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

Earning the Title

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.


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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.

Continue on to The Crucible – On Endurance Training

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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 illicit 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.

Continue on to Learn to Act and Think as a Unit

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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.

Hand-to-Hand Combat

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).

Rifle Marksmanship

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.

Continue on to The Yelling – How Being Yelled at by Mad Men Makes You a Better Warrior

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Black Friday


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.


Go on to Isolation from the Outside or Read the full story

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Why do People Like Full Metal Jacket So Much?

The first time I watched Full Metal Jacket, I was in a tent in Kuwait on my computer, waiting for a plane to take me to Iraq for the next seven months. As a Marine, I felt like it was one of those movies I was supposed to have seen by this point, and the lull directly before going off to war seemed like a good time to do it. It left me very confused, in part, because the movie is famous for it’s actual depiction of war and warriors, but also because it was so very, very incorrect with my own experiences of being a Marine. It was only years later that I began to realize exactly why so much of the movie seemed off to me. It wasn’t a movie about warriors or even about a war; it was a movie trying to make a point, which stuck with the film’s target audience.

Full Metal Jacket was a movie for people who would never see war. It’s an anti-war movie about Vietnam where absolutely every element of war, warriors, the whole military experience, is shown as being something terrible, dehumanizing, and a pointless endeavour to detriment of all mankind. In 1987 at the film’s debut, it was it was exactly what people wanted to see from a war movie, because that narrative held true for millions of people.

FMJ does many things differently than most other war movies, namely because of the time period it was filmed in. If we look at different eras of the genre we see very different themes. Look at the John Wayne “Sands of Iwo Jima” or anything staring Audie Murphy, especially the one where he played himself, and you will probably be left with a very different feeling than if you were to watch something like Platoon, or even American Sniper. The early era focused on the heroism and unfortunate necessity of war due to the incontributable existence of evil in this world. They depicted warriors as heroes and the world as black and white.

Following this, the second major era attempts to break that in a sort of genre revolt. War movies began showcases war as a pointless affair, having no meaning than to make people suffer, both the participants and the victims. They go further into personifying the warriors, namely our own, as being universally deeply flawed to the point of being the villains, in efforts to make the genre more “realistic” and gritty. It’s noteworthy to also point out that this was the point when war movies were no longer being made by military veterans, and veterans were consulted less and less often in ensuring accurate tellings of their stories. Many stories from this period don’t even depict actual events, but only place them within actual time periods, such as the Battle of Hue City. Perhaps this was due to peace activists not involved in the war taking up degrees in liberal arts and film and entertainment. I can only really guess as to why the dramatic shift in war movies, around this time.

The third (the modern era) which I will say started around Saving Private Ryan, is the war epic. Your Black Hawk Downs, American Snipers, even the detestable Hurt Lockers, fall into this category. During that era, all war movies center around 1) Paying at least token respect to the individual troops, while 2) ironically showcasing each as deeply flawed because of the war, and 3) never given credibility to how war may benefit anyone (such as the Jewish people in Germany, the liberated France, or the empowered Kurds of Iraq). Modern war movies are themselves inheriting a stance of only being allowed to say something along the lines of “war is bad” and never veering from that rhetoric, while not socially being allowed to showcase the warriors as the deranged, murderous, barbarians depicted in Kubrick’s film. I guess that’s an improvement. This may be because in the modern era people felt more vulnerable after 9/11 and no longer accepted this view of veterans. It may be that more veterans have more social power to influence the way they are viewed via Social Media, as I am doing now. All that I can say for sure, is that something happened that broke from the way that second era war movies showcased us, from the way modern era movies do.

Having said that, no era is perfectly honest in their depiction of the military or of war. Take for example Black Hawk Down. I liked the movie, but it is filled with much of the spectral of the era while itself being the cinematic telling of one of the greatest modern military research projects in history. To make my point, my favorite line was when one soldier is given an order by a commanding officer, and replies, “But Sir, I’m wounded.” and the Officer replies back nonchalantly, “Everybody’s wounded.” I loved that line, but nothing like it happened in the book, which like I said, is one of the most factual retellings of events in modern history there is, so much so that the Army and Marine Corps, have adopted it as part of their reading programs for all non-commissioned and commissioned officers. All that to say, dramatic license for some is embellishment, for others, outright fiction and rarely is it priority to get the story right for history’s sake.

The honest truth is that all three, the military, war, and the individual warriors are extremely complex, but that complexity is too much for the average movie goer to be entertained by in only a two hour sitting. It is far easier to think of the average warrior as either a faceless bad guy, or a broken human because war is so bad, or keep overall ideas simple “War=bad, peace=good” and all things relating to one or the other falling into only one of those two categories. We’ve been made to think that war is some unsurvivable event, either physically or psychologically and that no normal person would be able to endure it, much less that some may see war as necessary and gain satisfaction from being part of one because they know their efforts provided some measure of good to others. (This sentiment in films correlates with the start of the Vietnam War and the end of the first era of war movies). Now, it is very hard for moviegoers to accept a purely heroic, purely rational, purely normal war hero figure because to do that they have to think of him as an average person, like us, who goes for a little while to do something important, unpleasant or not, and then going home to be normal again. Movies like that first present a false view of war and warriors based on stereotypes and tropes, one filled only with suffering and atrocities and with no good reason motivating thousands of rational people at all, then disturbs viewers a second way by making them uncomfortable with the thought, “Could I do those terrible things?” People don’t like that. They don’t want to identify with the common warrior that most of these movies depict. Part of them feels like the bad guy. This was the era in which Full Metal Jacket made its debut.

Having said all this, we can start to get into our conversation on Full Metal Jacket itself.

Full Metal Jacket is the perfect film to showcase second era war movies and the values they were meant to communicate. I am not saying that Kubrick told the truth in the least with the film, nor am I saying his goal was to try to lie to viewers. I think he is just trying to sell movies. He has to make a movie that doesn’t lead viewers into his way of thinking, whatever that may have been, but plays into their already existing biases and beliefs. That is how they identify with characters they know so little about and how they become emotionally involved. Movies don’t make money by correcting people’s notion of how the world really is. They make money by amplifying their beliefs to the point that viewers will tell their friends, “This is the truest thing in history of things and if you don’t watch it, you’re an idiot.” In 1987, no one was viewed anything that happened in the Vietnam War as anything similiar to WWII and the general consensus was that there was no point to it at all. With a legacy such as My Lai and the many thousands for a war more than 13 times more than were lost in Iraq, people wanted nothing to do with a “Sands of Iwo Jima” film depicting anything favorable about Vietnam, a heroic film depicting the period well wasn’t the type of movie that would have reached audiences. They were tired of the Cold War (which hadn’t yet ended) and had no sense that anything since 1945 having had any real value. Boil it all down, and FMJ depicts that belief. Note that it might not tell the truth that well, but it perfectly captures the mentality of the people of the time.

Take a look at the film’s hero/victim/protagonist, Pvt. J.T. ‘Joker’ Davis. He is symbolic on many levels which are meaningful to the time in which FMJ debuted. From before he is physically even seen on the screen, he is shown as a rebel, during the iconic introduction of the Drill Instructor played to near perfection by an actual Marine Corps Drill Instructor, R. Lee Ernie, where he outright mocks the Drill Instructor to devastating results. From that moment on, we sympathise with the character who obviously doesn’t belong here. Throughout the movie he is portrayed as not fitting in. He stands out from the brutish, womanizing, cruel or ignorant Marines, as most of them are depicted in the film. Davis instead is an intellectual, symbolized by the non-military regulation eyeglasses and the fact that his Military Occupational Specialty wasn’t infantry, but as a writer. He both stands for intelligence as well as truth, morally setting him above and opposed to the rest of the other “lower” infantrymen. Once he actually does deploy, he stands out as a continued rebel (remember he is morally and intellectually superior to all the other troops) by brandishing proudly the “Born to Kill” label sarcastically graffitied on his helmet and a peace sign on his flak jacket. Given that during the 70’s the symbol had more to do an anti-military sentiments than actual peace, Joker was Stanley Kubrick’s very deliberate attempt to make viewers see the character as being little more than the only rational, non-barbarian militant in the show, who is more a victim of circumstance than someone who wants to be a part of the war at all. All this combines to help viewers of a certain ilk, Kubrick’s target audience, identify with what the protagonist’s presumed views of what the war should be, when really, the truth is that the protagonist was written to personify the average viewer’s perception: “This is barbaric, this is senseless, this is wrong.”

Looking at the rest of the movie and you see a series of messages tailored for a moment in time, and that subgroup of Americans in 1987.

“War will utterly destroy the minds of good and innocent people.” Private Pyle was, to me, the worst part of the best part of the movie. He was over the top in personal treatment in how troops are treated in training, and major elements of his plot could not possibly have happened exactly because of the fate he met in the most acclaimed scene of the movie. Regardless, while the depiction of boot camp was novel for all war movies before or since, Pyle’s presence detracted from the film in a way that, for me, was little more than over the top sensationalism.

“War creates barbarism in American Warfighters where murdering innocent people is acceptable.” I’ve honestly never been able to deal with this scene, given what I have known and experienced in countless hours on the law of war, code of conduct, rules of engagement, and escalation of force training during my own time in the Marines. Honestly try to watch this scene and imagine your nephew or neighbor down the street being this evil, and also try to imagine everyone in the military just looking the other way as it happened.

Then there is the theme that “incoming warriors can only degrade the population of a region through their corruption and immorality.”

And finally, that the enemy that has been causing us so much harm is a much more impotent, underwhelming force than we had ever imagined, personified by nothing less than a little girl, making the American military machine appear, in retrospect to be the bullies and the aggressors.

Rob Ager, a Youtuber who has made a side profession of analyzing films, has even made a very potent argument for the numerous ways in Kubrick used metaphor to convey how military indoctrination forces young men into becoming rapists and killers through psychological rewiring of mind’s inner workings.

“Kubrick is acknowledging the universal truth about military brainwashing, soldiers who can’t be turned into brutal psychopaths by their Drill Instructors, can certainly be persuaded in the battlefields by the overbearing peer pressure of their lesser minded friends.”

If you’re curious, I must add at this point before watching, that the training that the Ager’s analysis and Kubrick’s film depict taking place in the first half of the FMJ, which is necessary for the following analysis and FMJ’s second half narrative to make sense, was nothing like what I experienced in Marine Corps boot camp. We never named our rifles girl’s names, we never slept with our rifles, there were no sexual connotations with them and the “This is my rifle, this is my gun” thing was never uttered in my tenure either. As a Marine Corps rifle instructor, I never even met anyone could explain to me what that meant. One can’t know if boot camp has changed and my experience is just because of reforms, or simply that Kubrick took a great deal more dramatic license than seems in hindsight unjustifiable.

In the end, Kubrick’s film does one thing exceptionally well, it tells the story many people wanted to believe to be the way it was. Was Vietnam hard? Yes, it was. Was it traumatic for many? Yes, it was. Was boot camp filled with mind altering psychopath building brainwashing? Umm… No. What Kubrick’s piece on Vietnam was can simply be called propaganda. It wasn’t the type of propaganda that encourages youth to join up or to make people support a war of one kind or another. It was quite the opposite, but still propoganda. It was a war film that used just as many inaccuracies to promote all the values of the anti-war movement prominent in the late sixties and early seventies and into the eighties, as the Nazi half truth films depicting the virtues of the German Third Reich. That said, it was filled with all the spectacle that makes a war movie entertaining, right down to the incredibly odd and ill fitting Mickey Mouse Club ending to the film.

So, to answer the big question, why did so many people like it? If I really had to guess, I would say it is because the movie boils down into under two hours everything they already believed about war. It supports their stereotypes, reenforces their biases, and conveys a message they have already accepted in their hearts and which society has generally accepted to be true, whether it actually is or not. When you stumble on something that so many people agree with, though few have experienced first hand, and which you yourself find inline with your own beliefs, you tend to declare it as the greatest thing ever made. I don’t know a lot of veterans who think that the Full Metal Jacket is the greatest movie ever made. Everyone laughs at the first half because, frankly, we all had scary drill instructors. Beyond that, I don’t agree that this is a very good film. It’s great propaganda for a certain viewpoint, or at best, a very good story about one very fictitious man’s journey, which unfortunately ended up misrepresenting the factual experiences of a whole generation of warfighters. That being the case, it really doesn’t surprise me that a democratic ranking forum would skew the results of an OK movie, when it has many moral and political undertones not obvious to many viewers.


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.

  1. 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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Continue on to 4 Lessons From the First 5 Minutes of Boot Camp or Read the Full Series.

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