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.

Marine Corps boot camp can feel cult-like in its isolation, both for the recruit and his or her parents. Recruits receive no visits and have no access to e-mail. Unlike the Army, the Corps trains men and women separately; indeed, there are no women recruits at all in the San Diego depot. Phone calls are allowed only for good behavior, and even a marine who excels (our stepson ended up a squad leader) will be allowed perhaps four calls in twelve weeks. If there is a family emergency, you don’t just phone the barracks; you must call the Red Cross, as if your son or daughter were off fighting on a foreign front. And then there is the constant sarcasm and verbal bullying by sergeants that thin-skinned civilians would consider grounds for a lawsuit. Our son’s letters spoke of men crying in their bunks every night. One recruit tried to kill himself and was shipped home (the same thing happened in Platoon 3086 while Ricks was at Parris Island).

Looking for a window into this closed world, I discovered Ricks’s book on a library shelf. Along with Sergei’s letters, it became an essential guide for me, in particular because I had begun chronicling our transformation into a military family in a series for the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday Perspective section. Yet I think its value goes beyond those with a vested interest. Making the Corps is worth reading at a time when many reporters who have never worn a uniform (myself included) find ourselves writing about the military in one way or another, whether as embedded journalists in Iraq or metro reporters covering a peace group’s protest of recruiting at a local high school. We and an increasing number of Americans are simply ignorant about the armed forces. And, disturbingly in wartime, that ignorance extends to Congress itself. As recently as the Vietnam War, Ricks writes, two thirds of the members of Congress were veterans who could reach back into their own experience to ask tough questions of generals in hearings; as of the book’s writing, two thirds had never served in the military.

Ricks begins his exploration of boot camp at 1:50 a.m. on a late winter night, as a bus rolls across a causeway over a South Carolina tidal swamp and stops on Parris Island. Inside, thirty-six nervous young men sit amid the faint odor of cigarette smoke. Most of the recruits haven’t slept for twenty hours, and they will be up for another eighteen. Staff Sergeant Gregory Biehl charges up the steps of the bus and faces the young men. The first word out of his mouth is this: “Now!”

“Sit up straight,” he adds. “Get your eyes on me. If you have anything in your mouth, get it out now. Now, get off of my bus.”

In contrast with the Army’s thanks-to-you-fine-young-Americans, that begins an intentionally disorienting initiation intended to separate recruits from their past and the outside world. The young men, Ricks writes,

hadn’t known it was [Biehl’s] bus—but soon they will realize they are on his island, in his Corps, and playing by his rules. Every drill instructor they meet will talk to them in the same way. Nothing here is theirs, not even the right to be called “Marine.” They are simply “recruits.” They will have to earn the title “Marine”—and that is why most of them joined the Corps. Staff Sergeant Biehl pauses a moment, sufficient time for any attentive Marine to get going, and then raises the volume: “Let’s go. Now. Move. Move! Move!”

Such is the recruits’ first encounter with the prime movers of boot camp: the sergeants known as drill instructors, who drive the men in the endless marching that, along with marksmanshipcourses and physical training, make up the backbone of basic training. In every platoon, the three DI roles are the same. In 3086, Staff Sergeant Ronny Rowland, a taciturn Arkansan, is the senior drill instructor, who supervises the other sergeants, tracks paperwork, and often serves as a good cop for overwhelmed recruits. The platoon’s “heavy hat” is Sergeant Darren Carey, a former Force Recon parachutist and scuba diver who once suffered a broken jaw when a speedboat hit him in the Mediterranean. The “third hat” is the least experienced sergeant, Leo Zwayer, a former mess sergeant with a Fred Flintstone body type who must overcome the sense that his background doesn’t quite measure up in the eyes of his colleagues.

The verbal firestorms and forced physical exercise the DIs mete out can frighten and exhaust recruits, but the shock theater also has a vaudevillian quality that appears almost comical to an outsider. (Last spring, at my request, the Marines allowed me an all-but-unheard-of opportunity as a parent to observe a few days of boot camp because I report for a major newspaper.) When Sergeant Carey finds a hanging thread on someone’s uniform, he launches into a harangue about substandard performance that concludes, “That’s why America will fall someday, just like the Roman Empire. But not me, understand? BUT NOT ME!”

An uneven collection of recruits scrambles to respond to this pressure. A few sail through, such as Platoon Guide Andrew Lee, a tough Bostonian who describes himself as “harder than chewed gum.” But some of the recruits surprise you. One muscled young man seems like obvious Marine material until the day he steps out of a shower and playfully flips off the Smokey Bear hat of a drill instructor. This act of disrespect is enough to send him packing. Yet a misfit like Paul Buijs—a Dutch-American national, son of hippy parents, and (bizarrely) self-described pacifist—manages to graduate. And there is Recruit Earnest Winston Jr., gangbanger from Washington, D.C., whose life story indicates the kind of background the DIs sometimes must work with.

“I had a friend who got beat to death with a stick by his father,” he tells Ricks. “I had a friend, they put duct tape around his eyes and mouth and shot him eight times in the head….When I was in fifth grade, a friend of mine got put in a closet by his father and then his father killed his mother with a butcher knife.”

In remaking its recruits, the Marine Corps instills a fierce pride in its ranks. That is a remarkable accomplishment when dealing with men and women who often have seen their share of failure and alienation from society in pre-Marine life. Recruits who graduate know they have achieved something exceptional. But marines share a sense of accomplishment that can turn into arrogance, like high school football players who adopt a certain swagger, knowing that not everyone can run wind sprints and butt heads on a sleety field for three hours a day. Indeed, the DIs cultivate in their recruits elitism and contempt for civilian life. There is a tendency to regard the outside world as a cesspool and the Corps as the last bastion of honor.

“People outside military life are repulsive,” says the platoon’s top member, Andrew Lee, as he sits cross-legged under a pine tree and cleans his M-16. “I don’t like civilians. I get on the T in Boston and, ugh.” He makes a sour face. “I think America could use a lot more military discipline.”

As Ricks notes, the military is increasingly conservative, politically active, and partisan. My stepson has noticed this, too. In whatever unit he has passed through—boot camp, combat training, and now legal administration—he likes to ask his fellow marines their party affiliation. (Sergei isn’t yet a U.S. citizen, so it’s rather an academic question for him.) He has yet to meet a Democrat. It is worrisome, Ricks argues, when a military sees itself as uniquely aware of the dangers a nation faces, and edges toward becoming an independent actor in domestic politics. He quotes Major Robert A. Newton of the Army, who concluded in a study that the politicization of the officer corps created “the potential for a serious problem in civil-military relations for the United States.” Newton cites similar attitudes in Pinochet’s Chile, where the military overthrew an elected leftist president and established a military dictatorship. While Ricks isn’t predicting any imminent putsch to thrust Rush Limbaugh into the White House, he shares Newton’s concerns.

On a deeper level, I wondered if, in the wake of the massacre at Haditha, Iraq, Ricks today might have taken more time to explore the moral questions that come with indoctrinating men for warfare—and to discuss the training the Marines provide to restrain the dark impulses they summon forth in recruits. Yes, most American combat troops serve honorably under unimaginable stress, and a few soldiers, too, have been accused of abuses. But part of the DI’s job is to instill in young men who may never have been in a schoolyard fistfight the aggression necessary to kill human beings in mass. That is why the military exists, yet it seems to be playing with fire to throw into the mix a disturbed personality, or even an ordinary kid under the stress of flying bullets and exploding IEDs.

Ricks does show some of the brutal aspects of basic training during makeshift boxing matches and pugil-stick contests, in which men charge through chutes and use the padded sticks to simulate bayonet fighting. Their duels “suggest how horrible trench warfare must have been,” Ricks writes. Yet I wanted a deeper consideration of this aspect of training. Last year, I also watched Sergei fight with a pugil stick, and I heard him and other recruits chanting “Kill, kill, kill them all” as they marched. Even if I understood why this was done, I cringed inwardly at the ruthlessness. Everyone but a pacifist accepts the need for a military, and if you are going to hand a man an M-16A4 and throw him into combat, he must be quicker, better trained, and more lethal than the enemy. Yet I am not alone as a parent in struggling with what this means. Three years ago in Arkansas, the father of a deployed National Guardsman told me his son had recently phoned from Iraq. “Me and him are avid hunters,” the father said, “and he told me he’s killed more people in the past few days than he ever killed deer or turkeys. And he’s killed a lot of deer. He told me, `Dad, it’s wrong to kill.’ I told him, ‘If God is going to look bad at anybody, he’s going to look bad at George Bush. You do what you need to do.’”

Despite my ambivalence, I came to appreciate the basic training that forges marines. Sergei seems to love the Corps. He has become an American in ways I never anticipated. I am proud of him. And I am also grateful for Making the Corps. U.S. teenagers in Iraq are caught up in a war amid rival militias and Islamic death cultists, and the American public has grown deeply skeptical of whether the invasion even should have been launched in the first place. But this is a dangerous era in which our enemies worldwide will not simply give up their struggle and toast each other with sparkling grape juice whenever we decide to withdraw from Iraq. For better or worse, we need our warriors. It is helpful to remember the strengths of this unique American institution, the Marine Corps.

Judging from the story my cousin sent, the Army wants to boost its enlistment by making boot camp a friendlier place. The Marine Corps has taken a different road, and a harder one in a self-indulgent society. The brass and the DIs believe that hounding recruits to their limits and beyond helps them find the inner reserves for the greatest test they might ever face: war. As a dad, I grimly concur. If Sergei ends up in Iraq or Afghanistan, I want him to have the best training possible. I certainly don’t want him to end up securing a perimeter with troops who prepared for combat with stepladders, or lugging a wounded buddy whose sergeants encouraged him to go back for thirds on the apple strudel.

 

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