This article focuses on the questions that often come up among people who haven’t been a part of the military experience concerning our indoctrination process into that life, i.e., boot camp. Even though boot camp is one of the few commonalities among all veterans, it is still completely misunderstood by those who haven’t experienced. It’s often portrayed methodologically in media as a place that transforms young boys into warrior robots, where lifelong brotherhoods are forged because they have to go through “hell” together, or worse, as an institution for the brainwashing of children into killers.
Since leaving the Corps in 2008, I’ve been fascinated in seeing how boot camp is able to do what it does, namely, by taking kids like me, at the ages of 17, 18, and 19, from a society which prides itself on the values of individualism, self-preservation, personal liberties and personal satisfaction and turning them into a force of warriors willing to run towards the sound of gunfire, danger, and suffer innumerable indignities and sufferings along the way. Once you get through the surface, which is actually quite terrible, you’ll begin to see the place for the marvel of psychological engineering that is.
Hopefully, throughout the next series, you as civilian readers or just nostalgic veterans can read through and gain a deeper appreciation for the foundational training that sets apart the world’s greatest warrior class from everyone else.
Why does boot camp need to be so intense?
The fundamental question to why good military boot camps are so intensive is “what rationale is there for the severe treatment and methods they use?” This has an extremely simple answer, and one which explains the mission, and the extreme nature behind why boot camp is one of the one places in peaceful society where such extremes are allowed, and in fact, needed.
The reason that boot camp exists is that our society has to train 18 year olds to run to the sound of gunfire and perform under fire and the threat of death.
The fundamental purpose of boot camp, to prepare young people to become warriors and, perhaps, to put themselves into situations and locations where they could become injured or even lose their lives, defies all personal “logic” and goes against all human instinct. For his reason, it takes one of the most intensive acts of psychological reprogramming (boot camp) to overcome the society driven desires for self-preservation and self-satisfaction that are the hallmarks of peaceful societies built on the virtues of democracies and liberalism. Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, in his book Men Against Fire, described well the fundamental flaw which must be overcome by a warrior society which is itself, borne from a society where violence is not understood and, in fact, looked down upon:
” The army … must reckon with the fact that he comes from a civilization in which aggression, connected with the taking of life, is prohibited and unacceptable. The teaching and ideals of that civilization are against killing, against taking advantage. The fear of aggression has been expressed to him so strongly and absorbed by him so deeply and pervadingly–practically with his mother’s milk–that it is part of the normal man’s emotional make up. This is his greatest handicap when he enters combat. It stays his trigger-finger even though he is hardly conscious that it is a restraint upon him.”
One enters America, whether by birth or by boat, with the ingrained belief that they will be free to prosper and grow to the limits of their personal achievement, free to express themselves, free to believe as they wish, and free from persecution for any of this. It goes without saying, and often isn’t said enough, that this prosperity and personal freedom isn’t guaranteed, but requires certain members of the society to, in as many ways imaginable, temporarily abandon their freedoms, many of their liberties, and rarely though realistically, even their lives, so that all others may continue to experience the boundless peace and prosperities life in America provides. In viewing this, many would argue that boot camp itself is the antithesis of the American Experience; it forces individuals to become, on the surface, indistinct and to act and think as a unit; it disallows those who subject themselves to it to a life where they don’t get to choose where they live, what they do with their lives, or even if they are put in the line of danger;it forces non-violent children into becoming violent men. More so than this, it molds them to embrace this personal sacrifice.
Those who have experienced it, however, know that these and other beliefs on boot camp are fallacy. There is, in all good bodies of humanity, the apprehension towards aggression, but there is also the supreme need to ensure survival. While the desire for passivity is a noble pursuit and peaceful wish, it is reliant on “rough men.” As George Orwell stated in the nightfall of World War II. “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf.”
You need to imagine what is expected of someone who goes there. In modern warfare you have people too young to legally buy a beer fighting the wars that we go through year after year. Boot camp is designed to reprogram civilians and those closer to childhood than to being adults into warriors. They are expected to be those that commit violence in the name of others.This is a very hard thing to do. Boot camp places within them a sense that they are expected to do important things, far more important things than could be expected from other 18 year olds. All this happens during one of the most intensely stressful periods of a young person’s life, where they are isolated from contact from family and friends and can’t lean on their comfort for support. Here they must make the transition from a person of no real value to society, to one of great martial prowess and symbolic meaning, as well as a very real threat to those who would endanger their nation.
To do that very act, however, we need a form of psychological training that is able to forge individuals who can achieve the act. That is why boot camp has evolved to become such a potent tool in today’s military machine. The psychological transformation of boot camp is extremely intense and an intentional effort by the Marine Corps to make warriors able to fight and kill from a stock of peaceful children who have just barely left high school. Realistically, this has been a practice for centuries. The need for warriors and the nature of who has done the fighting has changed little and likely won’t change in any near future. Drones, stealth, atomic warfare, and high-tech weaponry haven’t changed this and likely won’t in the near future, either. There will always be the need for young men who are willing and able to run to the sound of imminent danger and many, to their death. Nations need this. You, reading this now, need this. It is a horrible thing, but the sanctity and security of every nation on Earth requires young men and women capable of doing this – running to the sound of gunfire and perform under fire and the threat of death so that they may commit violence on our behalf.
3 Misconceptions of Boot Camp
Before moving on, a few assumptions have to be put down along with a few myths about boot camp and the experience.
Movies about the military shape our knowledge and understanding of military life far more than do the testimony of most veterans. This is why so many of the assumptions surrounding the way we live are so drastically wrong. Don’t get me wrong, Full Metal Jacket is a classic, but there is much that needs to be corrected, if not for being entirely inaccurate, than for being dated. Because of movie legends, many ideas have permeated that leave regular people not really aware of what to expect. Beyond that, a lot of veterans don’t help very much either. Vets have one thing in common – over time, our stories get better. For many who served during times of peace, boot camp is pretty much all they had to talk about. Their exaggerations (we’re guilty of it somewhere) left a few more false legends that need to be corrected in those who want to know the truth. Then, of course, there are those people who simply lie about their military service altogether, and oh the stories they can tell. If for nothing else than the horde of pretenders, I’d like to list a few of the more common misconceptions that have been asked to me before and attempt to set the record straight there first before moving one.
Is boot camp hard because recruits need the skills they learn to fight and survive in war?
Boot camp isn’t really about the skills you acquire. Cracked.com had a good article in 2011 that read very accurately:
I’ll be blunt: Everything about boot camp in movies is wrong. At least, it’s wrong today. What you find out in boot camp is that the heart of military life isn’t killing bad guys, fulfilling your potential or being all you can be. It’s uniform inspections.
Yes, there are many important things you learn. The shooting is an important part. In some branches, boot camp is the only time you will ever fire a weapon. Learning to march is somewhat important, though you aren’t sure why. The swimming… well that is just awful. If we think about it, we haven’t fought in a non-desert in how long? I’m sure we will someday, perhaps… but the training is not about the skills. The high order tactics used in modern combat are too complex to be pushed down on recruits who barely know how to take the weapon off Safe. In all honesty, most recruits are too stressed, exhausted, and scatterbrained to actually learn anything in depth anyway.
A much better environment would be a college or a school house. Later on, they will receive actual training in their military roles. For Marines, this is MOS school, and later on they will attend other specialized trainings in preparation for deployments. This will be where they gain skills. As I said though, boot camp is not about school. It prepares you for military life, the order of things, the customs and courtesies, and what will be expected. It is very intense, but all the skills someone needs to know for an actual war won’t be learned from boot camp.
Is it because the recruits will go through Hell together when they get to war?
Recruits do not go through Hell together, unless you consider boot camp itself Hell. It isn’t. It’s just training and there is a massive team there to make sure you stay alive, and well. You probably won’t enjoy it like Spring Break in Palm Beach, but it is far from Hell once you get used to it. A major false assumption is that the recruits will stay together for the rest of their military career, that later on they all move on to the infantry together and deploy to war with each other. That isn’t how it works and logically, why would it? The military takes all kinds. We need people who can man the radio, manage the fuel for jets, and shoot the boom sticks. How could these people all stay together when specialized training is required to make each of them specialists in warfare? After boot camp they will leave each other and go to different trainings and then on to their actual military occupational specialty schools, separately. This was mentioned in the last section as what happens after boot camp. Three months to a year after all the recruits leave one another, after all their actual skills training is done, they will join their real unit. These units are all over the world and have many different missions. This is the unit they will be a part of when they go on deployments and who they will go through war with, if they go through war at all. They are just filling a hole from someone else who has left, most likely not from being killed, as the movies would tell you, but from getting moved to a different unit or from being honorably discharged from the service. You will likely see only a few of the guys you went to boot camp with a few more times in your life, by chance, when you run into eachother buying milk at the PX on Mainside. Those who go through boot camp, won’t go through “Hell” together.
Is it true that Drill Instructors beat and berate their recruits to make them harder?
Drill Instructors/Drill Sergeants don’t physically touch recruits. They don’t hit or physically assault recruits, ever. They come close as the pictures show, but they never physically brutalize potential Marines. There seems to be an odd rule about just getting close enough for the campaign cover to touch. This is drastically foreign to most people’s conceptions, but the Marines use advanced enough training methods to not need to physically or psychologically harm their recruits in the process of making them Marines. They also never take part in racial, ethnic, or sexually derogatory slander. I was recently made aware of a certain Gawker post, where it was said that Drill Instructors call their recruits faggots and other racial slurs “… like 50 times a day.” I’ll say this, the article had many, many inconsistencies leaving me to doubt completely that it was real at all. That said, it exists and now people like me have to say you shouldn’t always believe everything you hear on the internet.
I remember that I was actually surprised by the absence of it. It was as if they had all been coached into exactly what they were and were not allowed to do. Instead, there was a sort of “fake swearing” that existed, where everyone used in positions of authority used words like “Freak” rather than certain four letter words you might have expected. It was even odd in some places, “Mother-freaking?” but I almost never heard actual cursing and never anything that sounded like sexual or racial insults. Well, there was this joke about no races existing in the Marine Corps, just dark green and light green Marines. It seemed like a poor attempt at promoting some version of racial equality in the ranks, but it was pretty funny, none the less.
If you think about it, there is a real reason why DI’s don’t engage in this sort of thing, beyond just altruism and the tender love that they have for their recruits. A lot of recruits are still pretty much children and their parents are still pretty mothery. They haven’t fully embraced the idea that this place is preparing their children for war, and not just a summer camp. Having said that, many of the Drill Instructors understand that every letter that a recruit writes home could find itself echoed in an email to some Senator somewhere weeks or months later. For that reason, most of the completely unjustifiable aggression has been weeded out of the boot camp process, leaving only the type of aggressive behaviors one might expect as being necessary with the type of mission of the Marines have. This was at least true in 2004 when I attended it and I doubt very much has changed the logic behind it.
4 Lessons From the First 5 Minutes of Boot Camp
From the first moment you arrive at a Marine Corps Recruit Depot, you are neck deep in the ceremonialized terror that is the way of life within the United States Marine Corps. When recruits’ feet hit the ground, before even they leave the bus, they are psychologically shaken and immediately introduced to what will become their routine and what their expectations will be. While I’d like to discuss what this would be like, words fail to communicate what a proper demonstration would make clearer. Below is a video showing exactly what it is like for every recruit before they even get off the bus at the Recruit Depot.
After you’ve seen it, there are some points I’d like you to take away from the experience, and maybe to review the video once you know what you’re seeing.
- Everything the drill instructor does has a purpose; everything. Every word the drill instructor is saying is memorized. Notice the precision of language, the directness of orders and instructions, and the brevity of communicating complex instructions. At first glance you would probably view the video either as one of the recruits, frightening overwhelmed, or you may view it as a comical charade. It may seem funny to you, it may seem terrible to you, but every word has been rehearsed to provide some crucial and instructional value in some way.
- The recruits are being yelled at before they ever set foot off the bus. This is a unique welcoming ritual, rare in even military circles. You can hear this if you begin listening immediately. It lets recruits know immediately who is command and wastes no time with allowing them to wander aimlessly and confused. They receive clear instruction directing their actions before even arriving.
- Within 5 minutes, 100 individuals with no group training at all have been trained by drill instructions on how to:
Listen and learn while at bootcamp. (Not as obvious as you may think)
Respond to instruction. (Like everything, there are rules to this)
Stand in formation. (Also not as self as self explanatory as one might believe)
Move as a unit. (The Yellow Footprints help with this considerably)
They have also all been read their rights and responsibilities as recruits, which they listened to silently, then in a speedy and organized manner, filed to a different area. Unless you have ever had the extreme misfortune of dealing with large numbers of teenage boys, you will not appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment.
- This is a ceremony that has taken place every week for every new group of recruits for decades. Regardless of technology and the passage of time, it has remained the same throughout. It is very well rehearsed and very well engineered to be important enough to be fit into the first five minutes of Marine Corps boot camp. As I said before, everything a Drill Instructor does has purpose.
The Yellow Footprints, as they’re known by Marines, are more than just placeholders. They symbolize breaking into a new world much more than they serve to instruct recruits were to stand. Every Marine remembers that moment, those first 5 minutes at the depot and for good reason. They are their own rite of passage and a binding element to Marines across generations, knowing how similar the experience is for so many. It would be good at this point to review the video and realize the power the first 5 minutes have with which to open the eyes of a youth about to enter training. It’s an experience which instantaneously sets the pace for training for what’s to come and makes it clear that no nonsense will be accepted. What’s more? There are three more months of this, and, as I will describe later, it gets much worse.
Head Games – Receiving: Your Welcome to Marine Corps
On this section of the series explaining the rationale behind why boot camp is so intensive we will be talking about Receiving and the first few days of boot and why they are so crucial to the training that will follow. Receiving is a period before training begins. You arrive at boot camp, but for the first few days or so, you don’t actually train. Officially, boot camp hasn’t actually started. Functionally, receiving phase is necessary for little more than getting your paperwork taken care of. You just do paperwork getting into the federal documentation system. You will receive all your gear and start your initial process into “getting ready” for bootcamp. Of course, it’s the way you do all of this that is important. The fact that boot camp hasn’t actually started shouldn’t imply that recruits are relaxed, just waiting around, or playing Madden on the couch by any means. The entire time recruits are still hounded, hassled, yelled at, screamed at, hurried, stressed out, and berated for at least part of every inch of every step they take by inexplicably angry men standing around every corner. There’s more, though.
Later in that first night, a recruit will go through the numerous immediate rites of passage that are part of the boot camp, and more broadly, the Marine Corps and military experience all together. That first night provides recruits with the rather impactful physical transformation and uniformity that will be necessary later on to build unit integrity. The first of which, is when they get the haircuts.
Why is the haircut so important? To be completely honest, it is part of the erosion of individuality.What? Yes, the erosion of individuality. Sure, the official response is that the military haircut is to ensure that military member’s gas masks secure properly (which is true), but in the indoctrination phase, it is necessary for that other psychological reason, repression of individuality and the building of unit cohesion.
Why should a warrior lose his individuality? Individuality is what makes him special and unique, right? It is what makes him valuable, right? It’s what the modern American culture is based on! While this is true, in theory, it can also be a problem if you are trying to make an individual into a team oriented warrior.
Individuality makes recruits feel special and unique. It makes them feel different and as if they might be above someone or something else, say, like being dragged through mud or forced to march fifty miles in the span of three days with no food or rest. They are better than the orders they might receive. Individuality makes people feel that, in some indescribable way, they are better than other members of the platoon. They are too good for the treatment that is part of the boot camp experience and transformation. You wash that away with uniformly matching haircuts and attire, and that sense of individuality erodes away. From day one, everyone is the same. In fact, during my time, being called “an individual” was an insult as it meant that you were a person who couldn’t put the needs of the others before your own. Yes, individuality is repressed as they will spend the next three months dressed the same, act the same, and look the same. It’s an important part of the transition. Eventually, individuality is encouraged again, later on after boot camp, such as the School of Infantry or their Military Occupational Specialty Training. As NCO’s it will be a major part of their Corporal’s Courses and Sergeant’s Courses, with senior members eventually moving on staff colleges, where the importance of individual leadership is central to their training. The military doesn’t want robots, but for those first few months, and beginning in receiving, it’s important to put the unit first in the mind of recruits. The best way to do that is make them all look as close to identical as is possible.
Now we move on to something else very important and why I say that it is “psychological” retraining. You go through the next few days running from place to place, doing this, that, this, that and you won’t even realize… you haven’t really slept in three days. Yeah, you will go through about three days without sleep upon arrival. The whole time you are completely exhausted while running on adrenaline or fear, and hearing over and over, that you are inferior. That is, inferior to real Marines, which you aren’t yet. You haven’t earned the title, after all. You aren’t thinking about it, but those little jabs at your personal self-image are sinking in. You are completely tired and these things build up. Without realizing it, you start to believe that these things which are being told to you are true, that there is a weakness in you and that you are less than the perfect person you could be. In your current state, eventually, your mental defenses will be weakened to the point you embrace them and that you must change to live up to the obligation you have taken up.
I want to say something that should be important to you as the reader: The whole idea of getting people tired enough to accept subtle, but constant attacks on their psyche reads very much like brainwashing. Actually the clinical term would be classical and operant conditioning, but don’t worry about the fancy psychology jargon. The idea of it, brainwashing, conditioning, repression of individuality, mind games, or whatever you want to call it, scares a lot of people. They think about military, and especially the Marines, using all these tricks to kill the humans inside and turn our children into some sort of mindless killbots. That isn’t true, I’ll be doing a piece later on why boot camp training isn’t brainwashing, but for now, I will agree that the techniques are severe. They’re much more severe than the stress from test day at a university and much more so than day-to-day stress at a job. We have to remember the fundamental mission of boot camp.
You have to train 18 year olds to run to the sound of gunfire and perform under fire and the threat of death.
When you are constantly being told that you aren’t good enough to be in the Marines, and constantly being reminded that you aren’t ready war… it is true. No eighteen year old kid fresh out of high school is. There are many habits that kids and civilians have that need to be unlearned for success in a life where matters of life and death are literal. Like we said, they have to run into battle, and that sense of self-preservation is damaging to the mission, the other members of their team, and in a way that doesn’t lend itself very easily to reason, themselves. When any individual isn’t fully involved in the mission at hand, they create an environment that decreases the chance of any of them getting back home. College will never provide a normal person with that dilemma and why “mind games” aren’t necessary for the creation of a normal office going, suite and tie wearing individual.
At this point we are still less than one week into bootcamp. Once they’ve accepted, whether cognitively or not, that they aren’t ready to be in war… that’s when they are ready to begin training. The recruits are about to experience Training Day 1, known as Black Friday. After Receiving and over the next three months, the recruits will face exercising in endurance, training in the arts of war, and learn to act and think as a unit. These are some of the more important things that are trained, but they can only happen once a recruit fully embraces the fact that they aren’t yet a warrior.
As I am sure you have guessed, for Marines, the term Black Friday has nothing to do with holiday bargain shopping. Black Friday, for us, is a day you remember for the rest of your life. This is when Marine Corps basic training begins. Black Friday is the day you meet your real Drill Instructors. Up to this point, the instructors who have been over you were Receiving Drill Instructors. Their job ends on Training Day 1. On T-Day 1, Black Friday, recruits will meet the men who will be over them and with them for every step of the next three months.
Like all other major milestones of boot camp, there is ceremony involved in this. The meeting of the Drill Instructors begins with introductions by your Series Commander late in the morning. This involves a speech where he will outline some of the expectations that will be placed on recruits, as well as formally introduce the platoon to their Drill Instructors. It’s actually a very well rehearsed ceremony that has been, like so many others, exactly the same since time immemorial. During this speech, the Series Commander will lead the Drill Instructors in the Drill Instructor’s Creed. It’s a powerful event from the perspective of new recruits sitting there watching it from the floor. Following the creed, the Series Commander will exit, leaving the Senior Drill Instructor in charge of the platoon. His speech is one that few recruits will forget. It’s important to really understand how much aggression goes into being a Drill Instructor. They are masters of intimidation and you will feel that in every word of the Senior Drill Instructor’s Black Friday speech. Words alone don’t do justice to understanding the moment, so I’ll share this instead:
Up to this point, the recruits have basically been told what is expected of them and what is expected of their Drill Instructors. Note that in no way was it alluded to that anyone would be nice to recruits. You really don’t understand that during the Drill Instructor’s Creed or the Senior’s “welcome aboard” speech. You feel nervous and intimidated, but you really have no clue what you are in for.
Then there is a moment after the first introductions that the Senior Drill Instructor will finish off his speech with a fateful series of words.
“Drill Instructors, take charge and carry out the plan of the day.”
Which they will respond, “Aye, Aye Senior Drill Instructor.” and he will walk back into his office, slamming the door behind him. In your mind you’re thinking, “Maybe there is going to be another speech. Maybe this is all we are going to be doing today. That would be nice.” This would be wrong. The speeches are over. The sitting is over. From this point on, those remaining Drill Instructors will introduce you into the full fury of the decision you have just made.
What follows the Senior Drill Instructor’s welcome is nothing less than a torrent of hate and terror recruits could probably never imagine. Recruits are ordered across the squad bay as the Drill Instructors scream and shout with the pent up fires of a thousand angry suns. There is noise and movement everywhere. It’s true chaos. Recruits will carry their sea bags loaded with gear around with them all over the squad bay, running back and forth, for painful hours on end. Drill Instructors will flip recruit’s footlockers, spewing all the belongings they owned out into massive mounds on the floor of the squad bay. They’ll toss the recruits bunks across the room. Bottles of soap, toothpaste and shaving gel will break and shatter, leaving the piles of personal belongings and issued gear trashed all over the floor. Then the recruits will be marched around and around, back and forth, following every command of the Drill Instructors, though never fast enough, never loud enough, and never with enough of the ever loving intensity demanded of them. All the while the parade of pandemonium continues, recruits will be kicking each other’s gear around in haphazard piles across the squad bay.
During this time, recruits are introduced to the concept of Incentive Training, or IT at this point. Drill Instructors are allowed to use incentive training to instill discipline and correct mistakes. I’ll get to that later. It’s rough and every one of them will go through it. They’ll do more jumping jacks, pushups, mountain climbers, and other exercises than anyone ever imagined. After this, sometimes Drill Instructors will insist on “tours of the base.” Recruits will be filed as fast as their collective feet will carry them to a pit of sand outside the barracks. The entire platoon will be ordered to push up, flutter-kick, side-straddle-hop, and run in place until they will be completely exhausted and given-out, basking in the precious moments when their sweat covered faces rested against the sand. Then the will visit another sand pit somewhere else. Then they will visit another somewhere else, far, far away, somewhere on the other side of the base.
Finally, covered in sand and sweat, the recruits will file back to the barracks and pull out their canteens. They will drink, and drink, and drink, drinking until they had proved they had finished every last drop, then they would refill their canteens, and drink some more. This, as you might expect, is to keep them from dying of dehydration and exhaustion. This cycle of what seemed to be mindless torment won’t end until many hours later. They still have to return their home back to some semblance of normalcy after it had been reduced to what, metaphorically, could be described as a war zone. The following two videos are much more clear about what Day 1 will be like than the, “kind and gentle” speech the Series Commander might leave one believing.
The truth was, as the recruits parade around the room, being screamed at by terrifying men, they will each be wondering what they got themselves into. Regardless of what they may be thinking, they are still a long way from the end of T-Day 1. At least by that point they’ll understood why T-Day 1 is known throughout the Corps as Black Friday. Motivated Devil, a youtuber who creates FPS video footage while telling stories about life in the Marines spells it out well. In his words:
It’s pretty much the hardest day, it really is. It’s going to test you. You’re going to be thinking, did I make the right move? Am I supposed to be here? Even myself, I’m not going to to lie, I was like what the Hell did I get myself into? Am I going to make it out of this? Am I going to become a Marine? It’s the hardest day just because it’s the mentally hardest day, because it’s your first day of meeting your Drill Instructors and they want nothing to do, but to f*** you up. They just want to f*** you up all day…
But the whole day, their main goal is to just break you down and make you think, did I do this for the right reason? Am I supposed to be here?
And therein lies the reasoning for Black Friday’s existence. On Black Friday, meeting your Drill Instructors is an experience no one forgets. Recruits see how relentless they can get. They are also sort of made aware what DIs won’t do. Recruits see that no human being has ever terrified them that much, but they never actually touch them. DIs might adjust your stance in a manner you don’t consider delicate, but you’re not going to get a Full Metal Jacket punch to gut any time soon. You realize you won’t be beaten up, punched or kicked, or thrown into anything. The only real things they do to you is tell you to do mundane stuff in the most horrible way imaginable. You will survive that. It’s important to realize that, no matter what happens from here, you’re going to survive. This is mostly because, from the point a recruit is “picked-up” into their boot camp platoon, there really is no going back. From Black Friday on, it is easier to finish boot camp than to get yourself kicked out or separated from recruit training.
Surviving Day-1 of training is important because it sets the pace for everything else to come afterward. You clearly gain an appreciation of the Drill Instructor’s and accept that the easiest thing for you to do to get through boot camp is just to do whatever they say and to do it fast. It simply isn’t worth the inconvenience you know they are capable of, to do anything less. It’s odd how that sort of mentality builds stamina and motivation. Recruits will need these to carry them through to the end of training. They aren’t going to have time to not listen or to move slowly at any point over the next three months of Recruit Training. There is just too much to learn.
1st Phase and Isolation from the Outside
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.
The Arts of War
There is a science of warfare, but there are also the arts of the war. The science of warfare centers on matters of logistics. They focus on issues of the economic scarcity of warriors, the psychology of denizens occupied territories, and the grand movements of the strongest forces to the weakest pressure points of an enemy’s regime. These are the concentration of Generals and world leaders. The arts of warfare, however, are the acts of combat which must be learned, practiced, and mastered by the individual warriors themselves. They are the subtle placement and gentle flexing of the Brachio-radial muscles over the carotid artery, severing blood flow to the brain and knocking out an enemy in seconds. It is the resistance to jerk the trigger and break the sight alignment, gently squeezing it slowly until the rifle fires, seemingly on its own. It is the practice of coordinating attacks between individuals and small units, leveraging fewer warriors to exponentially greater effect through the use of fire and maneuver. It is knowledge to save a wounded friends life when there is literally no one else there to do it better.
Recruits in boot camp are introduced to the basic military arts. Marine recruits go through several different training cycles and will learn skills in Martial Arts, Small Unit Tactics, Hand-to-Hand Combat, Emergency First-Aid, and classes varying from rank structure, to Marine Corps history. They will also receive nutritional training, maintenance of gear, and physical education. After their first month, they will progress to learn rifle marksmanship, survival, and the beauty of the forced march.
Among the first lessons recruits receive will be in hand-to-hand combat. Many branches don’t emphasize personal combat, feeling that long after the age automatic machineguns, autonomous drones and atomic weapons, exchanges of the fist and feet are outdated. Some nations and militaries don’t even practice them at all. The Marines, however, see it as a necessity because of the way they fight. They took this belief so far, that they created their own martial-arts fighting style. This is MCMAP, the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. This specialized form of combat martial arts is built on philosophies other than self-defense, but actual offense and the ability to deliver lethal strikes with not just the fist, but knives, and an empty rifle, or even, as the moto One Mind Any Weapon states, any common object which happens to be lying around. It should also be mentioned that the style has incorporated many non-lethal restraints for crowd control and policing scenarios, useful over the past decade and a half of insurgency warfare. Recruits will spend several days training in pits of pulverized rubber tires, perfect for hard landings, practicing the basics of this fighting style. By the end of boot camp they will receive the first belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP).
If the Army is a camping trip, and the Air Force is a club, than the Marines are a cult, one whose most important rituals and religious rites center around their rifles. This tradition began as far back as Marine sharpshooters fighting in the Revolutionary War dangling high in ships’ riggings and nets, picking off enemy officers and troops engaged in naval battles. It continued on when during the World War I Battle at Belleau Wood, Marine sharpshooters sniped enemy German forces from well beyond the German’s ability to reach them, recording numerous kills from well beyond 700 yards. Today, during the second phase of their training, recruits spend more than two full weeks dedicated to the art of delivering deadly fire down range. It is so important that the drill instructors actually lighten-up to allow the recruits to focus.
PT – Physical Training
Physical training takes many forms, but the physical exercises aren’t usually the most difficult part of recruit training. They generally center on building instant obedience to orders over the actual physical stress involved in the exercises. Few obstacles are so difficult that most recruits can’t complete them. Often, they just need to be pushed. Usually, listening and doing what you are told will get recruits through the exercise and get out of the situation before you are yelled at. Some of the obstacles are more mental than physical: a high rope, a pool, a mountain. It’s rare that you will see a training exercise that breaks a recruit. That’s mostly because, for most, physically finishing the exercises isn’t the most difficult part.
As important as these, but without the room to elaborate on them each are the many other skills warriors must master to win and come home safely. I remember visceral reactions to the first aid lessons; graphic, gory and unsettling, but responsible for thousands of lives saved throughout the years. Military law, customs and courtesies, and military history are also necessary. They are crucial to the continuation of a culture literally built to ensure vital mission accomplishment in a competition between nations at war. Sadly, though, I can’t speak to all these skills here. It pulls too far from the point of the series, answering why boot camp needs to be so intense. Why these skills work to answer that question can summed in a single word – “efficacy”. When a person gains knowledge, they gain confidence. To make an eighteen year old run to the sound of terrible things, they must have faith in their skills to survive and win, as well as faith in the skills of those around them. The United States invests more into the training of their military than any other force in the world. This makes them confident and capable when put into harm’s way and helps to ensure that military warfighters suffer less loss of life than any other military so actively engaged across the world in history.
In spite of this, it’s important to note that boot camp is not really about the skills. Mostly, recruits are fed the very basics of the warrior arts there. The real skills come later on dozens of ranges, dojos, and training courses over a period of years. Boot camp is about the process of helping recruits adjust mentally to a life of challenge and one where uncommon stress is a common element to daily life. To state the obvious though, it is the skills they begin to learn in boot camp, and which will be mastered in follow-on training during their military careers, that will help them survive and win battles. Therefore, beyond the psychological aspects of recruit training, the skills of combat are an obvious necessity in the training evolution and survival of any would be warrior.
How Being Yelled At By Mad Men Makes You a Better Warrior
When most people think of Marine Corps boot camp and the terrors within it, the image of a terrifying man screaming like a hellbound banshee is the vision they conjure. I am pretty sure this is what brought on the question of why does boot camp need to be so intense in the first place. It’s easy to understand why they might need to learn to shoot and even more rational to see them doing work outs. It’s harder to explain stress induced humiliation. It’s also far from a myth or exaggeration. Drill Instructors really do yell as much you’ve ever imagined, even more than you would believe. In fact, you never really hear their real voices. In the Marines, boot camp instructors are actually trained on how to manipulate their voices so that they can yell for extremely long periods of time without damaging their vocal cords. This is known as the “Frog Voice”, and while funny to talk about, it is a real thing. I only really became aware of this once I got out and just so happened to run into two of my old Drill Instructors in the fleet. It is a weird experience to see these guys as real people after all that they subjected you to for three straight months. Actually, that’s a pretty awesome story.
The following video actually shows a great deal of things that are important. Listen at the very beginning and you can hear a Marine using a strange voice to speak to the victim/participant. This is Frog Voice. While watching, I ‘d like readers to look through the yelling to hear what the real offense was. A recruit complained about feeling dehydrated during a training evolution. That’s it. Also, as a warning, many of the following videos have a bit of language because, well… Marines.
On a side note, I’m not really sure why this is labeled as a “leaked” video. It’s from a series of videos on boot camp sold by one of the Drill Instructors. I met him once at a conference. He’s a pretty cool guy who runs a chain of grocery stores now. Moving on, when you really boil it down, why yell at that kid so much for being thirsty and feeling weakened by training? Does that sound rational? I’ll get to that, but first, let’s take it up a notch. The following video shows what is most likely the most terrifying event recruits will ever experience. This is what is universally known throughout the Marines as the “Omnidirectional Ass Chewing” where multiple Drill Instructors will be screaming at you in unison as you attempt to make sense of the chaotic universe around you.
“Why do all these things you ask?” The answer is disturbingly simple and sadly, rational. Yelling at someone, preferably in the most personally offensive manner possible, is the easiest way to get a human being who is unaccustomed to performance under stress to take action while being placed under an extreme and sudden stress environment (combat). It trains them to block out the noise and the fear and the stress and just do what they need to do. Remember that kid who was yelled at for being dehydrated? Was he really being yelled at for being thirsty, or was he being yelled at for trying to skip a training evolution? Was he really being yelled at for trying to feign sickness rather than complete an exercise? Was he really being yelled for being weak, or for allowing himself to use weakness as an excuse? The depot needs competent Marines, and allowing any of these things to pass would not fulfill that mission. That recruit will think twice before complaining about water again and therefore, he will tougher. The truth is, if you are less afraid of the physical stress than you are the psychological stress, you learn to get tough without complaining about it. We can’t actually shoot at the kids, you know, but the Omnidirectional Ass Chewing is one of the most important parts of onboarding that most militaries go through, and the yelling really never stops after that.
After the OAC, there is Incentive Training, or IT. Drill Instructors are allowed to use incentive training to instill discipline and correct mistakes. That’s vague. IT is creating an extreme stress environment mixed with physical strain and exhaustion where recruits are yelled out, normally by one Drill Instructor on the either the Quarter-deck or the sand pits outside and are forced into a series of calisthenics that are extremely exhausting and physically challenging in the manner in which they are done. They do this needing to listen to the random instructions of the Drill Instructor and respond in the appropriate manner, or the exercise continues. Outside, they are limited to five minutes of IT in one of the sand pits located around the recruit depot. Inside, on the “quarter-deck,” there are no limits. While engaged in IT, while doing everything else, you learn to instinctively listen for the DI’s instructions and think really long and hard about never getting caught doing whatever it was that got you put in that situation in the first place.
Everything your drill instructors do to stress you out is designed to simulate the stress of combat and elicit immediate responses to orders in a manner that, despite all unpleasantness, is actually harmless. Yelling won’t get you killed. From someone who has been there, trust me, it works. The fact is that once you enter the military, people are literally screaming at you all the time and, like so many other things, you adapt. Eventually you will be a leader and screaming will be part of your job too, though acting like DIs in the fleet is pretty much looked down upon by most real Marines. What is extremely important to know is that just as quickly as these men started yelling they can turn it off just as easily. More than psychopaths, these men are actors with the role of taking advantage of specific psychological triggers to instill aggression and help military people cope with combat stress without actually experiencing combat. These men aren’t bullies. What you just saw was extremely important training, mental training. No one in the comments section will ever dissuade me from this position that the yelling is one of the most important things a Marine Corps Drill Instructor can do for a young recruit. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should try it out the next time Tammy comes in five minutes late to work. You probably won’t make a Marine out of her and you may just get yourself fired.
They are Called “Drill” Instructors for a Reason.
Act and Think as a Unit
Drill, or the endless marching about that is synonymous with military life, is part of the ancient traditions of martial culture that, in all honesty, have very little with getting people from place to place. Recruits drill endlessly. It seems like one of the greatest wastes of time ever conceived in an era of satellite guided munitions and 747 delivering us to Kuwait the same day we left California. For that reason, drill is one of the most overlooked elements of the Boot Camp process to nonveterans. Drill was a tool first recorded being utilized by the Greeks to maneuver large armies in necessarily tight formations to fight in close quarters. It was necessary as far back as our Civil War when formation fighting in pitched battles allowed the greatest use of the technology of the era. With the implementation of rifling and field artillery, the marching of formations of troops no longer made sense. With the advent of automated weapons, it’s practice was ended completely on battlefields. Drill, however, still lives on more so as a valuable learning aide for military practitioners, more so even than for being a time honored tradition.
Getting people where they are going isn’t really why we drill. It’s about conditioning a mind to think as a part of a team; to align to it. Drill is refined groupthink where an entire unit of eighty men or women are eventually trained to act in perfect unison. The movements are always performed the same way and at the same speed. The vocal commands of the Drill Instructor initiate, by that point, instinctive reactions in recruits. That is what “Drill” is about. It is the reason for the terms “Drill Sergeant” and “Drill Instructor”.
Secondly, drill still has relevance today by training Marines to focus on the instructions of their leader and to gain unison in their actions. This practice is instant obedience to orders, following instructions immediately without thought, persuasion, or other action. It also teaches the importance of individual action in teamwork. Individual recruits have to master their movements individually, and once coalesced, they achieve something much more powerful as a group. Drill is a sort of metaphor for many things the military hold important: unity of the group, following strong and experienced leaders, precision and excellence, and experiencing the feeling of shared success not achievable by individuals. It’s such an important metaphor that hundreds of hours are literally dedicated to little else, but learning how to walk – as a team.
That still doesn’t make it clear why all these things are rationally necessary today, so I’ll be clearer. When the overarching goal of boot camp is to train recruits to one day be able to function in extreme stress environments, overriding the fear response is the most important things you can do. There are two ways, realistically, to do this; you can train to the point of muscle memory, or you can train obedience. Muscle memory and learning to rely on your skills are good; that’s what gives efficacy in your abilities when you will need them, but even faith in yourself sometimes isn’t enough when you are truly afraid. Fighting gets to be much easier when you see leaders taking action. It’s also much easier to do your job when you’re given direction to do so. It’s basic psychology that the young crave direction when they aren’t sure of themselves. It’s much less known that there are proven experiments showing how simply giving a person an instruction from someone they perceive as being a leader, can be enough to help someone overcome fear and do what, alone, would be impossible for them.
Battle is an extreme example of this. Young combatants look to experienced leaders. More so than this, but battle doesn’t afford the normal democratic processes of debate and rigorous analysis to test out and vet if an idea is good or not. Quite honestly, there is no time, so often when dealing with situations on the ground, the only practical means of resolving a situation is to bank on the person who has the most experience and to do whatever he says immediately.
This is why the military invests so much into ensuring that your brain is hardwired to do just that, listen to the sound of experience and instruction as a default in moments of stress. It is an instinct that saves lives. As time goes on this instinct fades, but as it does, the individual’s experience grows. In time, they are the one with experience and able to lead the new recruits. It’s one of the cycles that works, but one which the civilian world has no comparison for. Why should they? It makes more sense to rationalize things out with charts and review panels when time is a luxury . In almost all military endeavors, this too is true. The military in many ways functions like a huge bureaucratic company. Sometimes though the necessity to have a culture of people who can simply do what they are told immediately, is the difference between your people surviving or mission failure. For this reason alone, the entire culture of the Marines still devotes countless hours to the art of drill, when most reasoned arguments would argue against it.
Below are three videos I wanted to showcase various phases of recruit training evidenced by their precision in drill movement as a unit. This is a platoon of female recruits a few weeks from the end of their training. They are learning, but still have some time before they are perfected.
Below is a platoon preparing for what is called Final Drill. This is a performance review of their abilities to carry out drill as a platoon. It is one of the most important training events as a platoon and culminates the highest point to test unit cooperation and teamwork. Once again, these are 18 year old men fresh out of high school. There are 80 of them and they have learned to carry out actions involving several steps and intricate footwork… in perfect unison.
Finally, Final Drill.
The Crucible – On Endurance Training
Among the many training elements that recruits must endure, the greatest obstacle they all must face is one of immense endurance, pushing their physical and mental stamina well beyond anything most of them could have endured before the Marine Corps. This is the “The Crucible”. Everything they have suffered up to this point is needed to push themselves through this final training exercise. By enduring long hikes like this, recruits are trained to overcome pain and fatigue, and to learn how to endure the long haul missions requiring stamina, endurance, and fortitude, rather than the short burst of energy, bravado, and courageousness that are the stuff of movies.
The Crucible, the last of these training evolutions in boot camp, consisting of a three day march totaling around 60 miles. Recruits sleep around four hours per night (if they don’t also have the unfortunate task of fire watch, which most will at some point). They have been functioning on perhaps two meals over the last three days, not to mention numerous stops to do obstacle course workouts, mock battle simulations, and carrying a huge amount of extra gear and equipment. The entire ordeal is also made all the worse by carrying massive packs with all the recruit’s gear and supplies. This isn’t to mention body armor. In total the recruit will be carrying around 70 extra pounds with him on this journey. The Crucible ends with a climactic day-long final march up a mountain named “The Reaper”, and 10 miles downhill before returning to their barracks, completing the grueling exercise.
The hike sets out before dawn. You’ve been awake for hours and with the first hint of sunlight, you are off on this final exercise. By this time the recruits have been in training for the last few months and are all physically in shape enough for the Crucible’s challenges. Even well rested, it would still be difficult. They, however, are exhausted beyond belief by the beginning of that third day. Given the ordeal of the last few days, the Crucible is an event that goes beyond physical strength. Mental toughness is what is being pushed here. All the mental trials and training, the pushing, and discipline of Drill Instructors were leading up to a point to test whether the recruit is ready to lead himself. It takes fortitude and a desire to not give up and to not lose face in front of the other recruits, as well as to lose what little respect you have from the Drill Instructors.
There are moments throughout the climb, and even worse on the descent, where you wonder if you will be able to keep going. I for one learned that, even under these conditions, you can still run carrying all this equipment for more than a few hundred yards even while you’re sporting the worst cramp in your leg you’ve ever had. The pain doesn’t actually stop your body from working, you just keep moving and somehow the pain will go away just as fast as if you stopped and cried about it. This mental training is necessary as it will give them the strength to survive much harder and longer training once they reach the fleet, and missions that will test them physically and mentally.
In the end, you’ll be making that hike alone. You might be surrounded, but when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other, you are utterly alone and dependent only on yourself to do it. It will really just be you battling against the constant desire to quit, to give up, or to find a way to escape. This makes you think. You think back on the workouts, the endless IT sessions, the sleepless nights, and all the things you have already overcome. Remembering what it was like with your face was in a sand pit, the last time you did one of these hikes, or the numerous times you’ve conquered the O-course, you’re reminded of your own capacity. Each of these were a reminder of the capabilities you have and are each a piece of providing efficacy towards your belief in your ability to complete today’s long march.
Secondly, when you look around you, all the other recruits are still engaged in the task. It’s much harder to fail when others around you are still going, especially being that these are your friends and peers who you have grown close to and respect. What you don’t know, is that at the same time you are looking to them to keep going, many of them are struggling just as much, looking at you to stay strong, as well. Each of you has the same stone faced determination, which says to all the others, “I got this.” That man is no different than you. If he can do it, I can do it. I find it amazing that when two people who would likely fail a venture on their own, set out together, there is a mutual spirit that carries them to the end of the goal.
Lastly, you learn to celebrate the little victories. You’ll say things like, “Just over that hill” and visually calculate the halfway point, picking some random rock in the middle, and then perhaps some other random rock between that. You focus on just that rock, getting closer and closer until you pass it. A little victory. The little victories add up and push you onward, until you see the barracks in the distance. Now you are counting down until you reach the place you’ve learned to think of as home, and now you have a big victory, one that you will drive you for the rest of your life. Some psychologists would call this compartmentalization, breaking large problems down into more manageable chunks, lessening the burden of fear and creating challenges, which one can be easily overcome on the way to actually impressive feats.
These three skills, ones no one explicitly taught, which can’t honestly be taught, are part of the mental toughness which all Marines require to survive boot camp and the trials they will face later on in their military career – Looking back at obstacles already conquered as a reflection of your strength, looking to your peers for motivation, and compartmentalizing problems to be better able to handle them. These skills one learns through the osmosis of Boot Camp. They are skills Marines will use for the rest of their lives, but which can’t truly be ingrained in a person until they’ve experienced the process by which mental toughness is forged. It will not be easy, but when they reach the top of the mountain, they will have completed the most important major obstacle and last right of passage to becoming a Marine.
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(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”.
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 bookon 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 itdoesn’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.
Summary – The EGA and What it Takes to Make a Warrior
As a regular person, you might not know why the Marine pictured above is crying. You’d probably guess he is going to a funeral or about to leave home for the first time to go off to war. You’d be wrong. The young recruits pictured above are about to take part in a culminating event of recruit training, the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor Ceremony.
The EGA, the Eagle Globe and Anchor, is a small trinket of metal coated in a thin strip of black paint. It fits in the palm of the hand and can be bought for around $2 from any military apparel provider. Realistically speaking, that is all it is… it is a trinket. To the Marines, however, it is a symbol. The EGA is the emblem of the United States Marine Corps and only Marines are entitled to wear it. For the last three months, this recruit has endured all the trials of Marine Corps Boot Camp, but he was not a Marine. He, like all the other recruits with him, weren’t considered Marines until after they completed training. They were called “recruit” and suffered the hardships, tests, suffering, and indignities which come with the moniker. Once they finished Boot Camp, more properly, once they receive their EGA, only then will they have “earned the title” of United States Marine.
It’s a somewhat religious moment for our odd little cult of warriors. For many, receiving the EGA, and by extension the honor of being Marine, is the proudest moment of their lives. It is the moment, for so many of them, which truly gave their lives meaning. As melodramatic as that may sound, many of my friends who joined the Marines had no direction, no purpose, and no dreams for the future. They didn’t have a sense of agency, the belief that their decisions mattered. They were just riding the waves of life, drifting wherever the currents delivered them. They were far more likely to end up in prison as they were to be looked upon with honor and respect by their community. The Marine Corps, for many of my friends, gave them that sense of being part of something that mattered. If I were to attempt a guess, I’d say that the young man pictured above is crying because, for the first time, he is part of a community of people who matter, one which is honorable, and respected because of what they mean to the world and the citizens which they are drawn from.
Thank you for following this series of articles on the logic behind the need for a truly intense and transformative boot camp experience in today’s military. The logic is there. It is terrifyingly present in every subtle action of the Drill Instructors. As I said before, everything they do is for a reason. Boot camp, and particularly that of the Marines, is made to psychologically change a child into someone capable of performing under combat conditions. In most cases, it is intended to take from them the aspects of their civilian lives that will make life harder for them in the military, those that sometimes would have killed them and others, and makes those weakness no longer part of the calculation. The yelling, the sleep deprivation and being cut off from friends and family are part of the process of becoming a warrior. It is also part of becoming a cult.
And that is what they are. The Marines have formed a culture with the singular obsession of destroying those who endanger the United States’, her allies, and her interests. While they’re humanitarian efforts across the world, though rarely remembered, can never be denied, it is their ferocity in combat that makes them respected around the world. It is their ability to overcome and overwhelm enemies that reminds the world there are no better friends, and no worse enemies. This process of personal transformation takes place throughout a lifetime, but the seeds of it are sewn in boot camp. The foundation of a culture are laid in the welcoming of every generation’s newest members. This is why boot camp does things which aren’t normal through the eyes or our broader culture in which the Marines serve. To normal people, this is crazy.
This is why normal people can’t do the things warriors are asked to do. They can’t imagine combat or the terror of an enemy upon them and they shouldn’t be forced to. The goal of a good government and a strong military, is to create a world where their normal people never have to imagine pain, suffering, hate, or danger. But for these people to exist and prosper, there are those who do, and those who are willing to endure, and those who can fight. They don’t exist to serve and die for their country, but to fight smartly, leverage their risks with their skills, and make the other guy die for his. When others among them fall, they must see that their nation appreciates how special these people are for what they have elected to do. They have given up their innocence as civilians, free to pursue pleasure and prosperity for a time for something more, something each of them defines for themselves, but something which nonetheless, benefits all of us who prosper in the shadow of their actions. For these people, there must be a transition from “civilian” to “warrior”. Boot camp is the means of that evolution and every part of it is necessary. For those who complete the training, their lives will never be the same, they will never be the same; they will be Marines. That title can’t be passed down to you, you can’t buy it, and it is not given – it is earned when you become one of “The Few and The Proud” for life.