In his first birthday message as the Marine Corps’ top leader, the new commandant urged Marines to keep their high standards sacred and their “honor clean.”

The Marine Corps’ birthday, which marks the anniversary of the Nov. 10, 1775, effort to recruit the first Continental Marines in Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern, is a day of revelry for active duty Marines, Marine reservists and Marine veterans alike.

With the birthday season ramping up, Gen. Eric Smith, the top Marine leader, released the commandant’s birthday message Wednesday.

“(W)e ruthlessly adhere to our standards of excellence — Marine standards — as we know this will best prepare us for the wars of the future,” Smith said in the written message, which marks the Marine Corps’ upcoming 248th birthday.

Why the “ruthless” adherence to standards?

The idea is that an attention to detail and the close following of rules in garrison translate into a similarly precise approach on the battlefield, Smith previously has said.

“Our high standards are a prerequisite of professional warfighting, and how we keep our honor clean in the cauldron of combat,” Smith wrote in the message Wednesday, making a reference to the sixth line of The Marines’ Hymn. “They prepare us for the most difficult mission there is: fighting from and returning to the sea.”

“Most importantly they shape our unique Marine culture which is respected at home and across the globe,” he continued.

The birthday video, another Marine Corps birthday tradition, won’t be released until Nov. 1 or later, according to a Marine administrative message from September.

Smith, who became the acting Marine commandant in July and the official commandant in September, has made high standards a recurring theme of his messaging to Marines.

In the brief guidance to the force the general issued in August, he used the word “discipline” and “standards” five times each.

“In my 36 years as a Marine, the best units I have seen in combat were the ones that took pride in their high standards, rigorous training, and ironclad discipline,” Smith wrote in that guidance.

In recent years, some Marine leaders have stressed what they view as the need for Marines to focus on discipline.

Maj. Gen. David Furness in 2019 ordered the Marines of 2nd Marine Division to adhere to a detailed daily routine, including set times for hygiene and fitness. Furness previously told Marine Corps Times he made the strict rules because of out-of-regs haircuts, a snubbing by junior Marines, a report that a Marine wore pajamas to the chow hall in front of the commandant and “a hundred different” examples of lacking discipline.

Smith has discussed the responsibility to maintain the Corps’ reputation and standards since long before he became the No. 1 Marine in July.

Way back in 2005, as he prepared to make a second deployment to Iraq after being shot in the leg on his previous deployment, he told NBC News the Marine Corps’ reputation weighed on him more heavily than the possibility of getting shot again.

“We have a saying that the Marine Corps is like a little glass Christmas ornament, if you will,” then-Lt. Col. Eric Smith said. “You can drop it, but only once. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

“And the people who built the legacy that we live on, this eagle, globe and anchor, from Iwo Jima, they’re gone,” he continued. “You can’t apologize to them for soiling the reputation of the Marine Corps.”

Smith’s birthday message wasn’t all about standards, however.

The commandant made an oblique reference to the Corps’ sweeping modernization initiative Force Design 2030, stating, “in the interwar periods we train, we prepare, and we innovate.”

Started in 2020 under now-retired Commandant Gen. David Berger, Force Design has come under criticism from a group of retired Marine leaders. But the initiative largely has found approval within the Pentagon and Congress, and Smith has voiced his commitment to continuing and even accelerating it.

Smith also reflected in the message on the history that defines the Marine Corps: legendary figures like veterans Hershel “Woody” Williams, Pfc. Hector Cafferata Jr. and Sgt. Maj. Dan Daly, and conflicts ranging from World War I to the controversial war in Afghanistan.

Smith emphasized that the “first to fight” branch is different from the others, a sentiment often heard on the Marine Corps birthday, as well as on the other 364 days of the year.

“Most will never understand why we choose to attack when others do not, why we revel in being covered in mud, why we snap to attention when ‘The Marines’ Hymn’ is played, or why we say, ‘Ooh Rah,’” Smith wrote. “We understand it, and this message is for us, for the Marines.”

“Protect your fellow Marines and our shared legacy,” the commandant concluded. “Happy Birthday Marines!”

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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