Gen. Jim Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
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When U.S. and NATO top brass gathered in Kabul to mark a change in the top leadership this month, all three American generals lined up on stage were Marines.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country, but for the second consecutive time, President Obama nominated a Marine to lead the war there. Joining the outgoing and incoming commanders on stage was Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, chief of the command that oversees all forces in the Middle East region.
Little noticed outside defense circles, it was a historic moment for the Marine Corps, a seagoing service whose humble beginnings were to provide security and landing parties for Navy ships.
"The Marine Corps is clearly punching above its weight," said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel and military history professor at Ohio State University. "This is a very unusual and singular moment in Marine Corps history."
The Marines are aware of just how singular it is.
With 195,000 troops, it is the smallest service of the armed forces, representing only 8 percent of the overall Defense Department budget. Until World War II, the Marines didn't have an active duty four-star general.
Today it has six four-star generals, a record number, serving in prominent positions around the world. Gen. John Allen, who stepped down as commander in Afghanistan, was the first Marine to command an entire theater of war.
The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, said it was not something that happened by design. "We've just got a string of very seasoned combat generals," Amos said in a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute.
Analysts agree, saying the Marine generals are chosen on an individual basis as commands have to be filled.
Still, they point to a couple factors that have contributed to the growing prominence of the Marine Corps: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan played to the strength of Marine officers, and the emphasis on joint commands means Marines have more opportunities to take jobs outside their service.
The joint commands "got the leadership the recognition that it has deserved," said Walt Ford, editor of Leatherneck magazine and a retired Marine colonel.
The success Marines have had in top positions may also have something to do with their leadership training, Mansoor said.
"I think there is something about how Marines approach professional military education that produces officers with a broad view of the world and who are flexible and can deal with the very different challenges of the type of wars we're fighting today," he said.
"With a few exceptions, the Army tends to breed good company men," Mansoor added.
The Marine Corps is as much a mindset as it is a set of capabilities. The service bills itself as an expeditionary force, able to get to hot spots fast with lots of firepower. But its reputation is built on something less tangible: fighting spirit, or what Marines call esprit de corps.
"Marines don't celebrate their technology to the same extent as the Navy and Air Force," said Aaron O'Connell, a Marine reserve officer and author of "Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps."
That spirit may have made the Marines more insular in the past, but today it has helped them rise to prominent positions as the United States battles irregular enemies far from its shores.
"I think the Marines have a cultural advantage over the other services when it comes to dealing with chaos and uncertainty," O'Connell said.
The rising prominence of Marine leaders has not gone unnoticed by the other services. "There is a big competition for the U.S. commands," Ford said.
The Marine Corps is particularly sensitive to competition from the other services, which in the past have been behind efforts to eliminate or shrink the corps. The Marine Corps has survived 20 such attempts since its founding in 1775, O'Connell said.
The Corps' popularity on Capitol Hill and among the American public has always saved it, but that history has infused Marines with a healthy dose of paranoia. "The Marine Corps more than any other service is forever vigilant to threats to its existence," O'Connell said.
Even today Marines worry about getting complacent. "Most Marines look at it as a bubble we won't see again for a long time," Ford said of the record number of four-star generals.
In fact, upcoming retirements will likely reduce the number of Marine generals. Allen announced this week that he plans to retire, turning down a nomination to be the top NATO officer in Europe. Allen's likely replacement is Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, The Associated Press reported, citing an unnamed senior NATO official.
Mattis will step down as chief of Central Command and will be replaced by an Army general, the Pentagon has said.
Still, analysts say the Marine Corps can finally let go of its fears.
"The Marine Corps should not worry about its organizational survival," Mansoor said. "The American people have embraced it as an institution."