Reading the New York Times Magazine article about Marine Corps’ basic training of recruits at Parris Island, South Carolina, I was reminded of the comments of a fellow member of a veterans organization to which I belonged for a brief time several years ago. I cannot remember the exact words of the former Marine, but his assessment was stark in that he likened the result of the grueling training as one which produces members who will kill without question and reflexively. The same theme is prevalent throughout the NYT article. The veteran with whom I spoke described the training as a form of aberrant behavior, which, as the NYT article clearly states, has no parallel in civilian life. Questions of the relevancy of brutal training techniques are questioned by some Marines in the piece as something that belonged to the past rather than to the needs of the present.
None of this is all that surprising because the objective of military training and action is to eliminate the enemy, or people who have been deemed the enemy by the government. Does this training produce occasional so-called bad apples, or do the examples of torture and brutality discussed here reflect an acceptance of the suspension of normal human interaction? As wars have become more technologically sophisticated, the danger to many who fight those wars has become somewhat less of a reality. A good example is drone warfare, where the drone operator can carry out missions against those designated as the enemy from locations sometimes many thousands of mile away from the site of where the drones carry out their missions. The latter adds an antiseptic quality to war zones for those who carry out these remote missions.
Examples of aberrant behavior toward prisoners at Abu Ghraib and at Guantanamo Bay detention camp seemed to present prisoner of war abuse as something accepted and encouraged by some in government. Secret detention sites added yet another layer to torture that was hidden from the public.
Marine training was once readily accepted for the kinds of battles that were waged in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, but that was a chimera propagated by equal doses of machismo and extreme chauvinism, both of a national and male character. Brutalizing recruits, however, never can be justified in any training setting. Convincing a person to kill another is a kind of brutality which can never be reckoned with in any world in which morality exists. This does not mean that defense in the face of an attack is not justified, but the nature and causes of war now make arriving at a decision to defend and how to defend more complicated because of the violence propagated by lunatics such as the September 2001 terrorists and nation states looking to control more economic turf and project enormous power.
The laws of war are quite clear in what constitutes the torture of captured noncombatants. Using techniques of torture against those in military training is both abhorrent and wrong and almost guarantees that some will subsequently use torture in military engagements where stress is high and objectives are unclear.
In “How the Death of a Muslim Recruit Revealed a Culture of Brutality in the Marines” (New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2017), readers can easily see similarities to the fictional Marine training bootcamp portrayed in the movie Full Metal Jacket (1987), in which the fictional recruit Leonard Lawrence, aka “Gomer Pyle” is tortured during basic training to the point of becoming both homicidal and suicidal. The parallels between the reality of bootcamp and the fictional recreation of bootcamp in this movie are frightening!
The article graphically depicts the sadism of some of the drill instructors and questions the severity of training procedures when the kind of soldier that the Marine Corps produces has significantly less of a place in contemporary warfare than ever before, if indeed the torture and extreme harassment of recruits ever led to any positive result.
Here is the definition of torture found at dictionary.com: Readers need to decide if the examples discussed in this article fit this definition: “the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.”
It seems that some of the D.I.s (drill instructors) who are portrayed in this article are sadistic and act out on those sadistic tendencies against Muslim recruits with particular viciousness and single-mindedness. One such recruit, Ameer Bourmeche, who did not comment for the NYT article, was placed in a clothes dryer and burned over parts of his body in what appeared to be a drunken spree of violence on the part of a D.I. against Bourmeche because Bourmeche was a member of the Muslim faith. Bourmeche was taunted with accusations of being a “terrorist,” asked “Where are the W.M.D.s?” and “Were you part of 9/11?” It should be noted that recruits in the article who were not of the Muslim faith were also subjected to cruel and tortuous treatment by some of the D.I.s at Parris Island.
In March of 2016, another Muslim recruit came to Parris Island for Marine basic training. Raheel Siddiqui also suffered torturous treatment at the hands of D.I.s, one of whom had been involved in the Bourmeche episode of violent aggression. Raheel was called a “terrorist,” and asked by the D.I. involved in the Bourmeche incident if “he needed his turban.”
During what the Marine Corps calls “mixed marital-arts” instruction, Raheel apparently suffered serious neck wounds and subsequently threw himself over a railing of his training barracks and died following unsuccessful medical intervention. Prior to his suicidal jump in the barracks, Raheel was taunted by the same D.I. who will soon face trial on Parris Island for “violations of military discipline.” It appears that Raheel suffered what were neck wounds that could have been the result of a device being tightened around his neck.
In November 2005, in perhaps the best-known mass killing of the Iraq War, a group of U.S. Marines killed 24 unarmed civilians including men, women, children, and elderly Iraqis. The massacre has been compared to Vietnam’s My Lai massacre (committed by soldiers from the U.S. Army), but was far, far smaller in its lethality. As in My Lai, this massacre in western Iraq was supposedly in retribution for a Marine who had been killed earlier by an improvised explosive device. Media accounts of the massacre contradicted official Marine reports. Like My Lai, punishments were completely lacking in proportion to the severity of the crimes committed against these civilians. The last Marine to be brought up on charges was given a reduction in rank and loss of pay. It should also be noted that in the case of My Lai, two members of the military flying a helicopter over the site of the massacre heroically intervened to stop the murderous rampage.
The Marine Corps is seen as an elite branch of the military. Ron Kovic’s memoir of the Vietnam Era, Born on The Fourth of July (1976), shows the patriotic draw the Marines had when Marine recruiters come to Kovic’s high school on Long Island during the 1960s to present their pitch for joining the Corps. “How the Death of a Muslim Recruit Revealed a Culture of Brutality in the Marines,” shows a much different and contemporary face of Marine Corps training following the attacks of September 2001.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).