Skip to comments.Few, Proud, Remarkable
Posted on 04/22/2004 5:41:03 AM PDT by sean327
PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- A morning here is invariably punctuated by shouts and yells. Standing at an area reserved for martial-arts training sometime around 7:00 a.m. practically afternoon by Parris Island standards I can hear platoons in the distance well before I can see them. There are the distinct barking voices of drill instructors, inevitably followed by the staccato collective answers of their platoons of recruits.
When the platoons come into view, the recruits are jogging in loose formation, constantly prodded and harried by drill instructors wearing yellow T-shirts, running up and down among them, picking out recruits for shouted instructions, correction, or what seems pure harassment. The instructors appear eternally pissed, bending at the waist to lean in close to the recruits' faces to give them the full blast of their yells.
This is the beginning of the process that will create the Marines who will fight in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq. It is no exaggeration to say that U.S. national security depends on what happens here, in the interaction between the recruits and the drill instructors charged with forging them into Marines.
Even for a civilian who sympathizes with the values and culture of the military, it can be painful to watch. In one exercise, the recruits fight with "pugil" sticks. They climb up on four-foot-high ramps wearing football helmets and neck pads, and try to inflict on each other what would be "killing blows" if they were made with bayonets instead of the padded sticks. Each pair fights for three rounds before coming back down.
One recruit receives a vicious backhanded blow to the head and is thrown off the ramp. He climbs back up the ramp and the martial-arts instructor policing the bouts looks him in the eyes to see if he is still all there and sends him back down. Wobbly on his feet, he descends only to meet a drill instructor who asks him what the hell he's doing and tells him to go back up.
He squares off against his competitor again and is promptly hit in the head and knocked down. He stumbles to his feet and is told to fight again. Right back down. This time he can barely get up and weaves his way back down the ramp. He has trouble taking off the gear and other recruits surround him to lift his helmet and pads off. The drill instructor is at his side, spitting invective right at him: "You're disgusting, Duncan. You hear me? You're disgusting."
Not "Nice try." Not "Better luck next time." Not "Everyone has bad days" "You're disgusting." Everything about the incident runs counter to our civilian culture, in which the recruit would be protected 1) from being beaten so badly, 2) from having to fight more after he had had enough, and 3) from getting berated afterward. But then, civilians aren't Marines.
Recruit training has plenty of moments that would delight Joseph Heller. When a recruit scratches his head, a drill instructor confronts him and forces him to scratch his entire head really hard: "You want to scratch, huh? You want to scratch? Scratch your head! Scratch your head now!" Drill instructors will huddle with a recruit to give him instructions, then yell, "Get away from me!" Then two seconds later say, "Come back!" And as soon as the recruit scurries back, order, "Get away from me!"
The Marines say every small thing has a purpose, and so it does. When they forbid recruits to scratch the relentless bites from the island's sand fleas, there is a reason any wrong move on a battlefield can give away a position. When they force recruits always to shout their responses, their faces often distorted with the effort, there is a reason you need to be heard on the battlefield. When they constantly urge recruits to move faster ("Hurry up!" and "Today!" are two of the most frequent exhortations), there's a reason commands have to be carried out with alacrity in dangerous situations. When recruits are given seemingly pointless commands, there is a reason to establish an absolute and unquestioning submission to authority.
Most of all, the recruits are being melded into a unit. When they show up here, they are told that "I" is no longer part of their vocabulary. This creates an awkward syntax. The recruits refer to themselves in the third person, a little like Bob Dole "This recruit requests permission to make a head call, sir." But unlike Bob Dole the third person doesn't suggest self-obsession, instead denoting its opposite. The Marines realize that the path to true self-esteem to self-confidence and competence runs through the obliteration of selfishness.
The Marines are proud of this ethic and of themselves for instilling it to the point of institutional cockiness. Being a Marine is a state so exalted the only thing that could possibly compare to it is being a Marine. Recruits are constantly drilled on Marine Corps history. When they're sitting waiting to fight with the pugil sticks, a drill instructor asks, "Who is the father of Marine Corps aviation?" The answer comes back, "A. A. Cunningham, sir." "Who is the father of Marine Corps aviation?" "A. A. Cunningham, sir."
It is the drill instructors who are the carriers of the Marine Corps culture and tradition, passing it along to the recruits. All the shouting breaks down their voices, which become either fingernails-across-a-chalkboard raspy or bullfrog deep. It can be hard to understand what they are saying, although the recruits always get it these are the voices that govern their lives. Especially at the beginning of the process, the instructors are relentlessly tough on the recruits, trying to instill in them an ethic of never quitting and make them think as a group.
For all the hardship they deal out, the drill instructors are working as hard as the recruits. They have signed up for brutal hours and physically taxing days. One drill instructor says he tells recruits convinced that their instructor hates them, "If that's so, how come you see him more than his children see him?" The instructors' philosophy is that the harder they are on the recruits, the better they will eventually be as Marines. By the end, as that process has had its effect, the drill instructors have become more mentors than tormentors.
During the "crucible" the culmination of training when recruits spend a few days on long marches, sleeping outside a drill instructor sits on a tree stump as his recruits sit around him. They are wearing camouflage and cleaning their M-16s and ask the instructor questions, about how to get ahead in the Marines, about his experiences, and about the training exercise to come. It's clear that a process of imprinting has occurred, with the recruits attached to the instructor like so many ducklings. And a relationship once based on seeming hostility has become a kind of mutual respect as the day approaches when they will all have in common the honor of being a Marine.
The recruits are heartbreakingly young, many of them 18 years old. Drill instructors talk of working the baby fat off them. It gives a terrible reality to the lists of dead soldiers in Iraq in the newspapers, many of them 21 years old or younger. Every day at Parris Island, the flag is lowered just before sunset to the doleful sound of "Taps," an occasion to remember the sacrifice of so many over the years and the sacrifice that will be made by some of the recruits here now.
Without this training, few would be willing to risk making that sacrifice, or know how to avoid making it by killing the enemy first. During the crucible, one recruit gets pulled aside to talk to a reporter. He is assured that his drill instructor isn't watching and that he can relax. He doesn't. His face is smeared with black camouflage paint and he stands straight with his heels together, never cracking a smile. He explains how he joined up partly to avoid the lax and aimless lives of his friends back home: "This recruit is going to be a Marine. Now this recruit is going to be hard and tight." He is from New Jersey and explains, "September 11th made this recruit angry." Twelve weeks ago, he was an ordinary kid. Not anymore: "This recruit will be proud to serve his country. This recruit will die for his country."
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