Phase 1 – Transitioning From the Habits of a Civilian
Once Black Friday is behind them, the first month of Marine Corps boot camp is designed to acclimate recruits to the pace of training and becoming integrated in the military. The intended purpose of the first phase, as it is called, and all of boot camp really, is to transition young men into them to ways of a warrior culture free of the habits of civilian life. That isn’t saying that civilians are weak by nature, but there are certain qualities which are valued and respected in the civilian world that don’t mesh with the realities required of the military environment. In the military world, these are weaknesses. The remedy for this can be drastic, by normal standards.
Most people entering boot camp ask what the hardest part is to prepare for. In their minds, they assume the hardest part is running, or hiking, push-ups, or just being yelled at by Drill Instructors. The truth is that the most stressful and impactful change that will occur is the mental conditioning recruits endure. It won’t be easy to transition though. That kind of reconditioning is something that people don’t usually do perfectly with any amount of being ready for it.
During this first phase of recruit training, for the Marines anyway, communication lines are completely severed from friends and family over the three months throughout boot camp. There is no internet, no phone, no distractions. The only thing recruits get in the way of communication from loved ones are hand written letters once a week during the only “me time” they ever receive, during the first four hours on Sunday morning. Does it seem cruel and unnecessary? Well, I had just been married one week before I set foot on the yellow footprints, so I think I am best to answer.
There are no distractions. That must be membered. There can be no distractions.
One has to remember the psychological nature of good boot camp training. We aren’t separated for the join of our brass laden overlords. There is always a reason for it. The training can’t be interrupted by distractions from the outside world. In an age where people live entire lives connected online and engrossed in the lives of others, distractions whither any efforts for many people to achieve anything beyond themselves.
The Marine Corps is different. It seeks to isolate recruits from that, a sort of cold turkey weaning off of the distractions for the time where they have to adapt to military life. The isolation quiets their minds for a time and gives them focus. It helps engross new recruits into a new mentality, but for a few months it completely shuts them out from their friends, families, and the outside world. For a few months, the Marine Corps is your entire world. Recruits turn their focus instead to military routines. Drill instructors will set the pace, literally, by counting down every basic task “by the numbers” and recruits won’t even be able to refer to yourself by name. Marine Recruits refer to themselves in the third person. You will say, “This recruit” to refer to yourself rather than “I”, “These recruits” rather than “we” or “us”. This is done for the same reason that all recruits wear the same haircut and why the Marines don’t use unit patches or anything that distinguishes them from any other Marine besides name tapes. This plays into the erosion of individuality I’ve written about before. It is an engineered behavior with the intended purpose to build unit cohesion by repressing the civilian mentalities of individualism, egocentricity, and what might be unnerving to some, self-preservation. Such forms of psychological reconditioning are considered necessary to produce strong warriors capable of functioning as a team in the deadliest and most terrifying situations possible.
To elaborate on this point, let me give a personal testimony:
One thing that happens for everyone is that immediately upon arriving at boot camp you get to call home. It isn’t a real call. You have a short script where you basically say that you’re there and you’re alive. That is all. A few weeks in, though, our Senior Drill Instructor found out that we didn’t get ours. No one in the entire company did, for some reason. Someone in admin probably screwed something up. About a month in he made sure that we got ours. As a platoon we got to go down to the phone center and speak with our families.
I’ll never forget the day. It was July 7th, which just happened to be my 19th birthday. I called my wife’s phone. After a month of boot camp it was refreshing to hear her voice again. I told her that I would have to leave soon. The phone line would just cut off and that would be it, so we had to make the most of the few minutes we had. I think I got about ten minutes to speak. It was really a blessing. I have no idea what we talked about, but I remember the peaceful calm of hearing her voice. Jennie was like rain after walking in the desert.
As I knew it would, our time ran out. The line went dead. I was prepared for it, but still for a moment your heart breaks again just like it did the day you left. Regardless, I was happy. It isn’t often that a platoon gets to just have ten minutes to speak back home. There were a few tears that rolled down my face as I returned to the platoon. I know a few of the other recruits noticed. I was the only married recruit in the platoon, at that time almost all of us were just fresh high school graduates. I think they all knew how hard it was for me. No one ever said a thing to me about the tears, though. I was happy. It was my best birthday present ever.
It was a great present because of how very distant Jennie seemed to me at that time. As much as it hurt at times, I think it may have been the best thing for a while. I had a month with absolutely no communication with her, thirty-three days to be exact. The next two would see even less. She was on my mind often, but not as a constant. She was far enough away, and I was busy enough that I was focused on what was in front of me. I had to listen to the Drill Instructor’s guidance, focus on my rifle sights, on the marching, studying first aid, or on my weapon’s maintenance. I honestly don’t know if I could have fully been gained the full breadth of what I had to learn if I went back to her every night and had to show up to formation in the mornings. I don’t even know if I would have been able to do it if I got to call home whenever I wanted, knowing all the gossip of a town and people that were barely relevant to me anymore. After boot camp, I could call and say “Hi,” through all of my job training school, but not at boot.
Granted, it does seem cruel to keep people away from their families when technology has made it so easy to put them within arm’s reach. The truth, however, is that it doesn’t make for good warriors. We don’t get to have our families when we go on deployment or to some war, so it is probably good to get used to that. Same for the families. There is a very hard reality, that part of boot camp is intense because recruits must deal with the isolation from the civilian world they knew. In its place they have to adapt to a new group of people that aren’t their family, but which will be surrounding them every minute, of every day, through the hardest tribulations and crucibles, as well as the victories and triumphs. Though the recruits may be isolated, they will never be alone. They will learn to act and think as a unit, one of their first real lessons in the arts of warfare.