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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Reading List: Sir, The Private Don't Know!

Neven, Thomas E. Sir, The Private Don't Know! Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. ASIN B00D5EO5EU.
The author, a self-described “[l]onghaired surfer dude” from Florida, wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life after graduating from high school, but he was certain he didn't want to go directly to college—he didn't have the money for it and had no idea what he might study. He had thought about a military career, but was unimpressed when a Coast Guard recruiter never got back to him. He arrived at the Army recruiter's office only to find the recruiter a no-show. While standing outside the Army recruiter's office, he was approached by a Marine recruiter, whose own office was next door. He was receptive to the highly polished pitch and signed enlistment papers on March 10, 1975.

This was just about the lowest ebb in 20th century U.S. military history. On that very day, North Vietnam launched the offensive which would, two months later, result in the fall of Saigon and the humiliating images of the U.S. embassy being evacuated by helicopter. Opposition to the war had had reduced public support for the military to all-time lows, and the image of veterans as drug-addicted, violence-prone sociopaths was increasingly reinforced by the media. In this environment, military recruiters found it increasingly difficult to meet their quotas (which failure could torpedo their careers), and were motivated and sometimes encouraged to bend the rules. Physical fitness, intelligence, and even criminal records were often ignored or covered up in order to make quota. This meant that the recruits arriving for basic training, even for a supposedly elite force as the Marines, included misfits, some of whom were “dumb as a bag of hammers”.

Turning this flawed raw material into Marines had become a matter of tearing down the recruits' individuality and personality to ground level and the rebuilding it into a Marine. When the author arrived at Parris Island a month after graduating from high school, he found himself fed into the maw of this tree chipper of the soul. Within minutes he, and his fellow recruits, all shared the thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”, as the mental and physical stress mounted higher and higher. “The DIs [drill instructors] were gods; they had absolute power and were capricious and cruel in exercising it.” It was only in retrospect that the author appreciated that this was not just hazing or sadism (although there were plenty of those), but a deliberate part of the process to condition the recruits to instantly obey any order without questioning it and submit entirely to authority.

This is a highly personal account of one individual's experience in Marine basic training. The author served seven years in the Marine Corps, retiring with the rank of staff sergeant. He then went on to college and graduate school, and later was associate editor of the Marine Corps Gazette, the professional journal of the Corps.

The author was one of the last Marines to graduate from the “old basic training”. Shortly thereafter, a series of scandals involving mistreatment of recruits at the hands of drill instructors brought public and Congressional scrutiny of Marine practices, and there was increasing criticism among the Marine hierarchy that “Parris Island was graduating recruits, not Marines.” A great overhaul of training was begun toward the end of the 1970s and has continued to the present day, swinging back and forth between leniency and rigour. Marine basic has never been easy, but today there is less overt humiliation and make-work and more instruction and testing of actual war-fighting skills. An epilogue (curiously set in a monospace typewriter font) describes the evolution of basic training in the years after the author's own graduation from Parris Island. For a broader-based perspective on Marine basic training, see Thomas Ricks's Making the Corps (February 2002).

This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. No ISBN has been assigned to it.

Posted at June 16, 2013 21:19