First to Fight for Right: “Chesty” Puller & America’s Defenders Today
Christian Ethics | Essay | Just War | Trump Administration | WWII-75
President Trump’s first two confirmed cabinet picks are drawn from the ranks of the military—retired General James Mattis, now U.S. Secretary of Defense, and retired General John Kelly, current U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. Both herald from the same branch of service—the United States Marine Corps. Moreover, both held commands in the very same unit—the First Marine Division. The coincidence is curious, and invites consideration. What might the history and culture of the division Mattis and Kelly led say about the way they would lead their two departments charged with our nation’s defense?
I am not particularly qualified to undertake such an analysis. Like many in my generation, I did not enlist. My grandfather served in World War II, and my father in the Vietnam War. But ours is not a military family. I served briefly twenty years ago as a political appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense, but can claim no military expertise.
I can claim one surreptitious connection to the First Marine Division, however. Three months each year, I worship at Christ Church Episcopal in Middlesex County, Virginia. We own a summer home nearby. In the cemetery of the sanctuary, which dates to 1666, is buried a parishioner born more than a century ago, one Lewis Burwell Puller. The rural road running next to Christ Church is named after this man as well.
To a civilian like me, the name held little significance. To Marines, it is readily recognizable. Lieutenant General Puller, known as “Chesty” for his distinctive torso, remains to this day the most decorated Marine in American history. Over a 37-year career in uniform, in combat and command, from Haiti to Nicaragua, from Guadalcanal to Peleliu, from the Inchon Landing to the Chosen Reservoir, Puller earned five Navy Crosses, a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, among other honors. Although he would command many different units, his heart lied with the First Marines, the “old breed” as they are called. In aptitude, attitude, and achievement, Puller epitomized the First Marine Division, and is lionized by Corpsmen to this day.
The 2005 HBO miniseries The Pacific follows the First Marines during their island-hopping battles against the Japanese in World War II. Puller, played by William Sadler, has a central role as the father figure to the young leathernecks. In the first episode, following the Pearl Harbor attack, he steels the green recruits for the fight to come in a subdued but stirring speech. “For those lucky enough to return home for Christmas, hold your loved ones dearly, and join them in prayers for peace on earth and goodwill toward all men. And then report back here, ready to sail across God’s vast ocean, where we will meet our enemy, and kill them all.” Later, huddling with his officers in the midst of the melee at Guadalcanal, he boosts their morale by sharing with them an intercepted Japanese message. It read: “The Americans on this island are not ordinary troops, but Marines. A special force, recruited from jails and insane asylums, for bloodlust.” To hearty cheers from his men, Sadler’s Puller adds: “They got that right.”
This fictionalized account of Puller comports with reality, as Colonel Jon Hoffman in his balanced biography Chesty testifies. He was known as a Marine’s Marine, fearlessly charging into the teeth of battle, risking life and limb, to mercilessly cut down his enemies. Even as a senior officer, he insisted on siting his Command Post on the front lines, in the thick of whizzing bullets and bursting shells. He displayed his battlefield bravado most famously in Korea, when his unit found itself surrounded by the Chinese. “They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29 to one,” Puller is quoted as saying. “They can’t get away from us now!” The First Marines, under Puller’s command, escaped the trap, inflicting by some accounts the highest casualty ratio on an enemy in Marine Corps history.
His superiors ennobled him. “You have acted with singleness of purpose guided by your highest sense of right,” said four-star General O.P. Smith on his retirement. But those who served at his side had a more realistic assessment of Puller. “He was about the only man in the Corps who really loves to fight,” said one peer, according to Hoffman. “You could sense his grim determination to slaughter more Japs than anyone else,” said another.
Puller was a courageous and decorated warrior, but was he a just one? How might a Christian judge his service and the values he represented? These philosophical questions have practical importance given the role Puller’s prodigies now play in defending our country. Mattis, in his recent book Warriors & Citizens, raises a similar question: “Does the public appreciate that [the military’s] values and practices…are considered by many in the military to be integral to their fighting functions?”
The ethics of soldiering has always been a complicated one for Christians. Jesus implores us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek rather than respond violently, which would seem to prohibit warfighting. On the other hand, the New Testament repeatedly condones military service; in fact, it is a centurion who first recognized the divinity of the crucified Jesus (Mark 15:39). Christ Himself forcefully drives out moneychangers from the Temple, and claims to have brought not peace, but the sword.
St. Aquinas attempted to reconcile these differences by professing the so-called doctrine of double effect. The doctrine, which the 13th century scholastic introduces in his commentary on killing, teaches that an act which is by nature and intention good, but causes an evil consequence, is nonetheless morally permissible. The sanction extends even to actions whose evil consequences are foreseen. In other words, a soldier who is prepared—even expects—to slay his or her enemy is justified if the death is unintentional collateral damage in defense of self or others, or in pursuit of justice.
Oxford scholar and Providence contributor Nigel Biggar tests the feasibility of St. Aquinas’ doctrine in his compelling apologia In Defence of War. “Can this theory of double effect really get up and walk on the battlefield?” he asks. In combat, we often react viscerally rather than cerebrally. “One cannot reasonably expect squaddies to plough their way through the mind-bending literature on the principle of double effect,” Biggar rightly observes. He nonetheless answers his own question in the affirmative by defining intention as both willing and wanting, choosing and desiring. A just warrior is willing to kill, but does not want to, reluctantly accepting violence as a necessary means to a justified end. He or she may kill with foresight and ferocity, but not with malice or reckless abandon.
Do Puller and the killer instinct embedded in the ethos of the First Marines meet Biggar’s nuanced moral threshold? I believe so, but only if we admit additional evidence. Puller showed genuine respect for his enemies, especially those whom he believed fought valiantly. He praised the Chinese in Korea, for example, as “excellent fighters… [who] are not fanatics, but go about their business with resigned determination.” He viewed death in battle as regrettable but honorable, urging his own officers to risk their lives as needed to take the lives of others. And he notably, if crudely, mourned the destruction of innocent lives and property, as he did during street-fighting in Seoul. “I hate to see people in a shack like that get hurt. Probably the same family has been living generations in that same dump.”
These are the behaviors not of a berserker, but a military professional, capable of maintaining a conscience while executing orders. Because he chose to live by the sword, he was prepared to die by the sword, and respected all who upheld that code of honor, friend and foe alike. This is a love thy enemy of a different stripe, dignifying their service and sacrifice with an honorable, if deadly, tribute.
To many, such warrior love may seem absurd. How can raking an enemy line with machine gun fire or assaulting a bunker with a flamethrower be an act of charity? Admittedly, it represents one extreme, reserved for a specialized segment of society granted a license to kill and subject to extraordinary discipline. Extreme, but not boundless. A soldier may pay respect to another by killing him in battle, but not by showing him cruelty or causing him gratuitous suffering. The just war tradition encompasses ad bellum criteria governing the decision to wage war, and in bello criteria governing the means of waging it. The latter includes proportionality—using only means necessary to accomplish the just end—and discrimination—sparing innocent civilians violence. The just warrior obeys these prohibitions as he or she prosecutes the deadly work of war.
Following a 2007 survey showing only 40 percent of Marines would report a colleague for abusing civilians, General Mattis expressed dismay. He is quoted as reacting, “Whenever you show anger or disgust toward civilians, it’s a victory for al-Qaeda and other insurgents.” His was not a moral argument for the in bello imperative of discrimination, but a pragmatic one. As such, it remains contingent in his mind, and not a moral absolute. But his principled position is nonetheless praiseworthy, and reflects the sense of duty and honor that characterize the First Marines both Generals Mattis and Puller led. One can hope it will also shape the Trump Administration’s continued deliberations about the role of torture. The president has suggested he seeks his defense secretary’s counsel on this issue.
In April 1952, as the war in Korea raged, the Marine Corps deployed their most decorated veteran to an unlikely theater—West Point, Virginia, a howitzer shot’s distance from Christ Church where he and I worshipped. Gen. Puller was invited to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the county’s founding with keynote remarks. The rough-hewn leatherneck with a sailor’s tongue summoned rare eloquence to mark the historic occasion. “There will always be wars and rumors of wars,” he said. “Remember that there are far worse things than death and destruction. Further remember that there is no substitute for performance of duty, whether you are a statesman or a fighting man, and that there must be character and integrity at all times.” This same call of duty to fight honorably can be found in the Marines’ hymn, which boasts that the Corps is the “first to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean.” The First Marine Division’s paragon of virtue, Chesty Puller, upheld the standards of just warfighting and respect, if not love, of the enemy. We pray his progeny leading the defense of our nation today will do the same.
Matt Gobush served on the staff of the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee. He also served as chairman of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. He currently works in the private sector and lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and three internationally adopted children.
Feature Photo Credit: Colonel Lewis B. Puller, CO 1st Marines. Taken November 22, 1950, at Chigyong, North Korea. From the Oliver P. Smith Collection (COLL/213), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections. Official U.S. Marine Corps photo.