They call each other Devil Dog and let out rousing barks to boot. There's much male bonding in the foxholes and talk about willingness to die for the Corps.

The traditional self-image of U.S. Marines as lean, mean and magnificent is thriving in the Saudi desert, its shadings more a throwback to World War II than to the United States' last big conflict - Vietnam.Some Marines regard themselves as the allied answer to Iraq's elite Republican Guard - except far better.

And they assume that should a ground war begin, the first and most dangerous missions will fall to them.

In pursuit of their motto Semper Fidelis - Always Faithful - Marines have been called bullet stoppers, human mine detectors and gold medalists (posthumously) in javelin catching.

But how well the 90,000 Marines in the Persian Gulf live up to their impressive, 215-year-long martial record remains to be seen. Most are untested in combat.

"The first to go, the last to know," "The few and the proud," "The Marines take care of their own," "Once a Marine, always a Marine" and other adages are used here as unabashedly as many in the United States sing "God Bless America."

In contrast to the unquestioning and idealized precepts heard now that seem to a reflection of earlier times, veterans recall the Marine mystique as tinged with cynicism and doubt in Vietnam.

Not heard during that war were such greetings as "Good morning, Devil Dog," a term the Germans hurled at the Marines from World War I trenches.

"Don't mean nothin,' " a Vietnam War Marine might say to mask the pain of a comrade's death.

In the later stages of Vietnam, when draftees filled the normally all-volunteer ranks of the Corps, discipline sagged and declaring oneself a "lifer," or career Marine, could draw jeers.

"We had good guys in Vietnam, but we have a helluva lot better ones here," said Col. James K. Van Riper, a 35-year veteran who served two tours in that conflict.

Navy Cmdr. John Cusack, a psychiatrist who served in Vietnam with Marines, said they haven't changed much.

"Time seems to stand still in the Marines," Cusack said. "You go to some typical Marine town in the United States, and you think you're back in the days of the Roman legion."

From the first day of basic training, Cusack said, certain unchanging, core values are methodically instilled into every recruit. "The Marine Corps offers to build men, and they sign up to become a construction project," he said.

Recruits become "a band of brothers," an exclusive fraternity open only to those who manage the manly rites of passage, and being a Marine extends beyond retirement.

Letting down one's "brothers" is a cardinal sin.

"I'm afraid of dying. But the Marines have a mystique, and we're more afraid of not living up to that mystique," said Sgt. Ernie Grafton, of Kansas City, Mo., contemplating front-line warfare.

Cusack said Marines don't necessarily want to fight the ground war, "but some feel they would be robbed of glory if they didn't."

"The Marines are in love with the pageantry of battle, the pageantry of death," he said.