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The Art of Military Bearing

Bearing is of the 14 Marine Corps Leadership Traits and describes the way one conducts or carries oneself. Since boot camp, this professional bearing is so engrained into a Marine's head that it becomes second nature. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga)

Marines put a lot of stock in bearing. One of the 14 Marine Corps Leadership Traits is defined as: “The way you conduct or carry yourself. Your manner should reflect alertness, competence, confidence, and control.”

| More: Read about all 14 Marine Corps Leadership Traits. |

Personally, I prefer the word comportment but it’s the same thing. A civilian friend once described it as an air of “… not to be %&@#!* with.”  It’s not about giving off a bad-ass vibe, though. Any thug can be a tough guy. A Marine should be firm, courteous, tactful and leave you with the impression that if the wolf came knocking he’d kick the wolf’s tail for you.

This seemingly small attribute can leave a lasting impression on those who witness it in action.

I’m reminded of when I was standing post on embassy duty in Madrid, Spain. One evening after normal hours an Air Force buddy who worked in the embassy mailroom stopped by Post One to ask about something. Post One is the main guard post at every American embassy where Marines provide security.  It provides a very visible Marine presence to anyone entering or exiting the chancery.

It was after hours and almost everyone was gone, so I had relaxed somewhat from the pacing tiger posture I normally adopted while on duty to leaning casually on the window ledge.  In contrast this could best be described as a loose bag of laundry posture.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the elevator doors. They suddenly opened and out came the Defense Attache Officer, a Navy captain. My instant transformation to the position of attention with crisp salute and proper greeting as the captain left for the day completely stunned the Air Force mail handler.

“Dude! How did you do that? You, like, totally uncoiled yourself in the blink of an eye!”

What to a Marine was a seemingly mundane event was a story this guy told for weeks afterward.

How do we teach it? I really don’t think there is an instruction manual on comportment, but institutionally the Marine Corps understands the importance of professional bearing.  I always tell Marines if they look squared away then they probably are squared away. If they look like a sloppy bag of smashed buttocks then it is likely they are exactly that. Perception is indeed reality.

I’ve heard more than one story from a Marine who joined because they were sitting in the office of one of our sister services until they saw the Marine recruiter swagger past. Their unanimous response to this was: “Wow! I wanna be like that guy!”

Go figure.

Semper Fidelis!
America’s Sergeant Major

(No Marines were hurt in the shooting of this photo)


Editor’s Note: Sgt. Maj. Michael S. Burke has served throughout the U.S. Central Command area of operations with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment and Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team (FAST) Company Bahrain. He currently serves as I&I sergeant major with 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment in Brook Park, Ohio. When not motivating Marines, he writes for his blog site,

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25 Responses

  1. Don McPheeters says:

    Bless you and your son, Kay. May God bless and keep all Marines.

  2. Scott Grow says:

    You make a very good point, Brother, but keep in mind the meanings and connotations of words and the difference between the two. The definition of “swagger” does indeed imply defiance and/or insolence, but the connotation suggests arrogance, and correct me if I’m wrong, but being arrogant is only REALLY arrogance if your ass can’t cash the check your “swagger” is writing. MOST Marines are good for it.

  3. Scott Grow says:

    Yeah, we follow orders because that’s our fucking job. They’re gonna send us whether we like it or not, and because we are honorable men and don’t want our Brothers to possibly die due to our disobedience, we obey. We trust that the Commander in Chief is making a sound decision based well informed intelligence and we go into other countries, spread hate and discontent by fire and maneuver, killing anyone who threatens death or serious bodily harm to us or our Brothers. However, all that having been said, when the Commander in Chief makes decision that ultimately cause the needless death of any of my Brothers, he no longer deserves my respect. Respect is earned. When in uniform, I respect the position because I have to, but I only respect the man in the position if he earns it. Its a very objective system and I’m sure there are plenty who disagree, but I say again, respect is earned.

  4. Leonard Wells says:

    Having the wherewithal to coin the term Pizza stain when refering to a NDSM Medal-Swagger

  5. Leonard Wells says:

    Thomas E. Ricks – 2007 – History… Sergeant Carey pulls a hanging thread—what the Marines call an “Irish pennant”—from the starched camouflage uniform of Tony Wells, a twenty-five-year-old …{Not As Lean, Still A Marine Always Faithful-Leonard E. “Tony”Wells}

  6. Brad Otto says:

    Yannick, By the time you re-read this I hope you are well on your way to becoming a Marine. I am glad that you feel you understand these Traits. But believe me, when you graduate you will have found a new definition of those traits you thought you knew. Good Luck and I hope to soon call you Brother.

  7. Jeff Miller says:

    OooRah devil dogs! I went in in ’84, 0811, 155mm Howitzer Battery C 1/12 K-Bay Hawaii…and have NEVER lost my bearing…civilians read it DAILY!! Navy Corpsmen recognize it from 100 meters…it NEVER goes away…and call it bearing, swagger or WTH EVER…WE have it in bucket loads…and I for one, am PROUD to swagger for my Marine Corps!! Arr Arr Arr!!!!

  8. Pargontwin says:

    My cousin was a Marine during the Viet Nam era.   He served in the Drum & Bugle Corps, so he never saw any actual combat, though he was in Viet Nam for a while.  When he came home, there was no perceptible personality change, except for the bearing.  He still has it to this day, nearly fifty years later.  They’re right:  There’s no such thing as an “ex”-Marine. 

  9. Usnsccjohnson says:

    i’ve always wanted to be a Marine and to prepare and hopefully be Marine material i joined the United States Naval Sea Cadet Corps and its brought me that much closer to my goal of being a Marine.

  10. Thomasjhamilton says:

    I am a former Marine and a current father, and I always knew that if I had to do either of those things in order to be a man, that would be pretty pathetic.  Of course, I was right.  Both of those things take a lot of sacrifice, but if you need them to make you a man, you are pretty pathetic.  There are plenty of great great men who were never fathers or marines.  So there, Tom Clancy.  Go write another dull book. 

  11. Gunny1369 says:

    I used to think when us Marines died we would guard the gates of heaven. Now I think the Lord has us on a rotation. Because he has to have someone guarding the gates of Hell also. And keeping the bad guys in. He would only trust that job to us. But I think even though it would be one of those bad duty stations. We ALL would do our tours with pride. Sleep peaceful and have nice dreams. We always have someone on duty.

  12. Richard Tores58 says:

    I know what you mean it’s bearing. I as an elisted was mistaken for having a higher rank. One time at kaneohe I was waiting for a friend. He had been told that there was a
    GunnySgt asking for him. Another time while disembarking off a ship overheard a sailor on the quarterdeck ask another Marine if I was one of their officers. I hope it’s carried on,still work with the military so mant years later.

  13. OohRah Mama says:

    Both my Marine sons, their father, their little brother & I are a PROUD Progressive Marine family. That you weakened a terrific article with your disrespectful, offtopc opinion is certainly your right. The fact that my family all disagrees with you is certainly our right. – OOHRAH MAMA

  14. shotgon5055 says:

    Mike your right cause ours is not to reason why ours is but to do or die.

  15. shotgon5055 says:

    could’nt have said it better!!!!

  16. Kevin Carleo says:

    Another former MSG showcasing his awesomeness!!!

  17. Ed says:

    I am 65 and served with units of the 1st Marine Division in 1966-67. Several veterans attended a July 4th event and, as the colors passed, we responded appropriately. Another gentleman nearby stepped over and shook hands with me and another fellow, commenting, “You two must have been Marines.” I nodded, “Yes, sir, we were and I guess we are still.” He smiled, “It’s obvious. Thank you for your service.” I make no comments about others, but I am acutely aware that my conduct, posture and bearing still reflects on the Corps. 

  18. Charles Kasmarek says:

    Bearing or Comportment (pun intended), we just can’t get away from the Naval terminology. Outstanding scoop. G 2/6

  19. Gbnarmore says:

    What’s wrong with “Swagger,” Aequitas?  Why should Marines dispense with it?  

  20. Don says:

    I was never much for putting “airs”.  MCRD San Diego,  taught me to walk straight.  Eyes straight ahead, 6 to the front 3 to the rear.  Thirty inch step.  If I maintained that stature, is that swagger, I don’t know. About fifty years ago.  I always got be out front of the formation because I’m vertically challenged. If I told strangers I was a Marine some would say aren’t you too short?    At 65, I’m as much a Marine as I was at 17.   Once upon a time, at Camp Pendleton,as a mere private I came upon a young officer passing in the other direction, I was heading back from the PX, carrying my goodies.  I will admit I tried to look away.  As we were nearly parallel I transferred the bag to my already full left hand, and snapped a salute and greeting ,”good evening sir”.  Whew!  Skated on that one.  Then I heard from behind me, “Marine”!  Oh Oh, Turning around I came face to face with an angry second lieutenant.  All I could see were the two gold bars on his collars.  You were not going to salute me, were you?  I stumbled through excuse after excuse till all collapsed. I admitted I was lax in my courtesy, comportment or swagger, whatever it was and I got good reaming, and turned loose.  We don’t forget stuff like that.  And there is a lesson in every occasion like that one. I think Marines stand out from the rest, and bootcamp has a lot to do with that. So.  How people see you and how we see ourselves, well…     It’s all according to your perspective.  DMC

  21. Jeff Hendricks says:

    That sentiment in combination with your Comedian in Chief picture shows why you aren’t worthy of being a crap stain on the bottom of a Marine’s boot

  22. Jbbdjay says:

    “A Battalion of well trained and armed marines has done more for world peace than the entire United Nations”  Quoting P. J. O’Rourke

  23. Nightlyonewolf says:

    Nicely written Sergeant Major!  Well done!  Semper Fi brother.

  24. Veritas Aequitas says:

    Please get rid of the “Swagger” nonsense

  25. skf bearings says:

    A  cool blog.