The slogan of “Death Before Dishonor”, frequently written in a coiling scroll wrapped around a dagger, is a perennially popular military tattoo–and for good reason. The saying has been used for military units at least as early as ancient Rome (“morte prima di disonore”). By the time of the famed Roman senator and historian Tacitus (AD 56 to ca. 117), the vow of “death before dishonor” had become ‘old-fashioned’ and something espoused by the barbari or barbarians such as Caratacus (chief of the British, who revolted against Rome). However, some two centuries earlier it was Catiline (108 to 62 BC), the Roman politician who attempted to overthrow the Roman Republic, who had urged it and Cataline may even have been influenced by Thucydides (the Greek historian of 460 to 395 BC who wrote about the Peloponnesian War). However, the famous concept of death as preferable to dishonor, if not the actual phrase, is not restricted to the western world. For example, it was also advocated in the Japanese bushido code of samurai warriors who would rather die than live with the dishonor brought on by surrender. Even as late as the 1970s, Japanese soldiers of World War II such as Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onada were still being discovered on Pacific islands where word of the end of the war had never reached them.
However, there was also a concept in Greco-Roman and later European traditions that a virtuous woman would do anything possible, including killing herself or engineering her own death, to avoid rape. The ermine, because of the myth that it would prefer death rather than soil its pure white coat, became associated with this phrase. This animal appears on coats of arms as the emblem of knights who would perform any unpleasant deed and suffer any hardship, including death, rather than stain their reputation and conscience.
Ironically, the “death before dishonor” tattoo has occasionally been singled out for criticism. In his 1968 paper, “The Relationship of Tattoos to Personality Disorders”, published in the The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, Richard Post notes that another study had surveyed prison inmates with the “death before dishonor” tattoo and found that, if these prison inmates had been in military service, they had all been dishonorably discharged. That finding led him to conclude that “It is reasonably safe to assume that there is some correlation between this particular tattoo pattern and the ability to adjust to the armed services, expressed by some form of deviancy which caused their discharge under other than honorable circumstances” (p. 521). However dated the material might be, it seems odd (to say the least) that the total population for the study was taken solely from prison inmates. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that convicted criminals would have had a high rate of less than honorable discharges? Where is the study which polls all outgoing military people with the “death before dishonor” tattoo? Or the study which examines the prevalence of this tattoo outside of military service? We might even begin to wonder if military honors might not be positively correlated with tattoos that espouse the types of sentiments implied by the “death before dishonor” tattoo such as camaraderie, courage, esprit de corps, sacrifice and service.
In the example at right, based on an illustration by tattoo artist Greg James, the “death before dishonor” tattoo is done in the Classic Americana style of earlier eras, with its bold colors and lines and relatively dark shading. Also in Classic Americana style, the design itself hints at patriotism with the use of the bald eagle. The heart, often described as the seat of human emotion, is not only topped with the eagle, it is pierced by the dagger. The dagger (ornamented here with jewels and a leather grip), of all the symbols used in this design, is probably the one seen most often with this motto, carrying with it a sense of seriousness, danger, and even (of course) death.