Structured Cruelty: Learning to Be a Lean, Mean Killing Machine

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

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 twoand-
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 ensure 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 teaching recruits how to kill.
Such research was needed because humans are instinctively
reluctant to kill. Dr. Dave Grossman disclosed in his
book, 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 selfworth,
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 selfimprovement—
is a stinging indictment of
the pathology of our class-ridden world.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.