The Bedrock of Marine Corps Indoctrination
By Chris White
I left college after a semester and a half, tried my hand at construction, waiting tables, pizza delivery, and security work, during which time I applied for several law enforcement positions, hoping to become a California Highway patrol officer, like my uncle. I soon enough reached the point of dissatisfaction with waiting to start my life, when my father submitted an off the cuff suggestion: "You could always join the Marines." The idea was that I could do that for four years and maybe gain the necessary credentials to become a police officer and to gain a foothold for myself that I had not attained up to that point. Without giving it second thought, I called the recruiting station and made an appointment to see about my options. They were very nice, but more than that, they were confident, young men, and not much older than myself (I was 20). The recruiter counseled me on the process of becoming a Marine. The purpose of this twelve-week indoctrination is to produce the most efficient, disciplined, and gallant, killing machine.
The drill instructors do this, said the recruiter, by removing my undesirable civilian traits, such as individuality and the inhibition against killing other human beings, and inserting Marine Corps traits, such as anti-individuality for the sake of a team work ethic, and, most importantly, the ability and even desire, to kill other human beings. My recruiter's military occupational specialty had been a sniper before entering this assignment, so he was quite candid with me on matter related to warfare.
As alluded to in "First to Fight Culture", civilians are molded into Marines through a logical, systematic process of intense mental and physical indoctrination. The goal of this is to produce troops capable of following orders with minimal agency of their own, efficiently enough to be utilized as a tool of the state, whether the Marine agrees with the orders or not. The latter part of this statement should beg the following questions: "If the war is just, why so much intense indoctrination? Shouldn't the average patriotic citizen naturally exhibit enough willingness to fight for his/her country if they feel the need to support a war in the first place?" I recognize that in order for the military to function, a certain level of combat and physical training is necessary, but the vast majority of boot camp is dedicated to mental indoctrination aimed at control by superiors, which leaves open the question of whether our foreign policy is indeed justifiable enough to motivate people to fight when it is necessary.
The process of boot camp seems simple enough to the outside observer. Go to boot camp, get trained to fight, defend the country from evildoers, be a hero fighting and/or dying for freedom. I submit that it is not that easy and that there are indeed millennia of war making philosophies from around the globe that inform our current military indoctrination, with the main aim, as we have seen throughout history, being offensive for the sake of expanded power, disguised as defense.
We need only look to the greatest militaries throughout history, such as those of the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans, the French, the English, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Soviets, the Italians, the Germans, the Japanese, the Chinese, and even the Aztecs and the Incas, to see that the overwhelming purpose of state militaries has been to extend state power. During these wars, the populations were either convinced by the state that offensive battle would defend them from evildoers or they were forced to march in step to war by force, while the soldiers were given a more intense barrage of patriotism that justified state-sponsored killing, mixed with the instillation of gallantry or knightliness, as a virtue.
We live in a different time, with perhaps a more sophisticated system of military indoctrination (for civilian indoctrination through the corporate media, we have other sources of analysis, such as that of Chomsky, Herman, Zinn, Parenti, Cockburn, St. Clair, Said, and dozens of others). The entire philosophy of forming Marines rests on the concept of double-think, a la Orwell's 1984. This concept follows the rationale that if one can be convinced to accept two simultaneously contradictory concepts, the result is a controllable person. For example, Marines are trained, as have soldiers since time immemorial, to see themselves as knights in shining armor, whose sole purpose in life is to defend human life, while on the other hand, they are capable of committing, and indeed, are enchanted with the idea of committing, the highest level of atrocities against other human beings.
They called us "Natural Born Killers", after the Oliver Stone flick about two serial killers who exhibited a lust for killing at random. We would sing songs that relished in the possibility of killing and raping noncombatant women and children, watching kids burn alive from napalm, and luring school children to their deaths with candy. We answered every command with the word, "Kill!!" We watched military battle footage in fast forward with Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (ironically, an anti-war song) in the background, all the while stomping our feet and screaming with blood lust.
My friends warned me prior to boot camp that I would be "brainwashed," a concept I feared, with ideas in my head about kidnap victims being mentally warped into submission. Boot camp was not like that at all. I felt little fear during my "brainwashing" (or, for our purposes here, my double-think indoctrination). The process is indeed gut wrenching for some, but for me (and most others, I believe), the mental process of submission was relatively painless. Boot camp is controlled chaos, with the all-powerful drill instructors at the helm. They control everything you do, from the order and speed of getting dressed, to the way you eat, sleep, and use the bathroom, to the way you walk, to the way you talk, to the way you sit, to the way you stand, to the way you worship, to the amount of water you drink, and so on, until you only do and think what is ordered of you, which usually comes in the form of shouts and shoves. At a certain point, you lose that nasty civilian trait of individuality mentioned by your recruiter, and you accept, nay, enjoy, the fact that you under their control. You signed on the dotted line, you came here of your own free will, it makes sense to go along to get along. It's as simple as that for most of us who joined, whereas many of those who didn't make it could not rid themselves of that burdensome consciousness that told them something wasn't right with this.
I submit my first experience as a Catholic as an example of the arbitrary nature of control exhibited over recruits by drill instructors, which serves the function of reinforcing submission to authority during indoctrination. I was not a Catholic before boot camp, and am not a Catholic now. In fact, I have never been religious, save for my twelve weeks of boot camp. This was not of my own volition, mind you, but the day came when the platoon was told divide into Catholics and Protestants (no room in our platoon for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or any other religion), and I was left standing by myself in the center of the squad bay. A muscular, ugly drill instructor with horrid breath charged at me and yelled, "What the fuck is your religion, White?!!" "This recruit is not religious, sir!" I responded. "Is that right? No wonder you're so fucked up (He had selected me as the platoon leader, or, "guide", two days before)! You know what?! You're a fucking Catholic! Now get your fucked up ass over there right now!" Military explicitly states that you can exercise whatever religion you choose, and if you are not religious, you can spend your hour of worship in the squad bay. That did not exist in our platoon, and although I have met Marines who were able to go to other services outside of Christianity during their boot camps, I have also met others who have been discouraged or hassled about being non-Christian.
This is only a small issue, but it represents much of Marine Corps culture. Don't stray from the mainstream. You are not you anymore. You are part of a machine. The young Marine no longer needs to submit to authority after indoctrination precisely because they have achieved double-think, which works primarily as a mechanism for control on the battlefield. This does not necessarily translate into a submissive mind outside the realm of battle. The Marine Corps is full or troops who despise their military as well as political leadership, but because double-think has succeeded in boot camp, they are controllable during battle, regardless of their political or moral views, on the whole. Witness the soldiers interviewed for Michael Moore's new film, Fahrenheit 9/11. In one seen, soldiers are playing with a dead Iraqi body, and in the next, you have a soldier asking for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation.
Indoctrination techniques come in many forms, usually unnoticed by the recruits because of the chaos surrounding them as well as the fact that they actually desire to become Marines, just as they come to desire being under the control of the Marines. For example, just as slaves were often forced to refer to themselves in the third person, so are Marine recruits. Marine recruits in my company had to say, "this recruit", in place of "I". So, instead of saying, "May I use the bathroom?" we would say, "This recruit requests permission to use the head, sir!" Whenever one of us would say "I", we were ordered to jab our eyeballs with our fingers over and over, repeating the word "eye". There was your physical "eye", but no longer the personal "I". Thus, one of the same techniques used for keeping slaves subordinated lives on in the United States Marine Corps, who are the "first to fight" for the defense of the "free" world.
The Marine cannot be produced in any other way than to have this double-think mentality embedded in his/her psyche, especially in today's world of aggressive imperialistic militarism. Without it, how else could they convince people to risk their lives for such unnecessary wars, such as has not only been the case for the vast majority of our nation's history, but throughout human history as well? One can always argue that certain sides of wars have been justifiable in the past, but the amount of times state militaries have invaded for false or downright imperialistic reasons surpasses the "justifiable wars" by many multiples, and will continue to stain human societies until we begin to confront our values as human beings, with the goal of avoiding war until it is a last resort.
Chris White, a former Marine Sgt who served from 1994-98, is currently working on his PhD in history at the University of Kansas. He is a contributor to CounterPunch's new history of the last decade of war, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org