America Needs More Marine Corps Values
A half a century ago, I spent the longest 13 weeks of my life at an out-of-the-way place called Parris Island, S.C., then and now the home of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
We were strangers who arrived there in the middle of the night and were immediately relieved of all our civilian clothing and possessions — including our hair. Standing there confused, apprehensive and bald, I remember asking myself over and over: What the hell am I doing here?
Then silently appeared in our midst a man in a starched uniform and polished boots brimming with self-confidence and a sense of command. This was the Marine drill instructor, the DI, who did not conceal his disgust with what he saw in us. I can still hear him that we were the sorriest collection of misfits and rejects he or anyone else had ever seen.
What followed was 90 days of splendid misery. Civilian habits, speech and attitude were marched and drilled and driven out of us. The DI was relentlessly democratic. He treated everyone on our platoon, 189, with equal contempt while double-timing us 12 hours a day from mess duty to the rifle range and back. He used his personal term of endearment to remind us, "Maggot, remember, you volunteered to be here."
Somehow after more than three months of no Cokes, no beer, no TV and not even a day off, the DI, by then our Ultimate Authority Figure, reluctantly conceded that just possibly, maybe someday, we might actually be Marines. The combination of joy, relief and pride was unmatched.
I was not a great Marine. I never saw combat. I got a lot more from the Marines than the Marines got from me. But I believe fervently that this nation today needs the values of the Marine Corps as much as the nation needs the Marine Corps.
Of course, honor, courage and commitment are always in short supply. But the Marines teach personal responsibility and accountability by example, that any chain is only as strong as the weakest individual link. As a unit, we are stronger working together than the individual members can separately be.
Marines take care of their own — and they take care of their fellow Marines before themselves. The well-being of the country and of the Corps is more important than our individual well-being.
This may best be stated in the hard-and-fast Marine rule: "Officers eat last." The Marine officer does not eat until after his subordinates for whom he is responsible — the corporals and privates — have been fed. Marines live by the rule that loyalty goes both up and down the chain of command. Would not our country be a more just and human place if the brass of Wall Street and Washington and executive suites believed that "officers eat last"?
The Marine ethic emphasizes responsibility to duty and responsibility to others before self. This is the very opposite of the unbridled individualism that elevates profit and personal comfort to high virtues. The selfish and self-centered CEO or senator who disregards and discards his loyal "troops" would be shunned in the Corps.
Civilian Americans must understand that the greatest civil rights victories have been won by the Marines and the U.S. military, the most successfully integrated sector of our national life. Why? No racial reference and no racial discrimination. The first time I ever slept in the same quarters with African-Americans or Latinos — or took orders from them — was as a private in the Marines Corps.
Yes, America really does need more Marine values and influence.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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