By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   November 29, 2022

The U.S. Marines have as their “Hymn” a song which at first celebrates their history, going back to the early 19th Century, with a reference to American military force being used (for the first time abroad) to subdue the piratical behavior of certain North African governments known collectively as the Barbary States (“The shores of Tripoli”).

The song then goes on to claim that the Marines fight for “Right and Freedom,” and adds, as a further justification for fighting, “To keep our honor clean.” This sounds like a noble sentiment – but what exactly does it mean? What is honor, and how do you keep it clean? In the past, it often had to do with violence, but on those occasions, it was an individual matter, usually a dispute involving only two parties, which was settled by means of a duel. And what was the disagreement about? It could be something relatively trivial, when somebody felt they’d been insulted or offended, probably publicly, since otherwise it would hardly be worth making an issue of.

So, the way to keep your honor clean was to literally fight it out. And, if this was to have any meaning, it must be with real weapons, entailing the risk of injury or even death. In most civilized countries, this practice became illegal centuries ago. After all, what were law courts for? Yet, for some reason, dueling was tolerated, if not sanctioned, even in supposedly enlightened societies like the new United States. The most notorious instance was the 1804 duel between a Secretary of the Treasury and a Vice President – something about public insults in the press – resulting in the death of Alexander Hamilton, and the permanent disgrace of Aaron Burr. But “honor” was satisfied – or was it?

Honor is not, strictly speaking, a matter of law. And yet, in the courtroom, the Judge (but nobody else) is addressed as “Your Honor.” It is a title of esteem, whether deserved or not, simply by virtue of a position one holds.

But is that what the Marines are singing about? Is it a matter of custom? In some of Hamlet’s first lines, he talks about a custom of which he disapproves (late night revels and carousing) as being “more honored in the breach than in the observance.” In other words, the honorable thing is not to do it. For the Marines, the honorable thing is to win the respect and esteem of others – even, or particularly, of the other military services. One way of doing this is by getting into action first. Traditionally, Marines are chosen for important or dangerous assignments, such as guarding government facilities. This explains the boastful tone of that “Marine Hymn’s” last stanza:

“If the Army or the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.”

Incidentally, the music of that “hymn” was borrowed, or stolen, from a French opera, Geneviève de Brabant, a work of Jacques Offenbach, who also gave us the “Can-Can.” I don’t know how honorable or dishonorable that would be considered. After all, our National Anthem came musically from an English drinking song. However, appropriating somebody else’s tune doesn’t seem to be considered as improper as plagiarizing their words.

But then there’s the “honor system,” as it prevails in many stores and eating establishments, where the customer is trusted to calculate the bill, and leave the correct payment. 

The same idea, of trusting people to be honest, also rules student behavior at various schools, and is particularly embodied in the “Honor Codes” of many military academies. Part of the code is that you are not supposed to lie, cheat, or steal – but the crucial part is that, if you know of one of your fellows misbehaving in that way, you have to turn him in. This, of course, is diametrically opposite to that other more traditional “code” which states that you don’t “rat” on a friend or associate, no matter how offended you may feel by their conduct.

This reminds me of an often-quoted statement by E.M. Forster, that “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

While I’m quoting, I might as well conclude with a couple of my own observations on this subject:

“All honor to those who do for money the work that nobody really wants to do.”

“Sometimes it’s an honor to be discovered – Sometimes it’s a disgrace.”  


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