Early last year, my cousin, a Marine captain based in Okinawa, sent me a Wall Street Journal story about changes in Army basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The article had been e-mailed back and forth around the world, from North Carolina to Iraq to Japan, until a dozen little forwarding arrows nudged every line into the right margin. There was no mistaking the scorn among the marines who were spreading the news.

The Army, it seemed, was seeking to lure more recruits by initiating a kinder and gentler boot camp regimen. At the fort, new soldiers were no longer welcomed by sergeants’ “shark attacks”—the roaring, spit-in-your-face initiation that had terrified previous generations of incoming GIs (“Some rattled recruits would make mistakes,” the Journal reported. “A few”—God forbid—“would cry”). Instead, a colonel made a speech thanking them for signing up. In the mess hall, sergeants no longer policed the meal trays of tubby recruits. On the contrary, the privates were surveyed on whether they had been allowed to eat everything on the menu, including dessert, and whether there was enough for seconds. When some fake roadside bombs hit a training convoy, the recruits didn’t bail out of their trucks, hit the dirt rolling, and secure a perimeter. Rather, they waited for someone to prop a ladder against the rear bumper. Then they clambered down one by one. Fewer sprained ankles that way.

Whether all that will boost enlistment is a matter for the brass to determine. But it made me, for one, glad that the Marine Corps has retained its distinct and Spartan basic training, twelve weeks (compared to the Army’s nine) of relentless pressure designed to break down Taco Bell shift managers and pool hall drifters and rebuild them into an elite fighting unit, a process Thomas E. Ricks explored in his 1997 book Making the Corps. Ricks’s latest book, Fiasco, is a devastating examination of the invasion of Iraq, which he says was based on the worst war plan in American history. He is no patsy for the military. So it is instructive to read his admiring if clear-eyed account of how the Marine Corps takes “Beavises and Buttheads” from the bottom half of society and trains them to assume positions of honor and respect, creating a unique culture along the way.

The book had its nascence in Mogadishu in 1992. Ricks, now a Washington Post reporter, formerly wrote for The Wall Street Journal, and he came to admire the spirit and decisiveness of twenty-two-year-old Marine corporals in places like Somalia and Haiti who had to make decisions of international significance under intense pressure—whether to shoot at a threatening mob or return fire at a policeman who leveled his weapon at them. When talking to a journalist, they did not glance over their shoulder worrying about what superiors might think. “Every Marine a rifleman,” is a slogan of the Corps, and that means “the essence of the organization resides with the lowest of the low, the peon in the trenches,” Ricks writes. (Forty-nine percent of all marines are in the three lowest ranks, twice the percentage of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.) By contrast, soldiers seemed skittish about saying the wrong thing. In seeking to understand how the Marines build a successful institution around the kind of men and women who generally don’t win scholarships or get admitted to elite colleges, Ricks decided to chronicle the basic training of Platoon 3086 at Parris Island, South Carolina, one of two depots where civilians become U.S. Marines.

Such matters have become personal for me. My cousin e-mailed the story on Army boot camp because my stepson Sergei had just stunned my wife and me by enlisting in the Marine Corps and shipping off to San Diego, where the training regimen is identical to that of Parris Island. Like my wife, Sergei is a Russian immigrant, a born leader who had loved American football in high school and studied (and played rugby) at a Chinese university in Beijing. But he had been forced to return to the States to sort out his U.S. immigration status halfway through his freshman year. Adrift, he joined the Marines.

Russell Working is a former staff reporter at the Chicago Tribune, and a freelance writer based in Oak Park, Illinois.