Thursday, January 12, 2012

Around Town: At what cost toughness?

In a recent column, Joe Puglia asks, “Are we too sensitive?” (“Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Sensitivity and Gabrielle Leko,” Nov. 24) He argues that “Brother Cyprian, my freshman English teacher, was a cross between Genghis Khan and Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

During our Starbucks meet-ups, Dr. Joe has described ethnic slurs, not only by Brother Cyprian, but by USMC drill instructors. Despite all that, Dr. Joe turned out OK. He got his education, earned a doctorate and started a family.

So I thought of Dr. Joe the other day when I learned this surprising fact. Dr. Joe’s commander in Vietnam compulsively hid his Jewish ethnicity.

The commander was General Victor “Brute” Krulak, USMC. He was Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. Krulak was my husband’s commander as well.

Krulak was famous within the Marine Corps. At five-feet, four inches in height, he was motivated and tough. The troops adored him. He had served as a China Marine, and then saw combat in World War II and Korea. In World War II, he was awarded the Navy Cross and the Bronze Star. He was smart and tactical, and was a visionary who is credited with saving the Marine Corps from dissolution after World War II.

Yet this brave man was afraid. Here was a man who looked death in the eye, but he was afraid of one thing.

For all of his adult life, Krulak claimed to be an Episcopalian with longstanding American roots. He said his grandfathers fought for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. All were lies.

The truth was that all four of Krulak’s grandparents were Orthodox Jews who emigrated to the U.S. from the town of Breslov (now Bratislava), about 100 miles from my grandparents’ town of Zvenigorodka, Ukraine. By hiding his background in a time of extreme prejudice, Krulak landed an appointment to the Naval Academy in 1930.

During his military career, Krulak continued to keep the secret. He distanced himself from his cousins. His wife was not Jewish. Two of his sons became Episcopalian ministers. The third, Charles Krulak, became the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Krulak’s biographer, Robert Coram, explains why Krulak hid his background. “It was enormously difficult to be Jewish in the Marine Corps at that time. It was an intensely traditional, biased environment. Jews in the Marines got no further than captain and were usually just driven out.”

The Marine Corps became “his new tribe.”

Krulak kept his secret to the end.

General Brute Krulak died four years ago today, on Dec. 29, 2008. He was 95 years old.

My question for Dr. Joe: the Brother Cyprians of the world may make us tougher, but at what cost?

Around Town: At what cost toughness?

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