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‘Devil Dog' term taking a beating

Apr. 27, 2008 - 01:59PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 27, 2008 - 01:59PM  |  
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Newer Marines are down on the term "Devil Dog," a moniker that had been a term of endearment for Marines since World War I.
Newer Marines are down on the term "Devil Dog," a moniker that had been a term of endearment for Marines since World War I. (Lance Cpl. Martin R. Harris / Marine Corps)
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Listen up, Devil Dogs. Oh yeah, that got your attention. Perhaps it even got your blood boiling? Or maybe you didn't notice the big double-D.

Lately, reactions to the Corps' longtime nickname generally depend on the age of the Marine listening.

A generational divide is opening around the term "Devil Dog," which came into use 90 years ago on the battlefields of France. While it's been a term of colloquial endearment for generations of leathernecks, some of the newest and youngest Marines say they're tired of being called Devil Dogs. They even take offense at the term.

That came as a surprise to former Staff Sgt. Glenn Kirst, a 34-year-old financial advisor in Milwaukee who joined the Corps in 1991 and spent 10 years on active duty. He was out shopping with his girlfriend a few weeks ago when the pair passed a Marine in the parking lot of a Best Buy store.

Kirst grinned and nodded at the Marine, sporting a "USMC" T-shirt and close-cropped hair as he walked with a girlfriend.

"I said ‘Hey, there's another Devil Dog,'" Kirst recalled. The Marine gave him a blank stare and the Marine's girlfriend got angry. "She started shouting at me. ‘Before you make a comment like that, why don't you grow some f---ing balls and serve your country.'"

"I was stunned," Kirst said. "I called my friend, who is a Marine captain in the infantry. He told me the term ‘Devil Dog' is not used much anymore, and is usually used in a negative manner. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

"When I was in the Corps, I used the nickname Devil Dog like a badge of honor."

Cultural shift?

Devil Dog has been a favorite Marine expression since the bloody Battle of Belleau Wood, a ferocious World War I engagement near Paris that also left the Corps with two of its most endearing quotes. "Retreat? Hell, we just got here," exclaimed Capt. Lloyd W. Williams, as the French fell back. Similarly, then-Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daly refused to let his men give up, shouting his motivating "Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?"

As legend has it, this determination to win led one German prisoner to tell his captors the Marines reminded him of "Teufelshunde," a German term translated as "devil dogs."

The Corps ran with it, using the term in a popular recruiting poster that pitted a big Marine bulldog against a tiny German dachshund, the weenie dog fleeing with his tail between his legs.

The strange — and seemingly sudden — shift in the meaning of the term has many Marines confounded.

"Just try dropping the compliment ‘Devil Dog' on anyone of any rank above [lance corporal.] You will get the stink eye of death. Just how this honorable moniker became derogatory, I have no idea," wrote "Blogger X," the pen name for a blog writer on the Marine Corps Reserve Web site, in February.

His post drew some speculation from other Marines.

"I think the backlash against ‘Devil Dog' does begin with the leadership. [Noncommissioned officers] (myself included) use the following phrase, ‘HEY, DEVIL DOG!' to initiate a ‘correction' when we don't know exactly who the Marine may be. Thusly, hearing the phrase Devil Dog creates a negative Pavlovian response in Marines. As they come up in the Corps, the response stays," one Marine wrote.

"We may be proud of the name, but nowadays it does carry a connotation of condescension."

One Marine major agreed that the new negative connotation stems from discipline. "It's a preface to getting your ass chewed," he said.

Sgt. Maj. John Estrada, who served as the Corps' top enlisted Marine until his retirement last year, agreed that the term Devil Dog is "evolving."

"I don't think it resonates well with today's young Marines. Some folks had issues with it," Estrada said in a recent interview. "The young Marines did not understand the tradition and history of the term ‘Devil Dog,' and they just reacted to it differently. The Marines you have to today, it's just a different generation and maybe they don't look at the term being used the same way."

Love it or hate it

A quiet debate about the connotations of Devil Dog is underway on Wikipedia, a popular — but not always factual — online encyclopedia where anyone can log in and edit individual articles. The entry for Devil Dog has changed frequently in recent months. Earlier this year, the entry explicitly said: "To call a U.S. Marine a ‘Devil Dog' is considered derogatory."

"It is considered a diminutive, and is considered mildly insulting when used by a peer or slightly senior Marine. Its use is most common at the Marine Corps [School of Infantry], where it is the standard term of address for students."

That was changed, however, by an anonymous editor a few weeks ago. On March 16, the Devil Dog article was revised to say that the term "was once" considered derogatory, but "now it is far more acceptable."

To be sure, the term is not completely lost. The Corps still sanctions its use in many ways. There's Camp Devil Dog at the School of Infantry-East near Camp Lejeune, N.C. Marines in California host a race dubbed the "Devil Dog Duathalon." The Military Order of the Devil Dogs is celebrating 75 years.

Eric Reust, a former Marine who runs the Odyssey Tattoo shop in Jacksonville, N.C., said he's still inking more than 100 Devil Dog images a year with no noticeable decline. "Marines are still comin' in, ooh-rah, and they get the globe and anchor or a devil dog," Reust said.

Charles Melson, the Marine Corps' chief historian, said he was unaware of any new negative connotation to Devil Dog.

"It's situational," Melson said. "If the first sergeant says ‘Hey, Devil Dog,' then it's the same thing as saying ‘Hey, slick.' But if it's between Marines of equal rank, it doesn't have the same meaning.

"To me, Devil Dog would refer to a ferocious nature, a fighter, someone who would never give up."

Instead, the phrase is often used to replace "hey, stupid" or worse. It's not the first time in recent years that junior service members began taking offense at a generic term typically used in disciplinary settings.

The Navy has had a similar problem with the term "shipmate." Once a generic term for a fellow sailor, it is now perceived by many to be derogatory. That stems from some chiefs using it during corrections, "Get that rack squared away, shipmate!" or "What the hell did you just say to me, shipmate?" The junior enlisted sailors in turn use "shipmate" sarcastically with their peers.

Last year, senior Navy officials grew concerned about the evolving use of the term "shipmate" and laid plans to reclaim it for general use. In October, they announced an essay-writing contest on the topic, "What being a shipmate means to me."

A goal for the contest is to "remove the negative stigma," said Command Master Chief Tom Howard, Pacific Fleet's top enlisted sailor, in a prepared statement.

Evolution, not revolution

Maybe the waning popularity of Devil Dog reflects how distant the World War I story may seem to junior Marines. Recruiters often note that today's junior Marines are as removed from WWI as the so-called "Greatest Generation" was from the American Civil War.

"A lot of them don't know their history," Melson said.

Perhaps Devil Dog is, in some ways, politically incorrect. Resistance to it may stem from a "growing sensitivity about the use of pejorative terms," said Mady Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland.

Words come and go. Estrada pointed to the phrase "gung ho," popularized during World War II by a Marine officer who worked with the Chinese Army.

The original meaning was "to work together." But over the years, it took on an ironic connotation, suggesting excessive enthusiasm or overzealousness. Now, it's rarely used by Marines at all.

"Devil Dog, I think, that's kind of fading away also." Estrada said. "This is all part of an evolution. Look at how our leaders are today. It used to be that you'd be scared to go see your first sergeant or your sergeant major. Today, leaders are more open-minded, more approachable. The leadership had to adjust.

"In order to be effective leaders, you have to adjust to your audience, use different techniques in order to reach them and lead them properly."

However, Estrada added, "We need to be careful and don't get away from our history."

History's not always junior Marines' top focus, and sometimes they just get tired of feeling like some boot who just arrived at the recruit depot. To those Marines, "Devil Dog" doesn't evoke a storied battle on the Western Front so much as a stern NCO.

"Usually when it's coming from them, it's because you did something wrong," said one lance corporal based at Camp Lejeune. "We prefer to be called by our ranks."

———

Staff writer Trista Talton contributed to this report.

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