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), the Air Force offers security (its a great way of life). Missing from all the advertisements is the hard fact that a soldier's lot is to suffer and perhaps to die for his people, and take lives at the risk of his/her own.
Even the thematic 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 land mines 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 Marines 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 have fought for life and never lost our nerve.
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 Marine Corps to go to War! But the mere act of signing the enlistment contract confers no status in the Corps. The Army recruit is told from his first minute in uniform that "you're in the Army now”, soldier. The Navy and Air Force enlistees are sailors or airmen as soon as they get off bus at the training center. The new arrival at Marine Corps boot camp is called a recruit, or worse, (a lot worse), but never a MARINE. Not yet, maybe never. He or she must earn the right to claim the title of UNITED STATES MARINE, and failure returns you to civilian life without hesitation or ceremony.
Recruit Platoon 2210 at San Diego, California trained from October through December of 1968. In Viet Nam the Marines were taking two hundred casualties a week, and the major rainy season operation Meade River, had not even begun, yet Drill Instructors had no qualms about winnowing out almost a quarter of their 112 recruits, graduating eighty one. 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 nor 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 not withstanding, the Corps reserves the right to pick and choose.
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 Thomes McGuire was, and why he is so commemorated. I am not carping, and there is no sheer in this criticism. All of the services have glorious traditions, but no one teaches the young soldier, sailor or airman what his uniform means and why he should be proud of it. But - ask a Marine about World War One, and you will hear of the wheat field at Belleau Wood and the courage of the Fourth Marine Brigade, fifth and sixth regiments.
Faced with an enemy of superior numbers entrenched in tangled forest undergrowth, the Marines received an order to attack that even the charitable cannot call ill - advised. It was insane. Artillery support was absent and air support hadn't been invented yet, so the Brigade charged German machine guns with only bayonets, grenades, and indomitable 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?" He took out three machine guns himself, and they would give him the Medal of Honor except for a technicality, he already had two of them. French liaison-officers, hardened though they were by four years of trench bound slaughter, were shocked as the Marines charged across the open wheat field under a blazing sun directly into the teeth of enemy fire. Their action was so anachronistic on the twentieth-century battlefield that they might as well have been swinging cutlasses, but - the enemy was only human; they could not stand up to this. So the Marines took Belleau Wood. The Germans called them "DOGS FROM THE DEVIL"