Esprit de Corps


Ask a Marine what's so special about the Marines and the answer would be "esprit de corps", an unhelpful French phrase that means exactly what it looks like - the spirit of the Corps. But what is that spirit, and where does it come from?

The Marine Corps is the only branch of the U.S. armed forces that recruits people specifically to fight. The Army emphasizes personal development (an army of one), the Navy promises fun (let the journey begin), and the Air Force offers security (it's a great way of life). Missing from all of these advertisements is the hard fact that it is a soldier's trade to suffer and perhaps to die for his country, and to take lives at the risk of his own. Even the music of the services reflects this evasion. The Army's Caisson Song describes a pleasant country outing over hill and dale, lacking only a picnic basket. Anchors Aweigh, the Navy's celebration of the joys of sailing, could have been penned by Jimmy Buffet. The Air Force song is a lyric poem of blue skies and engine thrust. All is joyful and invigorating, and safe. There are no landmines in the dales nor snipers behind the hills, no submarines or cruise missiles threaten the ocean jaunt, no bandits are lurking in the wild blue yonder.

The Marinesí Hymn, by contrast, is all combat. We fight our country's battles, first to fight for right and freedom, we have fought in every clime and place where we could take a gun, in many a strife we've fought for life.

The choice is made clear. You may join the Army to go to adventure training, or join the Navy to go to Bangkok, or join the Air Force to go to computer school. You join the Marines to go to war.

By signing the enlistment contract grants no status in the Corps either. The Army recruit is told from his first minute in uniform that "you're in the Army now, soldier". Navy and Air Force enlistees are sailors or airmen as soon as they get off the bus at the training center. The new arrival at Marine Corps boot camp is called recruit, or private, or worse (much worse), but not Marine. Not yet; maybe not ever. He or she must earn the right to claim the title, and failure returns you to civilian life without hesitation or ceremony.

My recruit platoon, Platoon 1710 at San Diego, California, trained from October through January of 1974. Earlier that year, in Vietnam the Marines were taking two hundred casualties a week. Yet our drill instructors had no qualms about weeding out a quarter of their 112 recruits, graduating only 69. Note that this was post-enlistment attrition; every one of those who were dropped had been passed by the recruiters as fit for service. But they failed the test of boot camp, not necessarily for physical reasons (at least two were outstanding high-school athletes for whom the calisthenics and running were child's play). The cause of their failure was not in the biceps or the legs, but in the spirit. They had lacked the will to endure the mental and emotional strain, so they would not be Marines. Heavy commitments and high casualties notwithstanding, the Corps reserves the right to pick and choose.

The normal boot camp was a twelve-week course of training. Chemical warfare training, swimming classes, hand-to-hand combat, close order drill, the ultimate discipline builder; marksmanship training, the heart of combat effectiveness; and classes on the history, customs and traditions of the Corps.

History classes in boot camp? Stop a soldier on the street and ask him to name a battle of World War One. Pick a sailor at random to describe the epic fight of the Bon Homme Richard. Everyone has heard of McGuire Air Force Base, so ask any airman who Major Thomas B. McGuire was, and why he is so commemorated. I am not nit-picking, and there is no scorn in this criticism. As it is, both my oldest children are active duty Navy as well as my new son-in-law. I canít say enough of how proud I am of them that they serve. All of the services have glorious traditions, the point Iím making is that no one teaches the young soldier, sailor or airman what his uniform means and why he should be proud to wear it.

But ask a Marine about World War I, and you will hear of the wheat field at Belleau Wood and the courage of the Fourth Marine Brigade. Faced with an enemy of superior numbers entrenched in tangled forest undergrowth, the Marines received an order to attack. It was insane. Artillery support hadn't been invented yet, so the Brigade charged German machine guns with only bayonets, grenades and a determined fighting spirit. A bandy-legged little barrel of a gunnery sergeant, Daniel J. Daly, rallied his company with a shout. "Come on, you sons a bitches! Do you want to live forever?" and they would have given him the Medal of Honor except for a technicality. He already had two. French liaison officers, hardened by four years of trench bound slaughter, were shocked as the Marines charged across the open wheat field under a blazing sun and directly into enemy fire. Their action was so outdated on a twentieth-century battlefield that they might as well have been swinging swords. But the enemy was only human; they couldn't stand up to this. So the Marines took Belleau Wood.

Every Marine knows this story, and dozens more. Stories that include names like Tripoli, Okinawa, Pelilu, Iwo Jima, Kae Shanh and most recently names like Falluja, Nasiriya, Najaf, and Tikrit. We are taught them in boot camp as a regular part of the training. Every Marine will always be taught them. You can learn to don a gas mask anytime, even on the plane en route to a war zone, but before you can wear the emblem and claim the title you must know of the Marines who made that emblem and title meaningful. So long as you can march and shoot and admire the legacy of the Corps, you can take your place in the line.

And that line is unified in spirit as in purpose. A soldier wears branch of service insignia on his collar, and metal shoulder pins and cloth sleeve patches to identify his unit. Sailors wear a rating badge that identifies what they do for the Navy. Marines wear only the eagle, globe and anchor, together with personal ribbons and their prized marksmanship badges. There is nothing on a Marine's uniform to indicate what he or she does, or what unit the Marine belongs to. You canít tell by looking at a Marine whether you are seeing a truck driver, a computer operator, or a machine gunner. The Corps explains this as a security measure to conceal the identity and location of units, but the Marines define that differently. No, the Marine is nebulous, even anonymous (we finally agreed to wear nametags only in 1992), and by conscious design. Every Marine is a rifleman first and foremost, a Marine first, last and always. You may serve a four-year enlistment or even a twenty-year career without seeing action, but if the word is given you'll charge across that wheat field. Whether a Marine has been schooled in automated supply, or automotive mechanics, or aviation electronics, is immaterial. Those things are secondary - the Corps does them because it must. The modern battle requires the technical appliances, and since the enemy has them, so do we. But no Marine brags perfection of them. Our pride is in our marksmanship, our discipline, and our membership in a fraternity of courage and sacrifice.

The Marines have become a wholly American institution -- like baseball players, cowboys, and astronauts -- in the eyes of most Americans. Marines indeed may be extreme, but America loves them, extremism and all. And fortunately for America, her enemies in the war against terror will continue to shudder upon hearing, "the Marines have landed."

"For the honor of the fallen, for the glory of the dead", Edgar Guest wrote of Belleau Wood, "The living line of courage kept the faith and moved ahead." They are all gone now, those Marines who made a French farmer's little wheat field into one of the most enduring of Marine Corps legends. Many of them did not survive the day. But their action has made them immortal. The Corps remembers them and honors what they did, and so they live forever. Dan Daly's shouted challenge takes on its true meaning - if you hide in the trenches you may survive for now, but someday you will die and no one will care. If you charge the guns you may die in the next two minutes, but you will be one of the immortals. All Marines die, in the red flash of battle or the white cold of a nursing home. In the vigor of youth or the infirmity of age all will eventually die, but the Marine Corps lives on. Every Marine who ever lived is living still, in the Marines who claim the title today. It is that sense of belonging to something that will outlive your own mortality that gives people a light to live by and a flame to mark their passing.

Marines call it esprit de corps.

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