Which Way Would You Run?

Next to warfighting by direct assault, up the beach, straight into the enemy position, the thing the United States Marine Corps does best is make high-production value appeals to be part of its direct assaults, up the beach, straight into the enemy position.  When asked, many marines easily point to a particular TV commercial that sparked their desire to join the Corps.  Iraq War marines often mention “The Climb.”

Produced in 2002, the sixty-second spot hallmarks the physical hardship of marine training.  It’s a challenge—a dare—to manhood.  The greater hook, though, is the promise of belonging to a select group of such warfighters:  “The passage is intense, but if you complete your journey, you will find your destiny among the world’s greatest warriors.  The few, the proud, the Marines” (seconds 56-60).

What’s really being sold in “The Climb” is Marine Corps tradition, Marine Corps history.  Note that the figure who pulls the recruit to the top of the summit is a World War II infantryman (seconds 48-53); fighting in Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and other Pacific island operations are the Corps’ proudest and most violent moments.  Scenes of marine units hitting the beach during World War II center another leading Iraq War-era commercial, “Pride of the Nation” (2005).

These TV spots invoke the tip-of- the-spear, first-to-fight ideal of the Marines, a combative and even bloodthirsty spirit baldly captured in early-twentieth century recruitment posters.  “Let’s Go Get ‘Em!” from 1942 makes the point in a type of classic, posed aesthetic.  The imperial basis and function of Marine force projection comes through in one of my personal favorites, a 1917 poster depicting a jaunty marine with rifle on a jungle island riding backwards on a jaguar!

Within this microhistory of Marine Corps advertising, a new TV commercial has been released that appears to turn on a decidedly different sensibility.  “Which Way Would You Run” (2012) opens to the distant sound of machine gun fire and women screaming for help from a stark, ominous, smoke-filled desertscape (seconds 1-5); this shaky-camera point-of-view shot continues with close ups of military boots, legs, and then marines running frantically “towards the sounds of chaos” (seconds 6-10).   It’s shot brilliantly, with strobe effect accentuating the tautness of the marines’ back and leg muscles: the moment couldn’t be more desperate—the response couldn’t be more strenuous.  And yet the exact content of that response by the fully-armed marines is ambiguous.

The very center of the 60-second commercial features transport trucks carrying large boxes stamped with an American flag and clearly marked “Aid” (seconds 29-31).  And, in an interview with the New York Times, Brigadier General Joseph L. Osterman, head of the Marines recruiting command describes how the commercial springs from recent marketing research showing that “There is a subset of millennials who believe that the military is an avenue of service to others.  Not only in our nation,” he continues, “but also in others faced with tyranny and injustice.”  General Osterman hastens to add, though, that the Marines remain, first and foremost, an expeditionary, combat-ready military force.  “Are we getting soft?” he asked. “The answer is no.”

Indeed, the “Which Way Would You Run” spot cannily represents both the Marine Corps’ long-standing role as America’s shock troops and its more reluctant face of humanitarianism.  The latter certainly needs some attention after the early-2012 viral video showing marines proudly urinating on Afghani Taliban corpses.  But the new commercial’s aid ethos goes farther back than either this immediate public relations concern or the recently perceived demographic trend towards service.  In returning to “Pride of the Nation,” the voice over heavily emphasizes the word “compassion” while matched with a photograph of a marine feeding a girl with a spoon from his tin rations cup (seconds 30-32).  The image reappears in moving picture in “The Climb,” where it’s projected on the cliff face after a battle-charge scene and before the obligatory raising of the flag at Iwo Jima (seconds 21-23).

In terms of Marine Corps policy and doctrine, focus on humanitarian operations can be traced directly back to 1999 and General Charles C. Krulak’s article “The Strategic Corporal.”  Published during his last year as Corps Commandant, Krulak’s widely-disseminated essay addresses the challenges of post-Magadishu (read Blackhawk Down) “asymmetric” urban warfare. “Modern crisis responses are exceedingly complex endeavors,” Krulak wrote:  “within the space of three contiguous city blocks,” Marines may have to face “the overlapping missions of conventional combat, peacekeeping, and humanitarian aid.”  Distinct concern for marines’ capacity to engage rather than harm the populace also comes through in the The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Field Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2006), the “paradigm shattering” blueprint for transforming the tactics guiding the Iraq War.  Before that treatise, the duality of Marine Corps sensibility was caught in General Jim Mattis’s wartime tagline to the Iraqi people:  “We can be your worst enemy or your best friend.”

The notion of Marine Corps humanitarianism can be dismissed as extremely dubious—impossible to achieve, woefully disingenuous and hegemonic, a projection of force by other means.   This critical perspective informs my book project on the Marines and the optics of combat in the Iraq War.   The key point here is that today’s United States Marine Corps—a remarkably self-possessed institution—is deliberately trying to appeal to young American men (and women) through something more than its tried and true expertise in “killing people and breaking things.” Lest anyone doubt the Marines’ continued commitment to gung ho warfighting, however, the “Which Way Would You Run” recruitment commercial itself shows off its expanded capacity for hitting the beach in the second decade of the twenty first century.

“Which Way Would You Run” can be read as a showcase for MAGTF:  Marine Air Ground Task Force, the Corps’ optimal unit for expeditionary warfare.  While the commercial’s geographic location is nondescript, the operation clearly happens from the sea.  The Marines are “ready to respond, at a moment’s notice” (seconds 12-15), because it has the U.S. Navy to take them pretty much wherever they need or want to be.  With the help of the Navy’s aircraft carriers, along with the country’s airbases throughout the world, the Marines rely heavily on its own airpower.  The 2012 commercial exhibits every attack aircraft type in the Corps:  including F-18 and Harrier fighter jets, Cobra helicopters, and V-22 Osprey.  And marine ground forces are deployed from and across the sea, in this commercial at least, by helicopter, hovercraft, and amphibious landing vehicles.

Produced by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, “Which Way Would You Run,” while appealing perhaps to new interest in humanitarian service, effectively promotes the highly-distinctive Marine Corps brand.  A signature moment of the commercial comes with the marines literally hitting the beach:  after a few frames of dark screen, the door of a landing vehicle drops open, kicking up sand, with blue ocean in the background and marine infantry pouring out and heading inland (seconds 19-24).  (Compare this segment to “Pride of the Nation,” seconds 6-9).  Finally, the title of the commercial, “Which Way Would You Run,” appearing white on black at the end of the spot, amounts to a familiar Marine dare:  do you have the courage to run to chaos.  In absolutely the most positive light, it’s actually a double dare:  do you have the courage to run to chaos for the sake of helping others.

About John Pettegrew

John Pettegrew teaches U.S. history at Lehigh University. He is author of, among other works, Brutes in Suits: Male Sensibility in America, 1890-1920 (2007; paperback, 2012). His current project is entitled Light It Up: U.S. Marines and the Projection of Military Force in Iraq, 2003 − 2011 (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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