Paul Greenberg

Dear Ex-Marine,

It was wholly a pleasure to be told again that there is no such thing as an ex-Marine or former Marine -- because once a Marine, always a Marine. The same principle applies to judges, physicians and military officers. Semper Fi and all that -- always faithful.

But what about those Marines who aren't always faithful? How else refer to, say, Lee Harvey Oswald except as a former Marine? What happens to those Marines who are court-martialed and dishonorably discharged? Surely they are ex-Marines -- and deserve to be.

The phrase you object to appeared in an obituary tribute I paid to Punch Sulzberger, the late great publisher of the New York Times before it became an ex-great newspaper. Capt. Sulzberger always acknowledged the formative, even transformative, effect that the Corps had had on his life. Whether he considered himself a Marine or ex-Marine, I don't know. I suspect he had other things to think about.

But it's always good to hear an ex-Marine claim there's no such thing as one. It shows a certain esprit de corps. Lord knows the country needs as much of that spirit as we can still summon.

I grew up hearing the phrase, "Tell it to the Marines." Translation: "I don't believe you." Or maybe: "Quit your griping. It's not going to do you any good."

The phrase is said to have originated with the English -- so many English phrases do. (Which figures.) It was a reference to the Royal Marines. The full expression, complete and unabridged, is supposed to have been, "Tell it to the Marines because the sailors won't believe you."

Many a sailor today may not take the Marines' talk all that seriously, either. But talk isn't what gives the Marines their credibility. It's their actions. They don't need this business about there being no such thing as an ex-Marine to enhance their reputation. It's been well established since the Halls of Montezuma and, before that, the Shores of Tripoli.

The Marines also led the Chosin Few in Korea who broke through Chinese encirclement in the 17-day saga known as the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, turning sure defeat into heroic victory. ("Retreat, hell! We're not retreating, we're just advancing in a different direction." -- Oliver P. Smith, General, USMC.)


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.