"Brute": How top US Marine Victor Krulak went up against LBJ

"Brute" tells the story of a fiery, diminutive US Marine officer who dared to speak some hard truths about the Vietnam War.

Credit: The White House. Source: "Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine."
President Lyndon Johnson looks less than pleased by Marine Lieutenant General Victor Krulak during an antagonistic meeting about the Vietnam War.

Whenever I'm trying to get fired up about a pending battle with an editor, I sometimes get melodramatic and tell myself that "I will die on this hill!"

Then I come back to reality.

While I've managed to get away with it at times, challenging your boss can be hazardous to your career. It could be worse, though: Just imagine if the person in charge is known as Mr. President.

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A diminutive Marine named Victor "Brute" Krulak learned what that's like the hard way. While Krulak shamelessly embroidered his past, it seems clear that he did challenge LBJ about how the president was managing the Vietnam War. Krulak, one of the most crucial and beloved Marines in the history of the corps, didn't reap any benefit from his boldness. To say the least.

Robert Coram, a military historian, chronicles Krulak's life in his new book Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, US Marine. Coram clearly loves his subject, whom he interviewed before his death in 2008, despite Krulak's many flaws. Coram adores the Marines too. In his telling, they valiantly fought off decades of threats from bonebrained politicians, clueless military leaders, and a jealous Army.

In an interview, I asked Coram about a warrior to remember.

Q: What drew you to write about Krulak?
A: I sensed there was something about the Marines: I wanted to write a book and capture their ethos. I think they carry the ethical banner for all the military services, and they're unbending in their rectitude.

Trying to find the right Marine was difficult. I wanted to find someone who at some critical junction in his or her career had to make a moral decision, and the consequences would be enormous.

He went to the White House and confronted LBJ over how the Vietnam War was being run. He had everything to lose and nothing to win. He risked it all on one turn of pitch and toss.

Q: You write that he spoke up about the value of a counterinsurgency strategy while other military leaders kept silent. You are not sympathetic to those who zipped their lips.
A: I should be hard on them. What they did was dereliction of duty. They should have stood up to the president or resigned, but they were only concerned about their careers.

Q: Krulak also spoke up against the military and political establishment after World War II. What was that battle about?
He went up against President Truman, Generals Marshall and Eisenhower, and even brother Marines. There were two issues: the survival of the Marine Corps and a plan for [military] unification that would have placed more authority in the hands of a military man. It would have created this all-powerful "man on horseback," something that the American people fear.

Krulak saved the Marines from being reduced into a smaller force, and he saved the fundamental American principle of civilian control of the military.

Q: Krulak endlessly covered up his past – which included a Jewish family background – and lied about it. But you found a greater message in his life. What did he represent to you?
A: Integrity counts, integrity matters. It's incumbent on all of us to do the right thing. When we come to a fork in the road, it's easy to take the easy way, but he took the hard way. He did the right thing and made a great moral decision and paid a price.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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