Wall Street Journal Pentagon correspondent Ricks effectively combines a vivid account of the rigorous basic training received by US Marine recruits with commentary on what separates the demanding, disciplined culture of America's military elite from the more permissive culture of its civilian society.
The author tracks the 60-odd volunteers who comprised Platoon 3086 at Parris Island i 1995 through the challenging 11-week course known as boot camp. Unlike their counterparts in other branches of the US military, aspiring marines do not train alongside women; nor do they have access to alcohol, automobiles, candy, cigarettes, drugs, or various other diversions dear to the hearts of young American males. Ricks offers anecdotal evidence on what USMC recruits must endure in the way of indoctrination from fearsome (but no longer gratuitously brutal) drill instructors in the deep piney woods where apprentice warriors get their first taste of what combat is like, and in other invariably sweaty venues. He goes on to review the washout rate of 14 percent or so (which thins 3086's ranks to 55 by graduation day), the ongoing debate on ever-tougher entrance requirements (which probably cost the corps some superior fighting men), and the army's purposefully "user-friendly" training regimen (which reportedly neither instills esprit nor prepares soldiers to do battle). Covered as well is the risk that alienation could induce cream-of-the-crop troops like marines to take a more forceful role in the governance of the nation they are pledged to protect, if not engage in an outright coup. The author argues that it behooves America's largely oblivious middle and upper classes to take a more direct interest in their military.
A revelatory briefing on what sets the USMC apart and the consequences of its superiority during a postCold War era when, for all the talk of peace dividends, the wider world remains an armed and dangerous place.
From the Publisher
"A thousand years from now, a historian looking at the U.S. military will do well to cite Ricks's book." USA Today
"An important book...essential reading for anyone who cares about the role of the military in America." The Washington Post Book World
"Anyone reading this book cannot help but think that America has many lessons to learn from the Marines." Chicago Tribune
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 3, Training
The end of Week Three brings the actual tests.
Physical testing, held on a dewy field near the Third Battalion on the morning of March 22nd, is predictable. Gary Moore Jr. looks unhappy. At the other end of the platoon, Andrew Lee, in his usual Terminator mode, burns through ninety-nine sit-ups in two minutes and then does thirty pull-ups. "Every time we did PT, I wanted to be Lee," Jumal Flow will later say. "He went through the obstacle course with a smile. He was just hard."
Sergeant Carey runs three miles in eighteen minutes, forty seconds, ahead of all but three members of the platoon. Standing at the finish line to exhort those who follow, Sergeant Carey congratulates a recruit who stumbles across the line, staggers to the grass, drops to his knees and vomits. "That's the effort we're looking for," he says. "But don't eat so much breakfast." He stands in the middle of the ring of recruits walking to cool off and instructs with his personal mantra. "You got to test yourself everyday. If you don't test yourself, that day is wasted." By the time they graduate, they will be able to recite those sentences word for word, no matter if they are so bushed they can't remember how to count off. They also will grow accustomed to another of his admonitions, one they hear as he gives them extra PT on the quarterdeck, as if bestowing a present rather than punishment: "Pain is just weakness leaving the body."
The minimum performance in today's physical test is three pull-ups, forty sit-ups, and three miles in twenty-eight minutes. The platoon averages ten pull-ups, sixty-six sit-ups, and a run time of 23.30. That totals to an average PT score of 188, out of a possible 300. "That's pretty good," says Staff Sergeant Rowland, nodding at Sergeant Carey as if to remind him that not everyone is Force Recon. But there are two failures. One is a recent pickup named Stephen Torchia, who did only two pull-ups and also failed the run by half a minute. The drill instructors distrust his attitude and have been waiting for an opportunity to move him on. And Shawn Bone, a cautious black college student from Birmingham, Alabama, came in dead last in the run, at 28.39. A "WNOD" -- that is, "Written Notice of Deficiency" -- is placed in his file, but he isn't dropped.
Sergeant Carey marches the platoon back to the barracks for a shower. "Nice and easy," he yells in cadence with the march. The platoon shouts back: "Nice and slow!"
But after he takes them to the mess hall for noon chow, the heavy hat paces uneasily. The inspection of uniforms, rifles, and appearance looms, and he is more troubled by the prospect than are his unwary recruits. He knows something they don't: they will be inspected by Sergeant Humphrey, a DI from 3085 who became Sergeant Carey's friend at drill instructors school. The two men are intensely competitive with each other. "It's a good thing they didn't put the two of us with the same platoon, 'cause we'd burn it out," says Sergeant Carey. "Me and Humphrey, we're action guys." That is a euphemism for being a hard-charging in-your-face, Type Triple-A Marine NCO. This is not good news for Platoon 3086.
Conscious of their impending doom, Sergeant Carey works after chow to clean up his recruits. "I want you to get those stinkin' gas masks out of the footlocker NOW. Ten, nine, eight, seven,..." After a weak "Aye, sir," he cracks the verbal whip: "I don't like that little monotone belligerent attitude," he says. "I'll take you to the freaking pits." Those are the giant sand boxes just outside the barracks windows in which recruits suspected of recalcitrance are made to run -- a taxing effort in the deep, squishy sand -- and then do push-ups, offering their faces and forearms to the eager jaws of the thousands of sand fleas that thrive in the boxes.
Charging up and down the line through the barracks, Sergeant Carey pulls a hanging thread -- what the Marines call an "Irish pennant" -- from the starched camouflage uniform of Tony Wells, a twenty-five-year-old recruit who came here from a Du Pont chemical factory near Rocky Mount, North Carolina. "You accept substandard performance," shouts the agitated DI. "That's why America will fall one day, just like the Roman Empire. But not me, understand? BUT NOT ME!"
At 2:19, Doom himself appears at the end of the barracks: Sergeant Humphrey, a black fireplug of a man from Columbia, South Carolina, with arms so muscled they appear difficult to bend. He conducts the inspection with the heated language of an evangelist running a revival. But he dismisses the failures with the cold heart of a soldier machine-gunning a charging enemy. He begins with Recruit Shelton, who appears almost cocky. "You're lazy," he hisses in a voice that sounds like it carries a poisonous sting. "Did you clean that rifle? Oh, I'm sure you did. Did you shine those boots with a brick?"
Recruit Shelton doesn't know what hit him. Short Sergeant Humphrey cocks his head and gazes up the tall recruit's nostrils. "Your hygiene is unsatisfactory. Did you shave? No discipline. NO DISCIPLINE!" For all that, Recruit Shelton passes a tacit part of this test: He doesn't lose his bearing.
Sergeant Humphrey has the next recruit in line recite the Marine equivalent of The Lord's Prayer: "This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life. My rifle without me is useless. Without my rifle I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot him before he shoots me." Sergeant Humphrey nods and moves on.
Anthony Randolph, a nineteen-year-old former construction worker from Cookeville, Tennessee, doesn't know the name of the battalion sergeant major. Sergeant Humphrey rasps: "The most important people in your life is your chain of command." He cuts the guts out of Recruit Randolph: "Rifle manual -- below average. Rifle -- below average. You don't know anything about this weapon, which you sleep with every night. Poise -- average. Hygiene -- unsatisfactory. Knowledge -- average. Overall -- below average."
So it goes with the rest of the platoon. Recruit Moore, who believes his white DIs are racists, finds he fares no better with this black DI. "Below average," he is labeled by Sergeant Humphrey.
Landon Meyer, a thin, pimply former short order cook from Long Beach, California, also loses his way on the chain of command question. "Sir, this recruit was confused," he says.
"How old are you?" asks Sergeant Humphrey.
"You've been confused for nineteen years," says the sergeant, utterly dismissing the recruit's life before Parris Island. Part of the message is that whatever you were or did before your life in the Marines is absolutely, entirely, irrevocably irrelevant. What matters is what you do here, in a ruthless meritocracy. Invariably, you aren't doing enough.
Copyright © 1997 by Thomas E. Ricks