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One Marine Corps motto is First to Fight, and this essay is intended to give a glimpse of the culture of those who claim that right. A Marine buddy of mine and I were engaged in discussion today over the validity of the current war in Iraq. My friend, being a combat Marine by trade like myself (last decade) thought of the war in terms of its readiness value to the Marine Corps, even though he considered the reasons for going to war to be indefensible. He focused on how this experience would help pull the Marines out of their stagnation, and "weed out the pussies," a worthwhile endeavor, even if it was at the expense of immense volumes of human life. However, he was quite critical of, as he put it, "f-ing Cheney and f-ing Rumsfeld," whom he believed had only the intention to establish a regime in Iraq friendly to the U.S. that would allow us to set up bases to enhance our own strategic advantages in the Middle East. He was quite pessimistic that any of this could change, and spoke of our leadership with a bitter tone, as did most Marines that I served with in the 1990s.
Marines in my experience hate those who tell us what to do, but we love to fight, because that’s what we always train for. We don’t train to defend anything. We train to invade, then "locate, close with, and destroy the enemy," per Marine Corps mantra. Nowhere in that doctrine does it say, "defend non-combatant personnel," or "make sure not to kill civilians," or, "defend democracy and freedom for anyone, no matter what nationality, out of a love for those principals," or anything like that. No, we train to destroy the enemy, and enemy status is defined only by those who wish to prosecute war, but who have no interest in risking their own lives to do it. So, it didn’t surprise me one bit when my friend told me that although he doesn’t agree with the purpose of the war, that he was even more angry with the manner in which the war was being carried out: "Marines aren’t trained to fight with political correctness. We’re trained to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy, and that means that we should have gone in there and destroyed the entire country first, then built it up afterwards, installing people we trust." I responded with, "But, that works fine for the military mission, but what about all the millions of civilians who would die as a result of that policy?" Again, I was not surprised to hear my friend respond with, "Hey man, I got no mercy. I’m a Marine, you know what I’m sayin?" I said, "yeah, unfortunately, I do." Before walking away, he shook my hand and said, "good seeing you again, and good talking with you. It’s just too bad the powers that be have so much power, there’s no way to win against them." So there it was. The ultimate in Marine Corps mentality. If you can’t beat em, join em.
This mentality does not surprise me at all because I used to live with Marines as one of them, for four years. For those surprised by my friend’s position, for those wondering where this mentality is developed, I have no simple answers. I know there are plenty of civilians out there who believe the same way. After all, a good portion of the population still thinks the A-bombs dropped on Nakasaki and Hiroshima were humanitarian missions that saved American and Japanese lives by ending the war quickly, and just under half of all Americans are happy with the war in Iraq so far, despite the deaths of over 700 American soldiers and 10,000 Iraqi civilians (notice we never hear the amount of Iraqi soldiers killed, since their defense of their country was illegal from our point of view). I can say that for Marines, the mentality that runs our lives begins mostly in boot camp.
Still, there is something valuable to learn from the lack of shock to my friend’s comment (although I felt revulsion to the idea of my fellow Marines massacring millions of civilians). The fact that I was not shocked and that I would have been prior to becoming a Marine urges me to convey the mentality, as I see it, of those who are the first to fight on behalf of all Americans.
Below is an excerpt of a message I received from a Marine recruit who ditched boot camp to save his own humanity:
On Sept. 9th I left for MCRD San Diego with hopes of becoming a United States Marine. [Soon enough] things just seemed to continue in a negative path. I was of course shocked by the continuous use of the word "fuck" from the drill instructors all the while large banners hung on the walls speaking of the "character" and "integrity" of the Marines.
The drill instructors made it clear that the enemy was not simply Iraq, or Osama Bin Laden, but more and more it was taking an anti-Islam tone. It was now "us" and "them". Anyone who wanted to attend the Islamic service on Sunday was either looked at strange or ridiculed. I attended an Islamic service on several occasions out of curiosity and the feeling among the other recruits there was much the same. One recruit, of Palestinian dissent, said that a drill instructor remarked how he’d like to kill "your people". Hearing this and hearing one of my own drill instructors describe how he’d killed a "rag-head" in the gulf war really started my absolute revulsion of this institution I’d signed up for.
Every response was "kill", every chant we had, whether it was in line for the chow hall or PT was somehow involved with killing. And not simply killing the enemy, we had one just standing in line for chow which was "1, 2, 3, attack the chow hall (repeat) Kill the women, Kill the Children, Kill, Kill, Kill ‘em All". Constantly using the term "kill" as though it meant nothing was used to desensitize the recruits to the notion of killing and it’s implications. On top of that, we watched some awful propaganda film which started out as a 9/11 memorial with music (proud to be an American), and pictures of the World Trade Center, then quickly switching to Afghanistan and combat footage whilst Metallica’s "For Whom the Bell Tolls" blasted through the speakers. This happened much to the delight of my fellow recruits and was encouraged by the drill instructors.
(A former marine recruit, 2002)
This recruit must represent the type of person my friend referred to above as "pussies" who must be "weeded out." There is no room for conscience in the Marine Corps. You become government property. You are not you, any more. You are theirs, and that’s what you signed up for, so don’t even think about bitching about it.
March 1995. The day I came home from boot camp, my friends had thrown me a coming home party. I hadn’t drunk a beer, had contact with a woman, danced, or had any fun in three months, so one would imagine that once these opportunities arose I would be raring to go. Well, not one hour into the party, around 9:00 p.m., I had finally broken down and gone back into my room to give a good shine to my boots for the next day of boot camp! It had been bothering me ever since I came in the door an hour earlier, and shining my boots helped me to relax in what was now a foreign environment, my own home. I had become so brainwashed that fun became negative, and uniform maintenance was my top priority at 9:00 p.m. It wasn’t until several of my friends found me and talked me down from the ledge of insanity, reminding me that boot camp was over, and that I had forty friends waiting to celebrate with me, that I was able to leave my desolate tomb of brainwashedland for a few hours with the help of my good friends Guinness and Bass.
April 1995. My brother had picked me up on base and drove me up to Anaheim to meet up with some high school friends to go to Disneyland. An incident the next morning, to which I reacted with my new-found Marine personality, estranged me from a good friend. I remember speaking in the familiar cuss-filled tongue characteristic to Marines, but it didn’t bother me at the time because I felt so self-righteous about my military service that I knew I had the right to cuss if that was what it took to "defend" America and the world. This bothered my friend, who being a civilian wasn’t used to that type of crude language on such a scale, so he commented that I cussed more than anyone else he’d ever known, and that it symbolized poor intelligence. He wasn’t calling me stupid. He was reminding me how I sounded. I immediately became overwhelmed with the desire to leap across the table and stab my good friend in the eyes, neck, and face repeatedly with my fork. I resisted only because I felt it would be an act "unbecoming a U.S. Marine", and strangely the thought of murdering my long time friend did not seem unsavory.
I suppressed my killer instinct, so fine-tuned over the past months, and enjoyed my meal, but the matter could not be laid to rest. I became obsessed with his comment. How dare he insult a U.S. Marine? Even while I defend his country while he sleeps, he has the audacity to question my language of all things? I would kill him if it didn’t conflict with serving my country. And there is where the double think mindset functions best for the government’s use of the military. That internal conflict that I felt as protector/killer tormented my thoughts and feelings throughout my service, but the very fact that I accepted the Marine ideology of protector/killer, which is a contradiction in terms, meant that powers that be had control over my entire being. But wait, wasn’t killing part of being a good, disciplined Marine, too? The definition of discipline in the Marine Corps is: "instant willingness and obedience to orders," and this refers to any orders, whether it be to kill or die for someone else. Since I hadn’t been ordered to kill my friend, I felt it was the wrong thing to do. In any case, being a protector/killer made it difficult to know which path to take and when. I knew that killing someone was wrong if not ordered to do so in combat, but it was difficult to resist wanting to kill anyone who I perceived to be disrespecting me because the consistent message in boot camp was that we were being trained to become remorseless killers, so I was often holding myself back from ending a person’s life.
Why is this killer instinct cultivated into the Marine psyche? Could this instinct be in every human being, but then just harnessed by the Marine Corps? Well, in my case I had never committed a violent crime before the service (or during or after), nor had I felt the desire ever to mutilate someone, but boot camp training instilled in me not just the ability to kill, but the lust to kill, and as strange as it sounds, they made it feel natural. Killing other human beings was the opposite of what we were brought up with. "Right" meant words, and "wrong" meant force. That is what the Marine Corps must tear down. In order to produce efficient killers, it must remove one’s inhibition against killing people, and insert the value of killing people, on command. How is this specifically done? The next installment of First to Fight Culture will elaborate.
CHRIS WHITE is a former Marine Sergeant who is currently working on his PhD in history at the University of Kansas. He served in the infantry from 1994-98, in Diego Garcia, Camp Pendleton, CA, Okinawa, Japan, and Doha, Qatar. He is also a member of Veterans for Peace. White is a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org