Mounting Up with Wings as Smitten Eagle: Ethos

This is the first post in an occasional series on learning to how to fly as a Marine.

I am a Marine pilot, and this is the journey I took after I earned my gold bars as a Second Lieutenant of Marines to become a Marine aviator.

In this post I will address the ethos of the Marine aviator.

Marines are Marines first. Being a Marine is synonymous with being a Rifleman, and being a Marine Officer implies being a Provisional Rifle Platoon Commander first. Secondarily Marines whatever their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS–their day to day job). Therefore I’m a Marine Officer first. A pilot a distant second. Go ahead and take away my aviator’s wings, so long as I can keep the Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem of the Marine.

This ethos is not common to all military aviators. Many Navy aviators are pilots first. Indeed, even enlisted sailors of are known by their Rate–their job. A Marine is a Marine, and you may address him as such, or perhaps by his rank. A sailor is a Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class, or a Quartermaster 2nd Class, or perhaps a Signalman Chief Petty Officer. A sailor is his job first.

Next, the Marine aviator is almost completely oriented toward supporting the Ground Combat Element–that unit of infantrymen reinforced with tanks, artillery, amphibious assault vehicles, etc. The premier missions for the Marine aviator are Assault Support–carrying Marines and their stuff, and Air Support–dropping bombs and shooting guns in support of those ground Marines. Marine aviators also do other missions–aerial reconnaissance, anti-air warfare, electronic warfare, and command & control missions, but their heart is being there when it counts to help out the Lance Corporal with a rifle.

The Marine Corps is expeditionary in nature. This is an outgrowth of the role played by Marines as essentially colonial infantry, and being a force in readiness able to deploy at a moment’s notice. This attribute is expressed in a “Bag’s Packed” mentality, meaning that on an individual level, the Marine awaits only orders to march. I have spent many days on a 24-hour recall tether to maintain the required level of readiness. In 2004, my unit went from duty in garrison to conducting combat operations north of Kandahar in 19 days. Imagine yourself playing croquet in your backyard–and looking less than three weeks into your future at the peaks of the Hindu Kush. Yes, the Marine Corps can function as a second land army, but that is not where it’s strength lies.

The Marine Corps is Naval in character, and therefore Marine Aviators are Naval Aviators. (As an aside, the Marines are a separate Naval service that reports to the Secretary of the Navy. Marines do NOT work for the Navy–at least on an organizational level. There may be Marines assigned to Navy units, and there are Sailors assigned to Marine units. But those Marine units are not administratively responsible to any Navy Admiral.) The Marines are a Naval service, not a Navy service. This means that we ought to get used to the confines of a troopship, understand Naval lingo, and remember that sea duty is a Marine duty. I personally have transited the Suez Canal, and visited perhaps a dozen Mediterranean ports. I have practiced amphibious assaults, and have coordinated naval guns firing at land-based targets.

I would summarize the Marine ethos as being:

  • Rifleman First, and oriented toward supporting the Rifleman
  • Expeditionary in Nature
  • Naval in Character

Instilling this ethos requires the proper training prior to flight school, and that is the role of The Basic School (TBS), in Quantico, Virginia.

TBS is a post-commissioning school that imbues the Marine ethos into the officer corps, giving each officer a common starting point, and inculcating specific Marine attitudes, doctrine, tactics, and procedures. Just as importantly, it allows Marine officers to get to know each other, and lends confidence that no matter the MOS of that officer–he could be a box-kicking Supply Officer, that he will be able to at least be familiar with the problems, virtues, vices, and strengths of ground combat.

Officer Candidates School and the Naval Academy provide the bulk of the new Lieutenants to TBS, although the purpose of these commissioning sources is not to instill the ethos and doctrine of the Marines; rather they are screening processes to ensure only quality officers are commissioned into the Marines.

The TBS curriculum imbues the Marine ethos through cultural immersion in an austere, warrior like setting. Newly minted Lieutenants are organized into companies, which break into platoons, sections, squads, and teams for sand table exercises, field problems, and Tactical Evolutions Without Troops. Approximately one third of the instruction is in garrison, and the remainder is in the field, so there is a significant about of time of marching with a pack, digging fighting positions, and employing weapons from the M-16 through the M2 .50 Cal machine gun. All Marine officers learn to call for artillery and mortar fire, and are given cursory training on employment of aviation. Land navigation is done with a map, compass, and pace counts. It is a demanding course–it is not uncommon to have higher-ranking junior officers, like First Lieutenants, from allied countries go through the TBS Basic Officer Course as their advanced infantry training course.

Following TBS the young Marine officers continue to more specialized training for their particular MOS, and ultimately will move to a unit in the operating forces, such as an infantry battalion, helicopter or fighter/attack jet squadron, or perhaps a logistics battalion. The next stage for most*** future Marine aviators is Introductory Flight Screening, and Aviation Preflight Indoctrination at Naval Air Station Pensacola. And that is where I will begin the second part of this occasional series.

*** Some Marine Officers may serve a tour or two as a ground officer, and then apply to flight school later. These officers typically go through flight school as senior First Lieutenants and Captains, and are relatively rare. Typically less than five such officers are selected for this coveted assignment each year.

Recommended Reading:


Videos: (With a hat tip to Blue Falcon, whoever you are. Blue Falcon’s videos are a bit tongue-in-cheek, but provide a fairly good view into what activities are involved at The Basic School.)

7 thoughts on “Mounting Up with Wings as Smitten Eagle: Ethos”

  1. Marines are Marines first. Being a Marine is synonymous with being a Rifleman, and being a Marine Officer implies being a Provisional Rifle Platoon Commander first.

    I think the unique culture of the Marines derives from the roles they played during the days of sail. Most marine action in that day was carried out by small detachments of marines from individual warships rowed ashore anywhere in the world where they were expected to fight and win against overwhelming odds.

    Given the small numbers of Marines available on any ship, every Marine from the cook to the senior officer needed to be able to fight on the front line. This grueling reality created a powerfully egalitarian culture. By contrast, the culture of the Army and Navy evolved out of the class structure of medieval Europe.

    Marines are uniquely attuned to local conditions and customs. They intuitively seek out ways to leverage the local conditions with the small amount of force available to them.

  2. Shannon–All good points.

    Another thing…Marines are prickly, and have a reputation for not “playing well with others” when it comes to working with the other services. Part of this probably stems from a self-conception of Marines being “elite” (that point is arguable). Part of that also reputation certainly stems from attempts to abolish the Marine Corps by other agents of the executive branch. Such agents have included at different times the Army, Navy, and Air Force, several Secretaries of War/Defense, and several Presidents.

    The most recent large battle to abolish the Corps occurred in 1949, when the Truman administration, in collusion with the Army and nascent Air Force attempted to abolish the Corps outright, and having lost that battle, attempted to man it at such low levels that it wouldn’t be of any consequence. The Corps made an impassioned appeal to Congress, and Congress later mandated a Marine Corps of a specified strength in Title X of the US Code. Each attempt at abolition has historically been parried by Congress.

    What are your impressions of the different armed services? Which has most prestige? The least? Why?

  3. From the grunt’s standpoint (mine), it is that ethos that makes the Corps. There isn’t a grunt anywhere in the Corps who has seen combat & does not carry a large debt of gratitude to the airdales. This will be fun to read.

  4. What are your impressions of the different armed services? Which has most prestige? The least? Why?

    Speaking as a lifelong civilian with friends serving in the military, I’d have to say that the Air Force is probably the most prestigious. This is due to the fact that fighter jets are considered to be the most advanced weapons in the US arsenal, although the Navy would certainly object to anyone suggesting that their ships are not cutting edge.

    The branch of our military with the lowest prestige has got to be the Coast Guard, mainly because of a mistaken impression that they always stick close to home and are little more than poolside life guards. I personally think that they are amongst the bravest, since it takes a certain kind of courage to leave a safe harbor and go to sea in the teeth of a hurricane in order to rescue some poor souls screaming for help on a foundering ship.


  5. I differ with James. I think the Marines have the most prestige. Who was it who said that the Marine Corps is to Blue Collar America what the Ivy League Universities are to White Collar America? I think that is correct. Service in the Marines is a badge on the person that is permanent and respected beyond the other services. The Marines are respected due to the well-known demanding training, and for their well-known warrior spirit. In an age that does not particularly respect warriors, those who do respect them believe that the Marines are the real deal.

    As to aviation, Naval flyers are, from what I have seen, the most prestigious.

    I think James is correct that fighter pilots are respected, but I do not think that prestige accrues to the entire air force.

  6. Smitten Eagle… so what’s the “Pappy” Boyington hazing ritual when you guys graduate?

    (for those interested in the… uhmmm, old school of Marine Corps aviation, here’s a link to Col. Boyington’s entry at

    (S.E., you’ll like the entry for it’s coverage of the debate over the Boyington memorial at the University of Washington…)


    A. Scott Crawford

  7. A. Scott Crawford-

    I remember that controvery brewing regarding the Boyington statue at the U of Wash a few years ago. I was so moved by the controversy back in 2006 that I wrote several personal letters to the personalities involved(including Ashley Miller and Jill Edwards). Of course the good, tolerant, liberal faculty and students of the esteemed univeristy didn’t even dignify me with an email response.

    The whole episode is a realy pity, and a reminder of the mush that’s fed to the minds in today’s schools–both public and private, seconday and post-secondary.

    And I don’t know anything about any hazing. That stuff is illegal.


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