Mar 28, 2007

An open letter to the Commandant 


As every Marine now knows, your new policy will soon be going into effect regarding tattoos. As a Marine who is tattoo-free and has no intention of getting one any time soon, my ability to get a tattoo on my lower arm after 1 April is of little concern to me. However, what does concern me is the policy itself.

Once upon a time, the judge would look at a young man and say “The Marine Corps or jail. Your choice.” Those days are thankfully long gone, but the fact remains that the Corps has always prided itself on being more rough-and-tumble than the other services. Marines are supposed to be the “door kickers” - the shock troops who go forth and conquer when the mission must be accomplished at the loss of life and limb. We are born of tougher stuff. The few. The proud.

At the heart of this image stands the individual Marine. Rough. Intense. Coarse. A warfighter to his very core. Like the Celts of old, he dons warpaint for battle. Like warriors throughout the ages, he sometimes adorns himself with tattoos of the victories he’s taken part in, and comrades he’s lost. In approximately 72 hours from this typing, that image will begin to slowly be put out to pasture, just like the words of that judge, in the name of protecting our “professional demeanor and the high standards America has come to expect from us.” Respectfully, sir, I think nothing could be more wrong.
“The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!”
Those words, spoken by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, sum up the many contradictions embodied by Marines. They are professional, while uncouth. They are destructive, while protective. They are hard, while amiable. In short, they are everything America expects them to be. Mostly, they are there when America calls, and for the most part America doesn’t much care what they look like. Marines come in every color available, but at our core, we’re all green. Over the past decades our Corps has grown better educated. In public we conduct ourselves with the utmost professionalism and respect. At war, we destroy the enemy and defend freedom. And that is what I believe America expects of us, sir.

I have heard older Marines tell even older tales of Iraqis (in the Saddam era) or Koreans (both North and South) whispering in hushed tones that tattoos on a Marine were there to commemorate different individuals he had killed. Of course, these stories of the Marine as bogeyman were untrue, but not without merit in combat. Anything that makes the enemy wary to engage is worthwhile. Is losing the psychological effect that some skin ink may have on the enemy worth protecting our “professional demeanor?” I cannot answer that, but I know what psychological effect it’s having on Marines.

Right now, many Marines are adding this to their own personal lists of reasons why they will not be reenlisting. It’s something small, to be sure. But at a time when retention is of the greatest importance, little things matter. The Marine Corps intends to swell its ranks by over 20,000. At the heart of this increase will be holding on to Marines who are experienced and can train the next crop of up and coming youngsters. Some of those Marines are tattooed. In fact, I’d wager a great many are. Furthermore, this policy will turn away able-bodied, willing Americans who want to join the Corps simply because they have too much ink on their arms or legs. Not because it is offensive, not because it breaks good order and discipline, not because it’s even somewhere that could be considered distracting (such as the face or neck). These policies are already in place and are not in dispute. But to tell someone who could be a brilliant leader of Marines “go away” simply because they went and got themselves inked up extensively between the elbow and wrist seems somewhat odd.

While this policy may be changed by some future Commandant, as we all know, decisions a Commandant makes typically long outlast his tour of duty. They set a direction for the Corps and the Corps plows headlong on that azimuth, and that’s exactly how it should be, to my mind. But I have spoken to a few Marines who were attached to 1st Marine Division when you were the Commanding General there, sir, and they have informed me that you showed a great disdain for tattoos – basically ALL tattoos. I know it would upset a great many Marines if this policy stemmed more from your own personal dislikes rather than what might or might not be best for retention, recruitment, motivation, and professionalism. You have said that “tattoos of an excessive nature do not represent our traditional values.” With respects, sir, I think those tattoos very well represent our traditional values. They express free speech, pride, and a warrior ethos that strikes fear into the hearts of our enemies and projects the image that Americans think of when they hear the word Marine. Professional, while uncouth. Destructive, while protective. Hard, while amiable.

In short, sir, we go to excess in everything we do because we ARE Marines. And while that may not need to be encouraged, I do not feel it should be stifled.

Very Respectfully & Semper Fidelis,

A Marine

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