The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   93

Making the Corps

by Thomas E. Ricks

New York: Scribner, 1997

Armed, Admirable and Dangerous

This is a book about the present culture of the United States Marine Corps. It's very well-written, sympathetic to its subjects without being their mouthpiece, and one of the most worrying things I've read in a long time.

Making the Corps tracks an actual platoon of recruits (sixty-odd young men, aged 17 to 27) through basic training in the spring of 1995. The story of what they go through is told vividly and intelligently: not just the way it feels to have a Marine-issue self pounded into you, but what goes through the minds of those doing the pounding. Sections on the history of the Marine Corps, especially its ideological changes since the Vietnam War, and comparisons to other branches of the US military, develop fluidly out of the story of platoon 3086, carrying the reader along. It's a fine read; but not just that.

Basic training, for the modern Marines, is essentially an intensive process of indoctrination. Start by massive disorientation; cut all their ties with the former identity, in both practical ways (no radio, no TV, no publications except those of the group) --- and symbolic ones (issue clothing, shave all the hair and otherwise modify their bodies, require them to speak a special language). Emphasize their sub-human status (recruits are forbidden to use the first person singular, and must refer to themselves as "this recruit"). Keep them tired, make them repeat your slogans, impose your rules of behavior with extreme strictness, and never explain what is going on. On top of this, encourage them to identify with you: hold out the promise that, once they've shown their dedication to your group, they can join, and will not just be human once more, but a much better kind of human being than before. This procedure is common to the Parris Island drill instructors, many psychotherapists, innumerable cultists, Maoist re-educators, Stalinist secret policemen, and the officiating priests of many tribal initiation rites. The point, in all cases, is to tear out the old personality, the old beliefs, values and habits, and to put in new ones.

At least in the short term, this procedure is extremely effective --- possibly 100% effective, if given enough time and intensity. (The DIs are not allowed to do this, and about 15% of recruits drop out of basic training, most for "failure to adapt".) Whether it sticks afterwards depends strongly on how supportive of those new values and habits the social environment is. (American soldiers captured and brainwashed in the Korean War repudiated Communism quite swiftly after returning to the Goddess's Own Country, without counter-brainwashing.) Of the fifty-five young men in Ricks's platoon who made it through basic training and were formally recognized as Marines, eight had washed out within a year. The fraction would probably have been much higher, if many of them had not been posted far from home, and generally spent almost all their time within the Corps, and not in society at large. A natural inference is that civilian America is a society hostile to the culture of the Marine Corps. This is highly disturbing, for two reasons.

First: There is a lot of good in the Marine ethos. It claims to value qualities like self-discipline, sacrifice, courage, solidarity, achievement, courtesy, and most of all honor, that peculiar sublimation of competitive thuggery. After reading Ricks, I'm reasonably convinced that Marines also set a high value on these traits in practice, though of course, like all mortals, they match their ideals only very imperfectly. I think it's also fair to say that these traits are not valued, in words or in acts, in large swatches of America. (Full disclosure: when I was growing up, my family would condemn laziness, dishonesty, rudeness, etc., as "American".) But they are socially valuable, and they delimit a coherent way of giving life dignity and purpose. It's not one I'd choose, but it's not to be lightly mocked.

(This is not to say that I find the Marine ethos wholly admirable: I'd enlist if I did. They set great store by things which have no intrinsic worth, like physical toughness, and even on things which are positively vicious, like automatic obedience and emotional hardness. The idea that people who do not have their virtues might have others is deeply alien to them, as is the notion that being a Marine might not be the most important thing in life, or that soldiering is at best the least of a host of evils. And so on.)

Second: The Marines are aware being a highly distinctive subculture. (As Ricks says, after a few years in the Corps, black and white Marines have more in common with each other than with civilians of either race.) They are now, and have been since about 1980, a conscious counter-culture: they look down on civilian society as degenerate, undisciplined, disintegrating, worthless. They feel they were betrayed in Vietnam (stabbed in the back, as it were), and that civilian society doesn't just not share their values, it has no values worthy of the name. (Devotion to country comes far behind devotion to the Corps in the indoctrination of the recruits.) Normally, the response to this should be "well, it's a free country"; in a pluralist democracy people ought to be perfectly free to believe whatever they damn well please, even or especially about society at large. But the military is not just any group of people: it consists of organized specialists in violence, who can force their opinions on the rest of us; it can make us cease to be a pluralist democracy.

There are essentially three ways to avoid this fate: keep the military out of politics, have no military, or make the entire citizenry into the military. Eliminating the United States military is not an option. Neither is dissolving it into the general population, at least not soon and in any obvious way, attractive though that vision is ("the People in arms" and all that). We are left with keeping them out of politics somehow, and that means either persuading them that the civil government is legitimate, or that it offers them the best deal they'll get. Paying them off is not a long-term solution: on the one hand they may intervene out of sheer disgust with an illegitimate system, and on the other soldiers seem unusually unable to appreciate the fable of the golden egg. We need a military that sees us as legitimate, as worth fighting for. That means, under the present circumstances, making the military less distinct culturally, either bringing society closer to the military, or bringing the military closer to society.

Ricks has some sensible recommendations under the first heading: easing the transition between military and civilian life in both directions, bringing more people into the military in senior ranks later in life. I have a gut dislike for the idea of universal military service, but can see a compelling argument for it, if it really is universal (among other things, it reduces the commitment of the grunts to the military), and in any case Ricks would offer the alternative of civilian service for a longer term. It's easy to make a list of reforms which we need anyway --- like caring for children better, fixing our seriously broken public schools, reducing the attractions of theft by increasing those of honest toil, making our elites less isolated --- that would also help, by encouraging some of the legitimate values the military finds lacking in civilian life.

As to making the military more like civilian society, we should start by noting that the other services are not nearly so alienated from the rest of country as the Marines are. The other services are also much more willing to adapt to civilian mores, a fact brought out by Ricks's well-drawn contrast with the Army's basic training, which eschews the old break-and-rebuild routine. (He plausibly claims this is because the other services are defined by their jobs, but the Marines are their culture.) Such trends should be encouraged: the Army is after all almost if not quite as effective militarily as the Marines, and perhaps the traits which make the Marines better at "small wars" and the like can separated from those which make them politically dangerous. Given all this, getting rid of the Marines is tempting, but that probably won't happen unless they openly defy the elected authorities. (I should say that scrapping the Corps is my idea, not Ricks's.) It would also be a good thing if indoctrination put heavy emphasis on the idea that the military gets its legitimacy from faithful service to the country through its elected government.

Ricks's book is not perfect, but the flaws are small enough to be confined to a footnote. Keeping the military under control is one of the essentials of maintaining democracy. We have gotten complacent about it; probably even dangerously complacent. It would be an excellent thing if Making the Corps were read by concerned citizens of all political orientations, especially those who don't normally think about the military at all.

Errata: p. 38 and subsequently: what Ricks calls the "future imperative" is really the future indicative ("you will pick up that box"), not the imperative ("you, pick up that box") --- another way, I suspect, of driving home the idea that the recruits' obedience is simply inevitable; p. 43, both the battalions being contrasted are called the Third.
320 pp., map of Parris Island, 31 black-and-white photographs, analytical index (good but some odd gaps, e.g. no entry for rifles or riflemanship), no sources for quotations from documents
Cultural Criticism / Modern History / North America / Sociology / War
Currently in print as a hardback, ISBN 0-684-83109-0, US$ [buy from Powell's], and as a paperback (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1998), ISBN 0-684-84817-1, US$13 [buy from Powell's]. LoC VE23 R5 1997.
27 September 1999; small corrections, 17 November 2005
Thanks to Isa Bernardini and Zmarak Shalizi; and to Carl Eichenlaub for typo-spotting, and David Kane for a correction