Why Boot Camp Won’t “Brainwash” Recruits

Today, on social media, I was again told that the military only do what they do simply because they are all brainwashed. Don’t we love social media, the place where anyone, no matter what their place on the intellectual food chain, can observe the right to spew forth their ignorance upon the rest of us? This one was elicited because in a conversation about the high-and-tight haircut. Really world? Still, the idea is a one which is a part of veterans’ issues and the public’s perception of us, as well as the active duty troops in the field. “The military are just mindless drones brainwashed into doing whatever they are told.”

Even those who don’t outright dislike the military function under this negative stereotype about us. I received this email once from a follower in response to an article on Marine Corps boot camp training.

I read the boot camp answer (among the first I’ve read on Quora), once again one of the finest you’ve written. You mention how it is a place where you train young people to become warriors and you had written about the procedure. You had written about how everything the instructor do is done with a very specific purpose. Through it all, what is being done is, in a sense, brainwashing these people into running to the sound of gunfire and to kill for their country. Aren’t such people dangerous?

Even a person who at least has a positive curiosity about the US military, has a negative bias that because of our training, we are real threats to society. You ever wonder why so many veterans can’t find work? I don’t really know where ideas like this come from; the idea that someone can blow a whistle or snap their fingers and we will be propelled to fix bayonets and charge to our deaths, or presumably to slaughter some village in the name of the good ole’ US of A. Perhaps it is from movies, such as the 1960’s Manchurian Candidate, themed around a group of soldiers captured by Chinese Communists and North Koreans and psychologically reprogrammed to become mindless assassins at the command of the Reds. The image of a dead-eyed soldier blankly pulling the trigger to brutally murder a fellow comrade, who himself was programmed not even to care about it, to the onlooking Chinese, Russian, and North Korean panel behind, is a scene that will leave a person affected.

I’ve wondered, if it gave people other ideas about the US military, as well. Perhaps it is others, such as the numerous films which depict wave after wave of soldiers allowing themselves to be mowed down senselessly at the commands of inept leaders. Perhaps it is just that most people can’t fathom putting themselves in any sort of risk, so the only rationale they can produce is to assume that the military, people they don’t associate with and of whom none of them understand, could only put themselves in that position because they are having their strings pulled. Of course, maybe it is just people attempting to get back at the guys their girlfriends are really thinking about at night through the use psychologically vague insults to make incontrovertible attacks on the intelligence of others, desperate grabs at regaining their own sense of self-worth.

Who knows, but anyone who has been there, and knows how hard it is to field a band of Lance Corporals eager to avoid the working party to sweep out the motor pool parking lot, knows that Marines are not brainwashed into mindless service. On a more serious note, if you’ve been in the field, you also know that the American military isn’t one to just blindly charge into the killing fields knowing their orders were wrong (that’s a Charge of the Light Brigade reference for those fans of military literature.) Frankly, the longer you serve, your odds of telling some new officer that he has no clue what he is doing grow exponentially… until finally, on that day during Land Nav…

The point is, we in the military aren’t brainwashed into mental servitude to some master class of aristocratic officers or the evil government. Think about it for a moment. Even considering the fact that we have been in conflict for fourteen years, we a much smaller force than you think. Budgetary cutbacks and efficiency requirements have made us a much leaner force of warriors. Yeah, there are still inefficiencies, but given the prevalence of troops engaged in conflicts across the world and the reduced strength of forces, the warriors of today are forced to carry more of a burden, on few shoulders than ever before. What this means is that troops need to be thinking machines. They need to have more leadership and decision making power pushed lower and lower down on the totem pole. This isn’t a new thing, but a continuing process since the evolution of modern warfare began in World War II. Since that point, we’ve seen the power of the battalion shift to the power of the platoon in Vietnam, down to independent squads in Iraq and Afghanistan and continuing to transition to the “teams” of Special Forces operators. Eventually, given the interconnected battlefield that has been one of the focuses of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the force of today’s Marine Corps squad could be pushed down to the level of a single Marine in the field.

A future like that will require troops who are intelligent and independent. They are going to need to be capable of leading themselves and to react on their own motivation and insights with thousands of split second decisions and no time to relay to a higher command. You simply can’t program a human to be able to react with the diversity of action that will be required in tomorrow’s conflicts. Brainwashing doesn’t work, today or at any other time in history.

I’m writing this prompted by a previous article on indoctrination and conditioning that takes place in Marine Corps boot camp. I described the methods of mental conditioning which are used for recruits and why this isn’t brainwashing, as well as why the military actually can’t afford to have brainwashed individuals running around making our combat decisions for us. The Marine Corps has branded itself as being masters of the art of breaking down the civilian, individualistic nature of an 18 year old kid, rebuilding it and refining him into a warrior capable of engaging men in battle. To do this, there are thousands of imperceptible practices that happen in boot camp that are engineered to change how recruits perceive the world in high stress environments, and how they act on that new information. When a lot of people read that, they translate it as a series of euphemisms that are just clever ways of saying, “brainwashed.” Far too many people relate boot camp to brainwashing. That’s a very inappropriate word to describe what is going on to recruits. Remember that Drill Instructors are not scientists in lab coats performing experiments on children to turn them into killers. Nor are they Islamic State recruiters, wooing potential recruits online then turning to threats of murder and their families annihilation to force their new soldiers’ compliance. They were all once recruits, too.

Brainwashing is the forced removal of will. Clinically, it is defined as a theoretical indoctrination process which results in

“an impairment of autonomy, an inability to think independently, and a disruption of beliefs and affiliations. In this context, brainwashing refers to the involuntary reeducation of basic beliefs and values”.[1]

In an interview for Vox, Steven Hassan—a former member of the Moonies and author of Combating Cult Mind Control discusses the subject of Brainwashing.

Brainwashing was coined in the 1950s about communist indoctrination.  Patty Hearst, for example, was kidnapped out of her apartment, put in a closet, raped, and tortured. She became a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was what I’d call brainwashed, in the sense that, initially, she would have never gone with these people—she was taken by force and quite brutally assaulted.

Brainwashing is a form of conditioning that takes away a person’s ability to perceive and act according to their logical processes. It doesn’t build on those logical processes; it limits them. It is a form of mind control, is always done to reform someone’s thoughts and actions, and are always done against their will.

The conditioning of the Marines, and other similar military training, doesn’t do that. They don’t brainwash as part of their training and conditioning programs. The military doesn’t want to produce robots in places where it needs thinking,  rational minds that can problem solve their way through obstacles, challenges, and against an enemy who is actively trying to kill them, one which is also fully aware. It needs Modern military training doesn’t remove logical thinking processes they have. Instead, it removes barriers to thinking that minds who have not had the training lack, along with the understanding of how it differs from their perception of what brainwashing is. It eliminates the sort of fear that causes humans to collapse in the face of stress. They do this through educating future troops on the risks and dangers, as well as the means available to them to minimize these risks and dangers… like killing them. It, however, preserves the sense of fear to provide rational caution to real threats. Brainwashing could produce fearless warriors, but fear in the correct dosage is a good thing. Maintaining a rational warrior will win far more battles than sending in a human drone. Modern training, rather than programming a human to not sense fear, inoculated them to it, by giving them confidence in their own skills as well as experience in experiencing fear in controlled environments. People become used to stress, so stress doesn’t affect them like it does for other people. This allows them to perform at the best of their ability, using their full cognitive capabilities, and their full reason under dangerous situations.

That isn’t to say that military conditioning doesn’t compare to mind-control. The truth is that many people make the causal connection between mind control and military conditioning because there is a great deal of psychological sophistication involved in the training military members endure. Lt. Col Dave Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor, Professor of Military Science, and US Army Ranger, speaks at length in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society: on the subject of various psychological processes that take place in various military training programs, some with aims of preserving their warriors sense of self and capabilities, others wishing only to produce a force of psychopaths.

The training methods militaries use are brutalization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role modeling.

Brutalization and desensitization are what happen at boot camp. From the moment you step off the bus you are physically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at attention or running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals take turns screaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked and dressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to break down your existing mores and norms, and to accept a new set of values that embrace destruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end, you are desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill in your brutal new world.

Classical conditioning is like the famous case of Pavlov’s dogs you learned about in Psychology 101: The dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food, and, once conditioned, the dogs could not hear the bell without salivating.

The Japanese were masters at using classical conditioning with their soldiers. Early in World War II, Chinese prisoners were placed in a ditch on their knees with their hands bound behind them. And one by one, a select few Japanese soldiers would go into the ditch and bayonet “their” prisoner to death. This is a horrific way to kill another human being. Up on the bank, countless other young soldiers would cheer them on in their violence. Comparatively few soldiers actually killed in these situations, but by making the others watch and cheer, the Japanese were able to use these kinds of atrocities to classically condition a very large audience to associate pleasure with human death and suffering. Immediately afterwards, the soldiers who had been spectators were treated to sake, the best meal they had had in months, and so-called comfort girls. The result? They learned to associate committing violent acts with pleasure.

The Japanese found these kinds of techniques to be extraordinarily effective at quickly enabling very large numbers of soldiers to commit atrocities in the years to come. Operant conditioning (which we will look at shortly) teaches you to kill, but classical conditioning is a subtle but powerful mechanism that teaches you to like it.

The third method the military uses is operant conditioning, a very powerful procedure of stimulus-response, stimulus-response. A benign example is the use of flight simulators to train pilots. An airline pilot in training sits in front of a flight simulator for endless hours; when a particular warning light goes on, he is taught to react in a certain way. When another warning light goes on, a different reaction is required. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response. One day the pilot is actually flying a jumbo jet; the plane is going down, and 300 people are screaming behind him. He is wetting his seat cushion, and he is scared out of his wits; but he does the right thing. Why? Because he has been conditioned to respond reflexively to this particular crisis.

When people are frightened or angry, they will do what they have been conditioned to do. In fire drills, children learn to file out of the school in orderly fashion. One day there is a real fire, and they are frightened out of their wits; but they do exactly what they have been conditioned to do, and it saves their lives.

The military and law enforcement community have made killing a conditioned response. This has substantially raised the firing rate on the modern battlefield. Whereas infantry training in World War II used bull’s-eye targets, now soldiers learn to fire at realistic, man-shaped silhouettes that pop into their field of view. That is the stimulus. The trainees have only a split second to engage the target. The conditioned response is to shoot the target, and then it drops. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response: soldiers or police officers experience hundreds of repetitions. Later, when soldiers are on the battlefield or a police officer is walking a beat and somebody pops up with a gun, they will shoot reflexively and shoot to kill. We know that 75 to 80 percent of the shooting on the modern battlefield is the result of this kind of stimulus-response training.

These methods of conditioning do seek to rewrite the way that a prospective warrior handles himself on the battlefield, but if you’ll notice, one of these isn’t used in the United States military. That being classical conditioning. There are no programs that I am aware of that seek to utilize classical conditioning to rewrite an American warrior’s basic sensation around a desire for violence. If there was a true thing called “brainwashing” it would be classical conditioning, as displayed by Pavlov’s dog and in media such as the Clockwork Orange or the Manchurian Candidate. As Grossman stated “Operant conditioning teaches you to kill, but classical conditioning is a subtle but powerful mechanism that teaches you to like it.”

I’ll also make this point, when many people see terms like “brutalization” they imagine recruits fresh out of high school tied in chairs being beaten by drill instructors with brass knuckles and bamboo shoots while watching old war movies or images of terrorists. This is wrong thinking as well. Boot camp is, as it should be, a place where young men and women are, for like the first times in their lives, introduced to ideas about the brutality that takes place in war as if it were a science. There the history of conflict is depicted to be studied analytically and the arts of war practiced as matter of course. The recruits themselves aren’t physically brutalized, but they are made aware of the brutality of war and are prepared for that.

That’s why I say that the training isn’t brainwashing. Brainwashing removes a part of ourselves and changes fundamentally what we value on deep psychological levels. It can even be used to transition a reasonable human to one who loves violence and killing by associating it with pleasures such as drink and sex. It is the pervasive and deceptive way of rewriting a human into something else. Boot camp isn’t this. It doesn’t removing anything. It helps a person deal with fear, but it doesn’t remove a person’s ability to deal with other situations reasonably. It doesn’t make you look at your wife differently and it doesn’t make you decide who to vote for. It does give you an increased reaction time to threats, sometimes and instinctive reaction time, but it doesn’t make you want to kill people.

This also explains why military recruits aren’t dangerous or broken human beings for life. There has actually been a lot of studies, once again, at least for America, that have show that average military veterans are much less likely to be the culprit of a violent actions and to become successful members of a community after they leave the service. That is, if they are given the chance. They haven’t lost their reasonable capabilities; they’ve gained the ability to deal with problems that others can’t.

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Continue to Summary – The EGA and What it Takes to Make a Warrior

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2 thoughts on “Why Boot Camp Won’t “Brainwash” Recruits

  1. Great article. I think “boots” are a little more brainwashed, and once that motivation wears off good luck finding your working party ;P

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