Patterson on Venable, 'How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique 1874-1918'

Heather Venable
Sarah E. Patterson

Heather Venable. How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique 1874-1918. Transforming War Series. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019. Illustrations. 344 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68247-468-6

Reviewed by Sarah E. Patterson (SNA International/Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) Published on H-War (May, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Heather Venable’s How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918 traces the development of the United States Marine Corps’ identity as a uniquely elite institution, separate from other service branches. Venable responds to Craig Cameron’s book, American Samurai: Myth, Imagination, and the Conduct of Battle in the First Marine Division, 1941-1951 (1994), which also addresses the creation of Marine Corps identity but locates the birth of their contemporary, elite image in the World War II era. Instead, Venable argues that the corps’ unique identity actually developed in the nineteenth century.

The body of Venable’s book is divided into two parts: “Crafting the Corps’ Identity” and “Deploying the Corps’ Identity.” Part 1 includes four chapters. In “Inspiration and Articulation: Othering the Navy,” Venable locates the corps’ concerns with identity and image in threats to the branch’s existence connected to the corps’ lack of distinct mission as well as interservice rivalry with the navy from as early as the late eighteenth century. In “Internalization: Image and Identity in Imperial Wars, 1898-1905,” the author articulates the importance of marines’ participation in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and the Boxer Rebellion in attempting to establish a mission distinct from the army and navy. The reputation that marines acquired and nurtured during this era focused on their adaptability and willingness to take on any challenge. This marked increased efforts on the behalf of marines, especially officers, to articulate their purpose and identity. The third chapter, “Refinement and Elaboration: The Navy’s Impact on the Corps’ Early Publicity Efforts,” focuses on the adoption of modern publicity strategies and the institution of the Corps’ Recruiting Publicity Bureau beginning in 1912. Even as marines were removed from their traditional duty aboard ships, the bureau helped define the need to preserve the corps and worked to gain civilian support for their cause. In “Intensification and Dissemination: The Recruiting Publicity Bureau’s Influence on the Corps’ Image and Identity,” the author continues to explore the importance of the bureau in developing a distinct corps identity and image, particularly focusing on their use of the bureau’s publication, the Recruiter’s Bulletin, starting in 1914 to share ideas and propaganda with individuals directly involved in presenting the corps to the public and potential recruits. The Bulletin assisted in the coalescence of a more widely shared concept of what it meant to be a marine.

Part 2 includes three chapters. In “Differentiation: How the Marine Corps Engendered Landing Parties, 1908-1918,” Venable talks about the ongoing public debate about the relative masculinity of the Marine Corps versus the navy and the growth within the corps of a shared belief in the corps’ exceptionalism, including fighting skills and manliness. These ideas about the corps’ eliteness sometimes extended to the public. In “Democratization: From Boot Straps to Shoulder Straps, 1914-1918,” Venable discusses the growing rhetoric of democracy used within the corps to support its uniqueness and elite status. The author discusses early commercial films portraying marines as sites of reflection on the corps’ meaning, particularly its ideals of masculinity and loyalty to the service. Venable points out that these ideals did not necessarily reflect reality for individual marines. These debates occurred in conjunction with corps rhetoric emphasizing a lack of strict division between officers and enlisted men, especially the growing focus on promotion to officer status from within enlisted ranks. “Hypermasculinization: Every Male a Rifleman, Every Female a Clerk” points to the incorporation of women into the corps as one strategy for increasing the masculinization of the marines’ image. Venable argues that women were used to highlight the juxtaposition between femininity and ideal manliness within the corps. These women’s presence emphasized male marines’ masculinity by illustrating their difference from male marines. Female marines worked as clerks and secretaries; male marines served in combat. The distinction between the two further emphasized the masculinity of male marines.

While Venable’s argument that the corps used women to emphasize masculine ideals is correct, the degree to which the corps recognized and intentionally wielded gender as a tool seems more uncertain. This section of the author’s argument could have benefited from more evidence directly showing the corps’ awareness of their actions. That said, the circumstantial evidence Venable offers is strong. The author also makes a significant point at several places in her book about the importance of writing history in the creation of identity and image.

Overall, this book makes a compelling case for nineteenth-century origins to contemporary Marine Corps image and identity. It fits within military and Marine Corps history, as well as gender history, and provides an important contribution to these fields.

Citation: Sarah E. Patterson. Review of Venable, Heather, How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique 1874-1918. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2020. URL:

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