I will never forget standing in formation after the end of our final “hump,” marine-speak for a forced march, at the end of the Crucible in March, 1997. The Crucible is the final challenge during Marine Corps boot camp and is a two-and-a-half day, physically exhausting exercise in which sleep deprivation, scarce food, and a series of obstacles test teamwork and toughness. The formidable nine-mile stretch ended with our ascent up the “Grim Reaper,” a small mountain in the hilly terrain of Camp Pendleton, California. As we stood at attention, the Commanding Officer made his way though our lines, inspecting his troops and giving each of us an eagle, globe, and anchor pin, the mark of our final transition from recruit to Marine. But what I recall most was not the pain and exhaustion that filled every ounce of my trembling body, but the sounds that surrounded me as I stood at attention with eyes forward.
Mixed within the repetitive refrains of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” belting from a massive sound system, were the soft and gentle sobs emanating from numerous newborn Marines. Their cries stood in stark contrast to the so-called “warrior spirit” we had earned and now came to epitomize. While some may claim that these unmanly responses resulted from a patriotic emotional fit or even out of a sense of pride in being called “Marine” for the very first time, I know that for many the moisture streaming down our cheeks represented something much more anguished and heartrending.
What I learned about Marines is that despite the stereotype of the chivalrous knight, wearing dress blues with sword drawn, or the green killing machine that is always “ready to rumble,” the young men and women I encountered instead comprised a cross-section of working-class America. There were neither knights nor machines among us. During my five years in active-duty service, I befriended a recovering meth addict who was still “using,” a young male who had prostituted himself to pay his rent before he signed-up, an El Salvadorian immigrant serving in order to receive a green card, a single mother who could not afford her child’s healthcare needs as a civilian, a gay teenager who entertained our platoon by singing Madonna karaoke in the barracks to the delight of us all, and many of the country’s poor and poorly educated. I came to understand very well what those cries on top of the Grim Reaper expressed. Those teardrops represented hope in the promise of a change in our lives from a world that, for many of us as civilians, seemed utterly hopeless.
Marine Corps boot camp is a thirteen week training regimen unlike any other. According to the USMC’s recruiting website, “Marine Recruits learn to use their intelligence . . . and to live as upstanding moral beings with real purpose.” Yet if teaching intelligence and morals are the stated purpose of its training, the Corps has peculiar way of implementing its pedagogy. In reality, its educational method is based on a planned and structured form of cruelty. I remember my first visit to the “chow-hall” in which three Drill Instructors (DIs), wearing their signature “smoky bear” covers, pounced upon me for having looked at them, screaming that I was a “Nasty Piece of Civilian Shit.” From then on, I learned that you could only look at a DI when instructed to by the command of “Eyeballs!” In addition, recruits could only speak in the third person, thus ridding our vocabulary of the term “I” and divorcing ourselves from our previous civilian identities.
Our emerging group mentality was built upon and reinforced by tearing down and degrading us through a series of regimented and ritualistic exercises in the first phase of boot camp. Despite having an African American and a Latino DI, recruits in my platoon were ridiculed with derogatory language that included racial epithets. But recruits of color were not the only victims, we were all “fags,” “pussies,” and “shitbags.” We survived through a twisted sort of leveling based on what military historian Christian G. Appy calls a “solidarity of the despised.”
We relearned how to execute every activity, including the most personal aspects of our hygiene. While eating, we could only use our right hand while our left had to stay directly on our knee, and our eyes had to stare directly at our food trays. Our bathroom breaks were so brief that three recruits would share a urinal at a time so that the entire platoon of sixty-three recruits could relieve themselves in our minute-and-half time limit. On several occasions, recruits soiled their uniforms during training. Every evening, DIs inspected our boots for proper polish and our belt buckles for satisfactory shine while we stood at attention in our underwear. Then, we would “mount our racks” (bunk beds), lie at attention, and scream all three verses of the Marine Corps hymn at the top of our lungs. While the DIs would proclaim that these inspections were to insure that our bodies had not been injured during training, I suspect that there were ulterior motives as well. These examinations were attempts to indoctrinate us with an emerging military masculinity that is based upon male sexuality linked to respect for the uniform and a fetishization of combat.
After the playing of Taps, lights went out. At which time, a DI would circle around the room and begin moralizing. “One of these days, you’re going to figure out what’s really tough in the world,” he would exclaim. “You think you’ve got it so bad. But in recruit training, you get three meals a day while we tell you when to shit and blink,” he continued. The DI would then lower his voice, “But when you’re out on your own, you’re gonna see what’s hard. You’ll see what tough is when you knock up your old woman. You’ll realize what’s cruel when you get married and find yourself stuck with a fat bitch who just squats out ungrateful kids. You’ll learn what the real world’s about when you’re overseas and your wife back in the states robs you blind and sleeps with your best friend.” The DI’s nightly homiletic speeches, full of an unabashed hatred of women, were part of the second phase of boot camp, the process of rebuilding recruits into Marines.
The process of reconstructing recruits and molding them into future troops is based on building a team that sees itself in opposition to those who are outside of it. After the initial shock of the first phase of training, DIs indoctrinate recruits to dehumanize the enemy in order to train them how to overcome any fear or prejudice against killing. In fact, according to longtime counter-recruitment activist Tod Ensign, the military has deliberately researched how to best design training for how to teach recruits how to kill. Such research was needed because humans are instinctively reluctant to kill. Dr. Dave Grossman disclosed in his work, On Killing, that fewer than 20 percent of U.S. troops fired their weapons in World War II during combat. As a result, the military reformed training standards so that more soldiers would pull their trigger against the enemy. Grossman credits these training modifications for the transformation of the Armed Forces in the Vietnam War in which 90-95 percent of soldiers fired their weapons. These reforms in training were based on teaching recruits how to dehumanize the enemy.
The process of dehumanization is central to military training. During Vietnam, the enemy in Vietnam was simply a “gook,” “dink,” or a “slope.” Today, “rag head” and “sand nigger” are the current racist epithets lodged against Arabs and Muslims. After every command, we would scream, “Kill!” But our call for blood took on particular importance during our physical training, when we learned how to fight with pugil sticks, wooden sticks with padded ends, how to run an obstacle course with fixed bayonets, or how to box and engage in hand-to-hand combat. We were told to imagine the “enemy” in all of our combat training, and it was always implied that the “enemy” was of Middle Eastern descent. “When some rag head comes lurking up from behind, you’re gonna give ’em ONE,” barked the training DI. We all howled in unison, “Kill!” Likewise, when we charged toward the dummy on an obstacle course with our fixed bayonets, it was clear to all that the lifeless form was Arab.
Even in 1997, we were being brainwashed to accept the coming Iraq War. Abruptly interrupting a class, one of numerous courses we attended on military history, first aid, and survival skills, a Series Chief DI excitedly announced that all training was coming to a halt. We were to be shipped immediately to the Gulf, because Saddam had just fired missiles into Israel. Given that we lived with no knowledge of the outside world, with neither TV nor newspapers, and that we experienced constant high levels of stress and a discombobulating environment, the DI’s false assertion seemed all too believable. After a half-hour panic, we were led out of the auditorium to face the rebuke and scorn of our platoon DIs. It turned out that the interruption was a skit planned to scare us into the realization that we could face war at any moment. The trick certainly had the planned effect on me, as I pondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. I also now realize that we were being indoctrinated with schemes for war in the Middle East. Our hatred of the Arab “other” was crafted from the very beginning of our training through fear and hate.
Almost ten years since I stood on the yellow footprints that greet new recruits at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, I express gratitude for my luck during my enlistment. I was fortunate to have never witnessed a day of combat and was honorably discharged months after 9/11. However, joining the military is like playing Russian Roulette. With wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the likelihood of military action against Iran, troops in the Corps today are playing with grimmer odds. In these “dirty wars,” troops cannot tell friend from foe, leading to war crimes against a civilian population. Our government is cynically promoting a campaign of lies and deception to justify its illegal actions (with the complicity of both parties in Washington), and our troops are fighting to support regimes that lack popular support and legitimacy.
With over 3,100 U.S. troops now dead and thousands more maimed and crippled, I look back to the other young men I heard sobbing on that sunny wintry morning on top of the Reaper. The reasons we enlisted were as varied as our personal histories. Yet, it is the starkest irony that the hope we collectively expressed for a better life may have indeed cost us our very lives. When one pulls the trigger called “enlistment,” he or she faces the gambling chance of experiencing war, conflicts which inevitably lead to the degradation of the human spirit.
The war crimes committed by U.S. troops in Iraq, such as the brutality exhibited at Mahmoudiya in which soldiers allegedly gang-raped a teen-age Iraqi girl and burned her body to destroy the evidence, are, in fact, part and parcel of all imperialist wars. The USMC’s claim that recruits learn “to live as upstanding moral beings with real purpose” is a sickening ploy aimed to disguise its true objectives. Given the fact that Marines are molded to kill the enemy “other” from TD One (training day) combined with the bestial nature of colonial war, it should come as no surprise that rather than turning “degenerates” into paragons of virtue, the Corps is more likely capable of transforming men into monsters.
And yet as much as these war crimes reveal about the conditions of war, the circumstances facing an occupying force, and the peculiar brand of Marine training, they also reflect a bitter truth about the civilian world in which we live. It speaks volumes that in order for young working-class men and women to gain self-confidence or self-worth, they seek to join an institution that trains them how to destroy, maim, and kill. The desire to become a Marine-as a journey to one’s manhood or as a path to self-improvement-is a stinging indictment of the pathology of our class-ridden world.
Martin Smith is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and can be reached at email@example.com