Harbor, Carlson went about putting his ideas into action. Along with President Roosevelt’s son Jimmy, a Marine Corps Captain, he lobbied leaders in Washington to create a commando style unit modeled on Carlson’s ideas. Major General Commandant of the Marine Corps Thomas Holcomb, although he disliked the idea of creating commando units, gave command of one of the two Raider battalions to Major Carlson, with Captain Roosevelt as his Executive Officer. The Raiders’ mission was to spearhead amphibious assaults, conduct raids that relied on speed and surprise, and coordinate guerilla operations behind Japanese lines. Once Carlson and Roosevelt gathered enough volunteers, they formed the Second Raider Battalion. Their first order of business was to conduct weeks of rigorous training at a secluded site in California where the Raiders had to literally build their own barracks and mess hall. Carlson trained the Raiders based on the tactical lessons from Nicaragua and China, ended all benefits for officers and mandated that officers lead by example instead of by rank, and introduced the fire team concept to the Marine Corps. The fire team organization, of course, is now standard throughout both the Marine Corps and the Army. The frequent field training exercises were punctuated with discussions, conducted with the entire battalion, about Japanese culture and military tactics. Although there was still a clear chain of command and no one questioned who was in charge, Raider officers did not wear rank insignia, were rarely saluted, and were encouraged to be close and accessible to the Marines they led.

The Makin Island Raid in 1942 was the first test of the Raider concept. While the raid itself was fraught with problems, it was the first ground action against Imperial Japan in the war providing a much-needed morale boost for the American people. Carlson’s Raiders and his guerilla concepts truly shown on Guadalcanal. While Marine units, including Lieutenant Colonel Merrit Edson’s First Raider Battalion, held the perimeter around Henderson Field, Carlson led the Second Raider Battalion on an extended raid behind Japanese lines. Deemed the “Long Patrol”, the Second Raider Battalion spent thirty days behind enemy lines, travelling a total of 150 miles. They encountered Japanese resistance almost the entire time and subsisted on captured Japanese rations and what they could scavenge from the jungle. During the raid, the Raiders frequently operated as individual companies and then came together when more force was needed, a precursor to the modern distributed operations concept. The casualty ratio was thirty Japanese casualties to every one for the Raiders, and most of the Raider casualties were due to diseases like dysentery and malaria. After the Raiders returned to the Marine perimeter, there would be no more Japanese offensives on Guadalcanal.

Despite the clear success of Carlson’s innovations and ideas, more conventionally minded officers in the Marine Corps hierarchy did not look kindly upon his unconventional methods. Only a month after the return of the Long Patrol, the Raiders were reorganized along more conventional lines. Carlson was replaced as commander of the Second Raider Battalion by Lieutenant Colonel Allen Shapley who promptly jettisoned all of Carlson’s innovations and methods. This made the battalion identical to regular, non-Raider line battalions. The process was repeated throughout the rest of the Raider units until they lost the identity that made them special and successful, leading to their disbandment in 1944. Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B. Twining, Chief of Staff of the First Marine Division at the time, described these anti-innovation maneuvers as “a momentary glimpse of the dark side of the upper levels of the Marine Corps showing its inflexibility of thought and a compulsive suspicion of all things new and untried.”

Although Carlson eventually reached the rank of Brigadier General and saw further combat in the Pacific campaign, he was never again given command. Even during the war, he paid the price for his innovations and his willingness to challenge conventional Marine Corps ideas. Evans Carlson is vindicated though as so many of his changes have since found a home in the Marine Corps. The fire team concept is the most obvious of these, but other concepts such as leadership by example, officers sharing the burdens of their Marines, and his focus on initiative and aggression are now standard fare throughout the Marine Corps. Marines today can learn many lessons from Evans Carlson. For one, he studied and learned from his enemies and from sources, like Mao Tse Tung’s Communist guerillas, that others ignored. Second, he wrote about his ideas to share them with others. Lastly, he consistently demonstrated moral courage. Despite obstinate resistance from his own service and constant threats to his career, he forged ahead with his ideas. His methods, although controversial at the time, are widely practiced in the Marine Corps, the Army, and in the Special Forces today.

For this posted, I heavily consulted the book American Commando: Evans Carlson, His WWII Raiders, and America’s First Special Forces Mission by John Wukovits. Now let’s see some comments. Do you think an innovator like Evans Carlson could get his ideas heard in the Marine Corps today? Do you think the organization is nimble enough to quickly capitalize on innovations? Do you think, in an age characterized by irregular warfare, that the Marine Corps has more to learn from Carlson’s fusion of guerilla and conventional warfare tactics?

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