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.
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 it doesn’t make you want to kill people.
This also explains why military recruits aren’t dangerous or broken human beings for life. There has actually been a lot of studies, once again, at least for America, that have show that average military veterans are much less likely to be the culprit of a violent actions and to become successful members of a community after they leave the service. That is, if they are given the chance. They haven’t lost their reasonable capabilities; they’ve gained the ability to deal with problems that others can’t.
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.
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 Speciality 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.
Continue on to Black Friday.
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.
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Fear inoculation is exactly what it sounds like. It is a process of becoming partially immune to the effects of fear. Lt. Col Dave Grossman describes in his books On Combat and On Killing, it is the experiences, conditioning and training to deal with events which would cause fear or stress and managing them to a level your body and mind can handle. Fear, causes people to forget things. It causes a reduction in the amount of blood reaching the brain and reduces the effectiveness of our vital sensory inputs. Fear makes your body do many, many things that it shouldn’t to maintain your effectiveness in high stress situations. Basically, fear makes you a stupid sack of meat. It is put perhaps the best in the science fiction classic Dune,
“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”
I’m not saying that Marines and soldiers are some sort of superhero caricatures of real people who can’t feel fear. It’s quite the opposite. These are people who go into some of the worst periods of places where it is impossible to not feel fear. General George Patton even said, “All men are frightened. The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened.” I tend to agree. Since their jobs force them into intense periods of fear, though, it is necessary to develop mechanisms to suppress and manage your fear. Perhaps an example would be more appropriate.
I have a phobic reaction to heights. I don’t like being near balconies or high places where all there is preventing my fall is my ability to not somehow stumble off the wall or guardrail. I recently had this sensation when visiting a local historic watchtower overlooking our local lake. When I say I have a phobic reaction, I mean that when I am in these situations I can feel my heart rate spike, my breathing changes, and I get cold and perhaps a bit sweaty in the course of a single minute. I know that my fear is also not rational because I can reason that I won’t possibly accidentally trip and stumble off the four foot wall on the edge of that tower. I’ll still go up there, because my wife, completely immune to heights, likes the view. I even can acknowledge that it is a beautiful scene of the lake, but I can’t enjoy it. My body tells me this is a time to be afraid, whether it really is or not. That is a phobia.
So it surprises me that, when I needed to, I willingly stood on the edge of a fifty foot tower, leaned over and jumped off. Repelled is the more correct term. Either way, heights are one of my greatest fears, yet I jumped off a tower for no other reason than that someone who I knew wouldn’t kill me told me to with nothing but a rope and a fall, which might. This process I would later come to realize, was the Marine Corps training me time and time again to overcome my fears and find a way to perform. While I still use it to go with my wife to be with her while she enjoys a view I very much do not, it was put in me for a very different reason. The Repel Tower, along with many other exercises in warrior training was intended to help Marines survive the wars they may face with some degree of mental clarity.
When I actually went to war I remember the first time I was really afraid. Years later, I realized how this worked. The first time I ever received indirect fire, a rocket attack on the base, I was naturally very scared. It was my first week in Iraq. It was a loud boom that you could feel, like the feeling of standing near a massive drum in a small room. We all scurried to our pre-planned locations. This wasn’t a new thing in 2005 so everyone knew what to do, at least, enough people knew what to do that the rest were able to follow along easily. I followed a Corporal who made his way to one of the bunkers. I didn’t know how long we would be there or if we were still in danger, or what came next. I remember being confused and a bit frustrated at how cavalier the Corporal was about the attack. I remember geared up and sitting under the concrete bunker, built for such purposes. After a long time, I turned to my Corporal and asked him, “Isn’t someone going to go after them?” He just laughed at me without saying anything.
The truth was, there was nothing we could do about the guys with rockets. Those rockets were ingenious little devices set to go off long after the person who set it up had gone home. By the time the blast hit, he was probably at home watching The View. It was a popular show back then. They were also fired from the center of the town of Habbaniyah down below the base, so we couldn’t just blanket the area with artillery fire, because that would be like using a grenade on an ant hill to kill one ant. There was nothing we could do about it. The constant threat of enemy rocket attacks was just something we were going to have to deal with.
So we did. I remember many days when my good friend and fellow comrade at arms Cody Solley would be asleep in our tent and an explosion would go off somewhere on the base. I’d roll over lazily and say to him, “Did that sound like inbound or outbound?” and he would say that it sounded more like us firing at them. “Good.” and I would try to go back to sleep. Moments later, the sirens would cry and we would angrily roll out of our cots, don our protective armor, grab our weapons and make our way to whatever rally point we were instructed to go, the whole time muttering colorful expletives about the stupid terrorists ruining our sleep.
While I fully accept that this story demonstrates how utterly complacent we had become, it also showcases how inoculated to the fear of being struck with one of these rockets or mortars we had become. After telling this story to others who didn’t go through it, people have told me that they don’t know how they would have ever been able to deal with the not knowing. They said that it would be terrifying not knowing if death would just come from anywhere at any time. I thought that was more dramatic than the situation deserved, but there were cases of people that definitely succumbed to this kind of pressure. There also were some casualties throughout the base, and several people I knew had close calls, but mostly just damage to the base itself. The church was hit, as was the mosque, and my blessed chow hall once, as well. The flight line was hit numerous times and as I understand, at least one of the birds was taken out. The worst we saw was a relay hub where a large number of our cabling and communication equipment was taken out, disrupting communications through half the base. That was a bad few weeks, especially for the wire guys. I can think of one person who most certainly lost his wits under the stress, though there were other factors, as well. As for those of us that were able to adapt, we knew not to let it trouble us and were able to focus on our work, in spite of the random timing and locations of these attacks. It could have come at any moment, that was true, and I can see many people being unnerved by that, but we had been conditioned to the point that they were really just nuisance.
I think this is an important time to mention the importance of training for the military. I’ve gone in very deep on the importance of boot camp as well as rationalizing how crazy it is to people who haven’t gone through it in What is U.S. Marine Corps boot camp like? The synopsis of that answer can be found in the first line:
“It is a place where you have to train 18 year olds to run to the sound of gunfire and perform under fire and the threat of death.”
One of the most intriguing descriptions I have seen for Marine Corps Boot Camp is in the way it conditions its warriors towards focused aggression and repression of fear through combat conditioning. Combat conditioning isn’t the same as working out. Regularly recruits are put into situations which simulate high stress, fear inducing events, whether it is jumping off a tower or being yelled at by six different people for minor infractions. Recruits face nonstop situations where they will be tested under extreme stress levels. This isn’t anything like test anxiety, or deadline anxiety. I can state for a fact that we can still fail at those like anyone else. This is high impact stress where in the course of two minutes a person can go from completely calm to a heartbeat of 180 beats per minute. At that heart rate, usually only brought on by the fear of death, extreme exercise or in the sultrous throws of passion (which better be seriously good since you are close to dying from it) much of the brain and body stops working predictably. You lose fine motor control, some of your senses may fail or deceive you, and you might only be capable of thinking at the very base level of mammalian instinct. The Marines train in this environment, know how to induce it under safe conditions and expect the recruit to dismantle and put back together a weapon consisting of numerous extremely tiny parts in under a minute while in it.
This type of training doesn’t just focus on higher order thinking. That is there as well. Military history, customs and courtesies, structure, communications systems, first aid, weapon characteristics, and all manner of scholastic knowledge will be trained. An example would be re-calculating the trajectory of an object traveling at 3,110 ft/s for a three inch change in elevation at 5 times the length of a standard football field when factoring in for wind speed and direction as well as differences in elevation. That’s basic rifle marksmanship. Marine Corps boot camp goes deeper, though. They focus also on mid-brain thinking. This is the mammalian brain and the one where most of our innate, instinctual reactions come from. You might think that because I said, “instinctual”, that one can’t train it, but you would incorrect.
Combat science has shown that most of the time a kill is rendered in combat for infantry, it is a reactionary response. This means that to prepare warriors, you have to train them to react to dangerous situations, not to rationalize their way through them. Essentially, modern militaries know that their soldier is being pitted not against the rationality of the other soldier, but against their enemy’s innate instinctive responses, trained in the middle brain. Under ideal situations, they will be able to take a well aimed shot from cover and concealment at a time of their choosing, but more likely for the young infantryman, they face the danger of needing to react faster than they can think of what to do. To do this, the Marines use numerous operant conditioning mechanisms that reward their reactions to stimulus and condition them to ignore non-important information instinctively. This channels their brain’s cognitive abilities to react to stimulus and building the same neural pathways connecting their reactionary subconscious brain to their bodies muscle receptors. This means that when the training is applied correctly, a person can recognize a target from a non-target, sight in and kill the bad guy, before the average person would rationalize that they are in danger. Yeah.
I’ve made a point of promoting training as the single most important trait that businesses should learn from the military. I’m not saying that businesses should start pushing their accountants off of buildings to see how they handle mid-April or that we should scream at the receptionist for messing up the coffee, but the Marines and most modern militaries have mastered training not only a of a Marine’s ability to analyze a situation when calm is allowed, but to even groom the other parts of the brain to function when it isn’t. This is happening when most civilian companies are wasting millions of dollars in human resources on recruiting because they still pride themselves on a “Sink or Swim” model of management from the nineteenth century. It isn’t that sometimes it doesn’t work, but usually it will just ensure an unnecessarily high turnover rate and fearful company culture, rife with paranoia, politics, and unproductive competition. This isn’t because it is a better system, but because civilians don’t have experience of a better model. While this feels tangential, I can honestly say that I have had a profound respect for the Marines’ education system of training its individuals for success after seeing the failures of the business world, even very successful companies, in this regard. The United States Marines are one of the most successful organizations on the planet because of their training, which doesn’t make them fearless, but which makes them immensely competent under stress. I only really realized after the war and one only really appreciates it when he is wondering what to write in this article, and can think clearly enough to find inspiration from the top of a very, very tall tower.
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