An examination of Holland Smith's career in the Marine Corps follows its evolution from an insular constabulary at the turn of the 20th century to a juggernaut, landing American troops island by island in vital amphibious engagements up to 1945. Serving in important assignments from the Philippines to China to Latin America, Smith became deeply involved in the development of amphibious strategy and tactics, as well as in the creation of proper landing craft by the early 1930s. After Pearl Harbor, the Marines would turn to him to plan and lead operations in the Gilberts, the Marianas, and the Volcano Islands, culminating in the epic operation at Iwo Jima. Venzon details the life of this quiet, modest man who, she contends, deliberately cultivated the persona of an irascible, unreasonable perfectionist, in an effort to do everything possible to protect the Marines under his command.
Smith braved malaria and dengue fever in the Philippines, sailed through the backwaters of post-Manchu China, and fought in the earliest banana wars in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. After World War I, he was the first Marine to attend the General Staff College at Langres, and from then on became am important member of 4th Marine Brigade Staff, and later on the staff of the army's I Corps. Here, he learned that war in the new century would be as much about planning, logistics, communications, and intelligence as it was about brute force. Upon his return to the United States, he attended both the Naval War College and the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. By 1940, he commanded the First Marine Division. His deliberately explosive behavior, however, would ultimately push him out of the circle of legendary World War II leaders.